I’ve recently been looking at the “conservation” issue from a different angle, as a follow-up to the idea of Survivalists and Suburbanites.
Let’s start by considering conservation of water. Here on the Front Range in Colorado, we live in an area prone to periodic drought. As the globe warms, drought will probably deepen and become more frequent. It makes obvious sense to conserve water, right?
So people immediately jump to the conclusion that, since “every little bit helps,” we should each put a brick in our toilets to reduce the amount of water we use with each flush. They even get angry with people who don’t follow this common-sense advice.
This is a perfect example of how not to conserve water. Let’s look at it in a bit more detail.
First, putting a brick in your toilet simply doesn’t work. To understand why, you need to understand that a modern flush toilet is a self-starting siphon. When you flush, you dump water into the bowl from the holding tank. You see the water in the bowl rise, but what you don’t see is that the water is also rising in the pipe directly behind the bowl. Once that rear pipe spills over into the outflow pipe, the water forms an air-tight siphon that sucks the contents of the bowl — water and anything else you are flushing — out the back and down into the outflow. When the bowl empties, you hear it gurgle as the airtight seal breaks; the siphon sucks air, and the flush is over.
If you don’t supply enough water for the full flush, the siphon doesn’t run clear before it breaks. Instead, you get a partial flush, and then “stuff” washes back into the bowl — or it floats in the pipe behind the bowl until the next time you flush, gradually fouling the water.
Ever see the brown sludge in the toilet bowl the next morning? Or that stray piece of toilet paper? That’s where it came from: something was floating in the pipe behind the bowl.
Yes, that’s gross. It’s why you want to supply enough water for a complete flush.
So how much water is “enough?” Well, that’s a number that’s designed into the toilet itself, cast in porcelain in the shape of the pipe behind the bowl.
The way you conserve water when flushing your toilet is to replace the toilet.
If you put a brick in the toilet, you’re likely to end up flushing two or three times, because the bowl just won’t clear. Instead of saving a cup of water on every three-gallon flush like you intended, you end up wasting gallons on every use because you have to flush several times.
So the first problem with this common-sense water conservation advice is that it doesn’t work: instead of conserving water, it wastes water.
Then we hit the second problem, which is far more significant: eighty-three percent of the water in our drought-prone area is used by agriculture. It has absolutely nothing to do with us toilet-flushers.
If we were to completely shut down all water use in the towns and cities — factories, public swimming pools, restaurants, city fountains, drinking fountains, suburban lawns, and every bit of indoor plumbing including toilets — we’d conserve only seventeen percent of the water we use in this one county.
What they classify as “domestic use” accounts for only seven percent, not seventeen, and that includes showers, laundry, dishwashing, brushing your teeth, washing the car on Saturday, and your wasteful suburban lawn and flower bed. Home toilets account for only a tiny, tiny fraction of domestic use. So if everyone in every town in our county switched to composting toilets, eliminating all flushing entirely, we’d save — maybe — a fraction of a percent on our overall county water usage.
This illustrates the second problem with common-sense water conservation: even if it works, the impact is negligible.
A third failing is that few “commonsense conservationists” take seriously (though they often talk about) the fact that everything is connected. When we reduce use of one resource, we almost never simply change our lives to accommodate the loss; instead, we put a greater burden on some other resource.
It’s the dreaded “paper or plastic” question at the supermarket: kill a tree, or suffocate a seagull? Or we can bring our own reusable bags and sidestep the question. But then we forget to bring our bags, and the question becomes, “paper, or plastic, or two trips to the store?”
Even reuse carries a cost. Paper and plastic bags are designed to be thrown away after one use. You might be able to get two or three uses out of them, but then they start to fall apart. You can purchase sturdier bags intended for reuse, but those bags aren’t free: they require substantially more resources to make than throwaway plastic bags, as reflected in the price. Say that a plastic bag costs a nickel, and a reusable bag costs two dollars, and let’s assume just for the sake of discussion that these are fair prices that reflect the cost that goes into making and disposing of the bags. That means you have to use the sturdier bag forty times to break even.
Even the reusable bags wear out eventually. If they last more than forty uses, they conserve resources. If they last only thirty uses before you lose or replace them, then you are actually wasting resources by reusing your reusable bags.
It’s always a matter of weighing short-term and long-term costs, because nothing is free.
Electric cars are another good example. Sure, a battery-powered car doesn’t use gasoline. But it does use electricity. That electricity comes from a generator, and unless you are lucky enough to live near a dam, or unlucky enough to live near a nuclear power plant, that electricity probably comes from burning coal, oil, or natural gas. How much fuel do they have to burn to generate the electricity you put in your electric car batteries? Conservation of energy is a bitch: you’ll burn roughly the same amount of coal, oil, or natural gas to power your car whether you burn it in your engine, or have it shipped to you as “clean” electricity.
So the third failure of common-sense conservation is that it often consists of bad accounting: sweeping our habits of waste off the floor, where it’s visible, under the rug, where it is invisible. The problem is that eventually there’s a mound under the rug that we trip over and break our collective neck.
So “common-sense” conservation often
- doesn’t work, for subtle reasons,
- has insignificant impact, whether it works or not, and
- “solves” a problem through misdirection and bad accounting.
In a world economy utterly dedicated to waste-for-profit, figuring out how to properly conserve resources is difficult. It’s beyond my knowledge. But when we turn to “experts,” we find that we can’t trust the corporate propagandists who are paid to promote waste, and we also know that anything from the government is such an unholy mix of truth, lies, and pure stupidity that trying to sort it out is hopeless.
So what to do?
I have a kind of radical suggestion, here. It’s simply this: things actually sort themselves out.
Go back to that flush toilet. Some would say, “How wasteful of water!” And they would be absolutely right. So why do we do it? Well, does it make sense to waste a little water to prevent epidemics of cholera in a city, even during a severe drought?
Is that even a question? Doh.
When you think about it, the flush toilet isn’t wasteful (especially when it is full of waste). It’s a fraction of a percent of the water we use in this county, yet it reduces the expense and public health risks of improperly-maintained septic tanks or composting toilets, and it’s a whole world of difference from the open sewers of early cities. When you place flush toilets into the full ecological picture of a city, they are one of the single most beneficial, most efficient uses of water that we could imagine making.
The full ecological balance of a city, or a suburb, or a village, or a forest, or a pond, is a lot more complex than anyone wants to believe. I was just reading in Science News how the late 1940’s brought in massive urban planning initiatives that, in retrospect, were completely wrong-headed. Where implemented, they did more harm than good. They’ve found that organic city design — the random, hodgepodge mix of residences, businesses, industries, and government buildings — works out much better.
Things sort themselves out.
It’s rare that naturalists will look at the way a beaver constructs a dam, or a finch constructs a nest, and proclaim, “How wasteful! How ugly! These beavers (finches) are idiots!”
Yet there’s a conceit in the world of conservation to look at a human suburb and say, “How wasteful! How ugly! These humans are idiots!” It may be true that humans are congenital idiots, but I’m not sure the artifacts they construct demonstrate that. Our artifacts actually tend to be pretty clever, including our suburbs.
In the local ecologies of people — the full ecologies — things work themselves out. We don’t usually understand the reasons all the various knobs have been set to where they are, but there’s always a reason.