CHAPTER 6. MY RIOT NUMBERS AND HOW I ACHIEVE THEM
Now I’m going to share with you how my numbers stack up to the targets and how I make that happen.
My examples are just one person’s version of this lifestyle. You can find many, many more examples, from people of all circumstances and walks of life, by tapping into the Riot community online.
I’m incredibly thrifty and, in some ways, ridiculously lazy. My approach to the Riot, as to life in general, tends to stick to this one simple principle: When in doubt, do without, and avoid needless effort! Faced with a choice between buying item A or buying item B, I will almost always pick option C – Buy Nothing, Do Without, and Adapt!
The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes was a legendary minimalist. He was so hardcore that he lived in an urn in order to save on rent. One day he was drinking from his cup (a reusable one, not a disposable plastic or styrofoam one, this being ancient Greece). He was perfectly content, until he saw a little boy drinking water from his cupped hands. At that point Diogenes threw down his cup in disdain. Now, I’m not that extreme. I have a cup—and even plates and silverware! Still, this anecdote is such an apt illustration of my approach to living green that when I read about Diogenes, I was convinced that the man was my long-lost ancient Greek twin.
What I’m trying to say here is that when you see how I do things, don’t panic. There are many, many ways to cut your footprint. You don’t have to live in a tiny place. You don’t have to do without air-conditioning or give up your car. Many Riot participants still have all of those things, along with TVs, video games, and brand-new consumer goods too! Read my examples and get inspired by them. Then try them out if you like. Also go online, tap into the Riot community, and find out how others are living this lifestyle.
The plus side to my approach is that it requires no up-front investment and it starts saving you time, money, and headspace right away. And you can test it out for a short time anytime——what have you got to lose?
I can be wrong! I am wrong, on a regular basis. I tend to give very cautious advice that errs on the side of “eliminate; do without.” I used to think solar panels couldn’t power an air-conditioner, so a person who wanted to power her life on renewables had to swear off air-conditioning. But I was wrong. In fact, today I heard about a woman who’s living in a 2-bedroom home here in Florida and has an $11 electricity bill! She has solar panels, and they are adequate to power the air-conditioning.
OK, now for my numbers:
The U.S. average is 500 gallons per person, per year. The Riot target is 50 gallons per person, per year.
For the past few years, my usage has hovered around 10 percent of the U.S. average, thus reaching the Riot target of 50 gallons per year.
How I do it: The main way I get around is by bicycle. For long-distance travel, I take trains, buses, or ride-shares. On rare occasions I rent a car, use a taxi, or pay a friend to drive me somewhere. All of this is included when I calculate my transportation footprint.
For pretty much my whole adult life (30+ years), I’ve made a priority to arrange my life so that I can get just about anywhere I need to go by walking, bicycling, or public transport. This is a deal-breaker for me in terms of quality of life, so I’ve stuck with this practice even during the time periods when I’ve owned my own motor vehicle.
Even when I owned a motor vehicle, I generally only drove it every couple of weeks or so. A turning point in my decision to forgo private vehicle ownership was finding out about the existence of high-capacity cargo trailers for bicycles. When I found out that there were long bicycle trailers capable of carrying several hundred pounds of cargo, I quickly ordered one and sold my truck.
Despite my walkable living situation, I admit that the transportation category is a challenging one for me, as I enjoy road-trips and also I travel to another city a few times a year to teach workshops.
Special note on airplane travel: The Riot makes no provision for it. Speaking for myself, I haven’t flown in an airplane since 2010, but I cannot swear that I will never again do so. There are places I want to visit. For example, I want to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. I’d love to attend an Arabic-language intensive in Cairo. In the event I decide to fly, it will be an extremely careful choice. I will purchase carbon offsets and I will set out to give back something worthwhile from the trip; whether it’s writing a book, teaching a workshop in my community, reporting to my local government about what other towns and cities are doing, or contributing to international friendship and understanding by learning another language, or something of that sort.
I have personally benefited greatly from travel; it’s made me a more compassionate, sensitive, tolerant, and aware person; a world citizen. I wouldn’t want to deny other people the benefits of travel. If travel is a part of your life—whether for education, work, leisure, or some combination thereof—and you exceed the Riot target (or maybe even exceed the U.S. average), don’t stress out about it. You can help mitigate the footprint of your travel by purchasing carbon offsets. And you can increase the handprint (beneficial impact) of your travel by always taking care to bring back knowledge, experience, or something else of value to share with your family and your community.
