December 22, 2012

Review: 2013 Ford Fiesta - Party Around the World

It was in Europe that the party first began for the Ford Fiesta, back in the 1970s. Joyous, feisty, and nimble, it became very popular the world over, except perhaps in the USA, where it was pulled from the market in the 1980s, not to return until 2010.

It seems we've missed quite a party. But the good news is that the party, for this car, is far from over.

In Britain, where the Fiesta has been one of the best selling cars for decades now, it is available in a riot of colours (twelve in total), and a large palette of engines as well (currently nine different ones, see table below).

The Ford Fiesta is available in sedan and hatchback versions all over the world (except in India where only the sedan is for sale), but the frontal aspect changes for each location the way fashions and foods have their local flavour. Someone could probably write a dissertation in anthropology on the ways the Fiesta goes dressed around the world. In this post I highlight just the frontal aspect and the engine under the hood; I'm sure there is a lot more to be said about the differences in the Fiesta's interior from one continent to another.

December 17, 2012

Narrow Booster Seat

Good news for those who need to seat three children on the back seat of a car: you don't have to buy a minivan. Nor do you have to wait till carmakers finally see fit to sell the seven-seat gas sippers in the US that they've been offering elsewhere already. Nor do you have to go to radical solutions like the integrated three-child seat offered by Multimac.

You have to look pretty hard, but you can buy narrow child seats that would fit three in a row, even in the back of a smaller car. One example is the Volvo Booster Cushion. It comes with a detachable back rest that can be adjusted to several angles for comfort. You don't have to drive a Volvo to use this seat, it fits in any car outfitted with a three-point seat belt.

The seat width is 15 inches.

My 2012 VW Golf, not a particularly wide car, has a bench-type back seat (the seat has a continuous, flat, unsculpted surface) with a total width of 52" between the arm rests on the doors. Three of these Volvo booster seats would take up a total of 45", meaning there is space left between them to get to the seat belt receptacles.

Are they safe? What can I say: Don't the Swedes love their children too? But if you're looking for an official rating, this seat gets high marks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The retail price is around $200. Sounds steep for a booster seat - then again, it beats having to buy a new car to accommodate your third baby. It's best to avoid putting a new baby in a new car, anyway.

(NOTE: If you have young children, try to shop for a car with a flat-surface back bench, which offers flexibility in the positioning of multiple car seats).



You may also like:
1. A Non-Toxic Cleaning for your Car Interior
2. So you want a seven-seat car that does better than 30 mpg


December 13, 2012

Christmas Outside the Box

Our extended family have known for years not to send us anything for Christmas - in this we're ahead of Greg Hanscom, who recently wrote an article called "Married father of two seeks Best Christmas Ever. No presents allowed." That piece has become the cornerstone of Grist's December theme, Shift the Gift: de-materialising the holidays.

This is seriously Outside-the-Box stuff. After all, Grist endorses it. Truthfully, I rather doubt Shift the Gift will become a meme overnight: we all suffer the dread of being labeled a Grinch. But while I may be well outside the box on this, I don't think I'm out in left field.

December 10, 2012

Review: 2013 Lexus RX

The first time I consciously took in a Lexus RX, in the early noughties, I had an overwhelming impression of a crossover between a pregnant Honda Civic and Marty Feldman playing Igor in Young Frankenstein (1974): remember that? "Hump?! What hump?"

From the side, I was reminded of the lines of a Civic sedan at the top, but there was way too much at the bottom, giving that pregnant look. And then there was a hump stuck on the back, which made the RX one awkward looking SUV.

But the hump gave plenty of stowing space in the back, the safety rating was high, and the interior was very, very comfortable, true to its original moniker SLV, for Sport Luxury Vehicle. The Lexus RX became very popular with well-to-do moms who enjoyed the luxurious ride to their children's various sports activities.

December 4, 2012

The Foxification of the US

"Get me to a bathroom, quick, or I'll pee in my pants laughing!" This was my less-than-dignified reaction when I first read the news that the Ford Fusion has been named the "Green Car of the Year 2013". Never say I never tell you the way it is.

The Fusion is nearly as long, and nearly as heavy, as a typical minivan. Its 1.6L EcoBoost version "achieves" "up to" 37 mpg - on the highway, that is. Its average fuel efficiency is 28-29 mpg. I wouldn't call that an achievement.

A bit of perspective: the 2012 Ford Mondeo, the European version of the Fusion, gets 41 mpg average from it's 1.6L Duratorq engine, as reported by British drivers who on the whole have rather more vigorous driving habits than Americans. Ford.co.uk quoted its fuel efficiency as 55mpg, but everybody knows that European fuel economy numbers overstate the actual efficiency. Ford has pulled that engine and now offers the Mondeo with the 1.6L ECOnetic engine, also quoted at 55 mpg(US) or 66 mpg(imperial).

The "basic" US Fusion with the 2.5L Duratec engine that gets 26 mpg average? Not even for sale in Europe. In the UK, the largest engine you can buy with a Fusion is the 2.0L Duratec gasoline engine (quoted at 30mpg).

The Fusion Hybrid does get 47mpg, respectable mileage for a car this size. It's also $6,000 more expensive than the base model. But the award explicitly covers all Fusions, not only the hybrid.


Eventually, I stopped laughing and started to read around. There's the recall news on Ford's Fusion and Escape models as the EcoBoost engine tends to overheat and is a fire hazard. Embarrassing.

But my mood turned grimmer as I started finding, all over all the car-related news outlets and blogs: "Ford Fusion gets Green Car of the Year Award". That's it. An endless repeat of the mileage figures, maybe a few other details, and invariably accompanied by a photo, taken from a low angle to emphasize its "aggressive" front, since that seems to be so attractive.

The popular photo angle brings to mind the perspective of a three-year old, about to be run over by this beast. Ummm: this is attractive?

So, the Green Car of the Year award goes to a car that does less than 30 mpg, well on the guzzly side of the 40mpg average of cars sold in Europe this year, and US news outlets report that without further questioning. Even the New York Times, usually open-eyed, has no comment.

Kind of reminds me of the episode now known as "Karl Rove's melt-down" on Fox News on the evening of the 2012 presidential elections when, in front of an audience of millions, Karl Rove questioned the election results in the face of Fox News' own team of election analysts' calling Ohio for Obama.

A number of democrat-leaning news outlets and wonks had field day reflecting on how much Fox News is out of touch with reality in general, and with the reality of the 2012 elections in particular.

Given the election results you can be smug about Fox News' disconnect. But let's be clear: On the subject of cars, the entire US press has been Foxified.

There is a near-complete disconnect with the view from the rest of the planet: that Americans drive over-sized and over-powered gas guzzling automobiles - what comedian Sean Lock calls "bungalows with windshields". If you can report, with a straight face, that a car getting 29mpg gets the Green Car of the Year Award, you're out of touch with the planetary reality.

No wonder US negotiators are having such a hard time at Doha this week, or anywhere the need for curbing carbon dioxide emissions is discussed. When it comes to real and significant action on climate change, the US as a whole is still in deep denial.

Either the US press honestly don't see the elephant in the room and have selective myopia like their audience - after all, US journalists are Americans - or they don't have the guts to break the news.

It is not bold to only be saying things like, "Climate change is happening now", and leave it at that. We need a better effort.

