Household Conservation Games: Family Fun + Disaster-Resilience All in One

In my book, I point out that low-footprint living, in addition to helping the planet, can also allow households to boost their disaster-resilience. As if to underscore my idea, numerous hurricanes and other natural disasters have hit the world since I published my book in 2017. All of them have had devastating effects on the livelihoods and living circumstances of people in different parts of the world. And our latest natural disaster, the Coronavirus, is affecting literally just about everyone, everywhere in the world. The less dependent we are on sources outside our local communities to meet our basic needs, the better off we are. Does this mean we have to forego imported goods, electricity, long-distance travel, and other convenient aspects of modern society? Not necessarily (though there’s certainly a lot of room for us in the privileged parts of the world to scale back while still living comfortably), but the less dependent we are on these things, the less vulnerable we are to disaster; the more socially and economically resilient we’ll be.

In that spirit I propose a fun household activity for the Coronavirus “Stay At Home” time: Conservation Games! Depending on the culture of your family (and the ages of your kids and others living with you), you might opt to do these as a friendly competition between household members, or approach it as a team working together to get your numbers lower and lower.

My preferred framework for household-scale conservation efforts is the Riot for Austerity. It’s a worldwide grassroots movement of citizens aiming to reduce their footprint to 10% of the average U.S. resident’s. The people who started the Riot movement (Sharon Astyk and Miranda Edel) set forth numeric targets which I’ll outline below.

Now, at this point you might be thinking, “Are you nuts? We’re in the middle of a crisis! Why would I want to voluntarily heap more challenges on myself and my family?” To which I would say 1) You might be surprised at how self-challenges can take one’s mind off an ongoing crisis, and help maintain a sense of perspective; 2) As I mentioned, low-footprint living is great for boosting one’s disaster-resilience; and 3) The current crisis makes it easier in various ways to reduce one’s footprint. So now is actually a great time to start!

My friend Cedar Stevens was talking about plastics consumption when she made the following comment (and the hige volume of plastic trash is a major problem in itself), but she could just as easily have been speaking about any other aspect of reducing one’s eco footprint: “Perhaps you don’t want to think about reducing your plastic consumption. Life is so interrupted though, maybe this is the time to make new choices that are better for the Earth, create new habits. Be humbled in the face of the Wild.” (By the way, Cedar is a virtuosa gardener, herbalist, community organizer, and all-around wise woman. She is the proprietress of Natural Magick Shop, which offers “Magick potions, ritually crafted for the modern practitioner.” Visit her shop, and enjoy!

Note, any amount by which you can reduce your footprint is great! Whether you are able to reduce your footprint by 90% or 20% or even just 10%, you’re chipping away at the beast of excess consumption, resource mining, deforestation, violent landscaping, overdevelopment, etc., that is straining the planet’s resources. You might find it helpful to set moderate targets at first so you’ll be eager to build on your successes and keep going. Most people find some areas easier than others. For example, a person who lives in the city and doesn’t own a car might find it easy to have a low transportation footprint. A person who’s good at gardening, or has a farmer’s market nearby, might find it easier to lower their food footprint than one who has a black thumb, or has no farmer’s market to shop at. Following is a capsule summary of the Riot for Austerity targets. (For the full set of Riot for Austerity guidelines, see my post Riot for Austerity Rules.) Notice that some targets (such as trash) are per-person, while others (such as electricity use) are per-household.

GASOLINE: U.S. average 500 gallons per person per year; RIOT target 50 gallons per person per year. (The Coronavirus shutdown, with its moratorium on most commuting and on non-essential shopping, could make it easier than ever for many households to cut their gasoline consumption to a low percentage of the U.S. average. Under the RIOT target, you get slightly over 4 gallons a month, so if your car gets 30-40 miles a gallon and you are no longer commuting, 10% of the U.S. average is actually within reach! With outdoor exercise one of the only options for getting out of the house, you might find yourself enjoying family walks or bicycle rides. I know I’m seeing a lot more of that in my neighborhood!)

ELECTRICITY: U.S. average 900 kWh/month per household; RIOT target 90 kWh/month per household. (With household members being at home all the time, some families might be seeing a jump in electricity use. This could be a great opportunity to start an in-house conservation challenge! If your power company has a way for you to check your daily consumption online (many do nowadays), you can have a lot of fun with this. Basic notes: The biggest culprits of household electricity use are heating or A/C, clothes-dryer, and water heater – if your house uses electricity for these.)

HOME OIL/GAS: U.S. average 1,000 therms/household/year; RIOT target 100 therms/household/year.

GARBAGE: U.S. average 4.5 pounds per person per day; RIOT target 0.45 pounds per person per day. A fun thing to do could be give each person in the household their own trash can, and have daily or weekly weigh-ins. The best way by far to immediately reduce your trash weight by a wide margin is to compost your kitchen scraps. If you’re not doing this already, now’s a great time to start! Do a search on “compost” in this blog to find my favorite resources. Or just plunge into the vast university of YouTube wisdom.

WATER: U.S. average 100 gallons per person per day; RIOT target 10 gallons per person per day. (Outdoor water use accounts for 40% to 60% of this total. Now is an opportune time to look into waterwise native landscaping. Note: a food garden uses relatively little water for the amount of space it takes. The big water-hogs are exotic vegetation and manicured lawns.) A fun way to do a water challenge: Catch running water into a basin that’s a certain number of gallons, and count the number of basins you fill during a day. Got energetic young kids? Teach them to carry the water outside and water the trees and shrubs with it. Also get the kids to help with the math of calculating the total number of gallons used each day by toilet flushes, showers, etc.

CONSUMER GOODS: U.S. average $10,000 per household per year; RIOT target $1,000 per household per year. (This is another category where it could be easier to make cuts right now because of the shutdown. Golden opportunity to form new habits that are easier not only on the planet, but also on your wallet!)

FOOD: RIOT targets call for local & organic food to make up 70% of your diet; bulk/dry food 25% of your diet; and processed/industrial food 5% of your diet. Right now, this last category makes up 50% of the average U.S. resident’s diet. (The pandemic makes it a bit of a challenge to make major changes in one’s food purchasing. But one thing you can do is start shopping at your local farmer’s market, or get more of your groceries from there if you are already shopping there. You can also aim to eat fewer processed snacks. The food category is one of my big personal challenges. Although I truly love local organic veggies, I also heartily enjoy processed snacks! Lately I’m learning to make spiced crispy vegetable chips, which believe it or not it turns out I enjoy as much as store-bought potato chips!)

Reducing your eco footprint is not only the easiest and most immediate way for you as an individual to address environmental issues; it also has immediate benefits for your wallet and your well-being. Not only that, it makes you and your family and your community better able to weather whatever may come–be it a natural disaster or an economic recession or any other kind of crisis–and come out stronger. I hope you enjoy your low-footprint competitions and experiments as much as I’ve been enjoying mine! Always feel free to drop me a line if you have questions. And if you like, get yourself a copy of my book DEEP GREEN! It’s a concise manual to crafting your own version of an ultra-low-footprint life, and I’ve packed it chock-full with links to the absolute best resources I know of in each category.

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