I once purchased offsets to carbon-neutralize my annual train trip up north to see my family. I was able to use a button right on the Amtrak site that took me to a carbon-offset merchant. The price of offsetting my 1,300 mile round trip was a whopping $2! Are carbon offsets a perfect solution and can you use them to zero out everything? Maybe not, but they help. I still counted the full distance in my Riot gasoline count though.
The topic of gasoline brings me to an eco-dilemma that many people face: Keep the old, gas-guzzling car or buy a new, more fuel-efficient one?
Of those two options, I would choose Option 3, which would be to keep the old car until it reaches the end of its useful life, but drastically cut the number of miles I drive. Better yet, get rid of your car entirely, like I did. This might take some serious life-restructuring, such as moving to where you can walk or bicycle to work; or negotiating to be able to work from home. It might seem out of the question to you; however, I can testify that it’s absolutely doable. I’m not trying to take your car away, but I will tell you many people find great liberation in being car-free. If you’re open to experimenting (while still owning a car), you might try it out for a day or a week and find that going without driving is easier than you think. Yes, even if you have kids!
A neighbor of mine has been riding a bicycle with her son to his school three miles away. By the way, I see several people in my area who seem to get around mainly by bike, and they transport their kids on bicycle trailers that are designed for that purpose.
The trouble I see with the “efficient car/hybrid” option is that the fuel mileage is impressive, but the problem is, I’m not structurally changing anything about my life. So other than saving money and carbon footprint on gasoline, I don’t get any of the benefits of going car-free. These missed benefits include:
• Spending less time sitting in traffic
• Getting to know my neighbors better—building social capital (because I’m walking or riding a bike and people can see me)
• Getting more exercise and fresh air
• Getting a deep knowledge of my town and bioregion by not having metal and glass walls between me and the passing scenery.
My gasoline total for 2017 as of the end of August was:
• Annual holiday trip to Virginia to see family in a 40-mpg car shared with one rider: 16.25 gal. (If I had taken that trip by train, which I usually do (public transport gets 100 mpg), it would have been 13 gal.)
• 5 trips to the vet when my kitty got sick: 18-mile round trip in 20-mpg car = 4.5 gal
– 400mi roadtrip in 40-mpg car = 10 gal
– 10 excursions with friends @avg 10 mi in a 20-mpg car = 5 gal
– Two Orlando trips in a 40-mpg car shared with 2 other people 1.67 gal
My total so far this year = 37.42 gallons
If this year ends up being typical, my total will reach about 50 gallons by the end of the year.
I estimate that I save about $8,000 a year by not owning a car. This includes car payments, insurance, gasoline, and repairs. I free up my time too, probably 10 to 20 hours a week by not owning a car. How can that be? Doesn’t it take longer to get around by bicycle than by car? Well, yes and no. For one thing, I arrange my life so I can get almost all my needs met in a close, bike-able radius. For another thing, time on the bicycle doubles as workout time. I no longer spend any time in the gym. And then there’s the time I don’t spend waiting around for tow trucks when a car breaks down, sitting in the waiting rooms of auto mechanics, and so on. I didn’t even figure that in my total.
By the way, in calculating my money savings for forgoing private auto ownership, I didn’t count the amount of money saved by not needing a gym membership. (I used to be quite the gym-rat in my younger days, though admittedly that was more due to extreme vanity than it was for legitimate health purposes.)
The U.S. average is 11,000 kWh per household, per year or 900 kWh per household, per month. The Riot target is 1,100 kWh per household, per year or 90 kWh per household, per month.
I come in at 7% to 9% of the U.S. average, at 60 to 80 kWh per month.
Low-hanging fruit: I don’t use heat, air-conditioning, or a clothes-dryer. I also use almost no hot water. I wash dishes and clothes in a minimal amount of cold water, or occasionally use hot water (which I heat up in the kettle by adding extra water to the kettle when I’m boiling the water for my morning coffee). I have minimal electronics; just my smartphone and laptop computer which I use for work. I live in a small apartment that only needs four light bulbs, and they’re not used (except at night), and they’re always turned off when not in immediate use.
The fact that I use no heat or air-conditioning may seem impossible or even insane to some. Granted, I live in Florida, so it’s no great hardship to do without heat. Even doing without a/c isn’t as horrible as people think, because the body adjusts. Most people just never give it a chance. It’s great to be able to enjoy the outdoors even in the height of summer because my body is acclimated to heat.
Sitting in my apartment on this warm summer night, I feel warm, but not uncomfortably so. With the windows open, I hear soothing summer sounds of night insects, laughter of neighbors, and the distant blues-harmonica of the freight train passing by.
