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Simple is beautiful: Time to declutter

The range of stuff you can buy in a modern consumer economy is truly stupendous. Thanks to globalization, a lot of this stuff is quite cheap too. It is therefore all too easy to collect way too many things that add more problems than value to your life.

This pervasive, but primitive habit can increase stress, hamper wealth creation and increase environmental impact. It therefore goes completely against the philosophy of happy, healthy, wealthy and sustainable living advocated on this blog.

Let’s have a look at a few simple ways in which we can overcome this problem.

The size of your home

This topic has already been discussed in the previous post, but remains the most natural way to limit the amount of useless stuff in your life. A large home simply grants you a large amount of space to fill with lots of useless stuff. A more moderate size home, on the other hand, will not only save you a lot of money, but also naturally encourage you to declutter.

The six-month rule

Take a serious look around your home and identify anything that has not made a clear positive contribution to your life over the last six months. You might be surprised at how many of these things you find. Items identified via the six month rule are generally well suited for donation to charity. So why not employ this rule to help yourself by helping others?

The replacement rule

There are only so many hours in your day, so much space in your home, and so much capacity in your brain. The replacement rule acknowledges these facts and recommends that you only buy something new when you can easily identify something that it will replace. Keeping this simple rule in mind will save you from many unwise purchasing decisions.

Adopt the minimalist style

One very positive trend over recent years has been the popularity of minimalist interior design. Indeed, it can now be quite cool to keep a home with very limited stuff. If you are one for keeping up with the latest trends, adopting the minimalist interior design style can be a very natural motivation to declutter.

Filed under: Home

PS: Why should you take lifestyle advice from a random guy on the internet? Good question. Take a look at the effects that these guidelines had on my life and decide for yourself.

Lifechanging information sources

The sources I list below have changed many millions of lives for the better (including my own). They contain timeless wisdom that everyone can benefit from – whether the information is new to you or you just need a refresher.

Three categories are presented (also the three cornerstones of this blog): health, personal finances and mental control.

Health

Healthy at 100 – John Robbins. This book convinced me shift to a much more plant-based diet – very impressive considering that I was a born and bred carnivore. It is a bit long, but definitely remains a worthwhile read. The accounts of the lifestyles of the world’s longest living communities were especially interesting.

50 secrets of the world’s longest living people – Sally Beare. Here we have a much more punchy and easy to read version of Healthy at 100. It also has interesting accounts of the lifestyles of communities enjoying extraordinarily long and healthy lives. In particular, this book got me to incorporate lots of nuts, seeds and berries into my diet.

The world’s healthiest foods – George Mateljan. This resource contains a number of interesting healthy recipes, but the most valuable aspect of it is the detailed nutritional information about the world healthiest foods. The information in this book is so powerful that it convinced me to eat spinach every day – something I would have seen as flatly impossible 5 years ago.

Personal finances

The automatic millionaire – David Bach and The millionaire next door – Thomas Stanley. These two books pretty much give the same message: Live within your means and automate your investments. It is very simple advice which clearly illustrates how people can become rich even on a modest income. Everybody knows this stuff, but reading these books will convince you to such a degree that you might actually start doing it.

The richest man in Babylon – George Clason. The message in this classic is much the same as that in the two millionaire books listed above. It is conveyed in a much more entertaining manner though – mostly through interesting stories from Ancient Babylon told in a wonderfully classic linguistic style. If you don’t have millionaire ambitions, but still want healthy personal finances, this is the only book you need to read.

How an economy grows and why it crashes – Peter Schiff. This is another book with a rather obvious message: saving and investment is good, excessive debt is bad. However, the very interesting way in which the message is conveyed makes it a thoroughly entertaining and convincing read. It also gives you a very nice understanding about the workings of a modern economy.

Mental control

Psycho Cybernetics – Maxwell Maltz. Many people call this the only self-help book you ever need to read. It is a true classic that has changed millions of lives for the better through practical teachings on how to control your own mind. Thought habits and self-esteem are key elements in this timeless masterpiece.

