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From The Grumpy Old Man: Hype Hype Hurray

I’m not so keen on hypes. For me, a hype is when something regularly catches the attention of every day life media. Call me grumpy, but it gives me the creeps when I see what the media manages to make of the things that they cover. A perfect example of this is the coverage on the ecological footprint and the attention that this gets. Being a member of the environmental advisory body in my town and having tried to live as environmentally friendly as possible for a long time now (I didn’t need a formal next president for that) without turning into a freak, I’ve nothing against raising people’s consciousness about such things but I do have my doubts on the manner in which they try to make thing clear.

In Flanders, we had a three episode programme on ‘national’ TV at the end of last year to consider this footprint. It ended up being a horror show titled ‘everybody eco’. I hope it was meant well with the intention to make people aware of things but the way in which it was tackled was rather strange. It started badly with the fact that they wanted the spectators to visualize the fact that an average Belgian citizen has a footprint of 5.6 ha. So they spent hours on a beach with a tractor trying to ‘draw’ a footprint as large as 5.6 ha. I don’t have any personal experience with that, but I do have the nagging feeling that this tractor spent hours regurgitating exhaust fumes in order to do this. And as if that wasn’t enough, the crew, together with a famous weather girl, flew above the result with a helicopter so that the weather girl could express the historical words ‘That’s impressive!’.  All for the benefit of 1 minute of TV. I wonder whether it wouldn’t have been possible to have taken an aerial image of a beach out of the archives and to have drawn a footprint on it electronically. The next minute was spent showing a Swiss guy (who it was claimed was the inventor of the term ecological footprint) who had been flown over to stand on a football field in Brussels to say that things could get bad if we didn’t decrease our footprint to X soccer fields. It was presumably assumed that while the viewer still didn’t realise how large 5,6 ha was they would still know how large such a football field is. Magnanimous but what a waste! Tele conferencing and some computer graphics would have achieved the same effect.

This set the tone for the rest of the series, which gave examples on how things could be done better. These examples were people who were for some reason or other famous in Flanders. TV in Flanders doesn’t seem to be credible anymore if there isn’t a famous person in the show. There are some exceptions: reality TV where TV makers seems to find people who are so extreme, or don’t get it, that the only intention is to ridicule them.

Anyway, back to these examples of famous people. The intention was to show that things could be done better in their every day life at their homes. Judging by the fact that they changed clothing regularly and that they didn’t tape things in one day, I can only presume that the crew probably drove thousands of kilometres in order for the viewer to be able to “visualize” things. I’m not saying that it has to be a boring studio program, but with some decent planning things could have been done better or just simply left out. A stupid example is how they dealt with the subject of food. They said that people should consume things in their proper season (for example not to buy strawberries in winter). Fine with that; I can only applaud this. But then they put forward the proposition that organic meat had a much smaller footprint than non organic. OK, they need less supplementary feeding, but who can guarantee that the fodder was local? The only thing that matters here is that it was organically grown. Less meat – in the assumption that one can find eco friendly alternatives – should be the message instead. Now I’m not a vegetarian myself, but I do regularly cut meat out of the menu. Top of the bill was they wanted to prove that organic meat tastes better than non organic meat. As an organic meat eater by preference (subjective) I can confirm this. My guess though would be that if was able to get my meat from a local farmer who bred his live stock on a less massive way, and slaughtered and treated (without additives) in a less industrial way the difference, taste wise, would be less.

So how did they do the taste test? They baked two pieces of neck end of pork and a famous person had to taste them blindfolded. He ate one little bite of both and confirmed that the organic piece tasted better. What happened to the rest of the meat? How much energy did one use to a. get the meat, b. bake the meat and c. get a film crew over to film the whole lot. All this for just 30 seconds of TV.