Living open-air also means I can be in a better position to hear and respond if there’s some untoward activity taking place in the neighborhood.
Rainwater-harvesting guru Brad Lancaster likes to sleep on the roof of his Arizona home. Besides getting to sleep under the stars, he can easily hear all the outdoor sounds. In a video(8) showcasing his sustainable home, he mentions one night when he heard someone trying to break into a neighbor’s car. He slid down the fireman’s pole(!) in a jiffy and scared off the would-be thief. “Hey! Hey! Get away from that car!” he shouts in the video, all slim, fit, energetic and full of joie de vivre. Priceless!
Although I live without heat in Florida with little difficulty, I always figured it would be impossible for people in colder climates to do so. But I read a fascinating article a few years back, about people who are choosing to do without heat in New York and other places with super-cold winters. In New York City, a group of urban artists, living in a warehouse, said they find it a great way to live. They live in a desirable area, while saving several hundred dollars a month. The money they save they would rather spend on taking classes, staging performances for the community, or buying art supplies. A group of people living in a farmhouse in the Northeast reported similar aspirations.
Doing without heat in a cold place seems to really be dependent on things like insulation, space-heating, creating a “room within a room,” and really being determined to save money!
A note about water heating: When I was younger, I was very thin and was cold a lot of the time. One of my biggest fears (you might laugh, or you might nod in agreement) was that some unspecified apocalypse would descend, and I’d never again be able to take hot showers. Literally, in the dead of winter, I’d do “disaster practice” by forcing myself to take as short a shower as I could. I dreaded winter, period. Even the relatively mild winters of Austin, TX (where I lived before moving to Florida) struck terror into my heart.
Then at some point, I went through a shift. Part of it was that I started to swim in Barton Springs, a natural spring-fed pool in Austin where the water temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit year round. In winter, steam rises from the water. At first, I did the “normal” thing which was to take a swim and then shower in the bath house. But after a while, I realized I felt clean just from the swim and didn’t feel the need to shower afterward. And the swim warmed me up! Without consciously aiming to do so, I actually had become able to swim in cold water year-round, and not need a hot shower afterward.
This practice of having my swim or dip double as my primary bathing method stayed with me even after I moved to Florida. The ocean makes me feel clean. I feel cleansed and healed by the salt water. I rinse my face off with fresh water when I notice a bit of salt accumulating on it. And I pour fresh water (from the rain barrel) onto my feet to rinse the sand off when I get home from the beach. The beach is three blocks away and I walk there barefoot, year-round.
Of course, I still find that some areas of my body require a bit more attention (and soap!) to stay clean and fresh. I find those areas easy to clean with a sponge-bath or a small pan of water.
And of course, when traveling (such as visiting family), I will take showers. Typically my shower lasts a total of about two minutes. I do the “Navy shower”, turning off the water while I soap up. This method of showering uses about four gallons of water if the faucet is low-flow, which most of the ones I encounter these days are.
Not everyone is blessed with a natural, swimmable body of water near their home; however, I wish this for everyone. Maybe as we clean up more of our rivers and other waterways, a higher percentage of the population will have access to daily natural baths.
In the dead of winter, on the few cold days we have in our mild climate, I may not get in the water for a few days. By modern American standards that consider one or even two showers a day to be necessary, this may sound appalling, but it’s actually been very good for my skin to not have its natural oils stripped away constantly.
I’m 55, but people comment often on how young I look. I share my simple approach: I swim in a natural body of water, avoid hot showers, minimize my use of soap—just enough for basic hygiene. Soap hardly ever touches my face. Interestingly, over the years, I have run into more and more people who have the same bathing habits I do——even people who have no connection with the Riot movement and are not particularly environmentalists. People go shower-free and shampoo-free for lots of reasons, some having to do with skin allergies; others having to do with being pressed for time.
Another low-hanging fruit in the water category is laundry. I wash a few things in a time in a large pot that I keep for that purpose, and then I hang them on the line where the sunshine gets them nice and dry and fresh-smelling. I wash in cold water (remember 90% of the energy used in doing laundry is used to heat the water), and the amount of water I use is generally only about one to three gallons.
Some people might object, saying: “But what if you’ve got a large family and lots of laundry to do?” Michael Bluejay’s wonderful answer is, “Well then you’ve got lots of people to help with the laundry, right?”