177 mental toughness secrets of the world class – Steve Siebolt. Despite the rather corny title, this book is a great quick reference for the best mental control strategies. Each “mental toughness secret” is only one page long and simple to digest. I’d especially recommend the audio version where Siebolt and his co-presenter expand a bit more on each secret in a fun conversational style.

The “21 great ways” series – Brian Tracy. Although I sometimes find Tracy’s approach to mental control a bit too mechanical, his extensive 21 great ways series contains information that anyone can benefit from. The information is communicated in a punchy manner and you can select from a wide range of titles to suit your needs.

Filed under: Consumption patterns – Consume information

PS: Why should you take lifestyle advice from a random guy on the internet? Good question. Take a look at the effects that these guidelines had on my life and decide for yourself.

The quest for quality information

Even though we all have access to a tremendous wealth of potentially life-changing information, these riches are often obscured under heaps of rubbish. Low quality information can throw you totally off track. We therefore have to be very careful to only allow our minds to be shaped by premium quality info. 

Information quality checks

The two best methods to assess information quality are peer review and track record. Peer review is when the quality of information is verified by a number of experts in the field. It is very useful for technical information such as scientific journals and reports. Expert reviews of books can also often be found.

Direct reading of peer-reviewed journals and reports is more targeted at professional researchers. For the rest of the world, however, it remains very important to check whether any article you read got its “facts” from reliable sources. For example, the popular science articles I write on energy and climate issues generally link to reliable data sets, articles and reports.

Customer review (as offered by online book outlets such as Amazon) is generally less reliable than peer review. You therefore need many more customer reviews than peer reviews to make a proper assessment of information quality. Generally, I’d say that the average of about 50 customer reviews is equivalent to one expert review.

Another very good way to verify information quality is track record. This is especially applicable to “soft sciences” where things are rarely black and white, but rather several shades of gray (like many of the topics covered on this blog). For this reason, posts on this site will henceforth feature a link to some key performance indicators from my own life where I apply the guidelines given on this blog. This track record presents clear proof that the guidelines given here actually work (and work well) when applied in the real world.

Watch out for bias

Another important information quality trap to avoid is subjective bias. This is when an author writes an article to try an prove a pre-conceived conclusion, including all evidence supporting his/her argument and excluding all information that doesn’t. Such articles can seem reliable at first glance, but mostly give low quality biased information.

The most common place to find such articles is on websites advocating a certain scientific viewpoint (e.g. for or against climate change) or a certain technology class (e.g. advocacy websites for renewable energy, nuclear energy or electric vehicles).

Plenty of good information on such controversial topics is available on neutral sites. However, if you have to read from a site directly advocating a certain controversial technology or scientific viewpoint, it is important to also read sites advocating against it in order to get a more balanced perspective.

Some good references

The next post will give a few examples of my favourite information sources.

Filed under: Consumption patterns – Consume information

PS: Why should you take lifestyle advice from a random guy on the internet? Good question. Take a look at the effects that these guidelines had on my life and decide for yourself.

Green food

Intelligent food choices form an integral part of the One in a Billion approach, primarily because it directly influences every aspect of our final goal: a happy, healthy, wealthy and sustainable life. Quite a bit has already been said about the health aspects of food in a previous chapter. In addition, the crucial importance of intelligent investment into the health of our own body/mind was described as a cornerstone of wealth as well as happiness. This post will briefly outline the environmental aspects of food.

As mentioned before, the global population already consumes as much resources and excretes as much waste in one year as our planet can replenish and process in 1.5 years. Agriculture is responsible for a surprisingly large portion of that footprint. In fact, if you go through a personal footprint calculator like this one, you may well find that your food footprint (or “foodprint”) represents the largest portion of the burden you place on the biosphere (mine is given below as an example).

My footprint

The most important factors determining your foodprint are the type and quantity of food you eat, the distance it travels to get to you, and the way in which it was produced. Type and quantity remain the most important factors. Although significant variation exists in the calculation of the footprints of different food categories, the graph below gives a pretty standard reflection of the general trend.

Foodprint of different foods

It is clear that meat products (beef and lamb in particular) have very high foodprints. Pork, fish and chicken offer better alternatives, but are still much more ecologically damaging than plant-based products. In general, people in rich countries are quite far over on the left of the above graph and also consume much greater quantities of food. The natural result is soaring rates of obesity and highly unsustainable ecological footprints.