We need the popular press to say it explicitly, loud and clear, and keep at it until we all hear it: That American households urgently need to make deep cuts in our carbon emissions, and that our cars contribute significantly to those emissions. That one possible way to go is to install a carbon tax that will make everything we buy twice as expensive as it is now.

Among other things.

Earth to the fourth estate: Are you there?


November 26, 2012

Novel uses for a credit card

Online Black Friday sales went over $1 billion dollars this year. That's on top of the usual consumer assault on brick-and-mortar stores. And there's CyberMonday yet to be counted. In 2011, Americans put an average of $750 each of holiday shopping on credit cards. Enough already.

For years, Adbusters have campaigned for reigning in consumerism. Their spoof ads are imaginative, memorable, and totally outside the box. For instance, their ads against Absolut Vodka are beautiful and glamorous, while offering a stark reminder of the health risks of alcohol.

Every November, Adbusters fire up their campaign to re-brand the Friday after Thanksgiving as Buy Nothing Day, calling for such subversive citizen actions as hosting a Credit Card Cut-up event at your local mall, or peacefully disrupting shopping at big box stores by forming a conga line of shopping carts with a dozen friends and walking it aimlessly among the aisles.

My favourite Buy Nothing Day poster shows a pair of hands happily buttering a slice of bread - using a credit card. This is inspiration! We started using credit cards and other plastic wallet cards for lots of things that they weren't intended for.

There's nothing like a credit card for scraping bits of dried-up bread dough from your table, after you and your children have spent a happy half-morning kneading bread on it. Also great for scraping cooked-on food from the bottom of the pot. A height-tailored stack of credit cards under a leg is indispensible for steadying a wobbly table. And credit card (and gift card) plastic is marvellous raw material for countless projects. For instance, a carefully custom-cut piece of gift card now covers the memory card slot of our 10-year old camera, held in place by duct tape (a girl's best friend).

But my favourite unconventional use of a credit card is - of course - for the car. On those freezy mornings when you find your windshield covered with a layer of ice flowers, take a minute to admire their ephemeral beauty. Then offer a silent apology, and take out your credit card. The plastic edge is perfectly straight, and has the perfect stiffness for scraping frost off a slightly curved glass surface without scratching.

I still have my 15-year old official plastic scraper, but use mostly the snow broom end on the back. The scraper end is hopelessly nicked and quite useless now except for hacking at the most stubborn ice. But why buy a new one? I've got my credit card.



November 21, 2012

2012 Turkey Award: MonsterMini

Remember The Italian Job? The heist movie in which the booty was so large they needed three getaway cars to carry it all away? Of course, the gold might have fitted in one car if it had been larger. As it was, three Morris Minis made the getaway in one of the most exhilirating chase sequences in cinema: through the narrow streets of Turin, over staircases, and even through a segment of underground sewer.

To tell the truth: even a 1969 Mini couldn't fit in a Turn sewer, so that part of the chase was filmed in Coventry (UK).

Those 1969 Mini Coopers had the same sweet design as the original Morris Mini-Minor launched in 1959 by BMC, the British Motor Corporation. The latter was a bare-bones kind of car. Its instrument panel had a speedometer, gasoline and oil gauges, temperature gauge, warning lights for ignition and main beam. That's it. It cost £ 497. The Deluxe model had a clock.

Ten years later, the 1969 Mini Cooper came with a 1.3L engine (up from 848 cc). Its top speed was just shy of 100 mph, but you don't need that when you're bypassing snarled traffic in Turin, Italy.

The American remake of the Italian Job (2003) featured three Mini Cooper S, made by Rover. It's questionable that the 2003 Mini Cooper would have fit in that Coventry sewer: it's a lot bigger than the 1969 Mini Cooper. Instead, the movie makers opted for sending them down a Los Angeles subway tunnel.

The 2012 Bollywood remake, Players, features the suave Abhishek Bachchan and - you guessed it - three Mini Coopers (now under BMW). The original 1969 movie is still the best by far, but the Indian remake has a twist on the Minis that, like everything Bollywood, is way over the top.

Here's what's way over the top: one of the Cooper's current brethren.

One day this summer, CelloPlayer and CelloDad came storming in, back from a bike ride, wind-blown and wide-eyed. They looked like they had been chased by a monster.

"A Monster Mini! You won't believe it!"

It took a while to calm them down, but eventually it transpired that they had sighted a Mini that was so improbably large that it qualified for the "monster" classification. A bit of research pointed to the Countryman, Mini's bid for the SUV market. As the Cygnet is the ugly duckling at Aston Martin, so the Countryman is the cuckoo in the Mini nest: it is 35% longer than the original Morris Mini-Minor, 43% wider and 16% taller. It is monstrous.

This thing would have got hopelessly stuck in a city sewer.

I can see how it caused a cognitive disconnect to see the Mini logo on something that large, like seeing a tricycle the size of a pickup truck. The Countryman is not large as SUVs go, but among the Dutch traffic it must have stuck out like a sore thumb. At over 4 meters length (161.7" = 4.11m) and with an SUV-like height (61.5" = 1.56m) it's imposing enough. There's not much left of the adorable from the Mini-Minor. And Countryman is so big and heavy that even with its modern engine it still manages to have worse fuel efficiency than its dainty forebears from the 1960s.

Guess what? If you must drive an SUV, drive a real SUV. Don't drive something that's supposed to be very large, made by a company that got its fame by making diminutive cars. Even its name is small. Its logo looks wrong on a monster.

Monster Mini gets CelloMom's 2012 Turkey Award.

The sad thing is, it doesn't stop there. 2013 will see the launch of the Mini Paceman, perhaps so named after the pair of gorillas that have been vigorously pacing its roof all night (after they were done doing the Range Rover Evoque). The Paceman is basically a Countryman of which the roof has been mercilessly squashed down. Needless to say, the unfortunates on the back seat will have a side window half the size of those on a Mini-Minor. Is that progress?


Mini, then and now

Morris Austin Rover BMW
Type Mini-Minor Cooper Cooper S Countryman
Year 1959 1969 2003 2013
MSRP £ 497 £ 849 $ 19,900 $ 22,450
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted     22 / 31 27 / 35
Avg. quoted 33 mpg 32 mpg 25 30
Avg. actual        
Engine 0.848L 1.3L, 4-cyl

1.6L 4-cyl

1.6L 4-cyl
Power 33 HP 78 HP 163 121
Torque 44 lb-ft 80 lb-ft 155 118
Transmission 4-spd man 4-spd man 6-spd man 6-spd man
Fuel   unleaded premium unleaded
Length, mm(in) 120.2" 120.2" 143.9" 161.7"
Width, mm(in) 55.0" 55.0" 66.5" 78.6"
Height, mm(in) 53.0" 53.0" 55.8" 61.5"
Weight, kg(lbs) 1380 1539 2513 lbs 2954
Cargo, liters(cuft)   5.4 5.5 / 25 cuft  
Turning radius, m(ft) 32 ft   17.5 ft  
Top speed, kph(mph) 75 98 mph 138 mph 116

November 19, 2012

Slash your carbon footprint

This post is part of a Blog Carnival on
Clean Air and Environmental Justice For All organised by momsrising.org


Now that the 2012 presidential elections are over, political ads are mercifully off the air and the topic of climate change is once again on the national table. There are renewed calls for action on curbing the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

This is no longer about "peak oil": there is actually plenty of fossil fuel left in the ground. But if we burn all that at the current rate, we'll fry the planet, and ourselves. The math on that is simple - and scary. A new World Bank report spells out the disasters we face if the planet warms by an average of 4 degrees Celsius, and calls for concerted effort to keep the warming below 2 degrees.

