Lessons in Sustainability, Compliments of Sandy

In the aftermath of the worst storm most of us have ever experienced, adopting a more sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle may take on a greater sense of urgency.

Generally speaking, the sustainability movement is a response to the understanding that resources we have long taken for granted – in particular, food, water and non-renewable energy sources – are not in endless supply. But it’s one thing to take “politically correct” steps to forge a brighter future. It’s a whole other thing to experience what life might be like without our most precious resources.

Now that many of us have had that experience, living for days or weeks without electricity, running water, phone service, television, Internet or easy access to gasoline, we may want to move plans for living more sustainably onto the front burner. Following are suggestions for 1) becoming more self-reliant in emergencies like Sandy; 2) strengthening our community ties; and 3) reducing our dependence on vulnerable “modern” resources.

1.    Create a layered emergency plan. That may sound extreme. But if you didn’t enjoy feeling like a character in a made-for-tv disaster movie in the days and weeks following Sandy, consider that a written plan of action could help you regain a sense of control. Your plan should identify your existing resources (for example, a gas stove or plenty of canned food) and list those you need to acquire. It also should include emergency numbers, evacuation plans, if necessary, and as many “Plan B’s” as possible. The latter could help you cope better when many of your backup systems disappear at once, just as they did after Sandy.

2.    Consider a generator. Owning one of these fuel-guzzling contraptions may be the closest we’ll get any time soon to independence from the grid. It’s not exactly a “green” solution. But if you lost power for more than a few days after Sandy, have experienced relatively frequent outages over the years and/or rely on well and septic systems, you may have concluded that “enough is enough.” There are a number of decisions to make before buying a generator, including size, fuel type and which resources you will back up (e.g., your refrigerator, well pump, heater). Your electrician should be able to help you make the best decision for your circumstances – and your budget. Once you have a generator, you’ll be able to take care of yourself, your loved ones and perhaps a few friends or family members in need. (Remember that you will need to obtain adequate fuel before you expect to use your generator. Also be aware of any safety issues.)

And if you don’t get a generator…

3. Have access to multiple sources of light and heat. Were you among the many folks searching desperately for C and D batteries in the days after Sandy? If you haven’t done so already, consider stocking your home now with LED lanterns, flashlights and whatever batteries they require. When the next storm is on the horizon, be sure to check that those batteries are working. If you have a wood burning stove or a fireplace, keep your wood piles high so you can rely on these alternatives for heat and perhaps even cooking. Also keep your grill’s propane tank full – and consider whether you have everything you need to cook a meal or two on an outdoor fire pit.

4. Eat non-perishably. Eating local, organic and whole food is very important. But when you can’t count on your refrigerator, non-perishable items like condiment packets and non-dairy creamers can look pretty good. It’s worth a trip down the supermarket aisles to identify all the foods you could stock in the pantry that wouldn’t go bad in a lengthy power outage. Horizon organic milk containers are one good example. But this also may be a good time to explore old-fashioned ways to prepare and store foods, such as “putting up” canned goods or creating your own root cellar.

For some good info on root cellars, check out this 2009 article from Mother Earth Living. It’s not new, but the information is timeless. http://www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/fresh-local-food-store-fresh-veggies-the-old-fashioned-way.aspx

5. Stay in touch. For a few dollars, you can pick up an old-fashioned telephone, the type without an answering machine. When the power goes out, simply unplug your regular land line and plug in Plain Jane. As long as the phone lines are working, you’ll be able to contact the power company to report your outage – and call your friends and family members who still have power. Remember that this won’t work if you’re getting phone service through your cable provider.

6. Strengthen personal networks. Those networks truly help sustain us during challenging times. After Sandy, many of us connected with friends in ad hoc ways to share a meal, the warmth of a fireplace or the occasional chainsaw. Before the memory of Sandy fades, consider organizing a friends’ pot-luck dinner to consider more organized ways to provide mutual support. That might involve creating phone trees, assigning responsibilities or listing resources that could be pooled and shared by the group, such as food, the old-fashioned phones mentioned above, extra batteries, flashlights and lanterns, a large supply of canned goods from the garden or (best of all) backup generators.

7. Reinforce your community’s response. Could your town’s leaders have done a better job communicating with residents during the crisis? Consider contacting your town hall or township office to suggest they set up an emergency suggestion box or town meeting. Perhaps your town could use neighborhood volunteers to assess needs, street by street. Or maybe some of the community’s more vulnerable residents – seniors, families with very young children or individuals with significant special needs – may want to request that someone reach out to them during a crisis to assess their need for assistance.

8. Reduce your carbon footprint. While no one person can stop global warming or its impact on our weather, Sandy should have reminded us of the need to reduce the amount of energy we consume. There are many ways to achieve this (enough for more than a few blog posts). You can start by becoming more conscious of your daily energy use and reducing it as much as possible. You can make a list of household tools and machines that require electricity and try to find non-electric alternatives, such as a carpet sweeper instead of a vacuum. Those non-electrified tools will not only help you reduce your use of energy, but also could come in handy the next time the power goes out! Finally, you can take advantage of utility deregulation to choose an energy supplier that produces renewables.

To learn more about switching to renewable energy providers:

In New Jersey: http://www.state.nj.us/bpu/commercial/shopping.html#nbr5.

In Pennsylvania: http://www.papowerswitch.com/shop-for-electricity.

Taking steps like those described here may help you survive the next storm a bit more comfortably, offer greater support to friends and neighbors and even work toward important forms of long-term change.

What will you do differently to become more self-sufficient now that you’ve lived through Sandy?