Since food is such an important factor in the quest for a happy, healthy, wealthy and sustainable life, we will spend an entire chapter on the topic later on. For now, however, the primary takeaway is that we, the richest billion on the planet, can do a great deal of good by shifting our food consumption patterns from large portions of imported meat-based products towards smaller portions of locally produced plant-based products. Doing your little bit to shift the demand profile in this way can have enormous positive impacts on your life, your community and your world.

Filed under: Consumption patterns – The green economy

Wood stove

westfire-21-wood-stoveBurning wood can be an attractively cheap source of heat from sustainable biomass. It can also be nice and cosy on cold winter days to curl up with a book in front of the old fireplace. However, as always, it is important to become well informed before committing to getting a large portion of home heating from a wood stove.

The economics and sustainability of wood burning varies substantially based on the type of stove and the type of wood used. A highly efficient stove burning fully dry recycled wood wastes can give you clean, safe and economical heat under any weather conditions, but an old inefficient design burning improperly dried or unsustainably harvested wood is much less sustainable and economical and can even be dangerous.

A good modern wood stove can be substantially cheaper to install than a gas furnace or a heat pump and has similar fuel costs (in the US at least – might be substantially cheaper in Europe where electricity and gas prices are much higher). In addition, a stylish wood-stove makes for a very attractive living room centrepiece. A good stove is also long-lasting, very simple to operate and maintain and completely invulnerable to any power outages or gas supply disruptions. These are some very attractive advantages.

However, a low-quality wood stove or a high-quality wood stove burning low-quality wood can present several problems. Firstly, fuel consumption is significantly increased, thereby degrading the attractive economics of wood burning. More importantly, however, low-quality stoves and/or wood produce a lot more particulate matter which can pose a health hazard both to yourself and your neighbours. Particle matter also causes buildup inside your furnace and chimney (requiring more regular maintenance) and creates smoke which spoils the splendid view of a clean-burning flame in your living room.

The figure below gives some indication of particle generation from wood stoves. Although particulate emissions from a high efficiency EPA certified wood stove remains much higher than that from a gas furnace for example, it is sufficiently low to not pose any significant hazard.

Particle emissions wood stove

Regarding the wood, it is most important to ensure that your fuel is as dry as at all possible. Even slightly damp wood can completely spoil the efficiency of a good wood stove, substantially increasing fuel usage and particulate pollution. Generally, newly bought wood should be left standing in a dry place for at least one year before it is fully dried out. A little bit of longer-term planning is therefore important in managing your wood stockpile.

However, the best fuel for your wood stove is most often compressed sawdust blocks. These blocks might work out slightly more expensive than standard firewood, but, aside from their obvious environmental benefits, they also offer a higher energy density, easy stacking/storage and the added advantage that they can generally be bought bone dry. These properties make compressed sawdust bricks ideal for simply ringing up your local dealer and filling up your basement with neatly stacked recycled biomass whenever you run out.

All in all, a high quality stove burning smartly selected wooden fuel is a great choice for environmentally friendly and environmentally sound heat. If you live anywhere where it becomes slightly cold, don’t hesitate to acquire one of these.

Filed under: Consumption patters – The green economy

 

Energy storage

As we have briefly discussed in the previous two posts on rooftop solar and micro wind turbines, one of the major obstacles faced by these technologies is their intermittency – the fact that they only generate power when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. For interested readers, this and other challenges are discussed in much more detail in other pages.

The most convenient tool through which the intermittency can be addressed is energy storage. And the storage technology attracting the most attention is battery storage.

It certainly is true that cheap battery storage can help a lot with integrating intermittent renewables into modern electricity grids. If much of the large solar output around mid-day could be stored for consumption in the evening when demand usually peaks, solar power would be of much greater value to society.

