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Earth Balancing

Affording a Green Budget

by Elka Karl
illustration by Michael Wertz

IN MANY WAYS, we’re lucky that the environmental movement has recently been streamlined and slickified by the design mavens who’ve incorporated organic cotton and sustainably forested black locust into their designer denim and coffee tables. The labels “environmentally friendly,” “organic” and “sustainably grown” no longer strictly mentally associate with the long-haired hermits who abandoned our urban centers to live their mangy utopian dream in some backwoods holler. Instead, these labels now remind me of the products that actress Amy Smart advocated in her recent spread of über-consumerist Lucky magazine, or U2’s plan to mitigate the carbon emissions on their upcoming tour. In short, it’s become hipper to be green.

But it’s also become more expensive. If I want a sustainably grown coffee table, I’m going to pay more for it than for a table fashioned from clearcut old growth and exploited child labor. Inevitably, once a movement is embraced by the cool kids, its value and price is going to rise as well.

For years I’ve been unable to completely align my green ideals with my everyday buying habits. Finally, after years of poverty-level living (thanks to graduate school and a few years of volunteer service), I’ve gotten to the point where I can actually afford to put my money where my bleeding green heart is. But even after earning a very decent income last year, many of the big green purchases, such as a hybrid vehicle, are beyond my means.

But greening your lifestyle isn’t necessarily about the big-ticket items. It’s about the little choices you make every day, the things that are necessary to survival. With that in mind, I decided to break green spending down into the very basic categories of food, shelter and transportation, to take a closer look at where many of us can afford to green our lives, and where we’re still priced out of doing the right thing.


When I moved to Oakland in 1997, I was building organic gardens in the city’s public schools through AmeriCorps, the do-gooder Clinton program that allows white, college-educated kids to rub elbows, perhaps for the first time, with folks that don’t look like them. One of the people who didn’t look like me was Carmelita, a strikingly beautiful black woman who was 48 but looked 20 years younger. I adored her for her mama bear-like presence in our work group and her no-nonsense take on our project. “Organic food is bourgeois,” she declared upon our second day working together. “I wish it weren’t true, but it is. You know how hard it is for me to get any produce in my neighborhood [her neighborhood, dubbed “Hoochie Mama Row” by her daughter, is close to my current home], let alone organic? Let’s be serious. Organic is not in wide circulation for poor, urban black folks.”

In my liberal, rural, white way, I bristled at this statement, because I’d grown up just as poor, if not more so, than those urban black folks Carmelita was talking about, and I’d had a diet chockfull of organic produce. The key difference, though, is that poor rural folks have access to land, while poor urban folks do not. You can’t feed a family of five on the produce you can grow on your fire escape, but you sure can if you live in a falling-down house on one acre, which is exactly what my parents did.

Almost 10 years later, access to organic produce in urban centers, even those near Hoochie Mama Row, has improved. Since 1994, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture first published its National Directory of Farmers Markets, the number has nearly doubled to almost 4,000 weekly farmers markets across the country. Many of these markets accept food stamps, and my own neighborhood recently opened its first farmers market, to great success. But we still don’t have a decent grocery store within walking distance.

The fact remains that organic produce is often priced 20 to 25 percent higher than conventional produce. It’s often hard to justify spending more money on your food budget, especially when you’re saving extra cash for, say, a trip to SXSW or your weekly drinking binge. And prepackaged organic food is even more expensive, as is organic meat, cheese and milk. If you’re struggling with your budget, try to at least add organic produce that you can afford to your grocery list. Twenty percent of that dollar package of carrots only makes organic carrots twenty cents more expensive than the conventional ones, and the addition of organic produce to your budget is unlikely to bankrupt you (although it may force you to order one or two fewer PBRs over the weekend). And for those foodies out there, organic produce simply tastes better, looks prettier, and is almost always fresher. Though it is more expensive than non-organic food, it’s still one of the easiest, cheapest ways to green your lifestyle.


Unless you own your own home, there aren’t a lot of macro-level changes you can make in your home environment to really affect your living situation. You probably can’t add a grey-water system to your home to collect used shower and laundry water to irrigate your lawn. You can’t add PV panels to your rooftop. And you often won’t add more energy-efficient appliances, since your landlord is obligated to provide said appliances for you. However, if one of your appliances does crap out while you’re living at your home, urge your landlord to consider Energy Star products. These products are particularly attractive to landlords footing water or energy bills, since landlords will save money through these appliances’ increased water and energy efficiencies.

Even if you can’t replace appliances, you can still do plenty—and these changes won’t necessarily break the bank. The first thing I did when I moved into my house was paint the kitchen and bedroom with low-VOC paint— which is friendlier to the environment and to your health. You know that terrible paint smell? It smells that way because the volatile organic compounds swimming around in those pretty colors are royally screwing with the indoor air quality of your home, which can lead to immune system problems, asthma and other less than desirable consequences. Low-VOC paint doesn’t cost much more than regular paint, either: Prices are the same or only up to 10 percent higher than that of conventional paints.

