When times are tough – do you sacrifice food, travel, or… meat?

Photo courtesy of Benito78 at Flickr.com.

Ask the average person on the street, and they’ll agree with you that food and gas prices have risen a ridiculous amount. Most of us can remember buying gas for less than $2 a gallon or buying 10 ears of corn for a dollar. That was back when the greenback had some serious buying power – now, it’s so weak that even international supermodels are turning their nose up at the US dollar.

Back in 2006, gasoline cost about 5% of the average consumers take-home pay. Since then, gas prices have risen nearly 90%. So, even though most of us are using less gas these days, the average American is now spending about 9% of their after-tax income on oil.

That money has to come from somewhere else on the balance sheet. For an increasing number of people with tight budgets, economic trends are forcing us to change our habits in ways that have unintended side effects. Restaurant sales are down as their customer opt for more home cooked meals (or even home grown meals). Movie theaters are hurting because people are choosing to save money by staying at home. State highway departments are in trouble because people who use less gas also pay fewer fuel taxes. Many people are even trading in their SUVs for smaller cars (imagine that)!

Photo courtesy of JAEbugs at Flickr.com.

The lifestyle choices we make are directly related to the choices available to others. When Americans order a double meat hamburger patty, we’re consuming a whole slew of resources. Beyond the beef itself, we’re consuming pasture land, fertilizer, fuel used to transport the beef, and more fuel to cook it. Americans consume 24% of the world’s energy, and citizens of other countries are harmed by our excesses.

On average, one American consumes as much energy as

  • 2 Japanese
  • 6 Mexicans
  • 13 Chinese
  • 31 Indians
  • 128 Bangladeshis
  • 307 Tanzanians
  • 370 Ethiopians

Worldwide, the picture is grim. Starvation and malnutrition are serious dangers in Bangladesh, Haiti, Somalia, and other countries that rely on cheap food imports. People living in those countries aren’t being forced to choose between gourmet coffee and house payments – parents in many countries are faced with the decision of feeding themselves, or feeding their children.

Americans eat 815 billion calories of food each day – that’s roughly 200 billion more than needed – enough to feed 80 million people.

One of the biggest problems with the American diet is our overconsumption of protein. Protein is high in calories, and our bodies convert it to fat. There’s a relation between our rising beef consumption and the growing obesity epidemic. Also, the kidneys are responsible for converting protein into usable forms. Eating excessive protein can cause serious kidney problems (including diabetes and failure to regulate blood pressure):

Ideally, you should consume 0.36 grams of protein for every pound of body weight, according to recommended daily allowances (RDA) set by the Food and Nutrition Board. So if you weigh 170 pounds, you need about 61 grams of protein each day. Protein should also make up approximately 15% of your total daily caloric intake…

Photo courtesy of :hMd: at Flickr.com.

The average American consumes about twice that much protein. This overconsumption has devastating effects on our health, but it also has wide ranging impacts on the rest of the world. If we consumed less meat, there would be less strain on the world food supply:

The whole world has never come close to outpacing its ability to produce food. Right now, there is enough grain grown on earth to feed 10 billion vegetarians, said Joel E. Cohen, professor of populations at Rockefeller University and the author of “How Many People Can the Earth Support?” But much of it is being fed to cattle, the S.U.V.’s of the protein world, which are in turn guzzled by the world’s wealthy.

So, that’s something to think about the next time you’re out shopping. Instead of adding a second T-Bone to your cart, you might want to pick up some squash and pasta. Switching to one vegetarian meal each day can greatly reduce your footprint, while also improving the variety of nutrients in your diet and saving some money too!

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Buying a used hybrid car? Watch out for hidden costs!

Photo courtesy of efusco at Flickr.com.

Hybrid cars make me drool. The idea of getting 50 miles per gallon instead of 25 is almost enough to make me run out and get one today. But, hybrid cars are expensive and there’s an environmental case to be made for getting the full life out of my current car before I go shopping for a new toy.

