Saving Your Green

Gloria Nye  |  4/28/2009 9:36:21 PM

The average carbon footprint (which is tons of CO2 equivalent/year) per person in the United States is 27. For Louisiana, the average is 26. For the rest of the world, it is 5.5. We Americans are using approximately 5 times more energy per person than the rest of the world. (If you want to calculate your own carbon footprint, The Nature Conservancy has a carbon footprint calculator on their website at www.nature.org.

We may be tempted to say, “So what? We’re a wealthy nation. We can afford it.” But can we? We’ve been learning in the current recession that waste, over consumption and excess can lead to world system failures – economic, political, environmental and personal ones, as well.

As a nation, we have developed what I call a “drive through window” mentality. We want everything fast, and we’ve had the money to pay for the convenience. But “fast” costs more than just money. Fast takes extra resources and it creates extra waste. Think about this statement, “resource conservation begins at home, and it begins with me.”

Yes! Magazine (Winter 2009) compared rankings of nations in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the Happy Planet Index. The Happy Planet Index shows the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens.

What Yes! Magazine reported is that there does not seem to be a direct correlation between wealth and happiness. Two of the nations ranking highest in the Happy Planet Index, Indonesia and Mexico, ranked extremely low in GDP. And, the United States ranks highest in GDP but is among the lowest in the Happy Planet Index. On the other hand, Russia ranks low in GDP and is among the lowest in the Happy Planet Index.

So where do we start, or improve, with conservation? Do we have to disrupt our lives and our families? Not really. Small changes in our everyday lives can make a big difference. Even one small change, multiplied by millions of people produces incredible benefits. With small changes, and the adoption of some new habits, we can create a more “green” way of living, which means a lifestyle that wastes less, and can be richer in many important ways. We’ve become accustomed to disposability and waste but if we stop to consider how things used to be done, and what has worked in the past, we can see some really good ways for how we can live better now and in the future.

We’ve all heard popular money and waste saving ideas about recycling paper/plastic/glass/metal and using recycled products, taking cloth bags to the store when we shop, buying products that use less packaging, composting, planting a back yard vegetable garden, using compact fluorescent light bulbs, wrapping the hot water heater and lowering the water temperature, turning up the thermostat to use less air conditioning, keeping our tires properly inflated, planting native trees that shade our homes and absorb carbon dioxide, using a programmable thermostat, closing vents in unoccupied rooms, and buying energy efficient appliances. (FYI, if your appliances have a life span of 15 years, and you save $100/year in energy costs by using Energy Star appliances, that is a savings to you of $1,500 over the life span of those appliances.) Perhaps you are already on-board with all of these so, realistically, what more can you do? Well, have you considered:

· A home energy audit by your local utility company or a home energy consultant, to show you where the energy leaks are in your home (they can cost as little as $100 and may be free)

· Fixing or repairing rather than replacing things in your home

· Using non-toxic biodegradable detergent, washing clothes in cold water, or drying with a clothes line

· Using reusable water bottles instead of the plastic disposables

· Planning meals so you don’t waste food

· Walking or biking to nearby destinations instead of driving (which has health & environmental benefits) –“bundle” your errands

· Buying and using locally grown produce that is in-season (to discourage & reduce shipping)

· Receiving and paying your bills on-line

· Only running the dishwasher when it is full

· Unplugging small appliances when not in use (a recent study estimates that just the cost of leaving computers on overnight is $2.8B/year in the U.S. alone. That equals 20M tons of CO2, or about the same as 4M cars on the road.)

· Flying or driving less and telecommuting more

· Planning meals so you don’t waste food

· Turning off the lights when you leave a room

· Encouraging your utility company to go solar

· And how about using cloth diapers? (I did for 3 children and I’m still using them today, for cleaning rags.)

Maybe some of these ideas make you laugh, but perhaps one or two are possibilities for you. Recently it was reported on the news that in this recession the amount of waste going into landfills is down as much as 1/3 in some locations. Some of the credit for that was attributed to fewer big box items being purchased, which results in less shipping and packaging material, and less Styrofoam. There are some silver threads in the dark cloud of this recession.

“Reduce (waste), Re-use, Recycle!”

As an economist, I cannot speak to you about resource conservation without also addressing the importance of conserving your financial resources, especially now, in this economy. Listen to these recent quotes from the Baton Rouge Business Report:

“Consumers increased spending for a second straight month in February, even though their incomes slipped due to continuing massive layoffs. …the report says incomes fell by 0.2% in February, the fourth drop in the past five months, …With incomes down while spending rose, the personal savings rate dipped slightly to 4.2% in February…Still, the recent performance marks the first time that the savings rate has been above 4% in more than a decade. Economists believe that the deep recession, already the longest in a quarter-century, will continue prompting consumers to do more to trim spending and boost their savings.”

