Ecology vs. Economy

This is an interview I did with Bill Perry of the Financial Freedom Library on the subject of economy vs ecology, and how being green makes good financial sense. Bill contacted me a few weeks ago to ask if I’d be interested in doing an email interview for his site, based on an article I wrote about saving money by conserving energy. Bill describes his website as being about “Financial Freedom and Practical Spirituality”.

BILL: Steve, thanks for being with us.

STEVE: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

BILL: I read your article about saving money through conservation, and you offered an excellent example of switching light bulbs. For my Readers, could you explain how it is really possible to save so much money just by switching light bulbs?

STEVE: In order to answer this question, let’s look at how light bulbs work. A typical incandescent light bulb works by heating a tungsten filament to the point of incandescence, which means it’s so hot it’s giving off light. However, only about 10% of the energy gets converted to light; the rest is converted to heat. This not only means you’re wasting 90% of your money for your lighting; you’re also creating possibly unwanted heat. If your house has 15 light bulbs, each one 100 watts at 10% efficiency, that is approximately 1,350 watts of heat. This is roughly the same as an electric space heater. If you have your lights on during the summer, or if you live in a warm climate, you have an extra heating load which. If you have air conditioning, it needs to work that much harder to make your home comfortable. In the winter this might not seem like such a bad thing since you need to heat the building anyways, but it’s still a rather expensive heating method. There are alternatives that save energy, money, and don’t turn your home into a giant Easy-Bake oven. The most common new type of light bulb is the compact fluorescent light (CFL). Advances in recent years have eliminated the harsh white light, and the annoying flicker. CFL’s cost a bit more than incandescent lights, but they have many advantages. Their lifespan is considerably longer, up to 7 years. They also don’t produce heat, which reduces your cooling load. What about the light though? Lighting is measured in Lumens, the wattage rating is the amount of electrical energy required to produce the desired lumens. A typical 75 watt incandescent light bulb will produce approximately 1,200 lumens; however a compact fluorescent light can provide the same light output for only 16 watts. This also equates to 1/4 of the electrical cost. At roughly $4 per bulb, each light would pay for itself within a year and would be putting money in your pocket for the next 6 years after that. If you spent the money to replace all the commonly used lights in your home or office with CFL’s, the savings will be in the hundreds of dollars. That savings goes directly to your bottom line, and is a very sound investment.

BILL: Why is environmentalism important to personal finance? Are they related?

STEVE: Ecology and economics are closely related, both words stem from the Greek word “oikos”, which means house. Economics is derived from the Greek word oikonomos and is made of the words oikos (house) and nemein (to manage) which translates as “One who manages a household”. Ecology, likewise, is also derived from the word oikos, along with the word “logie”, which translates as “study of”. Therefore, economics is the management of the house, and ecology is the study of the house. The environment, in every respect, is very literally our “house”; these words are an apt description for the system we find ourselves in. Our economy is based on the natural world, but our ecology tells us that the very same economy is destroying the natural world. We all need to realize that we’re living an unsustainable lifestyle… We’re using resources far faster than the planet can replenish them and expelling waste far faster than the planet can absorb. The Earth is everything to us. It represents all we have, and all we’ve ever had. In financial terms, the resources available to us are our capital. We have metals, trees, water, animals, oil, and a myriad of other things we can use. In a capitalist system the resources, a.k.a. capital, are used to generate profits. If the capital is used up improperly, its ability to generate profit is reduced. In a successful model, the capital remains the same or even increases, which allows for a continued and increasing profit to be made. With our natural capital, however, it’s being squandered with very little being reinvested. Forestry is just fine if it’s done properly, but clear cutting a natural forest not only destroys the forest, it also prevents it from growing any more trees. The capital is being liquidated at an alarming rate, and being called profit! Some major shifts need to be made in our mindsets, in order to reverse this trend. We don’t need to give up our comfortable way of life to do so, but we’ll need to make a few changes in order to accomplish it.

BILL: Are there other cost-effective things that real estate and property owners can do to their existing properties to save on energy cost?