Anyway, just because you’ve got a large family doesn’t mean everyone has to have a lot of clothes. One of the best ways to avoid doing huge amounts of laundry all the time is to not have that many clothes. It seems like the amount of time would be the same—you’d just be washing your small number of things over and over, as opposed to washing a large number of things less frequently, but somehow it doesn’t seem to work that way. I feel like I save about three to four hours a week on laundry by using my method. Part of the magic is not having to take time out from my day to go to a laundromat.
Besides the time savings, there’s the fact that I don’t have to fork out $5 or $6 a week in quarters! My laundry method might seem labor-intensive, but it actually takes only about five minutes a day or less. And between wringing out the clothes and hanging them, I get a good arm workout. This time also doubles as time to enjoy my backyard. I get to see what the birds and squirrels are up to and check the ripeness of the papayas.
I can’t be sure about this because I’ve never conducted a study, but I suspect that people who have a washer and dryer under their own roof end up doing more laundry (and spending more time doing laundry) than people who have to go to the laundromat. If you test this out, let me know what you find.
High-hanging fruit: The following are all minor things that probably don’t save me more than a couple kWh or a couple of dollars a month, but I derive great satisfaction from them for aesthetic as well as “green” reasons. I use little or no artificial lighting except at night; I greatly prefer natural light. Sometimes even at night I enjoy doing without lights. I might have a phone chat by moonlight with a faraway friend, while enjoying the shadows of the trees cast in moonlight on my wall. Or I might read a book on my smartphone (a flashlight and a book all in one—gotta love it!). I also have a pretty large stockpile of “freegan” candles; it’s amazing what people throw away! Boxes and boxes of unused tealights and half-burned candles.
By “freegan” I mean things that were scrounged from curbside, or that people were getting rid of. You’d be surprised, or maybe you wouldn’t, at how well a person can live on the discards of middle-class American society. It might seem like I spend hours scrounging the garbage for all this stuff, but actually most of it just comes to me. Literally in some cases! I once found a bag of about 200 mini bars of soap that someone had left on top of my Little Free Library. People sometimes treat the library as a drop-off for things other than books, though I don’t encourage it.
I don’t have any fancy appliances, just a stove/oven and a small blender. When cooking (my stove is electric), I use small energy-saving practices such as turning off the stove early and letting the food finish cooking by itself. This takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. I heat up my coffee water using an old-school kettle. It’s short and squat, designed to capture maximum heat from the stove burner in the shortest time. I’ve learned exactly how the kettle sounds when the water temperature has reached my preferred temperature for my coffee. It’s quite a bit short of boiling. I’ve never measured it, but wouldn’t be surprised if it’s only about 185 or 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
My lowest-ever electricity consumption was during one month last winter when I was doing a fridgeless experiment; my consumption came in at 14 kWh for the month. That is about 2 percent of the U.S. average—and it was really no big inconvenience. That’s the main takeaway here, not that we should all try to do without a refrigerator, but that we could if we had to for a short period (especially in the cold season) and it would be inconvenient, but no big deal. Or if we suddenly had electricity for only four hours a day, as they do in some countries, we would simply adjust our routines accordingly.
A word here about on-grid vs off-grid. I believe that the most low-footprint choice at this time is to stay on the grid, while radically reducing electric consumption. Second place would be grid-tied solar. A solar-panel system with batteries has a certain footprint that seems like it must be greater than just staying on the grid and radically conserving. (This is one of those areas where I can be wrong, especially as solar technology evolves over time.) Still, I really feel that by staying on-grid, I’m using the least possible resources and piggybacking on existing infrastructure. Also, by being connected to the grid, I’m constantly transmitting data to the utility company about demand.
3. Heating & Cooking Energy:
The U.S. average is 1,000 therms per household, per year; the Riot target is 100 therms per household, per year.
I use no oil or natural gas at home. My cooking energy is included in my electricity footprint, as is my heating energy (if I used heat). Many people I know in the Riot community have access to deadwood which gives them an unlimited supply of zero-footprint fuel for cooking and heating.
The U.S. average is 4.5 lb per person, per day; the Riot target is 0.45 lb per person, per day.
This category is no problem for me. I regularly come in at zero to a half-pound every couple of days. Also, even when I do have trash, a lot of that trash is in the form of packaging from free stuff that I’ve diverted from the waste-stream to begin with, so it doesn’t count toward my total. For instance: A shower curtain I found by the roadside, still in its original packaging; some canned food that a neighbor gave me because she was moving and wanted to lighten her load; and so on. I don’t accept any disposable bags at the store.