We can wait for our government to work itself out of gridlock - or we can be pro-active and do our bit. For no matter what a government can do to coordinate the reduction of carbon emissions, it will also require the active participation by individuals: you and me.

The good news: there is a lot of low-hanging fruit. The way we live is so wasteful that it's easy to make cuts in our carbon footprint without feeling much pain - simply by playing the energy efficiency card.

The wake-up news to all of us in the US: we are the low-hanging fruit.

The average person in the United States is responsible for 20 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions every year, or five times the per-person world average (see graphic above). Since there are 300 million of us, our total carbon impact is way more than our fair share.

How do we get to such high levels of emissions? Let's take a look: The bar graph below is a summary of the sources of CO2 in a typical American household, from a paper by Jones and Kammen at UC Berkeley (Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 4088 (2012)). This is the carbon emissions that we have in our individual control.

You can see in one glance where the largest contributions are to our carbon footprint. Of course, your individual footprint depends on your lifestyle, but this is a good starting place for exploring your carbon emissions "budget".

Many of us are already switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, using Energy-Star rated appliances, and doing many other things to reduce energy use. By all means count your carbs everywhere (your carbon emissions that is), and reduce your footprint everywhere in your life. But give priority to those areas of your lifestyle where you can slash your carbon emissions by a large amount.

The good news: Reducing our carbon footprint means serious long-term money savings: it's a win-win proposition that we should welcome in a protracted recession. I highlight the four largest household carbon sources, in order of increasing impact.

Buy less stuff.
"Reduce" comes before "Re-use" (and some would put "Refuse" before everything else). Ask yourself if you really need that 27th sweater, the 15th kitchen knife, the third car. Save a bundle by not buying new copies of things you already have.

Eat lower on the food chain.
Certainly: keep the lid on your pots and pans as you're cooking. But what you put in the pot has a much larger impact on your carbon footprint than how you cook it. For instance, no foodstuff generates more greenhouse gases during its production than beef. Even switching to chicken would make a big impact. We don't need to become raw-food vegans; but moving significantly toward a vegetarian diet by say, eating meat once a week, and eating as locally as possible, could take up to 8% off our carbon footprint. It lowers the grocery bills, and is also good for our health.

Move your thermostat closer to the temperature outside.
Home heating and cooling takes an astonishing amount of energy, especially since our homes are so large. Invest in technologies that enable keeping the inside temperature at 62-65F in the winter, 80-85F in the summer. It's easy to shave 10% of our total footprint by home energy conservation, and cuts the heating / cooling bills.

The new crop of itchless and washable woolwear is nothing short of a miracle; when my children were tiny the only way I could convince them to take their wool underwear off was to put in front of them a clean set waiting to be put on: they're that comfy. Down blankets give us a good night's sleep even if we turn the thermostat to 50F at night. For the warm months, our solar-powered attic fan keeps the house cool; it has paid for itself in the first summer by taking away the need to turn on our air conditioner.

Drive less, in a fuel-efficient car.
Our cars, our single largest source of CO2, account for 25% of our household carbon footprint. They are too large and overly powered: most have enough horsepower to get us along the highway at twice the interstate speed limit: not frugal, even if you don't count the speeding tickets.

There are many ways to get higher fuel efficiency in the car you drive now, and to decrease the miles you drive in it. But the largest impact comes from your next car purchasing decision.
We don't need to start driving in tiny plastic boxes (I really get the concern about safety). But a car with a smaller engine is less expensive to buy and less expensive to run. Let's be honest: we don't need an off-road vehicle or a muscle car for going to the grocery store.

Think about it: the 1950s NASCAR-winning Hudson Hornet had 145HP under the hood, a fraction of what's in most SUVs today. And the Hornet still attained speeds over 100 mph.

My family's current car, a 2012 Golf TDI (140HP, 2.0L turbodiesel), carries the four of us and the cello everywhere, at 38 mpg average. Our 8000 yearly miles implies 2.1 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions: Driving this car we emit 9 metric tonnes of CO2 less than the national average, saving 20% off the typical household carbon footprint. I call that a good cut in our household's carbon budget.

Even so, I don't intend to drive this car at its 125 mph top speed, nor do I plan to red-line it to get all the torque out of it and play the jackrabbit. This means that 2.0L is way too much for my car. We only bought it because Volkswagen doesn't sell the 1.6L Bluemotion Golf in the United States. The one that does 50 mpg.

A gas-frugal car offers perks, other than the savings at the pump: With normal use, I visit the gas station once a month. So I'm in a good position to weather fuel shortages like the one leading to long lines when superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, or when refineries or pipelines go offline as they did in California earlier this year.

The good news: the choice of gas sippers is getting broader even in the US, as carmakers are adjusting their offerings to comply with tightened CAFE emissions standards for new cars. Even though generally they still reserve their best and most advanced gas sippers for the European market.


Systemic change
Finally: even if you trimmed down your personal carbon footprint to Sub-Saharan levels, a US resident still retains a large systemic carbon footprint. An MIT study has found that a homeless person in the US (no home, no car, extremely few possessions) has a carbon footprint of 8.5 tonnes CO2 per year, more than twice the planetary average. This comes from public services such as roads, education and defense, items that are not included in the bar graph above from the Berkeley study, which covers private household carbon emissions. The US military, which is as big as the next ten largest national defense departments combined, consumes unbelievable amounts of energy.

These are things that require systemic re-thinking to reduce their carbon footprint, for which we are all, collectively, responsible.

Perhaps that is a good reason to add a few Rs, and emphasize the ones that occur at the head of the list. As for recycling, so much of it is bunk that it should be used only as a last resort:

RETHINK. REFUSE. REDUCE. Re-use. Repair. Re-purpose. .... Recycle.




You may also like:
1. Why the new CAFE standard is just my cup of tea
2. The Power of Names
3. For Earth Day, pledge to turn off your TV
4. How to buy a gas sipper for less
5. The Carbon Footprint of a Car


November 17, 2012

Free Satellite Radio

My 2012 VW Golf TDI came with satellite-ready radio, complete with a free 3-month subscription to SiriusXM. I didn't ask for it, I don't need it; but there it was. I tried it out a bit - it was OK. We weren't all that interested in most of the programming. Since the receiver needs line-of-sight access to the satellite, my radio lost signal even in wide-open parking garages where broadcast FM radio had no trouble. We let the subscription expire.

Naturally, SiriusXM started to send promotional mail, offering deals that became increasingly better as time went on. I started collecting the offers just to see how far they would go.

I didn't think they'd go this far, but earlier this week the price went to zero.

This is the offer: if you've ever had SiriusXM in your car, even if you don't have a live subscription now, you can turn it on again and listen for free, between 14 and 27 November 2012, cleverly positioned around the Thanksgiving weekend, when so many of us will be on the road far away from our own familiar radio stations.

I tried pushing the "SAT" button. My radio poured forth a recording of a 1974 Grateful Dead concert: I guess that was the channel I had listened to last before the satellite part of the radio went dead. That is, without the "grateful".

