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“Where the Rubber Meets the Road in Sustainability”

My first blog, this is cool.  I am sharing this bi-monthly blog with our Sustainability Coordinator, Michelle Comeau.  Once a month she’ll write about what’s going on with sustainability and environmental initiatives on the Franklin Pierce campus.  I’m going to take a more personal look at how I try to live and work “sustainably”.

One of the biggest environmental catastrophes in the history of the U.S. unfolded this summer:  The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  One day, while driving, I listened to a news report about the spill, and my heart sank as I heard about the latest failed attempt to plug the well.  I asked myself, “What can I do to help this situation?”

Well, I was DRIVING at the time.  Oil. Refined into gas.  Filling my gas tank.  Spewing greenhouse gases into the air.  The connection was obvious.  I needed to help reduce our need for oil.

In graduate school I met a fellow student who, upon seeing an oil spill firsthand, committed not to drive in a car and not to talk, in order to gain attention to the problem.  He took a vow of silence, and didn’t speak or ride in any gas-fired vehicle for over 20 years.  Unfortunately, I am not that bold (although I think my colleagues and students might appreciate a little silence from me!).  In our house my husband, Rob, has installed a highly efficient, clean, wood-gasification boiler, so we already had reduced the amount of oil we need to burn for heating, especially in winter.

But, this summer, I was due to make a big, big decision about how to decrease my use of oil:  I needed to buy a new car.

Transportation is one of the biggest sources of air pollution, and can be the largest component of our personal ecological footprint.  The “ecological footprint” measures how much land, water, air and other resources we need to provide the food, furniture, clothes, gadgets we use, and to absorb our waste. The average American needs 24 acres of resources to support her lifestyle.  (But if all 6.7 billion people on the planet used 24 acres, then there isn’t enough earth to go around – we’d need more than 5 planets to provide everyone on earth with all the material, food and water they need to live like we do!).   Cars and trucks, and the gas we need to keep them running, accounts for about 1/3 of the total energy footprint in the U.S.  Ten percent of my ecological footprint is due to my driving.

I had already done one of the most important things I could do, which was to keep my car running for about as long as I could.  My 1997 Honda Accord wagon got good gas mileage – 30 miles per gallon – for an old car, but after 193,000 miles, it was starting to nickel-and-dime me to death.  In spring, I spent about $500 every other week for about six weeks fixing different parts, and I was starting to lose interest in this car!  Then we hit a deer one night, denting the hood and breaking the parking light (the deer survived the crash and ran off, but I don’t think she felt very good that night).  Now the car was worth almost less than it cost to fix the damage; it was time for a new car.

What do most people look for in a new car?  As I visited different car lots, and checked out various makes and models of automobiles, it quickly became apparent that not many people care much about gas mileage.  Whether it is Lexus or a Kia, few cars get better than 25 miles per gallon, and the luxury cars are the worst.

All I wanted was a small, four-door wagon, that’s safe for my family.  So I looked at Volvos, Hondas, Toyota, Subaru, you know them all.  Lots of cool looking little wagons to choose from.  I especially liked the Saab wagon.  But if I eliminated all cars that got less than 30 mpg, quickly my choices narrowed down to the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight, Mazda 3, Nissan Versa, the Honda Fit and a few others.

The Prius and the Insight are hybrid gas-electric cars, which post mileages between 40-60 mpg.  The gas-electric car has batteries which are recharged whenever the driver steps on the brakes.  To own a Prius these days makes a social statement: I CARE about the environment.

So I wanted to buy a Prius.  But Rob, who is a mechanical engineer and my auto mechanic, disapproved:  He considers the hybrid design a real mess, which will not last into the future.  Plus they are more expensive.  And they are hard to fix, requiring special training.  And the Prius just didn’t have the trunk space we needed for hiking, camping, climbing gear, etc.

What about a purely electric car?  Not needing any gas at all, just electricity?

Well, that would certainly use less gas, and thus require less oil to be drilled and refined.  But if the electricity is generated by burning coal, as it is in much of the world (17% of the electricity in NH comes from coal) then you are still creating pollution.  And the electric cars can’t go very far without needing to be recharged: From 20-50 miles, depending on the specific model.  What I’d really like is an electric car that was recharged from photovoltaic (solar) panels.

So that left me really with only a few choices.  Nissan, Mazda, Honda.  Consumer Reports rated the Honda Fit as the safest, best driving, most reliable.  So that’s what I bought.  “It’s like a sewing machine with wheels!”, Rob noted when he saw the subcompact wagon.  But it’s comfy and has lots of room inside, and it is zippy and fun to drive.  My brother, who drives a GMC Yukon, which is an SUV that is so big I can practically fit my Fit into the back of it, says he wouldn’t feel safe driving such a small car on the big interstates of urban Florida where he lives.  I don’t blame him, it is a little car when compared with the big American cars that fly around on the superhighways of Miami.  But why do so many people need those big tanks?

But for me, here in rural New Hampshire, the Honda Fit fits fine.  And it lets me “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” of living sustainably.  Although I really should JUST walk, and not drive at all…

Catherine Owen Koning, Prof. of Environmental Science
Pierce Arrow Blogger

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