Life without appliances
As I write in the confines of my basement office, directly above my head a contractor is ripping my kitchen apart, preparing to lay down a new floor and install new plumbing, wiring, cabinets and appliances. For three days now, I have been without any sort of stove or oven and have no running water on the ground floor. I feel a little bit like the urban experimenters at spacing.ca, who do things like walk downtown from the airport: I’m doing something that runs counter to basic social convention. It has already become an apprenticeship in healthy, eco-friendly living. I wonder how long I’ll last.
I’m using considerably less water than usual, and far less energy, since I can’t cook anything. When you can’t cook, you are suddenly confronted with a choice between extremes: eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, or eat lots of shelf-stable junk food. Interestingly, with the latter option, the compost bin stays empty while the trash can fills up fast with non-recyclable plastic and foil packaging. Also, my grocery bills shoot through the roof. The experience has reawakened me to my own waste stream, financial and otherwise.
It has also caused me to question energy use. Back in the February 3 edition of the Globe, in a visual feature on greening your home, Martin Middlestaedt gave some of the worst environmental advice I’ve ever read: “avoid the oven—pressure cookers, microwaves and toasters use up a lot less energy and can save up to 80% on your bills.” I raise this now because it has stuck in my craw since the moment I read it. Maybe he understands something I do not, but I object on many levels. First: yes, it’s true, it takes less energy to toast bread with a toaster than a broiler. But toasters, like electric kettles, are energy pigs: electrical energy does not transfer efficiently into pure heat, which is what both these appliances try to do, and anyway it’s foolish to suggest that a toaster can be a substitute for an oven. The real solution is to stop toasting bread. Second: is it not true that the more appliances you own, the more energy you use? The last three days have certainly taught me that you don’t use appliances you don’t have, and you learn to cope. Third: the microwave is an energy saver? Huh? In my experience, most people use it for popcorn or for defrosting, which is surely a mortal environmental sin, because it is pure convenience energy. For the last four years, including the last 17 months with baby, I have lived successfully without a microwave. Friends wonder how on earth we manage, but we don’t eat popcorn, we take stuff out of the freezer in the morning before leaving for work, and we re-heat soup on the stovetop at low heat (just like mom used to make!).
Now, here’s the unfortunate and embarrassing kicker to this meditation: our new kitchen, when finished, will feature lots and lots of electrical outlets as well as a dedicated space for a microwave oven. They are choices we’ve made to protect the resale value of our home, because that’s what sells. I try not to think of it as facilitating energy consumption or waste. I prefer to think of it as a technologically adaptable kitchen, ready to service the latest, most energy-efficient lifestyle aids.