I get my news mainly online and don’t subscribe to a printed newspaper, but I do sometimes read my neighbor’s newspaper with him in the morning, and when he’s done with it, I compost it! Or I use it for a wastebasket liner and then compost it later.
Low-hanging fruit: I eliminate most of my garbage’s weight by composting. I refuse over-packaged products. I rarely have to buy anything that has much packaging, and when I do, I recycle or compost as much as possible. Sometimes I’m able to upcycle a package. For example, my smartphone came in a neat little box, in which I now store my business cards. Anyway, companies seem to be getting better about packaging these days.
I don’t buy any plastic bags, trash-can liners, etc.
U.S. average is 100 gallons per person, per day; the Riot target is 10 gallons per person, per day.
My typical water use:
Cooking and drinking: 1.5-2 gal
Washing: 1-2 gal
Shower: 0-2 gal
Toilet flushing: 5 gal
For cooking and for washing clothes and dishes, I come in at 3 to 4 gallons per day without much effort. The albatross for me is toilet flushing. Even with “let it mellow,” I still have to flush at least a couple times a day at 1.6 gallons per flush. So, my total water usage generally hovers around 10 gallons a day but can reach 13 to 15. If I happen to be at a conference at a hotel with “exploding toilets” (you know, the ones that spontaneously flush all the time), then my Riot target goes right out the window. I don’t dwell on it, I just do my best.
At home, I have a rainbarrel that holds about 30 gallons. In our rain-rich part of the world (we get 49 to 50 inches of rain a year!), that barrel stays pretty full of fresh water for most of the year. I count my rainwater consumption as part of my Riot total. Some Riot participants don’t count rainwater or pond-water in their total. But I do keep track of how much water I consume, simply because I like to know what my habits are adding up to. But, I do consider this to be free, captured water – and all of it goes right back out onto the yard, rather than down the drain. And of course, it doesn’t require electricity to be pumped into my home since it just falls off the roof and into my rain barrel.
I do my best to capture excess kitchen faucet water in a one-gallon pot and pour it out on the yard. My yard requires little or no artificial irrigation, other than the few annual vegetables and herbs I grow in pots. Most of my yard is natives and wildflowers.
I wash my clothes in a large pot and use the collected water on the compost bin or dry patch of yard.
Even if you prefer not to use my primitive method (though it’s great exercise for the arms, and more fun than pumping iron at the gym), no worries——the most high-efficiency washing machines nowadays use only about 15 gallons per load. If you have an old washer, which can use up to 45 gallons a load, set it on the lowest water setting and (to save gas or electricity) stick to cold-water washing.
With little difficulty, you can set up a means of collecting the used water from the washer rather than sending it down the drain. (I was able to this in the communal laundry room at one place where I lived.) This water can be used out on your yard. For more details about such setups, see Art Ludwig’s “Greywater Oasis” and Brad Lancaster’s “Water Harvesting” books, mentioned in the appendix.
By conducting a quick search online, I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a selection of countertop hand-cranked mini washers. They look as though they only use a couple gallons of water. If I weren’t in a place with ground-floor access to the outdoors, I would use one of these machines to get the water out of my clothes before hanging them on a drying rack. (Right now i just wring them gently and hang them on the line, where they dry quickly in the hot Florida sun. Sheets, I hang dripping-wet and allow the sun to “iron” them.)
6. Consumer Goods:
The U.S. average is $10,000 per household, per year; the Riot target is $1,000 per household, per year.
Lately I come in at about $200 to $500 per year in this category. Some years it’s been $800 or a bit more. I just don’t need or want that much stuff, and what I need I prefer to buy used for reasons of quality and aesthetics.
As part of my research for this book, I went to the supermarket and walked through all the aisles, listing things I don’t buy that are commonly considered necessities. Here’s a short list of the things I counted: air freshener, air filter, anything automotive, insect repellent, bug-killing spray, floor cleaner, tub & tile cleaner, bleach, fabric softener, disinfecting wipes, paper towels, paper napkins, and plastic bags of any kind (sandwich bags, freezer bags, trash-can liners, heavy trash bags, etc.).
The total value came to $116.50, of which I tallied up $35 just for various kinds of plastic bags! The $116.50 would have been for roughly a two- or three-month supply of these things. Depending on your income level, the money savings may not even seem worthy of mention, but there’s also the savings of time and my own personal energy, thanks to not having to spend as much time in the big, cold, noisy, fluorescent-lit grocery store. It’s great to be able to get just about all of the everyday stuff I need by making just one 30-minute trip to the open-air Saturday farmer’s market.