Just for amusement, here is a list of SiriusXM offers since we bought the car, late in March 2012:

Date Offer
27 March $14.49 per month
28 June $14.49 per month, one month free
9 July 50% off one year subscription
30 July 12 months for $86
20 August 12 months for $86
23 September 6 months for $25
1 November 6 months for $25
12 November 2 weeks FREE

It's hard to see how much of a deal you're getting this way, so I've charted the weekly subscription fee under these different offers, assuming you keep the offer for a full year (blue symbols). Also the weekly subscription fee for the first two weeks assuming you let the subscription expire at the end of the offer period (red symbols). The full price of the basic subscription is $3.34 per week.

It looks kinda cool: the offers get better and better on the short term (red symbols), until it's now finally completely FREE, no re-activation charge, no taxes where applicable, no strings attached, it's just ON - for two weeks.

If you decide to keep on listening for a year, even after the offers expire, it gets cheaper at first, then more expensive (blue symbols).

Just so we're clear : if you kept the subscription for the next twelve years or so, the average car lifetime, and if you average the subscription fee over that time, you'd be paying close to the full weekly fee, $3.34, for all the offers we've been talking about (yellow symbols). Not counting any price increases.

Which goes to show, in the long run, the bone they throw you to encourage you to stay on with them is puny. In the current two-weeks-free offer, they give you free service worth $6.68, and hope to get your business at $173.88 plus tax every year for twelve years. Great marketing. Sort of insulting to the user, if you ask me.

Still, here we are with two weeks of free satellite radio. What a long, strange trip it's been.



November 13, 2012

Volkswagen Polo, 53 MPG: Look ma, no batteries!

There was a time that my parents, those inveterate travelers, owned two Volkswagen vans, one on each side of the Atlantic, for their extended camping trips. In the years after my mom retired, they travelled in one van or the other for a total of 2-3 months a year. One officially had my name on it but the moment my parents touched down stateside my claim on it was null and void. They would load it with their camping gear and drive it all over the US and Canada, leaving me with a choice of my trusty bike or a rental car for 4-6 weeks.

But when they were at home they preferred a city car: it's hard to park a VW camper in most Dutch cities. For years they did all their local driving in a 2001 Volkswagen Polo, a city car the size of a Toyota Prius c, or a Honda Fit.

At just under 4 meters, the Polo looks small, but is actually quite brave. My dad would meet us at the airport in this car, and would manage to stuff in all four of us as well as all our luggage, two large suitcases plus assorted carry-ons and laptop cases, before easing himself behind the wheel.

There's no way you can fit a cello across the cargo area in the back. But one would fit across the back seat. So when it's just CelloDad and me, some years ahead, a car this size would be perfect for us.

My dad's 2001 Polo was a rare automatic-transmission model, so its fuel efficiency wasn't that great. But the story is quite different for the current crop of Polos. As for the VW Golf, there is a GTI version built to appeal to the younger, impatient crowd.

Regular Polos are available with 1.2L, 1.4L and 1.6L engines, gasoline or diesel. All come in a Bluemotion version, Volkswagen's package of fuel efficiency enhancing technology, including start-stop systems, higher gear ratios at high speeds, and tires with low rolling resistance.

The Polo 1.2L TDI Bluemotion packs a surprising 180 Nm (133 lbs-ft) torque for lively driving while still getting 53 mpg in real-life driving as reported by Polo owners (the quoted 69mpg overstates the actual fuel efficiency). The Polo's fuel efficiency beats that of the Toyota Prius c, without the large batteries that can be problematic in the wrong climate.

The comparable gasoline version with 1.2L engine puts out much less torque (112 Nm), at worse fuel efficiency: just 38 mpg. This is anemic for a car this size, so it only has a "D" rating on the European emissions label, whereas the 1.2L TDI Bluemotion earns an "A+", which comes with wonderful perks such as reduced sales and road taxes in many European countries. Small wonder then that the diesel version is overwhelmingly favoured in Europe. The € 2500 higher price tag (see table, below) includes such things as alloy wheels and other upgrades compared to the gasoline version with Comfortline trim.

Expensive? Not really. Remember, we in the US tend to faint at car prices abroad; this is because cars are cheap in the US. For perspective, the 2013 VW Golf with 2.0L TDI diesel engine and Comfortline trim costs € 25,275 in Germany ($ 32,135) but just $24,235 in the US. So I estimate that when the Polo Bluemotion 1.2L TDI comes to the United States its price tag will be less than $17,000, well below the $18,950 starting price for the Prius c, which is rated at 50mpg average.

Worldwide sales of the Polo have accelerated in the past two years, exceeding 800,000 cars in 2011. Judging by the popularity of the Honda Fit here, my guess is that if VW started selling the Polo in the US, it would sell like hotcakes.


VW Polo, gasoline and TDI Bluemotion

Polo Comfortline Polo Bluemotion
Type 1.2L 70PS 1.2L TDI
Year 2013 2013
Emissions rating EURO 5 "D" EURO 5 "A+"
MSRP € 14,525
($ 18,500)
€ 16,900
($ 21,500)
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 7.3 / 4.5 km/100L 4.1 / 3.0 km/100L
Avg. quoted 5.5 km/100L
(43 mpg)
3.4 km/100L
(69 mpg)
Avg. actual 38 mpg (US) 53 mpg (US)

1.2L 3-Cyl. Otto

1.2L 3-Cyl. Diesel
Power 51 kW (69HP) 55kW (74HP)
Torque 112 Nm @3000rpm
(83 lb-ft)
180 Nm @ 2000rpm
(133 lb-ft)
Transmission 5-spd manual 5-spd manual
Fuel Unleaded ULSD Diesel
Length, mm(in) 3970 mm (156 in)  
Width, mm(in) 1682 mm (66.2 in)  
Height, mm(in) 1462 mm (57.6 in)  
Weight, kg(lbs) 1067 kg (2352 lbs) 1150 kg (2535 lbs)
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) 280 / 952 L
(10 / 33.6 cuft)
Turning radius, m(ft) 10.6m (24.8 ft)  
Top speed, kph(mph) 165 kph (103 mph) 173 kph (107 mph)



November 7, 2012

Climate Change and the Reluctant Electorate

"We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

With these few words in President Obama's acceptance speech did the issue of climate change enter the 2012 US presidential elections: at the very end. In fact, after it was over. The subject was apparently considered so toxic that neither candidate was willing to touch on it during their campaigns: not in their stump speeches, not in their ubiquitous ads, not in the debates. The emphasis was always on the domestic economy.

Exit polls have shown that this is the right tactic for the campaigns: voters overwhelmingly cite the economy as their foremost concern. Climate change didn't make it to the top five motivators for their vote.

Now that the subject of global warming is explicitly on the national table, I am cautiously optimistic that we will see progress in the next four years under Obama. After all, This is the president who has backed the development of alternative energy sources. Some of those projects have ended in tears. But that always happens in the development of new technologies. Just look at the record of Bell Laboratories: it is justly famous as an incubator of novel technologies - but a rather staggering number of discoveries and inventions were made there that never saw the light of day (but did use up large research budgets).

This is also the president who broke a three-decade long record of neglect on the fuel efficiency requirements for cars, with the introduction in July 2011 of the new CAFE emissions requirements. That happened relatively quietly, and it soon faded from the news channels. But it did help get the national fleet of new cars achieve an all-time high in fuel efficiency recently: apparently consumers are ready for gas sipper cars.