STEVE: Absolutely, I’ve already mentioned the savings potential from switching to CF lights, but there are several other things you can do. A very cost-effective action is to have a Home Energy Audit. This is an audit of your property to determine energy use and wastage. Based on the audit’s findings, you may be eligible for rebates towards improving your energy efficiency. The audit will indicate where your property is losing heat, and where electricity and natural gas are being wasted. The auditor may use tools such as a thermal imaging camera, which takes a heat picture of your property to see where heat is being lost. This is effective in the summer as well, for detecting any losses of cold air from inside an air conditioned house. The audit report will make recommendations for specific energy saving actions to be taken, and will include things like replacing light bulbs, showerheads and duct filters, adding insulation to basement/crawlspace walls and in an attic space, as well as applying caulking or weather stripping around doors and windows. A programmable thermostat is something that can also be added easily and will not only save energy costs by reducing waste, it also has the potential to increase property value. Finally, other actions such as closing blinds or curtains during the brightest parts of the day and opening windows at night will all reduce the need for air conditioner cooling, without costing much money. A long term action would also be to plant shade trees in front of south-facing windows. Once the trees mature, during the summer this will prevent excessive solar gain into the house but will allow for wanted solar gain and sunlight during winter months.

BILL: What energy-saving features should they look for in future properties before buying?

STEVE: If any appliances come with the property, they should be Energy Star rated. Basement and attic surfaces should be insulated. A programmable thermostat is a bonus, but can be easily installed at any time for less than $100. In terms of heating and cooling, a high efficiency natural gas or electric furnace will save money as will a high efficiency air conditioner. However, a ground source heat pump can provide both benefits at very high efficiencies, with no cost other than the electricity required to run the pumps. Regardless of the heating or cooling system, a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) is a very desirable item to look for. The building’s ventilation system removes moisture and stale air and replaces it with fresh air, but it also removes any heat you’ve added and vents it outside. In warmer months, this also means that you’re air conditioning the outside as well. A HRV transfers heat between the outgoing and the incoming air streams. A HRV will help maintain temperature inside the building, which provides tremendous cost savings due to a reduced heating and/or cooling load.

BILL: What exactly is meant by “geek”, and what qualifies you as a GREEN Geek?

STEVE: Well, being a vegetarian I definitely don’t meet the qualifications for the original meaning of the word! But seriously, all my life I’ve been focused on intellectual matters. I was reading Hardy Boys novels by age 5, and when my parents bought a computer in the early 1980s I was absolutely fascinated by it. I soon had my own computer, and haven’t looked back. I love to read, and I’m absolutely addicted to the internet, I love having information at my fingertips, and the ability to share that information with other people around the world. I’m also an avid reader of almost anything I can get my hands on, although I prefer science fiction and non-fiction, especially personal development books and any technology books relating to my career path. As far as the “green” aspect, that’s something I’ve been asked many times before. During my final 2 years of school I worked as a computer service technician for the school’s IT department. I studied environmental engineering, there was one person there who was studying mechanical engineering (who also took programming as his major was focused on robotics), but everyone else was in the computer engineering program. There was one coworker who I didn’t initially get along with, but we grew to become friends over the time we worked together. He was quite the interesting character; he was the only student technician to ever lose a whole computer, he decided to take up smoking as a hobby, and he’s also the only Muslim I know whose favorite food is a bacon and sausage sandwich! One of the things he loved to say to me whenever I pointed out that his Coke can is recyclable and he shouldn’t throw it in the garbage can (right beside the recycling box) was “I saw a tree outside this morning, why don’t you go hug it?” He’d also repeatedly ask me why I was working to repair computers, since environmentalists hate technology. I know there are some hardcore environmentalists who are anti-technology, but I happen to love technology…provided it’s used the right way. I don’t want a future where we all live in little huts and have no technology; I want a future with majestic energy efficient buildings, with automated transit systems that take us where we want to go with speed and privacy. I want cities that have beautiful parks and structures that are built to enhance nature, not destroy it. I want computers that can talk to us, I want robots to be a part of our society, I want advanced medical technology to keep us healthy until the end of our lives, I want a society that truly produces no waste, and operates as efficiently as possible. I also want clean air, clean water, and healthy natural food to eat. And I want my children to be able to enjoy the same things, and their children as well. If that doesn’t qualify me as a green geek, then I’m not sure what will.

