Friday, September 16, 2016

How to live ethically: Drink, smoke, eat cake, use that tumble dryer and don't recycle glass

(By all means republish this entire post on your own blogs, sites etc and make money doing so if you can. Licence details at the bottom.)

Living ethically can be difficult. All too often it's expensive, uncomfortable or otherwise off-putting. And, more and more perhaps, it's often difficult to know which choices truly are the righteous ones - or even if there really are any righteous choices.

As an example, people worry whether they're recycling enough of their rubbish, or using too much energy and harming the environment. Many of us feel guilty about our unhealthy lifestyles - we feel that we're out of shape or we drink too much and so we may be selfishly putting an extra burden on the overstressed National Health Service (if we're British) or on equivalent things elsewhere (eg Medicare, in the USA).

Then, plenty of people worry about their use of "sharing economy" (or “gig economy”) apps to find economical accommodation, cab rides, cleaners, food delivery and so on. It's a common concern among well-intentioned folk, because the potential is there for workers to be treated poorly and the distribution of wealth to become more unequal.

It's all very complicated, and sometimes it truly is difficult to do the right thing. But that's no excuse for plunging into nihilistic despair, my friend, because I'm here today to help with some suggestions which will help you to live ethically. And this article is different: these suggestions are all easy, cheap or fun rather than difficult, expensive or time-consuming the way ethical-living tips tend to be.

1. Saving energy at home. Don't bother turning off lights and appliances all the time, and use that tumble dryer if you want
The key thing to remember here is that tasks in the home which involve heating things up consume a lot of energy. Tasks which don't, don't. Switching off lights, for instance, doesn't save much energy (especially if the heating is on: the relatively tiny amounts of energy used by lights are largely released into the home as heat, and any heat not generated by lights will be generated instead by the heating system in order to maintain the temperature set on the thermostat).

Heating your home, unlike lighting it, does use a lot of energy. Almost all people in normal homes would save more energy by turning down the thermostat by a single degree than they ever could by turning off lights. Other applications of heat in the home are also major energy hogs: leaving the oven on for just twenty minutes consumes the same sort of energy as leaving the TV playing until well into tomorrow, or leaving a modern lightbulb on night and day for almost a week.

Unplugging or switching off electrical appliances at the wall doesn't save much energy either, although plenty of people would like to sell you cunning app-controlled gadgets to help you do this. A typical modern TV on standby uses less than a watt of power: you would need to keep it unplugged or switched off at the wall for around a year to save the same amount of energy as you would by skipping one bath. You'd have to unplug your cellphone charger for six months or more to make the same saving.

That brings up another point. Heating up air uses a lot of energy, but heating up water uses even more: approximately four times as much, in fact. A lot of people know they can save energy by hanging up laundry to dry rather than using a tumble dryer, but in general you'd save considerably more by adjusting the settings of the washing machine. Using a cooler wash, because of the high specific heat of water, usually saves more energy than hanging up your washing - and it's a whole lot less time consuming.

Bottom line?

If you feel bad about your home energy use, turn the thermostat down by one degree, set the washing machine to a lower temperature and don't leave the oven on unnecessarily (for instance "pre-heating" for half an hour while you faff about preparing a dish to go in it, as most recipes advise you to do). Those three things on their own will save far more energy than line-drying all your laundry, turning lights off all the time and switching things off at the wall or unplugging them.

And they're a lot easier to do, as well. Bonus!

2. For pity's sake, don't recycle glass

Recycling is a very complicated subject, and there isn't space here to sort out such a tangled web. Developing a comprehensive guide to righteous recycling would be impossible without detailed knowledge of the local recycling systems where you live, and it would probably need updating all the time as energy and commodity prices changed.

But that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do.

In particular, most of us need to change our thinking about recycling glass. Making or recycling glass uses a lot of energy: so much that a brand-new, virgin metal can or tin requires less energy to produce than a recycled glass bottle or jar of the same volume. Pretty much any sort of plastic container, whether virgin or recycled, will require even less. Glass recycling, being a high-energy, high-temperature process, also involves the emission of a lot of other polluting gases apart from carbon dioxide.

The lesson here is that recycling glass shouldn't be your goal. Your goal should be not to use disposable glass packaging at all.

When buying beer, then, don't buy it in bottles - get it in cans. When buying water or soft drinks, insist on a plastic bottle or a can - never a glass bottle. (Though bringing water into your house in containers at all is pretty mad, given that it has been expensively fitted with convenient pipes and taps for the purpose. You can always filter tapwater, chill it and even make it fizzy yourself.) If you can't stomach wine from a box, maybe you can find something drinkable on tap at a shop and bring your own re-usable bottles.

Do, of course, recycle your cans or plastic bottles or wine boxes, but remember this is relatively unimportant compared to not buying glass packaging in the first place. Not using glass is far more important than recycling it or most other things, in energy and atmospheric pollution terms.

Quite apart from the energy and pollution issues, we should also remember that recycling glass often means that other recyclable wastes such as paper become contaminated with broken glass, which causes big problems for the recyclers. So really, really think twice about recycling glass if it doesn't go into a glass-only bin or bottle bank.