I wanted to share this with you for a couple of reasons. Did you notice that it said “consumers increased spending for a second straight month, even though their incomes slipped…?” Research has shown that even when our incomes drop, we continue to spend as if we had the same income, sometimes for as long as 6 months, and probably / mostly on credit. If it takes that long to get spending stopped in a family, can you imagine how long it takes to get it turned around for a whole country? President Obama has said that our economy is like a bug cruise ship and it takes a long time to get it slowed down and stopped, before you can get it turned around. Well, I’m here to remind you that your family is not the U.S. government or a cruise ship, and when your income drops it is very important to stop spending right away to avoid accumulating debt.

The other item of interest in this report is that it says the reported savings rate of around 4% is the highest it has been in more than a decade. Remarkable. And then it says, “Economists believe that the deep recession…will continue prompting consumers to…boost their savings.” Did you notice that even when we are saving, we are referred to as “consumers?” A consumer is defined as one who consumes. Is that what we are doing when we are saving?

That term, “consumer,” I propose, may be part of our problem when it comes to our promoting resource conservation. We do not always just “consume.” Sometimes we “conserve,” and I believe how we identify ourselves in language, with our words, has an important impact on our psyche, and in this case, perhaps it could also have an impact on our resources and the environment. Would it make a difference if we referred to ourselves as conservers instead of consumers, would that get us (and future generations) thinking differently? I want to throw that out there for your consideration, because I believe it could.

Meanwhile, back to the recession, and saving your own personal “green:”

What do “experts” advise? (B. O’Neill, PhD, CFP, Rutgers University; J. Tucker, PhD, RFG, LSU)

1. Always spend less than you earn and avoid debt. What are some signs that debt has become a problem?

· You’d have an immediate financial crisis if you lost your job.

· You spend more than you earn.

· You must borrow to pay current bills.

· You pay for everyday expenses, like groceries, with savings or credit.

· You pay the minimum or less on your bills each month.

· You are being contacted by bill collectors.

· You’re having problems in your relationships because of money. (I probably don’t have to tell you that lots of marriages don’t survive financial problems.)

2. Plan ahead. Calculate the savings required to achieve your future financial goals -like home ownership or retirement, and save & invest regularly to achieve your goals. Research shows that, at every income level, people who plan are more financially successful, and they’re happier.

3. Follow recommended practices. Prepare a will, have an emergency fund, calculate your net worth periodically: follow a spending plan or budget, write down your financial goals with target dates and dollar cost, and don’t buy more house than you can afford.

4. Build and maintain your human capital. Keep your job skills current. Go back to school. Eat right and get adequate sleep and exercise. Practice good health habits. See your doctor & dentist for regular check-ups, and be sure to brush and floss daily.

Here’s some additional research that is very interesting:

Remember this: What’s good for the economy may not be good for you personally. Sugato Chakravarty, PhD, Purdue University, studies psychological factors involved in personal finance. His research suggests that the less we handle our money, the more removed we are from it, the more we engage in risky financial behavior and the more out-of-control it can become. In other words, the more we disconnect with handling our money by using debit and credit cards, the more risks we tend to take with our finances. The more we touch it and work with it, the better and more carefully we take care of it. His advice is to get intimate with your money –real hands-on, to reduce risky and costly financial behavior.

Researchers have found that people are more likely to think twice about buying something when they carry one large bill rather than many smaller denominations equal to the same amount. Professors at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business found that when people had to save $100 or exercise self control in spending, they were more likely to ask for a $100 bill instead of five $20s. The findings of the report, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, follow up on an earlier Maryland study that found people were likely to spend more money when paying for items with gift cards or credit cards.

And here’s some recession survival advice:

· Protect your financial identity from theft (be careful when you use mail boxes, at ATMS and gas stations, and do not have your social security number on anything in your wallet).

· Check your credit record (for free) periodically: www.annualcreditreport.com

· Pay off your credit card debt.

· Establish or increase your emergency fund so you can make it between jobs if needed.

· If you don’t already have one, now is the time to get a fixed rate mortgage.

· Do resource conservation at home. Take care of what you have, to make it last. Do the maintenance on your house, on your car, with your kids, and in your marriage. Divorces are (also) financially devastating.

The LSU AgCenter has many helpful publications available FREE in the AgCenter offices which are located in every parish in Louisiana.

Information can be accessed on-line at the LSU AgCenter website.

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