Monday, May 25, 2015


The problem that we are facing, as a species, can be summarised in one word: overconsumption.

Simply, we are using more than the Earth can sustainably provide and so are degrading its natural capital. It's like the young man who inherits $1million, only to be broke a few years later because he overspent -- he didn't spend only the return on his investment, he spent his capital. That is what we are doing.

The problem is that we are individually so disconnected from the fact that our goods and services are ultimately dependent on natural goods and services that we often don't know what we actually need to do to cause less damage.

Here is an example to clarify what I mean. I know people who want to do the right thing by the environment, so they have bought washable nappies for their baby. They were excited about this, and felt good about doing it (as they should). Here's the catch though: washable nappies are only good for the environment if their use displaces disposable nappies that would otherwise have been used.

Put this way, it is obvious, but this pattern runs deep and there are other, less obvious, examples. It is also made more confusing because marketing is a $500 Billion per year industry, and marketers have identified the environment as being a useful method to sell products.

Solar PV

In Australia, most people who buy solar PV panels for their house sell STCs (formerly RECs) [1]. Essentially, they are selling the "green" part of the energy that those panels will produce over their lifetime. Companies buy these credits, so that products can be packaged for sale.
You may say but I've still got the panels so my power is Green, right?, well, no. Consider the person who pays extra to buy GreenPower from the retailer. The retailer can call the power GreenPower, because they have bought sufficient STCs -- many of which have come from new PV installations.


There is a widespread idea, encouraged by advertising, the dishwashers are Green because they use less water than hand-washing. Here's the catch: this assumes a perfectly full load in the dishwasher. Also, it doesn't include the energy-and-water that was used in the dishwashers manufacture, packaging, distribution, installation and disposal. The depth of the problem is well summarised here, although I don't agree with that article's conclusion. But, again, this is presented by advertisers as a settled debate: buy a dishwasher -- it's green!


Hopefully these examples help you identify this pattern in your own life, and be more resilient against the Evil Forces of Marketing. As a general rule, the best outcome for the biosphere (and for our collective future) is not to consume and not to buy.

[1] for the record, I sold my STCs when I installed my system. I regret it now, and may buy them back at some point.


  1. Always interesting thoughts Angus. I am considering whether to get rid of my dishwasher, so very pertinent! Our dishwasher is a ten year old Miele, very efficient one, has never missed a beat, I imagine it could last another ten years. However, when we bought it there were six people in our household, but by the beginning of next year there will only be three. We only ever wash a load when it is full, and by then it will be less than one load a day. I am an extremely efficient hand washer - I start with an inch of water, and add a bit to rinse glasses etc under the tap, so that by the greasy things at the end I still only have about half a sink of water.

    And I need to get electricity usage down. I can't imagine that using electricity for 85 mins is less than heating up a sink's worth of hot water?? Plus, I know I throw dishes in the dishwasher that I would keep out and use again if I had to wash by hand - teacups etc.

    I read your electricity posts a couple of days ago, and started to do my own metre readings. They are appalling!! We use so much electricity! 34Kwh yesterday. I am almost too ashamed to confess.

    And we have A LOT of solar panels. 28. I think it is a 6.5Kw system. We make a lot of electricity, which gives us a credit in summer and autumn, but still have to pay significant bills in winter and spring. This must not go on! You have inspired me to work out where all this electricity is being used.

    You are so right - there is no point having solar power if it just lets us use power profligately.

  2. Hi Angus,

    A very thoughtful discussion. For the record I have never owned a dishwasher mostly because I'm mildly horrified by all of the chemicals that they use. All chemicals that go down the drain here end up in the soil. As an interesting side note a lot of dishwashing detergents use a whole lot of salt (look for sodium laureth or sodium blah, blah, blah insert other chemical), so it is probably not a good idea for soils and/or rivers.

    The 4.2kW PV here only produced about 6KWh today, but then the batteries couldn't take all of the production so most of it was lost… As we're almost 3 weeks out from the winter solstice I'll start putting the statistics onto the blog. Should be interesting...

    PS: The old timers used to use sand, charcoal and water to clean dishes.

    Hi Jo,

    Not to stress, you are in Hydro dam electricity heaven. Still, the best way to stick it to the man is to reduce your overall electricity consumption - no point giving them money for nothing. At a guess I reckon the average that you'd get out of your PV solar is perhaps about 2 peak sun hours per day at this time of year, but I could well be wrong.

    PS: You use about 10 days electricity usage here for every 1 day! Hehe! Still, I have seen some people use 55kWh per day and I did wonder how they achieved that? Dunno, but I also have a very large quantity of firewood to draw on for winter heat so a lot of my energy costs are actually hidden because they are sourced from the property. Solar hot water is a real winner.

    The trick is to look for anything that is electrical and either heats things up (fan heaters are the worst of the worst!) or cools things down (like an air conditioner or a refrigerator) - that should give you a guide to where the energy is going. The first savings are easy, but then it gets progressively harder to reduce your consumption.



  3. Hi Jo,

    34 kWh/day is not abnormal in Australia, but yes it does mean that you would have many opportunities to reduce your consumption and save money. Chris makes comprehensive suggestions. At this time of year, for an ordinary house, I would seek savings in hot water and heating (if they are electric). They would probably be the best places to start.
    Your power is costing you nearly $10 per day (at that consumption), so you could conceivably make some targeted investments.
    btw. I've spoken to people using twice that amount of power -- don't be ashamed, take action! :-)

    If I already had a dishwasher, I would probably keep it. As long as you use it sensibly, that's not the end of the world (since it's already bought/installed). If it breaks, consider not replacing it, which probably means getting used to not using it now.