BILL: I’m an avid reader as well. in regards to books, what types of science fiction do you read? Do you have any favorite authors? Also, what are some of the geeky/environmental books you’ve read?

STEVE: Well, my favorite genre is science fiction, although within that I’m most fascinated by the cyberpunk genre and anything relating to transhumanism. One of my favorite books in that area is Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. I also really enjoyed Eon and Moving Mars, by Greg Bear. These books all include the concept of transhumanism, with neural implants and ubiquitous nanotechnology. Many of these books look at nature as being something to be conquered, something to be improved upon. I look at it in a slightly different way, I believe that we can have spaceships, and little robots that swim in our blood to repair cellular damage, and computers in our head that do all sorts of wonderful things.. and still have nature. We don’t need to give up the natural world to enjoy the benefits of technology, provided we focus on the right technologies. Science fiction gives us a glimpse of what might be possible, maybe even a goal to strive for as many engineers and scientists did after growing up with Star Trek. Think that science fiction doesn’t influence reality? Look at how many people have cell phones, PDAs, and devices that can be written on like paper. These all existed in the realm of science fiction before they became reality. I have a cell phone, a PDA and I’m using a tablet PC right now. Science fiction can show us what’s possible, and some of the more dystopian ones can also show us the dangers of what can happen if we don’t consider the consequences of our actions. As far as non-fiction, the book that really started me on my current path is “From Eco-Cities to Living Machines“. From here I branched out into other books that made me think outside the box. Other really fantastic ones were Cradle to Cradle, Biomimicry, The Natural Step, Natural Capitalism and The Ecology of Commerce, The Secret Life of Plants, and The China Study. Each of these books taught me something and helped shape my view of the environment and our place in it. I also enjoy reading Ray Kurzweil’s books, including his recent Fantastic Voyage which touts the benefits of organic food and avoiding environmental pollutants as a way to promote our health, until technology has progressed to the point where we can repair our bodies and even upgrade them, with the use of nanotechnology and cybernetics.

BILL: With the obvious need for renewable energy sources, what do you make of the involvement of government? Not any particular government, but governments in general.

STEVE: It’s quite evident that so far the average person isn’t interested in energy conservation as an altruistic gesture, and people tend to have an aversion to change especially if they believe they will be deprived of something. Before even looking at alternative energy sources, actual demand must be looked at, and that means energy conservation. Government (USA and Canada) programs like Energy Star provide efficiency ratings for consumer appliances to make it easy for people to purchase energy efficient items. This standard covers everything from refrigerators to washing machines to computers, and is designed to show the energy (and therefore financial) savings with these products. The concept of renewable resources is just as relevant to financial matters as it is to environmental situations. In financial terms, non-renewable resources like oil and coal are like spending your savings, whereas renewable resources such as biomass, wind, solar and tidal energy, are akin to spending profit; the capital is still there. Government programs to promote renewable energy are vital, because they have the money to back up the necessary research into new technology, but also because they have the authority to change laws to make the programs succeed. 20 years ago governments got together to address the problem of the growing ozone hole, and agreed to fix it. Today CFCs have largely been banned, and the ozone hole will slowly repair itself. If today’s governments applied the same enthusiasm to phasing out non-renewable fuel sources, the world could be powered entirely by renewable resources within a matter of decades. In order for this to happen, grants must continue to be given to alternative energy research, wind farms and other facilities must be built, and a carbon tax must be levied on the heaviest polluters and oil consumers, This will result in a shift to renewable energy far faster than even the biggest Greenpeace rally, or the catchiest bumper sticker.

BILL: The majority of readers here are interested in learning more about aspects of financial freedom and how to become independently wealthy. In your opinion, how does what you’re doing at Green Geek fit in to that objective?

STEVE: My philosophy towards technology and social sustainability inherently revolves around efficiency; cost savings is a side effect of this. With many of the actions for property owners, such as replacing light bulbs with CFL’s or replacing entire appliances, the up front cost seems high but the energy savings outweighs this cost in the long run. Conservation is a very important philosophy in financial freedom, as it equates directly to reduced expenses. The benefit of these technologies is energy and cost savings, with absolutely no loss of comfort or function. After all, the less money you’re spending, the more money you’re able to keep. Benjamin Franklin said it best, “a penny saved is a penny earned.”