Palmer - Solar alignment with peak

Actually, if energy storage technology was cost-effective, it would be great for our electricity systems regardless of intermittent renewables. We generally use significantly less electricity at night than during the day and peak-demand often lasts for only an hour or two. This variable load causes an inefficient use of power infrastructure. If cost-effective storage could shift some electricity generation from the night to the peak periods, we would need fewer power plants and would be able to operate these plants at a greater efficiency (shown below).

effect of electricity storage

Unfortunately, however, battery storage is still far from being cost-effective. Yes, like most clean energy technologies, battery costs have been declining significantly in recent years, but we will require much greater declines before it can be economically deployed. For example, I recently had an online discussion with a staunch solar advocate (and installer) who quoted me a solar power system with battery backup which can generate electricity at about $0.90/kWh – about five times the standard retail electricity rate.

From a more fundamental perspective, the problem with battery storage is that it consumes a large amount of energy in the manufacturing process. The vast majority of this energy will inevitably come from fossil fuels, implying that a solar power system with battery backup or actually have a rather large carbon footprint. As an example, a recent paper examining the potential of rooftop solar in Australia (one of the best places for solar deployment on Earth) found that such a system would only generate two times the amount of energy that was used in the manufacturing process over its entire lifetime  – an Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of 2:1.

This is a sizeable problem not only because of the large carbon footprint implied, but primarily because it is impossible to run a complex civilization like ours on such a low quality energy source. The chart below illustrates this by showing the energy return on investment required by several different levels of societal complexity.

Hierarchy of energy needs

One battery-oriented idea which deserves mentioning is the use of battery capacity in electric vehicles as a grid storage mechanism – so-called vehicle-to-grid (V2G) storage. This approach needs a massive fleet of electric vehicles, requires a similarly massive network of smart-chargers which can withdraw/store electricity in this massive fleet of electric vehicles, and also proposes the use of EV batteries (which are designed primarily for a a high power-density) for grid electricity storage (which requires a design specifically aimed at low costs and long lifetimes). For these reasons, this approach will also not be viable for many decades.

Despite these challenges, however, it is possible that battery storage can play a non-negligible role over coming decades as prices further decline. Cost-effective energy storage will open up a wide range of opportunities that have never been available to grid operators before. Until such a time, however, battery storage is not recommended as an option to reduce your personal carbon footprint. The batteries themselves still have a very large carbon footprint and currently available battery backup systems are inherently unable to support our civilization. There are many other much simpler and more efficient mechanisms for cutting your footprint.

Filed under: Consumption patterns – The green economy

The high quality mindset

Quality starts with meAs outlined in the previous two posts (1, 2), a commitment to buying only high quality stuff brings a wide range of advantages, both to yourself and to our society as a whole. And the best way in which to maintain such a commitment is through a high quality mindset.

A high quality mindset is one that defies our cultural conditioning by seeing the whole picture instead of only the price tag. This complete picture includes the full cost in terms of time and money, psychological factors such as user-satisfaction and peace of mind, and broader effects such as environmental benefits and correct market signals.

In terms of money, a high quality mindset will always consider the total cost of ownership. This typically consists of depreciation, maintenance costs, running costs, insurance and financing costs. High quality items will usually post the biggest wins in the first three categories because they usually depreciate slowly over their long lifetimes, require minimal maintenance and run very economically.

When it comes to insurance and financing costs, it is important to stress the difference between high quality items and luxury items. For example, a fancy Mercedes is a high quality product, but it will cost a lot to ensure and finance because it is a luxury item. However, there are many high quality models outside of the luxury market that will run smoothly and economically over many years with much lower insurance and financing costs.

A high quality mindset will also consider the full experience resulting from any sizable purchase. Peace of mind and user-satisfaction are highly valued in the high quality mindset and will therefore play a major role in purchasing decisions.

Finally, the high quality mindset has evolved past the self-centred nature of our consumerist society and allows for much broader vision. Enormous heaps of discarded low-quality stuff piling up in developing nations together with the serious depletion and pollution issues caused by such inefficient resource use matter to the high quality mindset and will therefor influence decision-making.

A high quality mindset really flies in the face of current consumerist norms, but can establish itself remarkably quickly when given the chance. So, why not give it a chance? The benefits are enormous and multiple.

Filed under: Consumption patterns – Better instead of more