Plus: How the hell does anyone keep veggies from going bad? And, should I make my rental apartment more efficient?
Welcome to Temp Check, Mic’s new climate advice column. The news about climate change can be extremely overwhelming, we know, so we enlisted Devi Lockwood, author of 1,001 Voices on Climate Change: Everyday Stories of Flood, Fire, Drought, and Displacement from Around the World, to help. She’ll be part ethicist, part knowledgeable friend, here to guide you as we all try our best to prevent a climate apocalypse. Read on for this week’s advice, and then submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Temp Check: My friend recently received a $50,000 inheritance from his grandparents, and he’s decided to use part of this money to purchase a Tesla. He’s been driving the same used Toyota for the last 10 years, and he definitely could use a new car. He lives in the Los Angeles area, where there are lots of Teslas and lots of places to plug in, so the purchase makes sense. And I'm very glad he’s choosing an electric car.
But Tesla, and Elon Musk’s general vision for society, is ethically fraught for me. Its self-driving program, which my friend is thinking of getting, is untested and dangerous. I blame the company for chasing shareholder profit over user safety. Does the fact that Teslas are fully electric vehicles — and popular ones at that! — overshadow the shady practices of the company that makes them? Would my friend be better off getting an electric car from a different manufacturer? Should I try to talk to him about issues with Teslas, or should I stay out of it?
It’s true, electric cars are not all created equal. Each year, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy ranks the greenest cars on the market, compiled from a study of over 1,000 models. This year, Teslas didn’t even make the top five; those spots went to the Hyundai Ioniq Electric, Mini Cooper SE Hardtop 2 Door, Toyota Prius Prime, BMW i3s, and Nissan Leaf.
A Tesla doesn’t grace the list until number nine. Your friend, if he chose any of those non-Elon Musk-hyped models, would also save tens of thousands of dollars: The Tesla Model 3, the company’s cheapest offering, starts at just under $40,000. The new Nissan Leaf, by contrast, just lowered its base price to start at $27,400. One could argue that leftover money would be better spent on other climate projects than on fattening Musk’s already rotund wallet.
Now, it’s important to recognize that the decisions that people make about cars can be as much about sexiness and design as they are about functionality, so your friend may be unswayed. Maybe he wants the coolness credits alone. But it does seem prudent to, at the very least, start a conversation with him about safety. Tesla’s fully self-driving system relies solely on cameras. I wouldn’t want to hop in the passenger seat of a self-driving Tesla anytime soon; the potential for collisions with cyclists is enough to make my skin crawl. You are well within your right to be concerned.
You might ask your friend how he imagines using Tesla's self-driving system, and what he thinks about recent Autopilot crashes. And if he had an extra $10,000 or $20,000 to spend on updating his home for energy efficiency, adding solar panels, or donating to a local environmental justice organization, would he do it? And wouldn’t those actions, considered together, be a more impactful and environmentally friendly way to spend his money, rather than lining the pockets of a man who wants to colonize Mars?
Ultimately, the decision is his own. But offering a few other well-researched options and bringing up your concerns shows at least that you care.
Dear Temp Check: I see so many discussions about energy-saving in homes that assume we're all living in nice, new buildings with nice, new appliances. Or that we have the money or ability to make upgrades to drafty doors or windows. But what can someone like me, who rents an apartment in an old building — with appliances that are like 50 years old and has huge gaps under my doors — do to make my place more energy-efficient? Is there anything worth doing that is also actually doable?
Tenant Who’s Trying
There are loads of small things you can do in your living space to make it more energy-efficient, even as a renter. A few ideas to get you started:
Tackle drafty doors and windows. For gaps under doors, you can purchase fabric draft stoppers or a door sweep. In the winter, consider covering your windows with either bubble wrap or plastic wrap. To use the bubble wrap method, spray the window with water from a spray bottle, and stick the bubbles of the bubble wrap to the window. This is, perhaps, not glamorous, but keeping the hot air inside can save you a ton on energy bills, and the light coming in will feel very avant-garde. Or, you could go full night mode and get insulated drapes, cellular blinds, or blackout curtains, each of which you can bring with you to your next apartment.
On the water side of things, I’d suggest replacing your shower head with a low-flow alternative. Be sure to save the old one so that you can bring the low-flow version with you when you move. Also, chances are your apartment has an old toilet that wastes several gallons of water per flush. To counteract this, you can make or buy a toilet tank bank, which makes the size of your toilet’s water reservoir functionally smaller. You can also use a brick or a jug filled with water.