BILL: In your opinion, what changes need to be made both in the short and long term?

STEVE: In the short term, it will benefit us all to reduce our energy consumption by doing things like replacing light bulbs, draft proofing, and applying common sense such as shutting off the lights and the TV if you’re going out for the night. Buy organic food where available, locally produced if possible. If you’re buying a new appliance, look for an Energy Star rated one. Put your computer into auto-hibernation mode so it shuts itself off after a period of disuse, without you even thinking about it. Drive a hybrid car, carpool, ride a bike. In upcoming elections, vote consciously. Learn the issues, and vote for what’s best for the planet. In the long term, we need to completely get rid of fossil fuels. Our dwindling supplies should take care of that, but it should be a conscious choice to progress beyond it rather than a move forced by necessity. The Building code needs to be changed to adopt LEED standards, and home appliances and devices need to be built to be as energy efficient as possible, as well as completely recyclable. We need to eliminate personal self-propelled vehicles as our primary mode of transportation, and instead focus on creating new sustainable eco-villages that are walkable and connected via a high speed rail system into a beautiful majestic sprawling region that is full of natural green spaces, parks, agricultural areas, all powered by passive and eco-friendly means such as integrated solar, offshore wind farms and geothermal systems.

BILL: In your life, who have been the major influences in shaping your philosophies and views?

STEVE: There have been many people who have inspired me, but one that really stands out is Nikola Tesla. His work wasn’t specifically related to environmental topics; rather he was focused on finding better ways to do things. Another influential person I encountered in my life was one of my professors in my first year of school. I started school studying electrical engineering, inspired by Nikola Tesla. I decided to minor in biotechnology, and at the time I was acting with the belief that anyone who was opposed to genetic engineering and biotechnology must be a closed-minded religious fundamentalist. Luckily for me, I happened to get a fantastic professor for a bioethics class, and rather than just teaching us from the textbook she also showed us other perspectives of the issues. It was during this class that I discovered organic agriculture and the dangers of chemical pesticides, both the promises and the tremendous risks involved with gene splicing to create “better” organisms, and the potential for natural systems. The professor loaned me a book, which I read in 1 night and then promptly purchased my own copy the day after. That book was John Todd’s book From Eco-Cities to Living Machines. I decided to switch majors to environmental engineering the following year, and was very successful with my new studies, graduating near the top of my class with an honours diploma. Recently, I’ve been very inspired by the writings of Steve Pavlina. His perspective on the field of personal development has really made an impression on me, because he’s done such incredible things using a unique blend of technology (blogging, podcasting, and programming) and spirituality. Finally, it’s somewhat cliché, but my family has also greatly influenced my philosophies and views. My personality is a blend of my father’s strong intellect, logical thinking and a desire for lifelong learning, and my mother’s creativity, spirituality and compassion for other people and for the planet. I’m driven by the belief that the planet must be saved for us and for future generations, but at the same time I’m tempered by the question of how it can be done.

BILL: I would be very interested in working with you in coauthoring some informative articles relating to health, eco-awareness and the financial advantages stemming from that. Would you give me that honor?

STEVE: Absolutely, it would be my pleasure to introduce more of these concepts with your readers!

BILL: I’m quite taken with the notion that adopting a healthy lifestyle can equate to massive long-term financial savings in regards to reduced cost of health care. Perhaps that can be our first joint writing project.

STEVE: I am excited about the possibility to reach your readers and develop some material that will hopefully make a positive difference.

BILL: Thank you for being with us for this short while, Steve. And good luck with the Green Geek Blog.

STEVE: Thank you as well, Bill. Best of luck to you with your website also.

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About

Steve holds a degree in Environmental Engineering Technology from Humber College in Toronto, is a LEED Accredited Professional and a Certified Sustainable Building Advisor. He currently lives in Victoria BC and works as a green building consultant specializing in residential projects.

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