    Cheers, Angus

  4. Hi Chris,

    That's a great point about the chemicals, and not one that I'd thought about as much. But yes, when people use the "tablets" and rinse aid, God knows what's in them... What do you hand wash with?

    You had great comments for Jo too. I loved "the best way to stick it to the man is to reduce your overall electricity consumption" -- I've said something similar (but not as well) before. I'll remember that phrase! :-)

    We've had a sunny week here. I had our little oven totally loaded on Monday. It's amazing what you can cram in such a small space (winter pie, loaf of bread and vegetable bake all at once ;-). Cloudy today though, but the cooking is done so our energy use will be low.

    Cheers, Angus

  5. Chris and Angus, thanks for your kind encouragement:) You are so far ahead of me on the energy saving curve, I have some good mentors.

    Everything is electric here except for a gas stovetop. And we have very inefficient panel heaters. Most people here have reverse cycle air conditioners, but I hate hot air blowing on my face.

    So our big winter usage is heat and hot water. Three teenage girls and I all love our hot showers. We also have a stupid pool that requires 10hrs pumping per day in summer, and apparently 4hrs a day in winter, but I have consulted with friends who only run their pump once a week. I have turned ours down from 4 to 2 hrs a day to start with. That's 2.4Kwh saved each day already.

    Now to work on showers and heating.. the good news is that our PV panels work really well and produce lots of power - Launceston has lots of sunny days even in winter and our panels seem to produce power even when it is cloudy, not sure how that works.

    And Chris, even though it is hydro heaven here, there is a great big cable across Bass Strait that exports power to Victoria and imports it back at peak times. We tend to export more in summer and supplement our clean green hydro heat in winter with Victorian coal:( so I would be happy to not be contributing to that.

  6. Hi Jo,

    It sounds like you know what you need to do ;-) In winter, I wouldn't turn on the pool filter every day. You can experiment but, given you are probably not swimming, it is unlikely to be dangerous. My parents had a pool when I was a kid, I don't think they turned on the filter every day. Do some research first if you're swimming in it though.

    Hot water is probably significant if you're heating with electricity. Do you have a low-flow shower rose? That would be very worthwhile. If you couple that with a shower lid, as I have recently done (and will write about in more detail) you will probably still find the shower very cosy.
    Of course, the best would be to install solar hot water. That's a greater upfront cost, but an appropriately-sized system (you might get away with a 400L system if your usage is high) would have good ROI.

    For heating, just turn off the space heater and wear more clothes ;-). We also have an electric throw (like a sofa-blanket that is electrically heated) that is cosy on the really cold nights.

    Cheers, Angus

  7. Ha, Angus, no, definitely not swimming in an unheated pool in Tas in May:) I will chat to the pool people and see what they think. It was definitely not my idea to put a pool in - I wanted an orchard intead! I have a cunning plan - when the children leave home I can turn it into a fish farm..

    Low flow shower roses - check. Unfortunately we went with modern open plan shower designs when we renovated, so no shower lids possible.

    Here is my dilemma with installing a solar hot water system - the children will keep leaving home, and in a few years it will just be me, or me and one child, at which point the PV panels should be more than enough. I don't want to overdo the solar capital investment!

    Also, when we renovated ex-hub installed a hydronic underfloor heating system, which has never been hooked up to a heat source. If I could save up to get an efficient heating source attached to that, we could have much more efficient heating. I think. I have just learned that one of my neighbours has a business installing hydronic systems, so I will get him to have a look at ours and let me know what he thinks..

    I am instituting new house rules re the heaters and their max temps.. I don't think we can go without them entirely - it really is very cold here, promise!

  8. Hi Angus,

    Many thanks, feel free to use that one any time you like. Every time I learn a new way to improve the home economy it's like winning! Dog biscuits, take 2, is on for tomorrow. Who would have thought that dogs don't like eating too much pumpkin?

    To wash up the dishes I use a product called Earth Choice - dish wash concentrate, but could just as easily up the production of the olive oil soap here. It is an interesting product because even though it is a plant based formula, it contains 3 different chemicals which incorporate sodium but overall the concentration of that mineral is 1.5%/vol. I'm watching the plant growth areas over the worm farm in case there are any problems or a build-up of salts in the soils. So far, so good, but then I don't add salt to cooking items other than bread. It is complex because there is no "away" here.

    Yeah, it was a sunny week this week here too and the batteries are about 96% full right now. Today has been quite wet here with around 10mm so far all day. I managed to sneak in the construction of a new concrete step in between all of the drizzle, but it is still quite damp as the sun set... Hope you got some solid rain up your way.

    Hi Jo. I know about the cable linking Vic to Tas and it really is an awesome bit of infrastructure given Bass Straight is almost 300km wide. The longest cable run here is 70m and that was a big job. I've always loved Tasmania in the winter time and travelled to the Waldheim cabins up in Cradle Mountain a few winters back to enjoy the snow, but then I also live in what is considered to be a cold climate up here in the mountains in central Vic so cold weather isn’t a problem for me. There probably isn't much point in overdoing the PV solar system at your place because as you increase the size of the system, the complexity increases exponentially. The fish pond is actually quite a good idea and if I had a pond or pool here I'd filter the water through a very hippy dippy but ultimately quite functional reed bed – or vegetable bed. Aquaponics systems work via a similar system.




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