While the motivation for that lies largely in the rising price of gasoline, coupled with the persistent recession, the US is set to reign in what in most households is the largest single source of CO2 emissions.

How fast and how far we will manage to move down that path depends very much on the public perception of how urgent the situation is, and how our consumer lifestyle is directly linked to what has been termed a planetary crisis.

Make no mistake: Climate change is the largest threat to the US: in terms of physical security, food security, energy security, economic implications. Still, the changes we need to make to stop or slow climate change are unpalatable to those of us who have been embedded in consumer culture. There are good reasons why climate change denial stubbornly refuses to go away; but it is the first thing we need to tackle so that we can move forward to remedy the human-generated causes of climate change.

While Americans appreciate President Obama's action in the face of superstorm Sandy, he now needs to start the difficult task to convince the nation that in the case of climate change, preventive action is urgently needed. In the long term it is better (and certainly cheaper) than mopping up after the consequences.


This post is part of a linky party hosted by Green Lifestyle Consulting and Crunchy Farm Baby.



November 6, 2012

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

Many commentators, wiser than me, have much to say about how to avoid a repeat of the tragedy along the Mid-Atlantic coast as superstorm Sandy swept massive amounts of water over places previously held to be safe from water.

But away from the immediate coastline, the problems brought on by Sandy - more than eight million homes left without power or heat - have less to do with water than with wind. Photos of the inland havoc wreaked by the superstorm tend to show, not huge amounts of water where it normally doesn't go, but rather trees of all sizes listing at unnatural angles.

Immense numbers of trees were felled in Sandy's path, many taking down houses and other structures, some even taking human lives. But the reason that so many homes were affected was that so many power lines went down with the trees.

Of course, all the homes downstream from a severed power line instantly lose power. But more than that, when a live wire touches the ground the resulting massive current drain can take out the relay station feeding the line, plunging the whole neighbourhood into the cold and dark, not just the street where the tree came down.

Peco Energy Co. reports that most of the outages it is repairing occurred outside of Philadelphia, in leafy Bucks and Mongomery counties. In center city Philadelphia there was barely a flicker: that is where power lines tend to run underground (and where there are far fewer trees to fall on them anyway).

In preparation for "the next big one" it has been suggested that every home should have its own backup power, mostly in the form of a portable power generator.

But that's like suggesting that each home is responsible for paving the street in front of it.

Portable power generators run on gasoline: they are loud, smelly, and dangerous: beside the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning, the outlets on most of these generators have no protection whatsoever from the elements. It's easy to imagine one getting short-circuited by driving rain whipped on by hurricane-force winds. On top of that, portable generators are woefully inefficient: most of them are good to power a fridge and a few light bulbs, but not strong enough to support a house heating system. And they compete with cars for the gasoline that is in such limited supply in the region right now.

If you have natural gas coming into your house for heating or cooking, you can buy power generators that run on natural gas. But including installation those systems run close to $10,000. Ouch.

Over the long term, the cheapest solution for keeping power up for everybody, at least in a reasonably densely populated area such as a city or town, is to put the power lines underground where they are safe from falling trees. This is already common practice for new developments. The number usually bandied about for burying existing power lines is $1,000,000 per mile of power line (so if there are more then 100 homes on a mile of road this is cheaper than installing natural-gas generators for each home). I'm not sure why burying power lines is so expensive: perhaps because you basically end up re-surfacing the road.

You could save a bundle if you installed underground power lines as you are repairing roads, one road at a time as your local budget allows. Better yet, you could install power lines to run underneath bicycle paths that you surface with pavers not asphalt. That way you can make the infrequent repairs quickly and cheaply, and with a minimum of disruption, since bicycle traffic is much easier to divert than car traffic.

In the aftermath of future storms (for with the onset of climate change you can be sure there will be more like Sandy, all up and down the coast) bicycles are the transportation mode of choice, as you can lift them over any trees that have fallen over your path - try to do that with a car! - and since they are muscle-powered they won't be vulnerable to fuel shortages.

If you must drive a car, at least arrange to drive one that has a 21st-century fuel efficiency. With a car that does better than 35 mpg you could stay calm even if the fuel supply to your region was cut off temporarily. If we all drove cars like that, the lines at gas stations would be a lot shorter than those you see now throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

And, of course, in a gas sipper car every mile you drive would cause less of the carbon dioxide emissions that brings on the climate change that results in extreme weather. The future is in our hands.



October 28, 2012

The Climate IS the Economy, Stupid

On a recent milk pickup, I heard a customer ask "my" milk farmer when the organic apple cider would be for sale: after all, it's October. The answer was chilling: my farmer's neighbour, who grows the apples, has been hit by this year's drought, and his harvest is about 10% of what it normally is. He's not sure he will be in business come next year.

My milk farmer tells me the price of organic hay for his dairy cows has just about doubled this year. I'm a huge fan of my milk farmer and all his family, and I intend to support them, even if it means dealing with rising milk prices. But I expect our path will only get more difficult as time goes on.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned that, following the reduced harvest in the US and other grain producing countries this year, global grain reserves are now so low that any further crop failures could cause a serious food crisis.

The people who will be hardest hit are those who can least absorb such a shock: nearly a billion people are already chronically malnourished: if food prices double, as they did in 2008, hunger will strike in a big way. The humanitarian reasons alone should be enough motivation for us to curtail our consumption (and the accompanying production of greenhouse gases). Moreover, because grain and other foodstuffs are traded on a global market, we in the US will feel the effects directly as well. This is just one way in which climate ties in with the economy: our economy.

You can argue over whether the erratic weather patterns we've seen all over the planet in 2012 are a collective fluke, or whether they signal a serious onset of climate change. Either way, they can be taken as a foretaste of what is to come when climate change occupies the planet in earnest. And I don't like what I see.

Because while it is poor people in faraway places who will bear the brunt of climate change, none of us will escape its consequences. Indeed, Munich Re, the re-insurer (who insure "retail" insurance companies against catastrophic losses) have recently published data showing that over the past few decades, climate-change driven extreme weather events leading to huge financial losses have occurred in North America significantly more than in other parts of the world.

Next disaster up is hurricane Sandy, which is slated to hit the East Coast this week somewhere between Philadelphia and New York, a densely populated region that hardly ever gets visited by hurricanes and is therefore relatively unprepared. Just to stack the cards further, it is exactly on the US East Coast that sea level rise due to climate change is the highest on the planet. The last hurricane to hit this region, Irene (by then "only" a tropical storm), left millions of homes without electricity, many for more than a week, and inflicted damages estimated to be $15.6 billion.

Update 2NOV2012: Total damages wreaked by Sandy is now estimated to be $50 billion. Of that, $10-20 billion is covered by insurance; the rest is borne by individuals and businesses.

Try to tell me that climate change has no economic consequences!

Yet, throughout the 2012 US presidential election campaign, there has not been a single mention of climate change. Both candidates have been focusing on the domestic economy - but their silence on climate change has been deafening.

Why is that? The EPA itself, an agency not particularly given to hyperbole, sketches a soberingly dark scenario of the consequences of climate change throughout the United States. The outlook is bad everywhere: from declining water resources in the already arid Southwest; to more frequent droughts in the nation's breadbasket; to more intense hurricanes battering the Southeast, and increasing human health problems associated with insect vectors (think West Nile virus) throughout the eastern states.

