Adjusting to less oil

By now, even the mainstream press is starting to talk about “peak oil” and what we are going to do when petroleum is no longer cheap…or, perhaps, not available at all. I don’t know when this is going to happen, but I’m betting that it happens within my lifetime. I expect energy shortages and $10/gallon gas probably before my husband’s student loans are paid off. The ripples we’re seeing of higher gas prices, higher food prices, and more energy worries might calm down a bit, but then they’ll be back with a vengeance. And then they’ll never go away. So we’re going to have to adapt.

There are lots of sites out there talking about what needs to happen to prevent environmental collapse, to prepare for the end of an oil-based economy, and to become self-sufficient for times when there won’t be anyone else to rely on. They are inspiring, and not far off base, but they can be terrifying, frankly, and I have to quit reading them periodically to prevent myself from getting panicky and depressed.

I will say, though, that every single day I do something to move myself and my household toward a more sustainable future. Some of the things are small, and some are large.

The list of things I do every single day:

  • Ask myself if I really need to make this car trip now, or if it could wait until I have to be out next (e.g., could I stop at the store on the way home from work tomorrow)
  • Eat local foods from sources I’ve identified
  • Eat seasonally, even if the seasonal produce is from California. I’m training our tastes to get used to six months a year of squash and potatoes, which is no trivial thing.
  • Choose vegan food when the meat/egg/dairy options come from factory farms (unless there isn’t a viable vegan choice)
  • Keep the thermostat at 65 in the winter (55 when we’re gone for more than 3 hours; 60 at night). This winter, now that the fireplace is working, we’ll drop that much lower and try to heat only the rooms we’re using. In the summer, keep the thermostat at 79. (So far, we’ve just kept the a/c off this year; it’s never been too hot and humid to sleep well.)
  • Light only one lamp and one nightlight at a time in the house – except for the few moments I might be in the bathroom or the kitchen while my sweetie is still in the living room
  • “Save-a-flush” – especially for those “I guess I didn’t really hafta go as much as I thought” times
  • Keep my showers under 5 minutes
  • Exercise – my goal is to be able to ride my bike to work by the end of the summer

There’s a balance, though. It’s hard to tell when to sweat the small stuff and when not to. I try to spend more energy on the big stuff – decisions and expenditures I can make once and forget about them. Things on this list include:

  • Turning the water heater down to 125 degrees (free!)
  • Insulating the attic
  • Fixing the fireplace with a fuel-efficient, less-polluting insert
  • Installing rain barrels
  • Installing a pergola to shade the big front windows in the summer
  • Soon: Insulating the house walls

Other things we might do, but probably not really soon:

  • Divert graywater from the shower to the garden
  • Replace windows with less-drafty models (for the moment, thermal plastic is working fine)
  • I also intend to do more to develop the local food economy. It’s going slowly, but I’m making contacts and helping spread the word as I learn about local businesses, especially those that help get food from the farm to the table.

There are a few big, obvious things I could change to use less oil or otherwise “tread lightly on the earth,” but am choosing not to do them, for a host of reasons. Selling our house and car and moving into the city is chief among these. It’s a squishy-soft housing market, housing in town is really expensive and…I love my house. And my garden. And the quiet. So we reduce car trips and grow food and learn to ride bikes longer distances.

This sounds like a lot, I know. But it’s really not – this effort has been spread over many years. You just do a little at a time and one day you look back and say, “Yeah, this is looking pretty good.” It isn’t that onerous, either. I don’t feel like a parsimonious shrew running around turning off lights. We don’t feel deprived if we don’t run to the store to pick up one ingredient for dinner. It feels like a really good accomplishment to trim wasted energy – the same kind of glow you get when you clean out a drawer full of junk or weed an overgrown garden bed. Except then your bills go down and you have more money when you’re done. 🙂



  1. Jen in MI said,

    July 14, 2008 at 9:18 am

    Actually, this is something I’ve been working on for months, too. We’re trying to figure out the car thing – we just can’t afford to replace cars right now. Same deal with the house, for the reasons you cited. We already have plans, though, to sell once C is off to college (which will be in four years) and move to a condo downtown. I’m looking forward to walking everywhere.

  2. TeacherPatti said,

    July 14, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Same here…if you figure out the greywater, please let me know! I want to do a root cellar in my basement…it’s one of my summer goals.

    I’d love to have solar panels, but we’ll never be able to afford them. Ditto a hybrid car….

  3. Emily said,

    July 14, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    I’m glad to know we’re not alone! Patti – about the solar panels. Read this: Basically…to use solar panels, you really want to get your electrical usage way down first. That you can do without paying for solar panels! Then I had this idea that maybe we could get a portable system to charge a couple batteries to run…a fan, maybe? The blower on the fireplace? Just one or two absolutely critical things that we can’t run any other way if all the rest of the power went out. (I’m assuming we’ll make a huge adjustment to live w/o fridge if it came down to a situation where you couldn’t count on the power always being on.)

  4. Anonymous said,

    April 18, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    I believe it is Sundanzer that has a muy expensive (upwards of a grand) superinsulated fridge that runs directly off solar panels with no inverter or batteries. And it doesn’t take much of an array to run it, either, if I remember correctly.

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