It’s tempting to try for the best of both worlds and shop around for a used hybrid car. But, we’re rapidly approaching a milestone in the age of hybrid cars. Battery packs from Priuses made in 2001 were only rated for 100,000 miles (what do you call more than one Prius, anyway? Priusi?). Assuming the previous user drove 12,000-15,000 per year, that means the cars are likely to have 100k or more on the odometer. So, a first generation Prius is likely to come with a geriatric battery.

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. Used cars have all sorts of maintenance issues, and car buyers pay a discounted price because they know that costly repairs are a possibility. Battery packs break the mold because battery technology is complicated and hybrid battery packs are shockingly expensive. When these battery packs wear out, they can cost several thousand dollars to replace, and require expert technicians to do the work. From the Newsweek article:

Philip Card of Utica, N.Y., says a Toyota dealer wanted to charge him $3,900 to replace the battery on his 2001 Prius, which had 350,000 miles on it when he bought it used on eBay this year for $4,357.

So, here are a few things to bear in mind:
1) A huge aftermarket is developing for hybrid batteries from wrecked hybrids. If your Prius is totaled by hail damage or a fender bender with an SUV, don’t let a savvy scrap dealer take advantage of you by “taking the wreckage off your hands”.
2) The resale price of hybrids is falling in line with the resale price of the non-hybrid versions. Due to uncertainty over the value of hybrid batteries (and the cost of upcoming replacement), there may be some real deals out there if you can find hybrids with cosmetic wear but value under the hood.

So, Caveat Emptor! When shopping for a used hybrid, it might be a good idea to pay for a diagnostic evaluation of the battery pack. And, if you’re one of those Prius, Insight, or other hybrid drivers who I’m jealous of, here are a few rechargeable battery tips that you can use to get the most mileage from your battery pack before it needs replacing. One way to put these battery saving tips into practice is with a trickle charger that keeps the battery above 50% of charge without overheating it.

Photo courtesy of garyhymes at Flickr.com.

Beat high gas prices – ride the bus or train!

Photo courtesy of
George Morris at Flickr.com.

I recently rode an Amtrak train from Chicago to Dallas, and every seat was full. Compared to my previous experiences on Amtrak, that was an amazing change. Just 6 months ago, I remember that there were 4 empty seats for every one that was claimed. When I asked my fellow passengers why they chose to ride, the hot topic was the high price of gas. Fuel prices are driving up the price of airplane tickets (just last weekend, fares rose $20!), and 3 major airlines died in the first quarter due to oil shock. Drivers are also becoming aware of every drop of fuel that they use – no one likes to see a $50 or $100 charge at the pump!

The silver lining of this is that we’re starting to see the cost of different modes of travel mirror their real price in terms of pollution. High gas prices are making environmentally friendly transport more and more competitive. In effect, this is a preview of how a carbon tax could change the face of travel.

Train and bus ridership are growing like crazy:

As gas price keep climbing, a growing number of Americans are leaving their cars in the garage and getting on board trains. Commuter train lines around the country are reporting big jumps in first quarter ridership: up 15% in the suburbs of Seattle, 13% in the communities north of Miami, 7% in the region surrounding Minneapolis-St. Paul, and better than 5% in New Jersey.

Subways and bus routes are feeling the boost too. People are leaving their cars at home and hopping on public transport. Unfortunately, since many of these commuter services use petroleum based fuel, their costs are rising too. Increased ridership can offset these increased costs in the short term though. It costs almost as much to run an empty train as it does to run a train with 40 people in it. Additional paying passengers add minimal costs while bringing in much needed revenue. Fuel prices are also rising for train and bus operators though. When commuter services charge the same despite rising prices, this can eliminate any efficiency gains.

If the price of oil stays at these levels, there’s likely to be widespread demand for better public transportation:

Five dollar gasoline may be enough to force some people to give up steady use of their personal cars and seek other solutions. For others, the quitting price may be ten or twenty dollars per gallon and for the very wealthy even $100 a gallon gasoline ($80 or $100 thousand a year) would be an acceptable price to pay for the convenience of the private car.