If you click on the map above, it links you to EPA's page where you can find out in much more detail about the consequences of climate change for your particular region. It's all you'll need to scare the daylights out of you; after you're done with that, you won't need Halloween. (Of course, if you live in the Mid-Atlantic region, your Halloween will be seriously scary this year).

In January 2012, the USDA released an updated map of plant hardiness zones, which is significantly different from the 1990 version. The map on the right is a graphic illustration of how, by the year 2100, summers in the state of New Hampshire will be more like summers in North Carolina are today: hot and humid. If we put the brakes on carbon emissions, New Hampshire's climate in 2100 will be more like that of Maryland today.

So let's put the brakes on already!

Because every single one of those EPA scenarios will impact the US economy. Adversely. As one example, think of the apple farmer losing 90% of his harvest.

Here is one thought scarier than Halloween: is it possible that the candidates are so reluctant to speak of climate change, because it is already here, and is already taking a toll on the economy? Is it possible that both are afraid to spell out the consequences to the electorate: that we need to consume less, that we need to eat less meat, that the cars we drive are dinosaurs that consume ridiculous amounts of fuel - in short, that we need to make painful changes, and we need to do that, not even yesterday, but last year? Are they afraid of being the proverbial messenger that gets shot for delivering the bad news?

Ladies and gentlemen, let us not wait for our elected leaders to show us the way: they are not likely to. We need to take matters in our own hands. We need to wake up from our comfortable slumber, and make our own resolutions: that we need to buy fewer things, eat less meat, and move ourselves around in a more sustainable way.

If we're smart about it and play the energy efficiency card, we can go a long way towards reducing our carbon emissions without giving up too many of our creature comforts. That way, reducing our carbon footprint also means reducing our expenses. So: time to start counting our carbs! - our carbon emissions, that is.

It's that, or we'll be contributing to the cost of health care for those who are affected by tropical diseases previously unseen in this land. We'll be bailing out farmers struck by persistent drought - while suffering skyrocketing food prices. We'll be helping to re-build flooded areas, whether on the coasts or in the low-lying lands surrounding the Mississippi. Disaster relief is paid for by the national pocket book. That is to say, by the tax payers. That's you and me.

The climate IS the economy, stupid.


This post is part of a linky party hosted by Green Lifestyle Consulting and Crunchy Farm Baby.



October 27, 2012

Review: Scion iQ, Toyota iQ, Aston Martin Cygnet

"Have you seen the Aston Martin Cygnet?" CelloDad inquired.

CelloDad is not a fan of cars, and considers my car blog antics with indulgent bemusement. But he is an anglophile and a fan of James Bond, so how can he not be a fan of the Aston Martin luxury cars? You know: the kind that gets re-engineered by Q to bristle with high-tech lethal gadgets and invariably gets smashed satisfyingly during the car chase.

In Aston Martin's lineup of high-luxury, high-performance cars, none have much regard for the back seat: I mean, you don't ever see Bond with more than one passenger, do you? The Cygnet, at exactly 3m length unabashedly a citycar, with its tiny back bench where a full-sized cello might have to be placed on the diagonal, fits right in with that idea.

Otherwise, it sticks out like a sore - ummm, little pinky. No space for high-tech weaponry here: the most you can see doing with this car is opening a compartment in the back to scatter tire-shredding push pins on the road behind to deter the pursuers hot on your tail. The Cygnet's very name is a reflection of how uneasily it fits in with the rest of the Aston Martin family of roadsters and coupés: despite sporting a grille that looks like all the other Aston Martin grilles, the Cygnet is basically an upscale version of an ugly duckling. If it weren't half the size of its elegant brethren it might have been called the Aston Martin Cuckoo.

This is because the Cygnet is essentially a rebadged version of the Toyota iQ, a Japanese "2box" car that is sold in the US as the Scion iQ. Aston Martin, most at home at the racecourse in Le Mans, seems incapable of producing cars with small engines, and has brought the iQ, with its modest engine, into its fold to help it comply with the tightening European emissions requirements. None of its V8 or V12 engines will be any help with that.

Even so, now that it sports an Aston Martin front, the Cygnet is better looking than its close relations in the Toyota fold. It's being marketed as a "bespoke luxury commuter car". You can custom-order this car in literally any colour you want, and have interior leather upholstery installed to match your favourite Alexander McQueen dress.

One would love to sniff out this car, because at first sight the interior promises to score high marks for chemical cleanliness: what with leather on the seats and dashboard wrapping, machined aluminum features, and Alcantara fabric lining on the ceiling, there is very little plastic here. If you are chemically sensitive and don't deal well with the emanations from the plastic interior of most cars, this might be a solution. However, perhaps most of us don't deal well with the nearly $50,000 price tag.

With its small size and small turning radius, this is one cool car in which to do a spot of shopping even in England's narrow-streeted city centers. Perfect for the ladies who lunch on London's Beecham Place (spelled Beauchamp).

Its Japanese counterpart, the Toyota iQ, is also great for manoevering and parking in tight spaces in Japan's high density neighbourhoods. The iQ is offered with the same 1.3L engine that comes in the Cygnet, as well as a 1.0L, 67HP engine. However, because the latter comes with automatic transmission only, its fuel efficiency is actually lower than that of the 1.3L manual-transmission version. The 1.0L does come in a two-seater version, which means that you have a bit more cargo space; in the four-seater the space behind the second row is diminuitive and probably fits barely more than two standard paper grocery bags. Or a skateboard. Either way, the interior is done in standard-Toyota plastic.

Stateside, this same car is marketed as the Scion iQ. Same body, same 1.3L engine, except it's available only with automatic transmission. However, it is Toyota's smart CVT (continuously variable transmission) which gets a very respectable fuel efficiency when compared to the manual-transmission counterpart.

In the US as in Japan, the iQ is marketed to the younger crowd. It's perfect for moving yourself and a friend around town, but I can't see installing a toddler on the back seat even though the back seat is carseat-ready. And maybe you'd better not play anything larger than a viola.



Comparison iQ and Cygnet

Scion Toyota Aston Martin
Type iQ iQ Cygnet
Year 2012 2012 2012
Emissions rating  
$ 16,060
¥ 1,400,000
($ 17,600)
£ 30,995
($ 49,900)
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 36 / 37 mpg   5.8 / 4.5 L/100km
(41 / 52 mpg)
Avg. quoted  
37 mpg
21.2 km/L JC08
5.0 L/100km
(47 mpg)
Avg. actual 39 mpg   45 mpg (VVT-I)
Engine 1.33L 4-cyl
16-vlv DOCH

1.33L 4-cyl
16-vlv DOCH

1.33L 4-cyl
16-vlv DOCH
Power 94HP 93HP 97HP @6000rpm
Transmission CVT-I auto 6-spd manual

6-spd manual
w/ Stop/Start

Fuel Unleaded Unleaded Unleaded
Length, mm(in) 120.1 in 3000mm 3078mm
Width, mm(in) 66.1 in 1680mm 1680mm
Height, mm(in) 59.1 in 1500mm 1500mm
Weight, kg(lbs) 2127 lbs 950/1170 kg 988 kg
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) 3.5 cuft    
Turning radius, m(ft) 26.4 ft c-c   4m (13ft) radius
Top speed, kph(mph)     106 mph


October 22, 2012

Mile Miser Monday: Check Your Tire Pressure

Have you seen this warning sign on your dashboard? Mine turned on the other day, setting off a round of speculation on what it might mean. It looked like a warning of the presence of onions in the car that could cause the driver's eyes to fill with tears, dangerously reducing the view of the road.

