Monday, June 30, 2014

1960's Lifestyle, Today

So a few posts ago I wrote about going back to a 1960's-level of GHG emissions, which involved cutting 60% of your fossil fuel energy use. It's hard for me to imagine what that would look like. So first I though I'd take a look at a "1960's lifestyle", to see if that would give me some idea of "where to cut". After all, I had quite a happy childhood in the 60's and my parents certainly never complained about it.

So what, exactly, are the differences between 1960 and now?

Hm. Combing the InterWebz, I get (approximate figures for Canada, some extrapolated from US figures):
  • average home size 1200 sq ft in 1960 vs 2200 sq ft today
  • average person-miles travelled by air as gone up by 40 
  • average person-miles travelled by highway has gone up by 4
  • electricity use per capita has tripled
  • total energy use per capita has doubled; fossil fuel component has dropped from 83 to 75% of total
Now, these figures include energy use by industry, divided out over the population. Obviously there are entirely new industries (business travel, telecommunications, data farms, call centers) that didn't exist in the 60's, so that energy use is being added to the bill now.

Taking into account that here in BC, our electricity is green, we only need to worry about the fossil fuel portion if all we're interested in is reducing greenhouse gases. That means every resident in BC would have to:

  • reduce person-miles flown by a factor of 40
  • reduce person-miles driven by a factor of 4
  • reduce home size (most standalone homes are heated by natural gas)
I think most people would have problems with the travel part. We've become incredibly mobile, and huge industries have sprung up around this. Reducing the amount of flying I do by a factor of 40 means basically never setting foot in a plane again. Realistically, this is not going to happen until the price for a plane ticket goes up a lot - and this would have big ramifications to the airline and travel industries. It is not enough for me, personally, to give up flying. Everyone has to do it.

Reducing the driving miles is a little easier for me as I don't use a car to commute. I only drive to do errands on a weekly basis, which is less than 20km/week. And actually, it would not be too much of a hardship to give even this up, too, as I have lots of shops within walking distance of my house. But there are lots of people who live in new suburbs for whom "not driving" is simply not an option. By now, we have designed our cities around the car (and not around public transit), with big-box stores and cul-de-sacs shaping our transportation options.

The average home in 1960 was a 3-bed, 1 bathroom affair with a garage and a den/basement. Living in a smaller home is coming to a neighborhood near you...the soaring price of real estate locally in New West and Vancouver means that many people are living smaller. Still, the "dream" is a bigger home...and my own home is bigger than 1200 sq ft. It's not 2200 sq ft, but still too big! The areas of biggest population growth in BC are in areas poorly served by transit, where a dollar buys you more square footage.

A "60's lifestyle" means you'd also need to cut down on electricity use. The easiest way to envision this is to downsize everything by 2/3 - smaller and fewer appliances, turned off when not in use (not in "standby"), and a smaller house requiring less lighting. The number of electric appliances the average household had in 1960:
  • refrigerator
  • stove
  • telephone (1)
  • vacuum cleaner
  • washing machine
  • iron, blender, toaster, electric frying pan
  • 1 black and white TV
Large appliances cost about $1,500 each (in today's dollars) and a large TV would cost $3,000. There were no microwave ovens. Businesses were just starting to use computers. People did not own leaf-blowers, sit-on lawn mowers, or pressure washers. Not to mention recreational power toys such as jet-skis or ATVs. Automobiles were inefficient by today's (car, not truck) standards, and most households and 1 or two only. Workers car-pooled much more frequently than they do today.

Back in the 60's, there were no smartphones and laptops. Modern telecommunications (read: data transfer via internet) use quite a bit of power - about as much as the home lighting sector in 1960. The energy used is used mostly by the server farms that deliver your data, not by your device itself (which is measured by its battery life). And since those server farms are not usually located in BC, we are using "fossil fuel electricity" remotely - and so can't get a free pass by claiming our electricity is green. Obviously, getting rid of this industry is unthinkable, so we would have to reduce in other areas instead, if energy use is capped in some way - so yes, the appliance list is relevant to us here in BC, as well. Are you willing to pare down to this level?

The biggest difference between living a 1960's lifestyle then and now, though, is the feeling of optimism that abounded. The 60's were a period of increasing economic affluence. People saw their disposable income rise by about 35% over the decade, and our society learned to equate material possessions with happiness. Everyone now knows what "retail therapy" means, and we all indulge every once in a while. The idea that one's children will be better off than oneself is ingrained now (after 3-4 generations of constant economic growth) and it is not so easy to imagine an alternative.It is not the same today. Living a 60's lifestyle today is an exercise is saying "no".

A lifestyle that means less (quite a bit less, judging by the list above) is not going to find many volunteers.

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