In the case of slowly increasing gasoline prices the problem is one of forming a critical mass that will make economic sense for greatly expanded mass transit. Such a critical mass is likely to come for long distance travel first, for as soon as discretionary air travel becomes unaffordable, the demand for better train and bus service will increase rapidly. Long distance automobile travel may fill some of this gap especially for moving multiple passengers or if cars become significantly more efficient, but for the lone traveler, a long distance car trip could become very expensive.

If you’re undecided about taking the train, here are 9 underappreciated benefits of train travel. Compared to travel by air, the benefits of train travel boil down to lower cost, increased comfort, and reduced hassle from security. Air travel still wins on convenience, reliability, and prestige. Long distance buses are also a great option – some studies suggest that intercity buses the most fuel efficient travel available today:

Based on mileage and passengers in 2004, highway buses achieved an average of 148.4 passenger miles per gallon. That’s more than double achieved by intercity trains which achieved 74.1 passenger miles per gallon. Airlines managed 40.9 passenger miles per gallon, while cars came in last at 35.4 mpg.

Photo courtesy of
VSPA at Flickr.com.

Conserve electricity with an induction stove

Photo courtesy of
PålLøberg at Flickr.com.

The cost of electricity is rising quickly due to increased demand. This summer, we can expect high bills from running the air conditioner and charging batteries. The best way to get on top of the problem is to get ahead of the meter reader by trading in your prehistoric stove for an induction stove.

Unlike other stoves, which cook using radiant heat from gas or electric coils, an induction stove cooks using magnets. It generates a magnetic field that rapidly heats up metal pots and pans, delivering heat right where you need it. In the process, induction stoves consume about half of the energy that conventional stoves use. They also deliver quicker results, heating up cookware in half the time because more of the heat is going where it should:

Induction cooking uses 90% of the energy produced compared to only 55% for a gas burner and 65% for traditional electric ranges.

Best of all, saving power in the kitchen has a multiplier effect! When heat is wasted, it has to go somewhere. With conventional stoves, the waste heat warms up your house (which isn’t great in the middle of summer) and then has to be cooled down with energy intensive air conditioning. When you use an induction stove, you save power twice!

As an added bonus, you can use all your steampunk cast iron and stainless steel cookware – aluminum and glass wont even heat up on the stove.

Photo courtesy of
theTeaLeaf at Flickr.com.

Discover your inner Bruce Wayne

Photo courtesy of jen d. cox at Flickr.com.

Are you fascinated by bats? Have you ever wanted your own Batmobile, Batphone, or Batarang? If you’re counting down the days until the new Batman movie premiers (July 18th, 2008), now is a good time to learn more about the fascinating creatures that inspired the franchise.

There are several major cities with bat colonies. The largest urban colony in North America is in Austin, Texas, under the Congress Avenue Bridge. It has approximately 1.5 million Mexican Free-Tailed Bats and during the summer they eat 10,000-20,000 pounds of insects every night. Another bat colony with large numbers year-round can be found in Houston, Texas. Many other bat nesting sites are scattered throughout Texas and other US states bordering Mexico, including New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

Here’s what it looks like when the bats take flight at sunset:

Bats do a wonderful job of controlling insect populations. Recent studies have shown they eat as many insects as birds do – without their insect control efforts, farmers would lose millions of dollars of crops. Bats are a natural alternative to pesticides. Instead of spraying thousands of gallons of chemicals, many cities have started building bat friendly bridges and protecting bat habitat from development.

Is your yard infested with bugs? One brown bat can eat up to 3000 mosquitoes each night. Bats also control other insects that target humans as well as bugs that like to eat landscaping plants. Even better, bats turn these pests into a highly effective fertilizer.

If you’d like to reduce your use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, why not invite some bats to roost in your yard? With a bat house, you can encourage these insect eaters to start their own small colony. If you have a serious insect problem or if you have Wayne Mansion sized yard, this Deluxe Bat House can provide a home for three times as many bats.

Don’t forget to pick up a Bat Gizmo to complete you Batman experience. This Bat Detector is an amazing gadget that makes ultrasonic bat calls audible to the human ear. With it, you can listen in on your new pet bats and hear how grateful they are for your hospitality!

Photo courtesy of mikemilton at Flickr.com.