Actually, it's the Low Tire Pressure warning light. In my car, there is a sensor embedded in the ABS braking system that monitors how the tires vibrate as I'm driving around. The sensor is calibrated at the recommended tire pressure. If the pressure in the tires is much lower than the recommendation, it will give a "mushier" ride with different vibration characteristics. When those characteristics are different enough from the calibration, the warning light comes on.

While it's comfortable not to have to feel every pebble on the road, it's not a good idea to drive with under-inflated tires. The contact area with the road surface is larger, so the friction is larger. This does no favours to your fuel efficiency.

Especially if your car is outfitted with those plus-sized tires that are so ubiquitous now, you really need to keep an eye on tire pressure. Tires that are shaped like onion rings, with their reduced side walls, are much more prone to under-inflation trouble than regular tires shaped like donuts: it's much easier to end up driving on the rims, say, when you hit a pothole.

So do a visual check on your tires once a week. Carry a pressure gauge in the glove compartment and check your tire pressure once a month. If you need more air in the tires, most gas stations offer compressed air for a dollar. Or you can buy a valve adapter so you can pump up your tires with your bike pump. You save the dollar, and you get some good exercise. You do have a bike pump, right?


Low tire pressure icon by Hydrargyrum via Wikimedia Commons.

October 18, 2012

Climate Justice and Our Shopping Choices

Welcome to the October 2012
Natural Living Blog Carnival:
Ethical Shopping Choices

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Natural Living Blog Carnival hosted by
Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project through the Green Moms Network.
This month our members have written about
how they make purchasing choices.


You're standing in a name-brand store at the mall, holding a hoodie in your hand that you might buy for your child. The usual questions go through your head: Will it be comfy and warm? Will the colour match the rest of your child's wardrobe? Is it easy to wash? Does the price give you good value? Was it not made in a sweatshop? How much carbon emissions did its manufacture cause?

Whoa. Come again?

What do carbon emissions have to do with your decision to buy a piece of clothing?

Every consumer item takes energy to manufacture, ship and sell, and most of that energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels, leading to the emission of carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas that is contributing to global climate change.

Climate change is happening now. Just look at the searing summer heat and the related drought that has caused so many wildfires and that has taken out a large fraction of the US corn crop this year. It's part of a trend: temperatures have been higher than average for the last 329 months in a row. But what is even more devastating is that weather patterns have become both more erratic and more extreme. The lack of predictability does not bode well for us humans, both for our food and water supply and for the very land that we call home.


Food security.
Extreme weather variations invariably lead to reduced crop yields. They make it very difficult to plan crops: a cold-hardy crop is going to wilt in excessive heat; a xeric crop will drown in excessive rain. Season-dependent plants get thoroughly confused: when cherry trees bloom in December, what will they do at their proper blossoming time the following April? Chances are they will have fewer blossoms, and therefore a reduced harvest of fruit.

Home security.
The land on which we live is increasingly threatened by fires resulting from extreme drought, or by flooding and landslides from extreme rainfall. And the risk of river flooding holds for every river, from the Chao Phraya in Thailand to the Rhine in the Netherlands to the great Mississippi here in the US.

Water security.
In arid regions, water is receding and people either have to drill deeper wells, or women have to walk farther to fetch it - somehow it's always the women fetching the water. Every day. In wet areas, flooding is actually a threat to supplies of safe drinking water. Either way, sanitation and disease prevention become thorny issues.


To most of us living in the industrialised West, these issues do not pose risk of the life-threatening kind. On the whole, we lead cushy lives: we don't have to carry water, it comes out of the tap. We complain when food prices go up, but most of us don't go hungry. We have safety margins.

But things won't be that easy for even those people who live in rich countries but are already struggling to make ends meet. In other places, where human existence is precarious in the best of times - in Africa's drought-prone regions, in shanty towns built on flood planes on the coasts of Asia, in places where poverty is endemic - in those places an erratic climate means nothing less than a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen.

Is it fair, that the people who are least responsible for pumping out the greenhouse gases are the ones most threatened by climate change?

We find it hard to live with the idea that a young child spends his days in a sweatshop stitching our sneakers and soccer balls: we demand that companies practice the principles of social justice, we support fair trade. Should we stand by while entire populations are put at risk from a climate-change induced catastrophe? Can we live with the idea that it's the most vulnerable groups: the very poor, the very young, and women, who will suffer the most from a lack of climate justice?

Well, you might say, why us?
Because we made most of the mess: If you look at all the human-caused carbon emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Age, we in the industrialised countries are responsible for 70% of those emissions, even though we account for only 20% of the planet's population. in 2010, the 5% of the world population living in the USA emitted 25% of all greenhouse gases - and that's not counting our imports, which is more greenhouse gases emitted on our behalf. The carbon emissions figures have improved over the past few years, mostly because US electricity generation has shifted from coal to more carbon-efficient natural gas. But our energy use has kept growing.

Aren't the Chinese just as energy hungry? And did they not surpass, in 2011, the US for energy use, burning dirty coal at that, and not very clean diesel? Yes, yes, and yes. And we too have been where the Chinese are now, mucking the air in our manufacturing cities (London in the 1890s, Pittsburgh in the 1940s) so that you couldn't see the end of the street for the smog.

Besides, a large fraction of Chinese greenhouse emissions are made on our tab, in the manufacture of goods to be shipped to our malls. And, for their own good reasons, the Chinese are doing their bit for population control, reducing the fertility rate in an amazingly short time, from 5.9 before 1970 to 1.7 today. We may have our own opinions about the wrenching and socially problematic One-Child policy; the Chinese government claims that without it, there would be 400 million more people on the planet now, each with his or her own carbon footprint.

The developing world may have larger fertility rates, but by and large those rates are declining. They may be burning dirtier fossil fuels - but they do that not out of profligacy but for survival, just as we used to burn dirty coal when we ran out of forests from which to get cleaner-burning wood. (Think about it: many of Grimm's and other European fairy tales feature dark, dense forest. They're mostly gone now, we've chopped them all down).

Yes, there's a recession on. But let's face it: by and large, we are the privileged few; our lives are easy. We are not clawing our way out of extreme poverty. We don't carry our daily water on our backs. We are not building a 21st century economy from pre-industrial beginnings within a few decades. We enjoy life in a mature, industrialised economy. But maybe we have become soft, and a little greedy: for the easy life, for convenience, for material goods.

To support the kind of lifestyle we lead in the USA takes, on average, 12,000 watts of energy. That's six times the average rate on the planet. Europeans consume 6,000 watts, Chinese 1,500 watts. People in Bangladesh get by with 300 watts. You can't very well ask a Bangladeshi to reduce their energy footprint even farther from where it is. You can't ask a newly affluent Chinese or Indian to give up their car for the sake of the planet, because they would ask, and rightly so, what are you, rich person in the West, giving up for the sake of the planet?

Why us, personally?
To return to the original question: why does it have to be you and me, Jane Doe standing in the mall deciding whether or not to buy a hoodie? Wouldn't this be a government affair?

