There is more to low-entropy living than meets the eye, just net-zero building is not enough. The risk with sustainability is sub-optimization by chopping up the whole in to its constituent parts, for the sake of manageability, but at the cost of realistic contributions to the solution. The temptation is to treat the building as an economic entity, and that may seem to be the case if you are (working for) a real estate investment company, but it is not true if you are running a business, even if that business is your “life.”
Within a business, the real investment is not in buildings, but in the business processes that enhance the economic value of the enterprise, unless that business happens to be real estate where the individual properties are owned and managed to maximize profits, and the portfolio value is the sum of those property values. In the example of owner-occupied residential real estate, sustainability must take into account its role in the overall environment. There are perhaps two functions that meaningfully extend the carbon footprint of the residents, namely those which involve the most intensive interaction with the outside world, namely commuting and provisioning for food. Naturally all the inputs also involve the outside world, particularly energy and water.
This article therefore proposes a new standard, of “low entropy living” as a more meaningful standard. The insight dawned on my because of my involvement in RetrofitNY, a project to help existing low-income housing undergo net-zero retrofits. The pursuit of the net-zero standard leads to designing minimalist kitchens that are pretty hopeless if people should ever decide to actually cook, and a concern with plug loads that also interferes with fully functional kitchens. There is a budding transition to plant-based cuisine, which in and of itself achieves an order of magnitude reduction in the GHG footprint of people, but it does require a well-equipped kitchen to maintain the program.
Anyone who understands optimization, knows that it is disastrous to solve for a secondary objective first, so in any optimization, you need to first determine what the real objective is. This is truly a scenario where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
My own Low Entropy Living experience
The issues that I raise here first occurred to me in my own living experience as I made the switch to the Whole Foods, Plant-Based diet. Because I am involved in energy retrofitting, I was always eagerly monitoring my own use of power at home. Invariably the statistics provided by my power company would show that my home was extremely energy efficient, until two things happened. A few years ago, I reignited my interest in keeping fish and I am now running four tropical aquariums, so that blew my standing in the race for the most energy efficient home, even if my aquariums use very energy efficient equipment as aquariums go, which they do. To add insult to injury, I switched to the whole foods, plant-based diet some 3.5 years ago, and gradually, I began to cook at home more often, and gradually added some kitchen equipment, to make my life easier. I wrote about that experience in an article on my nutrition site, My Tools for the Plant-Based Kitchen. It all speaks for itself.
For me personally, the switch to a whole foods, plant-based diet was driven by health concerns, but I ended up realizing that it is the solution not only to our health care crisis, but to climate change and world hunger as well. Simply put, this change is now the single most important revolution that is taking place in America, and world-wide. America is rightfully the leader, for we gave the world fast food, and an unprecedented health care crisis that is sinking our standard of living like a rock (we spend twice as much as the next most expensive country in health care, but we are #50 or so in the world in health care outcomes, behind several 3rd world countries), but we are now becoming leaders in the reversal of these disastrous trends with such initiatives as the Healing America Together tour.
The personal health benefits are compelling: 37 out of the top 40 leading causes of premature death are drastically improved by switching to a whole foods, plant-based lifestyle, and the majority are preventable or even reversible when you make the change. Ergo, this lifestyle change is the solution to the health care crisis, all by itself. Also, it is the answer to the climate change crisis, and anybody who switches to a whole foods, plant-based lifestyle reduces their carbon foot print by more than anything else they can do, as was documented yet again by a recent publication of a study by Grain and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, published on July 18th, 2018. Finally, it is the solution to world hunger, for no longer will people be competing with livestock for food. If there was ever an investment with a true triple bottom-line this is it. Therefore, using slightly more energy in cooking at home is richly justified as a trade-off for simply solving the climate crisis on a personal level, and it should not be sacrificed for the arbitrary sub-optimization of achieving “net-zero” one building and one apartment at a time.
Net-zero Buildings: the Forest and the Trees
- an electrical stove with an induction cook top,
- an induction rice cooker,
- an Instant pot,
- an air fryer
- probably a water kettle,
- an immersion mixer
- some kind of a small food processor like a Magic Bullet,
- and a larger one like a Nutri Bullet.
- another major advance in home cooking may be the new Brava light oven. Better than a micro-wave!
In my own case, I ended up with a single separate induction cook top, because the timing controls offer me things I cannot do with my gas stove, but I am also using my stove more since I simply do more cooking since I am on a plant-based diet. Of course in the ideal kitchen we would have an electric oven with an induction cook top. Here is my own list of favorite gear for the plant-based-kitchen.
For the fridge/freezer, I find that my 12 cu.ft. model is only barely OK for a studio/1BR – but I would have an 18 cu.ft. if I had the space, but for a 2BR you need at least an 18 cu.ft., and possibly 24 cu.ft.
Triple Bottom Line: sustainability, health, hunger
- Preventive, not reactive health care: It is a solution for our health care crisis, since 7 out of 10 leading causes of premature death are preventable and/or reversible by diet alone, based on Whole Foods, Plant-Based nutrition. Up to 85% of health care spending is on ‘treatment’ for chronic illnesses that are better dealt with by diet – in short, we can expect to provide better health care for less than half the price of today by focusing on diet first.
- True sustainability: Since this type of nutrition cuts out the middlemen: livestock eating the grain and us eating meat, it also realizes an order of magnitude reduction in resource utilization, both for energy and for water. This is the real solution for our environmental challenges. It deals with 51% of the problem, while for example ALL of transportation (cars, trains and boats and planes) amounts to only 14%.
- Solving world hunger: Since livestock will no longer be competing with humans for food, we will solve world hunger in the process.
Compared to all of these, to use slightly more energy in the kitchen is an insignificant trade-off, but by building residential housing without adequate kitchen facilities condemns people to not cook at home. It essentially institutionalizes the current health crisis. Environmentally, it is more efficient to process our food at home than to ‘subcontract’ our digestion to livestock, and make ourselves sick in the process.
The bottom line is that by taking a holistic approach, we must consider that the trend is increasingly towards more fresh food, and more home cooking. Low Entropy Living must include all aspects of living, but certainly allow for a healthy home where we have adequate cooking facilities. The plant-based lifestyle revolution strongly reduces entropy, and the trade off of a few more kitchen appliances is worth it. Net-zero construction should not get in the way of quality of life. In a very basic way, it is all about the sustainability of our quality of life.
The AMA weighs in
The increasing uptake of these issues in the medical community is becoming quite significant, as can be seen in some recent articles, including this one in the AMA Wire about the importance of home-cooked meals.
The focus on a single parameter which becomes the proxy for success can lead us astray, because we end up optimizing a design for an arbitrary value. Net-zero at the property level becomes a counterproductive measure here if it leads to being too stingy with power at the local level. Sustainability is achieved by lowering entropy in the overall system, not from a single parameter like reduced GHG-emissions in one location.