I also switched out most of the house’s incandescent lightbulbs with CFLs, which last for years and actually save money in the long run. Other cheap changes included adding a water-saving device to the toilet (I simply stuck a brick in the tank), installing a low-flow showerhead, turning off lights in unoccupied rooms and only running laundry on a full load and air-drying clothes.

For the unmotivated out there, you can save enough money to buy a few kegs of beer annually by unplugging energy vampire appliances when they aren’t in use. Small appliances like DVD players, phone chargers, battery chargers and laptops have transformer-type power supplies that consume between 2 to 30 watts of electricity, even when the appliance is not in use. It’s estimated that these appliances consume over five percent of the total energy use in the country—when they’re essentially doing nothing. What does that mean for you? Hundreds of dollars a year in energy costs and the potential construction of more power plants to supply energy we don’t even need. So don’t put your laptop to “sleep,” power it down and unplug the bastard. Same with your cell phone, battery charger and the power strip that holds the plugs for your DVD player, microwave or toaster oven. Unless you pull the plug out of the wall or turn off the powerstrip, chances are you’re still draining electricity.


While my family might have had an advantage agriculturally by living in a rural environment, we were at a loss when it came to transportation. Most places were only accessible by car, and there was no public transit system of which to speak.

The hard but simple truth for all of us lazybones urbanites is that we can travel easily and cheaply by moving our bodies more. Walk. Ride your bike. Skateboard to the bar. My friend Phyllis used to ride her bike to and from work all year round—even through Minneapolis snowstorms in January. I’m not trying to pretend that it’s always fun, but transporting yourself via feet or bicycle guarantees you an endorphin high.

The big issue when it comes to transportation is the automobile. While I hate the idea of putting money into a vehicle when it could go into, say, a European bicycle vacation, I work at a bar in San Francisco a few nights each week, which means that options such as carsharing or going carless altogether are out of the question, since public transit via BART closes down at 12:30 every night. My 2001 Toyota Echo, which averages 38 mpg, is not the 47-mpg Prius that I really want—however, it is nearly $20,000 cheaper. And until the price of hybrids drops, I can’t afford to stick that much money into a vehicle.

To make up for this environmental faux pas, I offset carbon emissions through By calculating the car’s fuel efficiency and the number of miles driven, you are charged a fee that’s invested in renewable energy sources, such as wind or methane.

You can also offset your trips any time you fly through the same service. Flying contributes a huge amount of CO2 to the earth’s atmosphere (and thus exacerbates climate change), so when I flew to Norway I offset the 3,936 pounds of CO2 I produced with a renewable energy contribution. Don’t have the extra $10 to $40 to offset your trip? Then don’t fly at night or during the winter. University of Reading, UK scientist Nicola Stuber discovered that although night flights only comprise 25 percent of total flights worldwide, they contribute 80 percent of the warming effect from plane travel. The emissions from planes, which form artificial cirrus clouds, or contrails, also significantly add to warming during winter travel. So plan to travel in the summer and during the day, and fly with a slightly cleaner conscience.

Power to the Poor People

The bottom line is that unless you have wads of spare cash, you’re going to have to work a little harder to actually green your lifestyle, which is the way of the marginal in society in general. We work harder. We think longer about decisions. We travel in slower, more circuitous patterns. Recently, as I debated whether to bike to a matinee or drive, I stopped to consider what exactly I would be doing with the extra 15 minutes I’d save by driving. Puttering about on the Internet? Zoning out in front of an episode of Deadwood? Putting more gas in the car? And I realized that the time I was saving wasn’t really worth anything special. Sure, it took a little longer to bike with my friends to see that summer blockbuster, but if we’d driven I would’ve missed so many things: a game of dice on a street corner; the geese waddling along Lake Merritt; a conversation about bicycles initiated by a man who also rode a Raleigh.

Living a greener lifestyle isn’t an issue of hipness or label envy. Sure, giving environmentalism a modern façade has been helpful in marketing it to the masses, but consumerism does not an environmentalist make. It’s about the everyday decisions, the biking instead of driving, the buying local instead of international. We have a choice to make a change, and it’s not about being cool or self-righteous anymore, it’s about surviving. If there’s any upside to climate change, it is in its potential to unite us as humans dedicated to the cause of our own survival. The first step in this campaign is to consider the things we do every day, and that we must now accomplish with a little thought given to greening our actions.

Elka Karl recently harvested her first ever backyard artichokes. Check in on the progress of her heirloom watermelons at

To learn more about offsetting your carbon emissions, go to

To find farmers markets in your area, go to ams.

To learn more about residential power use, go to

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