It was. In 1997, the governments had a big meeting in Kyoto, where they hammered out a plan to reduce the world's carbon emissions to a few percent below what it was in 1990. As of last year, 191 nations had ratified the Kyoto protocol. The US was not one of them. Late in 2011, Canada withdrew its signature. Even among the "Annex I" nations of developed and developing countries that remained signatories, many had failed to even curb carbon emissions, let alone reduce them to pre-1990 levels.

In short, our governments failed.

But then again, governments don't have the kind of conscience that would respond to the idea of climate justice or, more broadly, environmental justice. Neither do the corporations which are so free with their campaign contributions and, generally, so free of ethical consideration. Remember Dick Cheney (of Haliburton) saying that he wouldn't sign on to a protocol that would crimp Americans' lifestyle? That is not the kind of leadership we need to deal with climate change on a global scale.

Now it's our turn.

The buck stops at our front door, because we - you and I - denizens of the rich and industrialised world, are the consumers for whom a huge fraction of fossil fuels are burnt. It is in our name that carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere. Climate change is imposed on the global community so that we few can enjoy our easy lives, climate controlled, with an entertainment suite in every large home, more than enough calories, and a lot less exercise than we need.

Benefits to us
"Energy security" is so often interpreted as getting enough fossil fuels to keep our wheels turning at the outlandish rates we are used to now. Even if it means drilling in the fragile arctic zone, even if it means engaging in resource wars. But it's not about that: real energy security means managing it so that there is enough for everyone now, and for generations to come, without endangering the planet which is our home. The way we've been living, it's like we're a size 6, but have been wearing size 12 clothing. Why? If we right-sized our lives, we would feel better.

The good news? We wouldn't even feel a 1,000 watt reduction off our current 12,000 watt energy consumption rate. If we do it right, by playing the energy efficiency card, we can probably reduce our consumption by 20-25 % without giving up much in the way of creature comforts. A larger reduction than that will need concerted action. Isn't it worth it, to ensure that all our children can live and enjoy this beautiful planet?

And we can start right now. With our next shopping decision. That hoodie, for instance: do you really need it? Will your child wear it more than once a week, or will it join the other few dozen hoodies languishing in the closet? Could you get your child warm in a hoodie that has belonged to a cousin or a friend, or one that comes from eBay?

Here is the really good news: reducing energy consumption generally saves money. And starting from our over-consumptive lifestyle, turning down the dial on our consumption will generally make us healthier.

Ready? Here are a few places to start:

Buy only what you need.
You need a few sets of clothes for each season. You don't need a few dozen sets. Corollary: you don't need a few dozen pairs of shoes to match your outfits. Apply this approach to all your other possessions. Resist Upgrade Mania.

Keep your life simple.
Get away from clutter in your life: it keeps your spirit from soaring. Keep as few tools as you can in your house; avoid buying single-purpose gadgets. For those projects where the right tool is half the job, see if you can borrow one from a friend, or rent one for the time that you need it.

Learn to repair.
There are a lot of things you and I can fix ourselves. Find a mentor who is good with their hands: most repair jobs are straightforward, once you know how to go about it.

Go plastic-free.
This belongs under the broader umbrella of environmental justice, but I have found that avoiding plastic, either in products or their packaging, is a great way to reduce consumption. My leading light and inspiration: Beth Terry's Plastic-Free Life .

Don't waste food.
A lot of energy goes into producing our food; it's precious stuff. In my own kitchen, I have a new tactic: If I buy, and cook, less than what I think my family needs, I end up at just the right amount. If it's a bit short, well, CelloDad and I can deal with a meal with fewer calories. (When the children have a growth spurt, and I see CelloDad make himself a piece of toast after dinner: that's my sign that I have to adjust the portions).

Eat low on the food chain.
An inordinate amount of energy goes into the production of meat. While we are carnivores, our digestive systems are built for mostly vegetable foods, and tends to suffer from a meat-heavy diet. So eating lower on the food chain will benefit our health, that of our checkbook, and also that of the planet.

Your house.
Live in the house that's the right size for you. If you don't have a lot of stuff, you don't need a lot of storage space. A large house invites a lot of stuff, takes a lot of cleaning, and requires more energy to heat in winter and cool in summer.

If you can, switch to an energy provider that will sell you electricity from renewable sources. Buy the smallest, energy-star rated, refrigerator you can live with. Many vegetables and fruit are best kept outside the fridge, anyway. Mow and rake the lawn by hand: the exercise, fresh air, and hearing the birds sing are all good for you.

Climate control.
Heating and cooling our homes and cars takes a huge amount of energy. We've started to believe that we can survive only between 68F and 72F, but in fact you can widen that range considerably by learning ways to control your body temperature. In the winter, apart from putting on extra layers of clothing (preferrably wool), I try to do my vigorous tasks in the morning: it gets me all warmed up, and then I'm fine with turning the thermostat way down. In the summer find a nice breeze, or invite one into your house by opening the windows. Shower often for an effective cool-down. And learn to embrace sweat, which is largely beneficial, and is seldom really smelly unless you sweat out of fear or stress.

The single largest source of carbon dioxide for a typical US household is our car, or cars. They are too large, and their engines are way too large for what we really need. They have too many gadgets, some dangerously distracting, all requiring energy. And we drive them mostly alone, all that steel and horsepower moving just the one occupant.

Bus in West Bengal, by Shayan via Flickr
Traffic in Southern California, by Daniel R. Blume via Wikimedia

Of course, the healthiest, cheapest, lowest-carbon way to move about is by walking or biking. But we have to live in our inherited infrastructure, which is often only friendly to cars. We can still choose to drive smaller cars, or the same models we know and love but with smaller engines (150HP is more than enough to drive a Honda Accord on the nation's Interstate highways, anything more is an indulgence). Cars with smaller engines are cheaper to buy and cheaper to run; I personally feel no need to switch to expensive and unproven technologies. And with the recently introduced federal CAFE requirement that new cars' fuel efficiency reach 54.5mpg by 2025, car manufacturers will finally start selling us the gas sippers that our friends abroad have been driving for years.

Start now.
The best part of life is not about stuff. It's not about getting the latest widget, the fastest widget, or the widget with the loudest vroom-vroom. Don't let the admen tell you what is important to you.

There's no better time than the present. More than that, there is no time to lose. Bill McKibben offers a sobering view on climate change, and a cogent argument for action now. I respectfully disagree with his identification of Big Oil as the ultimate culprit. Big Oil wouldn't have nearly the power it has now, if it weren't supported all the way by us, the consumer, so eager to consume all the energy that Big Oil can dig out of the ground.

Even so, McKibben's piece is chilling. Afterward, maybe you want to recover with this musical offering from Symphony of Science, featuring Bill Nye, David Attenborough, Richard Alley and Isaac Asimov. "We can do this: we can change the world". More heartwarming. Same message. Catchy tune.

"We can do this: we can change the world."


One last thing: Teach your children.
They are the future stewards of the planet. As with anything you want to teach children, you have to be living it: children are the best fake detectors. Talk to them about the link between consumption and climate change. This Christmas, try giving your child no more than three gifts - that's how many the Child of Light received. Our children might not appreciate receiving gold, myrrh and frankincense; but we could give them one thing they want, one thing they need, and one item of clothing. Perhaps a new hoodie?

This year, how will you celebrate the Friday after Thanksgiving, Buy Nothing Day?



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