My Amazing Urban Dwelling Enviro Daughters

By Cam Mather

Sometimes after doing a talk or writing a blog I receive a comment along the lines of  “I really want to live off-grid … you are such a good environmentalist!” While I love to hear this, the reality is that anyone who is living off the grid isn’t necessarily having a net positive effect on the planet.

One of the biggest reasons is transportation. Most off-gridders live in the country and therefore drive – a lot – way more than many urban dwellers. It just seems to be the way it is. While Michelle and I try and minimize our trips to the city, and we make sure to combine all of our errands for one big trip, we’re still 45 minutes from the nearest big city. Luckily we are only 10 minutes from Tamworth where there is a grocery store, hardware store, post office, bakery, 4 restaurants, bank, hockey arena, medical office, and liquor store… all the essentials in other words. So our trips to Kingston are few and far between, and often triggered by a craving for curry at our favourite Indian restaurant.

We are increasing the number of trips to Tamworth that we take on the bike, either the electric-solar-powered bike or the human-powered one, but if we have a couple of big boxes of books to ship, we tend to default to driving our Honda Civic.

My daughters, on the other hand, live in Toronto and do not own cars. Toronto has an exceptional transit system and that’s how they get around. When they come home to visit us here they take the train or bus. I am really proud of my daughters for using public transit to get around.

Recent research actually shows that urban dwellers are healthier than rural dwellers because of how much walking they do. Often transit stops are 5 or more blocks apart and sometimes even if a city person needs to go 10 or 20 blocks they will choose to walk it. In the country, no matter how short the distance, people tend to drive. Country people substitute fossil fuel energy more and more for human power. You rarely see a gas powered push mower anymore, regardless of the size of the lawn, because people love to ride on their lawn mowers. I understand this since driving around on a ride-on lawn mower can satisfy your inner farmer fantasy, but it uses a whack of gas. Here in the bush I’m surrounded by hunt camps. The men who come to hunt in the camps used to drive to the camp, and then walk all through the woods to do their hunting. Now they all seem to own big honkin’ pickup trucks that they use to haul their ATVs to the camp, and then they drive the ATVs out to where they hunt. Then they sit around and play poker and drink beer all night. I think people were healthier when they walked.

The other reality of living off grid is that most people shift their largest energy needs, their “thermal” or “heat” loads, to propane. So they move off-grid and onto propane. They use it for cooking, for heating, and for heating hot water. Some people even use propane fridges to avoid electric loads. If you moved off-grid for environmental reasons, this is the wrong thing to do. Propane is delivered to you in a truck. It comes from the refining of a barrel of crude oil (that’s right, the stuff that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico) or from the production of natural gas. It is sequestered carbon that was stored safely in the ground, and when you burn it you release that carbon to the atmosphere.

So if you chose to be “off-grid” to be green, shifting all your thermal loads to propane is cheating. In the latest edition of “The Renewable Energy Handbook”, William “Bill” Kemp has taken his off-grid home “off propane”.

I would suggest that if you live in a city there’s a good chance you are doing very well in terms of your carbon footprint versus many off-gridders. In fact, if you live near a nuclear plant and cook with electric, you are putting far less carbon into the atmosphere than a propane cooking off-gridder. I won’t get into the reality of nuclear power and its waste today – this is just for a simple comparison.

If you live in a city and live in an apartment you are probably the model of environmental living. From a heating perspective, 3 of your 4 walls are inside walls, so you don’t have all the heat loss you get in a detached home. Even a town house with houses on both sides is better than a detached home. My daughters live in an apartment, walk many places and take transit for the rest. They are exceptional environmentalists, even though they don’t go around bragging about it. I’m happy to do that for them. I am very proud of them.

I have provided this perspective because many of the comments that I get about the blog these days comes from urban dwellers, many of whom seem determined to get to the country. I understand that sentiment and it’s how I ended up living 3 miles from my nearest neighbor. I am also realistic about the challenges it poses in terms of carbon output and how much harder I have to work to keep it low. I have to spend lots of money on solar panels to offset my propane use. I have to eat a whack of granola for energy to cycle the 16 miles (26 kilometers) to get to town and back when I’m craving a donut from the bakery. I’ll bet it’s way easier for you if you live in the city, not that any of us should be eating donuts.

It doesn’t matter where you live though, everything you can do helps and there’s no reason to just keep dreaming about your move to the country. Install a geothermal heating system. Put up solar panels for hot water first, and electricity later. And if the new owners don’t see the value in them, take them with you to your dream home in the country.

“Vintage” photos of city life are from Art Explosion by Nova Corp.

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One Response to “My Amazing Urban Dwelling Enviro Daughters”

  • Thought provoking blog. As someone who recently moved from a condo in the Bay Area to rural Oregon, I have some additional thoughts.

    True, living in areas of more population density uses less energy for heating and transportation, but there’s a big factor unmentioned here: food production ability. One of our primary reasons for moving to the country was to be able to have a huge garden, chickens, and cows. True, many country dwellers still buy all of their inputs from the grocery store, but a few acres allows you to do what is impossible for the typical apartment dweller: own the means of food production.

    I’m all for using less energy whenever possible, but I think that the repeated focus on carbon output has overshadowed huge issues like the steady erosion of our topsoil and the destructive practices of Monsanto and the other industrial Ag giants. Living in a city means that food is shipped into the city from outside. There is a high energy cost associated with this distribution infrastructure. The city inevitably gives birth to centralized distribution systems and large production facilities. Economy of scale wins when people want food as cheap as possible.

    Another cost is the power gained by those who own the means of production and distribution. Monsanto wouldn’t be able to do what it does if people didn’t buy their products.

    True, I do drive more now. I’m not saying that country dwelling is better or worse than city dwelling, and I understand that there will always be both. But I know that my cows and chickens are building my topsoil rather than depleting it. True, the responsible shopper can take steps towards this goal whether in the city or the country, but it’s a whole lot easier when you own the means of production.

    Every time I drive past the local dairy, the smell of the manure pool and the sight of hundreds of cows standing in cement stalls reminds me of the danger of distancing ourselves from our food origins. Not enough city people are aware of the disconnect.

    Decentralizing the means of production could just be the solution to most of our current crises. Whether it’s solar panels on your roof, growing produce in the backyard, or practicing rotational grazing with a couple of family cows, direct ownership allows for a mindfulness and stewardship not possible when we hand the reigns over to another entity.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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