Instead of paper napkins and towels, I use cloth ones which I make from old sheets or towels. Cloth works far better than paper and feels better on the skin. Over time as the napkins or towels become too worn and dirty to serve for that purpose, I downgrade them to household rags for various other purposes. They might start as food-prep countertop wiping cloths; then get downgraded to floor-scrubbing, then finally be used for bicycle chain cleaning. I call this my “cascading hierarchy of household rags.” Once they’re totally grubbed-up and worn out, they get composted.
#1 is the food you grow, or which is produced locally and organically. According to the Riot, a 90% footprint reduction would involve this category constituting at least 70% of your diet.
#2 is dry, bulk goods. The Riot target is no more than 25% of your total food purchases.
# 3 is Wet goods: items that are conventionally grown, processed, or traveled a long distance, etc. The current U.S. average is over 50% of the diet. The Riot target is 5% or less.
Category #1: I buy just about 100% of my groceries at my local farmer’s market; however, some of the farms are over 100 miles away. Some are 150 to 200 miles away, and not certified organic. I still count them as local and organic, because they are small, family farming operations. Some of the produce I buy is from the larger, co-op buyers who draw from a wider geographic area and include produce that is grown full-on conventionally. With all this in mind, I estimate my current consumption in the #1 category to be about 45% to 50%, in comparison with the Riot target value of 70%.
A few years back, when I lived in Austin and was volunteering a couple of days a week on a small organic farm there, my percentage in this category easily reached 70%, This was largely because, in exchange for my work, I received all the fresh in-season produce I could carry home. Though my footprint has varied with my living circumstances, the overall trend is positive.
Category #2: About 25% of my total food products purchased are in this category so I’m right in line with the Riot target.
Category #3: This is an area where I still have a lot of room for improvement. I estimate my percentage to be 25% in this category, compared with the Riot target of 5% or less. That said, the conventional packaged goods I buy are mostly from a sole-proprietor reseller at the farmers’ market. I figure these goods have had most of their profit value already extracted in the supply chain and have just about reached “throw-away or donate” status. While I’m not quite rescuing them from the waste stream, I am acquiring them at a low state on the chain, and am supporting a local businessperson’s livelihood.
Another source of the conventionally processed food I eat is food that I’m diverting from the waste stream. A local church does a weekly food distribution for low-income residents. At the end of the day, the leftover food (which will be thrown away) is left out for anyone to take. I get a surprising amount of this throwaway food, which counts zero in the Riot footprint. This food that is diverted from the waste stream is sometimes known as “freegan.” The freegan lifestyle has a significant following and there are many websites dedicated to it.
One thing I do bear in mind, when I’m enjoying my free or low-lying processed food, is that even though it has a lower footprint because of the circumstances, there’s still value in steering myself away from such food and toward less-processed choices in the long run. It’s better for my health and for the planet’s health if I’m not hooked on sugary treats and other processed foods.
By the way, “better for the planet” needs to include “better for other people.” I heard recently that in Costa Rica, some 20% to 25% of sugarcane field workers have kidney disease due to dehydration from working so hard in the hot fields. These fields have gotten hotter due to climate warming, and their hard work is surely the result of high demand from consumers here in the USA.
I’m not a very adept gardener (I have a brownish if not outright brown thumb), but through persistence I still manage to grow a bit of my own food. My crops include greens, herbs, and a few sweet potatoes. And at the moment, I have a number of papaya trees in my yard (which sprouted and flourished and bore fruit no thanks to me). These trees produce a steady supply of fruit while in season. (Well, I say “no thanks to me,” but it could be that my compost helped encourage them.) Gardening takes very little of my time and effort and is very rewarding for the amount of work I put in.
I also forage for wild edibles and what I call “sidewalk edibles”—fruit trees that are hanging over the public walkway and/or the owners have given me permission to walk onto their yard and pick the fruit. I once got permission to pick oranges from a front-yard tree in exchange for giving the guy a jar of homemade marmalade from the fruit. I dropped off the marmalade on his porch a few weeks later.
Wherever I am, I make a point of learning about the local, edible, wild plants that most people call “weeds.” Many of what we think of as undesirable plants are, in fact, highly nutritious and delicious edibles. At some times of the year, about 70% of my tiny yard is edible, and I didn’t have to do any work to grow it. Every day, people throw away money by destroying these so-called “weeds.” I prefer to call them free fresh vegetables, first-aid products, and nutritional supplements.