There were plenty of contradictory examples in this programme. The most striking example was the one on personal transportation. One of those famous people drives an old timer Range Rover in order to cross the jungle of asphalt roads. So they looked at the alternatives. Suddenly he realized that this 4X4 consumes a lot of fuel and he bought a Saab Biofuel which can also run on bio-ethanol. The only problem is that there is only one (1) petrol station in Belgium that provides this. The programme makers thought that filling the car with fuel would make good TV and thus one drove with this personality to this gas station and then to Brussels (a nearly 200 km round trip for this particular example). And what happened – at the time of filming, the biofuel pump was closed since it wasn’t legal yet. Couldn’t they have just made a phone call or, if it was really necessary, sent only a film crew? Now they made the journey to the personality, did the roundtrip to the gas station and drove back to the production house. Just for 30 seconds dramatized TV.

The next step was to test three alternatives: the hybrid Toyota Prius, the hybrid Lexus SUV and an Opel Zafira Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). This personality drove around on a parking lot which was a least 70 km from his home in order to have his say on the cars. The first one was the Pruis (which is overhyped in my opinion). The only thing that he said, was that it hadn’t enough punch and it was rather small (you known, certain men see a car as an extension …).  What did he expect? The Prius is a city car after all and has no eco use on highways and long trips at all (in the contrary). Then the Lexus. Now that was a car that he liked (that’s a surprise), although he did have to admit that the electro engine served more as an extra boost to the smaller engine than to save the environment. So no hybrid electro fuel car for him. I wonder why I didn’t hear anybody mention the fact that the well to wheel factor is CO2 wise still much higher than on an ordinary midsize car. As last, the Zafira was labelled as impractical due to the fact that, as with 100% electrical cars, to needs to ‘refuel’ a long time (overnight) and has a small radius of action.  Nobody felt the need to mention that a lot of non company cars stand still on average  for 20 hours a day and drive max 100 Km a day.

That was it? No, there was yet another alternative: hydrogen cars. So one went to Germany (yes, yet another X hundred (if not thousand) km round trip) to test a BMW hydrogen model and one was excited. The only negative aspect was that the price at the ‘gas’ station was high. Nothing about the fact that it still needs a lot of power to make the hydrogen and to keep the hydrogen at the right temperature/compression.

As you can imagine, I knitted my eye brows in sheer puzzlement very hard several times. Just as with the fact that a runway has been built on Antartica for scheduled flights. Top environment ministers and scientists are excited about it so that they can ‘study the global warming and the effect on the icebergs’. I might have a short-sighted viewpoint, but what added value has a scheduled flight here that is different from accelerating the global warming?  I once saw a documentary where a ‘scientist’ confirmed that things are melting down. His job was namely to fly over the ice with a helicopter in order to check the status of it. He had been doing this daily for more than 10 years. The only thing that apparently matters is that the end justifies the means.

So what can you and I do in our every day life? What about using public transport? I always hear this as a wonder solution. The programme mentioned above did the same route with the car as with public transportation. The latter was faster. That isn’t always the case though. Public transportation in Belgium is focused on cities and the major axes. I lived in Brussels for 25 years and public transport was indeed the best and quickest method of transportation. But I live closer to work now and guess what? In the best circumstance, it’ll take me 1h07 mins and 1682m by foot (one way) to reach work. Even if I’m stuck in traffic endlessly, it wouldn’t last that long. And if I’m stuck, the bus will too. An alternative would be bicycle, but this isn’t practical for picking my kids up from school, and let’s face it: I don’t see myself doing 30-40 Km a day in all possible weather. Maybe selfish, but realistic. I do take the bike on shorter routes or sometimes even go by foot in my town.

So back to cars? We can’t all change our cars from one day to another. After all, I don’t see us driving with cars like this Reva car. It’s not that I’m a purist and I admit it’s far from a practical car. It hasn’t the right look either and let’s face it, people will rather judge on that instead of the ecological factor. Instead one should consider a car which fits into the practical needs. It all depends how many people you have to transport and on which type of roads. As said, a hybrid like a Prius will score better in the city than on motorways. Recent studies even indicate that – in the contrary to what is generally assumed – modern diesels with a particle filter score even better than diesel. 

