March 22, 2011
My First Blog
The About tab talks about why I am blogging here and how it was inspired by the reaction to my TED talk posted in October 2011. Within a few days of my TED talk going “live” on the TED website, I received hundreds of great comments and questions via the TED website, from the other 50+ websites that picked up the talk and hosted it, via direct contact to my company website and through various social media channels such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. I was overwhelmed and the number grew to what appears to be over 1,000 in a few months. Many of the comments, questions and offers of assistance fell into a few categories so I addressed them by category in a blog I put together at the suggestion of the TED team. That blog will soon be posted on the site with my talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_biddle.html
I also put together some ideas of what people could do as individuals because a number of the comments seemed to be more along these lines. The TED team and I agreed that these types of comments would be more appropriate on a private blog, so they will become my first blog on this site. Here goes:
What Can I Do?
Hundreds of people asked me this question and I think many believe that they have to do something dramatic to make a different. I happened leave a great job with a seemingly predictable and bright future and go down an uncertain path nearly 20 years ago because I wanted to “do more with less” and couldn’t figure out how to do it from the inside. I had to do it from the outside. While there were many dark and difficult days/weeks/months when I wondered if I had made a huge mistake, I can gratefully say now that it was the right decision.
But it doesn’t take building a new company to make a difference. I continue to be moved by how many people from all over the world and through so many different channels asked in one way or another: “What Can I Do? Below I give a very simple answer and try to provide just a few examples taken from my own family life because I strongly believe that it’s the small decisions we make every day that cumulatively add up to making big differences.
“Look in the Mirror”
I believe that the most valuable thing that each of us can do is to try our best every day to:
• Walk the Talk: live with a lighter footprint, and
• then Talk the Walk – spread the sustainability word to others
While I’m quite pleased to be able to thank my wife and kids by using them in a few examples below, my primary objective is to encourage those that take the time to read this blog to do the same and to offer additional examples and ideas to the rest of us about how we can all “do more with less”.
I have always believed that there are many things we can all do to lighten our load with little or no impact on our standard of living. In fact, I would argue that most of the habits I describe below have given our family a higher quality and respect of life.
These are just a few examples of habits we’ve developed related to two different areas: commuting and living at home:
• Biking to work. As an engineer, I think of it this way: does it make more sense for me to use a 20-pound vehicle to transport my 180 pounds of body and “stuff” (lunch, clothes, computer and other electronics) back and forth to work or should I use a 4,000 pound vehicle to do the same job? For most of the 30+ years of my working career, I have ridden my bike to work whenever I can. A few years ago when we moved too far away from our office for it to be practical for me to bike to work both ways, I bought a folding bike. I ride it to the train, fold it up for the train ride, unfold it at the other end and ride to my destination (work or home). It actually saves me time because I combine my commute with my cardio exercise for the day and because I usually work on my computer on the train. And more importantly, I arrive with a smile on my face and my brain and body wide awake. By the way, I can highly recommend Dahon folding bikes. I’m on my second one (first one was stolen) and have loved them both.
• Biking to Meetings: I live in the San Francisco Bay Area (East Bay). I often bike/train to business meetings in Palo Alto and San Francisco on the other side of the Bay. Not only do I enjoy the benefits noted above, I provide some encouragement to others to consider alternatives by visually “talking the walk”. Besides the time-saving noted above, I avoid the daily frustrations associated to traffic and parking and arrive with the blood flowing to my brain and “ready to engage”.
• Kids: Our two kids ride their bikes to school most days and when I’m able to ride with them on my way to the train station, I usually point out the long lines of vans and SUVs that we pass on our journey. Yes, they sometimes grumble when it’s cold in the mornings, like right now, but they usually arrive with the same big smiles on their faces, their brains and bodies warmed up and some of that nervous before-school energy burned off. Teachers actually thank us for this. We are trying to figure out schemes to encourage more of their classmates to do the same. I’ve threatened to put a sign on my back along the lines “this could be you instead of sitting in traffic”, but I’m not sure our 11-year old daughter and 7-year old son would still be willing to be seen with me.
• Our kids are also used to running small shopping or library errands with us on their bikes rather than burning the fuel and generating the pollution that our 2-ton cars require to move us a short distance and back. We put panniers (saddlebags) on our bikes and carry a small backpack and they become our shopping bags. And we arrive in a great mood after passing up traffic and parking right in front of the store or library. And if we are going to a sports practice, the commute also provides our warm-up.
• Cost savings: In addition to the obvious reduced fuel and maintenance expenditures we need to make on our two older cars, the low mileage also puts us in lower insurance premium ranges.
• One-way is no-way: I travel nearly everywhere I go with a metal water bottle and I see increasing numbers of people in meetings and on planes doing the same. Flight attendants are quite happy to fill these with water when they come by and I don’t have to worry about the person in the seat next to me or myself bumping my water onto my laptop computer – yes, it’s happened in the past.
Around the House
• I still turn the lights out on my wife and kids in the house when they leave a room and still at least once a week pull a recyclable out of our trash can. Yes, it’s a process, even with our family.
• I have to credit my daughter with teaching our family to turn-off the shower after getting soaked and while we are lathering up with soap, which I do even in hotels now. This saves both water and energy. And during cold months, we put a little rubber sheet over the shower drain to let the warm water conduct some of its heat and moisture to the bathroom (and our toes) before letting it go down the drain.
• By the way, I’d greatly appreciate it if any of you reading this can point me to ways to install brown-water systems in existing homes. There seem to be multiple challenges with this.
• We almost always hang dry our clothes (inside or outside) rather than using our clothes dryer. It’s a bit more work, but the clothes smell wonderful when dried outside and the energy savings are considerable (see next point). In fact, I just brought in a load from outside a little while ago.
• We set our thermostat in the winter to about 63oF/17oC during the day and 55oF/13oC at night. We wear sweaters and sweatshirts in the house in the winter and we have only used the air conditioner in the summer a few times (and it gets to 100oF/38oC, here). In the summer, we open windows in the evenings and use fans to pull in the cool night air. It’s a lot healthier as well to get this fresh air exchange.
• And besides helping the environment and conserving resources for future generations, there is a significant economic impact. We’ve often compared our energy bills to those of previous owners of our homes over the years and we almost always enjoy significant energy savings just from practicing these simple habits. And the actual cost savings can be magnified if your energy provider uses a steep tiered energy pricing structure like ours does in California. Perhaps a 20% lower energy usage could drop your energy bill by over 40% if you are in the high usage tier and drop entirely into a lower energy tier depending on the tiered pricing structure used by your utility provider. This system seems to have also encouraged more people to acquire solar energy systems because at a minimum, it moves them out of the highest rate tiers.
Full disclosure: My family and I are VERY far from perfect in trying to reduce our footprint, but the point is that we are trying. And we try to teach by example. My biggest single personal shortcoming: I haven’t figured out how to significantly reduce my CO2 “air-print” given that most of our recycling facilities are overseas. I spend a great deal of time on airplanes visiting our plants, suppliers, customers and spreading the word. So far I try to justify it by recycling more plastics to realize the huge CO2 and energy savings from that activity. See more on these two points (overseas plants and environmental impact of plastics and plastics recycling) in the TED blog. And, of course, communicating via the internet like I am doing here takes a much lower environmental toll, while, I hope, reaching more people, compared to making a speech at a meeting in another country.