Very Important Note: If you’re going to explore wild edibles, always consult a local expert who knows his or her stuff. There are books about wild plants for pretty much every region. By all means check out those books, but also do a weed-walk, seminar, or other real-time event with an actual live expert face to face. Never just try eating a plant you don’t know or have only read about in a book. Many edible plants have poisonous lookalikes. I can’t emphasize this enough: Safety first! Fortunately, wherever you are, there are likely to be local experts offering workshops and walks.
Here’s a commonplace eco-dilemma in the food category: Which is better (or a lesser evil): plastic-wrapped organic spinach from thousands of miles away; or locally grown, but non-organic produce? My answer is, ditch the plastic-wrapped faraway stuff, even if it is organic. Talk with your individual growers at the farmers’ market; ask what kinds of chemicals and processes they use. Sometimes your supermarket will have this information about its produce too. Oftentimes you’ll find that although not officially certified organic, many of your local growers are de facto organic or very nearly so, simply because a small operation can’t afford to invest a pile of money in agricultural chemicals. I’m lucky to have at my local Saturday farmers’ market several farmers I trust.
So these are the seven Riot targets and a snapshot of how I live them. These days I seem to be running into many people who happen to share a lot of my lifestyle practices, even people who are not necessarily labeling themselves as environmentalists. So I can only suspect that a more than a few of you who are reading this already share some of my deep-green habits also.
8. Another Suggested Riot Category—Financial Footprint:
I’ve recently thought of another category to add to my personal Riot practice: financial footprint.
Tentatively, I’m classifying financial footprint into three subcategories:
—> Asset storage
I haven’t decided whether it’s better to calculate this category by individual or by household. Since I’m a household of one, they are one and the same in my case anyway. Feel free to let me know how you’d approach this!
I’m no financial expert, so I’m sure I’ll need to revise and refine my thinking over time, but I feel it’s worth including this category even in its roughed-out form. Finances are a major driver of people’s lives, and I’ve come to notice that they can have a huge impact on one’s eco-footprint.
For example, student-loan debt can keep a person tied to a steady high-paying corporate job, even if that job isn’t helping the world much; even if they would rather quit that job and learn a different trade or start a local business that’s needed in their community. And that job keeps the person tied to certain “necessities.” Whether it’s a car commute or having to buy an expensive wardrobe (and then dry-clean or launder it), high financial overhead creates more work and responsibility.
The more we get a handle on our finances, the more we can reduce our footprint. Come to think of it, it’s a reciprocal relationship: The more we reduce our footprint, the more control we’ll have over our finances!
Debt is how much money you owe. For purposes of assessing your current state and marking your progress, it might be useful to further divide this into consumer debt (credit cards, car payment, and so on), mortgage, medical debt, and student loans.
I currently have about $800 in credit-card debt (compared to $3,800 three months ago). It’s all for business rather than consumer goods, but I’ll still count it as credit-card debt. I have no other debt.
For average U.S. debt, I found statistics from Nerdwallet.com, which uses data from several sources such as census data and the Federal Reserve. According to Nerdwallet, the average credit-card debt of the households that are indebted is $16K. The average mortgage debt is $180K. Car loans average $29K and student loans $51K. The average household, with any kind of debt, owes $136K. According to Valuepenguin.com, the average credit-card debt for all U.S. households is $5,700.
Obviously the ideal scenario is to have as little debt as possible. Debt limits people’s options and inhibits their willingness to take creative risks. When a significant segment of society, particularly young people, are inhibited from taking creative risks, both the individual and society loses.
Debt expands one’s footprint, as it forces a person to work longer hours just to service the debt. My aim is to be free of both personal and business debt. I would advise anyone who doesn’t already have student loans, to avoid them as much as possible. And of course, if you already have student loans, try to shrink your other overhead to a minimum to offset them. That’s something a low-footprint lifestyle can help with.
Some sound advice I’ve heard from others is: Forget college, go to vocational school and learn a trade. Obviously that advice isn’t for everyone. I was fortunate to have been able to attend a good college at a time when going to a good college didn’t necessarily mean taking on a lot of debt. Were I just graduating from high school now, I might choose a trade-school or apprenticeship path myself.
Overhead is the bare minimum amount you need to earn to pay for necessities. It doesn’t include savings or “extras” like what you spend to take a vacation.
It’s tricky to estimate an average and a target value for this category, since the cost of living varies significantly from one place to another. You could take the average national income and multiply it by the average percentage that Americans save. Or you could do the same calculation using data from your particular geographic area. Then use 10% of that value.