Whatever the choice, you’ll need to automatically exclude SUVs, 4×4 and sports cars. They’re no use at all. Despite the fact that e.g. Belgian roads are not maintained well, a normal car should still be sufficient. Since in most parts of Europe we can’t drive any faster than 102 or 130 Km/, a sports car capable of doing more than 200 km/h is of no particular use. Even in Germany, one can’t drive fast anymore due to traffic jams.
It’s not only the car that will determine the consumption and C02 exhaust. A major factor is the driving style. A study revealed that most people don’t use their car properly and thus all the fuel reduction measures introduced by technology are ineffective due to unsuitable driving. What is sensible driving anyway? A lot of things have been written about eco-driving. Here I’ve tried to list some of them for you.

  1. Maintain your car regularly as indicated in the advised maintenance scheme. You may think that it’ll only benefit the garages, but a well oiled engine runs smoother
  2. Keep the tyres at the advised pressure taking the load into account. . Under-inflated will not only increase fuel consumption due to more friction but will tear down more rapidly (that’s also the case for over pressurised tyres)
  3. Remove any roof- or bike-racks and ski trunks when not needed. You may find it a hassle to (dis)mount them but they influence the airflow a lot.
  4. Same goes for the things in your boot. Don’t drive around with groceries, etc.
  5. Use airco and heating only when it’s absolutely necessary (to prevent you from either melting down or freezing at the steering wheel). No need to have a constant temperature of 21 degrees Celsius. Adapt you clothing to the conditions. Don’t drive with an open window either even if the Mythbusters show tries to tell you that it’s better to open your window under a certain speed.
  6. Avoid short journeys. An engine won’t have to time to achieve an efficient engine operating temperature.
  7. For that reason, you should park your car in the direction of the road you will depart by later. Manoeuvring with a cold engine isn’t advisable. Also drive off immediately when starting from cold.
  8. Avoid severe accelerations. But I see the opposite in some advice where they claim that you need to accelerate as fast as possible in order to do the second item as quickly as possible
  9. Change gear at 2000 rpm for diesel and 2500 rmp for petrol engines. Also consider a robotized gearbox (which is different from an automatic) which can change on a more efficient way while keeping the most ideal moment for that situation in mind.
  10. Avoid (heavy) braking. Try to brake on the engine as much as possible. In order to do that, you need to drive with a forward-looking mind and anticipate circumstances.
  11. Same thing counts for throttling up. Make use of laws of gravity and the weight of the car on e.g. down hills.
  12. Switch off whenever you stand still. Some sources say that it’s already efficient after 20 seconds, some say two minutes

As you can see, one can contribute effectively without very much effort as long as you keep some rules in mind. There are many more things one can do at home, but that will be something for another web log sometime.

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  • Eddy – Well done.  Alas, US cars rarely are available with manual transmissions, so I’m forced to watch my tachometer to gauge shift points.  Newer cars have digital feedback on miles/gallon consumption.  Now if I could get off my lazy chair and walk to the store instead of driving I would be a better conservationist…  jim
    • Eddy and Jim,
      Thanks to you both for providing executable ideas that are permeating into my own family’s habits.  Personal->Community->Organizational is the recurring theme in my mind.
      Personally- We have entirely gone back to tap water with a genuine nod to Jim.  As for car usage.  In the 10 years I’m back in the states, we’ve been fairly modest with that, but Eddy’s ideas are very helpful and easily to implement. Thanks Eddy! And Jim, besides walking (which isn’t always practical in our rushed and harried lifestyle), we’ve spent time errand-plotting and carpooling.  I really drum that in to all our kids and extended kids who incidently are all walking to school and feeling that they are contributing to a little goodness act (not punished).  Also,we generally don’t go to market without calling a family member or friend to share these runs or give us shopping lists or take ours with them.  I read somewhere there are communities experimenting with using a kind of online geomapping to do that.
      These tips map well to yours: executable personal sustainability
    • Jim,

      Check tip 9. Robotised gear boxes can be more energy efficient than manual gear boxes. I’ve one on my (German) diesel car and I have to say that I can’t miss it anymore.


  • well listed. Don’t have a car yet but will remember them when I get one. But I hate seeing people in my locality goign to the neighbourhood grocery store in their car or bikes when you can simply walk the under 500m (in 10 mins). At least that forces you to walk which is exercise.