That doesn't mean that you should necessarily make trips to bottle banks, either. Recycling glass - that is, giving manufacturers an expensive raw material for free - lowers costs for glass makers and encourages more high-energy, polluting production of disposable glass packaging. It's also a fact that glass in a landfill, or otherwise in the natural environment, does very little harm. It is an almost eternal material and will not break down to release pollutants or toxins. There's an ongoing urban legend, especially among firemen and paramedics, that "glass dust" is dangerous, but it's not true.

So remember: don't recycle glass if you want to be righteous - simply don't buy glass packaging in the first place. And in general (with the possible exception of wine) not buying things in glass packages is easier and cheaper. It's another easy win.

3. Use an app on your phone to call a cab as much as you jolly well like
People often talk as if the so-called “sharing economy” - or “gig economy” if you prefer - is all one thing, but in fact these terms are used to cover a lot of different types of business.

At one end of the spectrum you have services such as Airbnb, where rooms and properties are rented out. The image is one of people making money on the side renting out their spare rooms, or perhaps their entire home when away on holiday, though in many cases the customer is actually dealing with a buy-to-let landlord of one sort or another. Even where the seller is genuinely freeing up an unused resource, there are issues. It could be argued that this is unfair competition taking business away from much more intensively regulated industries such as hotels: so destroying jobs, cutting tax revenues and maybe even permitting racism or other forms of discrimination to flourish in ways that would not otherwise occur.

So you might want to exercise some discretion even when using a relatively uncontroversial service like Airbnb. When it comes to apps which directly involve workers and labour, for instance the various popular cab apps now in widespread use, things can become more worrying still.

This is because the digital platform generally seeks to avoid actually hiring the workers involved as employees, which denies them a lot of legal rights. The spread of services such as Uber and Lyft, while potentially cheap and convenient for the user, can mean many more people becoming dependent on low, insecure incomes. It means the disappearance of many small businesses, which formerly provided jobs for owners, managers, administrators and so on as well as drivers.

But we all love cab apps, don't we? We want to get out our phones, press a few buttons and be on our way quickly: and we do have a right to a competitively priced service, though maybe not to one which has been unrealistically subsidised using large Saudi investment reserves.

With Airbnb and Taskrabbit and the rest, it's hard to say what's right. In the case of Uber and Lyft and their like, however, there's an easy solution: just use the cab comparison app, Karhoo. At first glance it seems much the same as Uber or Lyft, but Karhoo works in a different way. It deals only with accredited cab fleets, not with individual drivers, so it's actually good for small businesses and small businessmen - and for the drivers and various other people they employ, and for the government’s tax coffers. You can choose the cheapest cab, or the nearest one, or simply the firm you know and trust. Competition among the fleets keeps prices down and choices up.

And this isn't some sort of hair-shirt option. Because Karhoo works with the established cab industry rather than against it, Karhoo has more cars to offer than the "sharing economy" startups. And it's just as convenient to use as the other big apps.

Yes - it's another easy ethical-living win.

4. Don't be a burden on society: Drink, eat cake, smoke if you want to

Especially in Britain - but also elsewhere - it's common for all sorts of prominent people and organisations to exhort us to live a healthy lifestyle: not so much for our own benefit as for the common good. We're told not to drink so much alcohol, not to smoke, not to be overweight or obese and so on.

The argument is that by selfishly drinking, smoking and overeating, we will find ourselves requiring expensive medical treatment and other forms of care. This is paid for by the rest of society either through taxes or increased insurance premiums, and so we unfairly burden others with the consequences of our lifestyle.

Here are a few examples:

"Obesity costs more than war"

"The sobering burden of alcohol on the NHS"

"US taxpayers bear financial burden of smoking related disease"

There's just one problem with this idea. It turns out to be completely untrue.

That's because everybody dies in the end, of something: healthy people just the same as the fatties, boozers and smokers, though usually rather later. And the thing is that no matter how you die, you tend to throw a massive burden on society as you do so. In many cases, it will turn out that dying of dementia - or some other scourge of the thin and healthy - actually costs more than going out from liver failure, lung cancer or heart attack.

Worse still, as a healthy person you are likely to live much longer - but you are not likely to work and pay taxes any longer than an unhealthily-lifestyled person would. You don't make any bigger economic contribution to society than the fatties, the boozers and the smokers: but you actually take out more than they do in pension, medical costs and so forth. And you fail to pay any of the heavy extra taxes that are levied on drinking and smoking, or the proposed taxes on chocolate or fizzy pop that may appear soon.

Don't believe me? Here are the facts in full scientific detail:

Because of differences in life expectancy, lifetime health expenditure is highest among healthy-living people and lowest for smokers. Obese individuals held an intermediate position.

Drinkers in the UK pay at least £6.5bn more in alcohol taxes than it costs the health service, police, courts and welfare system to deal with alcohol-related problems. Drinkers therefore subsidise non-drinkers.

Quite frankly, then, the best and most ethical lifestyle - the one which is best for society, though not for you personally - is one which includes plenty of alcohol, food and even tobacco should you fancy any. If you choose instead to keep fit, stay off the booze and leave the cigs alone, you are of course free to do that, but you might like to consider the unfair burden you are throwing on your fellow citizens by such selfish conduct.

I told you ethical living could be easier and more fun than you thought, didn't I?

How to live ethically: Drink, smoke, eat cake, use that tumble dryer and don't recycle glass by Lewis Page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as the article is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to Lewis Page.