My overhead right now is about $800 a month. If I were making $1,500 or 2,000 a month, that means I’d have $700 to $1,200 available to save or invest every month. Right now I’m not making much more than the bare minimum I need to pay my basic expenses, but I’m working on increasing my income to the point where I consistently make $1,300 to 1,500 a month. If this sounds ridiculously low to you, keep in mind that a person living a low-footprint lifestyle can be quite wealthy even at this level of income. Also, it’s amazing how modest our needs become when we’re devoting most of our waking hours to meaningful work and to the people we love.
Note, just to be clear, I am not out to promote an extremely-low-income life. I firmly believe in reducing my need to earn, but I don’t wish a poverty-level income on anyone. Hand-to-mouth is a hard, depressing, and dangerous way to live. Dangerous for the individual, and for society too. If you don’t have to go there, don’t!
I also don’t believe in being poor as a way to “stick it to society.” I declare all my income and pay my fair share of taxes. (At one point, I explored being a “war tax resister”, but I didn’t prevent any wars and it didn’t simplify my tax returns any, which was my other objective. I decided that it would be best for me and for society if I could find a palatable way to earn more income, even if it meant paying taxes for war and other things I don’t support.)
For a couple of years, when I found myself well below the poverty line in terms of income (one year I made just $7,000 before taxes), I was able, thanks to Riot practices and other sustainable practices, to still live fairly well and pay my own way for food and housing. And I wasn’t dependent on government subsidies for anything.
If you find yourself having to live at or below the poverty line (I hope you don’t, but if you do), an extreme-low-footprint lifestyle can give you breathing-room to take the training, education, health/wellness program, or whatever else you need to help you get back on your feet. It can also help you live decently in the meantime. Besides enjoying a decent standard of living myself, I was able to continue my participation in civic activities and help out in my community.
By the way, if you want examples of middle-class people who are financially stable, with plenty of assets, yet are living happily with a tiny overhead, check out two highly popular bloggers: Early Retirement Extreme and Mr. Money Mustache.
Asset storage is just what it sounds like: how your financial assets are stored. Many everyday people in the United States have a substantial chunk of their money stored in the form of home equity (if they own a home). The rest tends to be stored in some combination of banks and financial instruments (which are tied to the stock market).
I personally have no financial assets to speak of right now, though I’m working on it. In the early 2000s, I lost a chunk of my financial assets in a stock-market downturn. I invested the rest of it in sustainable-living education, charitable donations, activism, and getting a solid handle on my mental wellness. I’m now working on building up financial assets again. When I accumulate money this time, I plan to invest it locally (for example, in a rental property or business in my community), rather than storing it in banks or investing it in financial instruments tied to impersonal, faraway entities that have no stake in the wellbeing of my community.
My personal opinion is that local investment is a missing puzzle-piece in our national economic wellbeing. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if all, or even a significant percentage, of the money that everyday people currently have tied up on Wall Street were instead invested on Main Street. Surely, we’d have a lot more lively Main Streets all around the country.
I don’t have any metrics for asset storage right now; however, I do know that I want to know exactly what I’m investing in. Local investment, for example, like putting my money into buying a vacant historic building in a blighted area and starting a business there, would score very high. Keeping money in a local credit union would seem to be better than keeping it in a bank. I’m tentatively aiming for at least 90% of my financial assets to be invested locally, meaning invested within a 10-mile radius of where I live. By the way, if you’re a homeowner, I would suggest including, in your “local investment” percentage, the amount of equity you have in your home.
In my financial footprint, I’m aiming for transparency. In the past, 100 percent of my assets were in banks or mutual funds. I remind myself that if my money is in a bank, it doesn’t just sit in the bank; it gets invested in things that are non-transparent to me. I might not approve of some of those things, such as the war sector or the pharmaceutical industry.
The ideal is to be able to see all the way to the corners of my own life; and to know what my assets are doing out in the world. Long ago I remember thinking, “I want to see all the way to the corners of my own life! I’m creating impacts on the world, both good and bad, that I don’t even know I’m creating!”
A Final Word about the Riot Movement:
For a few years after Sharon Astyk and Miranda Edel launched it in 2007, the Riot movement flourished. The email listserv was active, with several hundred to a thousand participants. (Although the listserv still exists, it’s not very active, and neither is the Facebook group that formed later.) In the past few years, the number of active members has dwindled. This is how movements go. There’s a burst of energy at the start. Then the movement ebbs and flows; new people arrive, and old ones drop off. One of my goals in writing this book is to recruit a new infusion of people to the Riot. This is a great movement; we just need more people!