Let’s talk about laundry. If you’re not doing it already, start washing your clothes in cold water. Keep the lint trap clean, make sure you’re washing full loads, and air dry your clothes — it’s a common thing in many parts of the world, and as a bonus, it makes your clothes last longer! I’m partial to this foldable drying rack from Ikea, though other options exist that make use of clips or dryer hanger hooks. Or, better yet, avoid buying something new and use the hangers that you already have to hang your clothes around the house as they dry.
Other fun hacks: Humidity can make your apartment feel warmer in the winter, so try growing some plants inside. If you’re cold at night, use an electric blanket or a hot water bottle rather than turning up the heat. Replace the bulbs in your apartment with compact fluorescents. Unplug the coffee maker, toaster, and electric kettle when they’re not in use. And try setting a shower timer to take shorter showers. Each of these things is small on its own, but together they can really add up.
Lastly, remember that tackling the climate crisis is not only about individual action. We need companies and governments to ramp up the action, and to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Thinking that we can get to net zero emissions by using reusable straws or recycling is a fast track to despair. Yes, the things I mentioned above can save you money and add some peace of mind that you’re doing your part, but if you’re feeling freaked out at the prospect of a changing climate, your time can be one of the most important things you can offer. Consider volunteering with a local environmental justice organization, a divest campaign in your area, or for a local politician who is committed to addressing climate change. Any action that you take will be compounded if you do it alongside others.
Dear Temp Check: I have been trying to eat less meat, but in doing so I have also been struggling with food waste. It feels like I end up throwing away produce more than I ever did with meat. I can buy vegetables in smaller quantities, but then I end up making more frequent trips to the store. I know that ditching meat is helping to shrink my carbon footprint, but I worry that I'm negating that by contributing more food waste and driving more. How can I get more mileage out of my produce and feel less wasteful? And how do I get out of my head doing this environmental impact math and just focus on enjoying all these damn veggies I bought?
Admitting that you’re wasting food is a great start. The freezer will be your friend here. You can freeze greens that are starting to wilt and chop extra fruit to incorporate it later into smoothies. If you make too much food, you can also freeze leftovers and reheat them when you don’t feel like cooking. An excess of fresh herbs can be frozen in an ice cube tray for future recipes. (I love to make veggie stock from vegetable scraps.)
Composting is also a great option. The exact method available to you will, of course, depending on where you live. Some cities and towns have drop-off or curbside programs that will do the hard work for you — all you have to do is keep the food waste in one place (the freezer can be great because it won’t smell) and then get it to a pick-up location. Rinse the container each time you empty it so that it doesn’t get too funky. If you have the outdoor space and the inclination to give it a shot, you can try an on-ground composter or tumbler. If you’re in a small apartment, there are odorless at-home options that exist, too, using materials as small and accessible as a cardboard box. This guide will help you decide what system might be right for you.
Also, have you tried fermentation and pickling? It’s a fun project and super satisfying. I have a friend who pickles everything from cucumbers and asparagus to carrots and eggs, and his kitchen is more delicious for it. The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz could provide some inspiration.
Lastly, meal planning is key. As you get to know the recipes you love, adjust the quantity of food you buy at each trip to make sure that there’s not an excess of veggies. And get creative with what you have in your fridge! I really enjoy Mollie Katzen’s recipes, because they are great at incorporating fridge and pantry staples. When I’m at the end of my grocery haul, I turn to a simple pasta beefed up with stir-fried vegetables and tomato sauce to make sure I use up all my odds and ends. I’m also a huge fan of eating last night’s meal as the next day’s lunch, either in a wrap, on top of a leafy salad, or on its own. If you’re ever feeling out of inspiration, websites like Foodcombo, Supercook, and MyFridgeFood can generate recipe ideas for you based on the ingredients you have on hand.
This perhaps goes without saying, but a great way to use up extra food can be to invite friends over for dinner. Many mouths make excess food go away! During the pandemic, this has been harder to do, but there are ways to get creative. You could host a bimonthly picnic with friends where you encourage people to bring a plus-one. The theme of the menu: Use up everything in the fridge. Once it’s safe to have people gather inside again, your anti-food-waste dinner party will be the talk of the town.
I also love parties with a theme. When I lived in Boston, I was invited to a party that happened once a month called SOOP, or Stories of Our People. The ticket to get in was a vegetable or a loaf of bread. While people were mingling, a few designated cooks would chop up the veggies that people brought to cook a gigantic pot of soup. Then, while the soup was simmering, people would share stories on themes like loss, birth, or — why not? — climate justice. Then, at the end of the night, we ate the soup together before going home. Something about the act of gathering together to share food is magic. And any conversation about climate change, or intervention into climate silence, will help get us in the direction we need to go.