12 Sustainability Leadership Lessons Unplugging My Fridge for 6.5 Months Taught Me

June 9, 2021 by Joshua
in Leadership, Nature

Isn’t a refrigerator essential? Isn’t life with them better?

I thought so. I’ll quote my mom from my podcast to illustrate where I came from:

I grew up where it was easily ninety degrees every single day. In fact, where I worked, the store if it got ninety degrees outside we got to close the store and go home because it was that unsafe. To me, air conditioning was wonderful. And to my mom and my grandmother, not having to use ice box refrigerators was great. I really appreciate all of that today and I understand that we’ve gone overboard with air conditioning. It’s really bad for the environment and one should learn how to get along with these temperatures.

But Josh, it was really hot in South Dakota. Unless you had really, really good screens, when you opened the windows you were covered with mosquito bites. I don’t want to revisit that at all ever. I am willing to use fans and cut out a lot of air conditioning but to me it means giving up a lot that made my life a lot better.

I didn’t have much but what I had was good. It seems to me like you’re asking me—not you personally—but we’re saying stop doing these things that brought joy. I’m not excessive.

Her experience is no air conditioning bad, air conditioning good. No fridge bad, fridge good. Most of us share the experience and belief. It’s our culture. As long as we don’t challenge our beliefs and culture, we’re stuck polluting. We’ll keep sleepwalking into an uninhabitable Earth.

But people lived without refrigeration for hundreds of thousands of years. Were they all miserable all the time? Other cultures always look odd until we get them.

Changing Culture from Polluting to Stewarding

To change American and global culture to embrace stewardship and pollute less, not thinking it means deprivation, sacrifice, burden, and chore, but joy, fun, freedom, connection, community, meaning, and purpose, a leader needs experience in three areas:

  1. Leading people
  2. Science
  3. Living the values he or she proposes others adopt

Most people have one or two. I know of almost no one with all three. Many scientists, educators, and journalists know science, but not how to lead. They spread facts, figures, and instruction, where rarely lead people to change. Many leaders don’t know science so they promote ideas that sound nice but don’t work.

Even among people who lead and know science—a rare combination—few to none have tried to live sustainably. Sadly and unintentionally, they present solutions as abstract at best, more often as something even they don’t want but we have to.

I’ve Been to the Mountain Top and Seen the Promised Land

I don’t avoid packaged food and flying to deprive myself, nor because I believe my contributions divided by 7.8 billion round off to more than zero. I do it on a personal level to live by my values and not pollute. But from a sustainability leadership perspective, I do it to learn what living sustainably means and what the transition requires.

Changing a lifestyle isn’t a matter of new technology or instruction. It takes new role models, beliefs, stories, images, support, community, and things like that. The challenge of building muscle at the gym isn’t know what weights to lift. It’s how to go when you don’t feel like it or your friends discourage you, handling injuries or slow progress, diet, sleep, great coaching, and so on.

In Martin Luther King speak, to reach the promised land, you have to climb the mountain, which few people want to do first. They don’t see the value. Someone has to go first and show it can be done. A few will follow. Then it becomes mainstream.

Why I Unplugged My Fridge

I recorded a podcast episode that goes into more depth, but the biggest reason I tried the experiment is that renewable power sources are intermittent. Could I live so if the power went down I didn’t suffer? Making grids have more uptime costs money, reduces energy security, and requires highly polluting peaker plants and nuclear.

We’re on a treadmill of every time we enable our grid to provide more power and uptime, we use it all up. We started browning out power grids with air conditioning in the 1940s. Since then we built them to much greater capacity, but we see brownouts as much as ever. We keep making ourselves dependent at tremendous cost and insecurity for marginal benefit. That’s our choice.

What if we made ourselves resilient? What if, like most of the world, we could handle the power going down more? We’d save money, increase energy security, and could get by with only renewables, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Renewable Electricity Futures Study.

Imagine! We could live on only solar and wind by spending less money. A major hurdle is refrigerators. Making our culture resilient to them could save us money, make us resilient, and enable us to switch to renewables. Can we live in the modern world without them?

Before I unplugged mine the first time, in December 2019, I doubted I could make it a day or two. I made it three months! The next time I tried, last November, I made it over six and a half months!

What I learned Living Without a Fridge for Six and a Half Months

  1. Face problem, then solve it. Don’t try to solve it in the abstract. It’s easier to figure out how to preserve food when your food is going to go bad if you don’t than to imagine what you’d do hypothetically. Then your imagination comes up with more possibilities than would arise, paralyzing you from acting.
  2. We connect with other cuisines more by living in our own culture than visiting others. February and March in New York mean parsnips, beets, potatoes, and mostly root vegetables plus the greens I fermented or sprouted. What sounds subtractive actually makes the process constructive and creative. How do I make what I have taste good? This restriction connects me more with other cultures because their cuisines emerged from that constraint. We may use different vegetables, but we connect culturally. Now I see visiting another culture for a weekend or even a few months more like visiting a zoo. We also undermine our own culture. Most tourist places have restaurants from everywhere. We’re turning once-unique cultures into a global mesh with decreasing distinction. Cooking local moves in the other direction.
  3. Less tech means more connection. Less technology forces me to learn what to do from family, friends, and people with similar goals, like authors and people who make videos. This exercise connected me with people. It revealed that technology generally separates us more than connects us. Of course, exceptions exist.
  4. Fermentation and sprouting are easy and fun. Before this experience, fermentation sounded scary, dangerous, and hard. I didn’t think about sprouting at all. Now I see fermentation as how civilization began and quick and easy, producing rich and complex flavors. I can do it simply now, basically chopping vegetables, adding salt, mixing them, and putting them in a jar. I started with sauerkraut and vinegar and moved to chutneys, kvass, and fermenting random vegetables and fruit to keep them edible. Bean sprouts took less time and effort at pennies a pound.
  5. The exercise was about resilience more than power. Few things are more repellent than neediness and entitlement. Do you know anyone you like more for their neediness? Well, needing a fridge is needy. Our technologies are supposed to make us more capable but are making us more dependent and needy.
  6. Whole fruits and vegetables last longer than I expected. Before this exercise, I thought packaging extended the lives of things, but fruits and vegetables, especially root vegetables, stay fresh a long time. Cabbage, beets, potatoes, and winter vegetables can stay fresh weeks to months without special treatment, longer with fermentation. A lot of packaged stuff starts going bad soon after opening. Some of it never decomposes because it contains no nutrition to attract microbiota that would eat it.
  7. Living by a value anew makes me want to solve more, like going off-grid. Since I started by thinking this challenge was beyond my abilities, I considered it a goal, and a stretch at that. As the weather warmed, I expected every week to be as far as I could go. Then March led to April. I kept expanding my skills to ferment and keep things fresh otherwise, which led to May, which led to June. The more I learned the more I saw I could do more. For example, seeing monthly electric charges on my bill of $1.70, $1.70, and $1.40 got me wondering how low I could go. Could I go off the electric grid for months at a time? I don’t yet know, but the question prompted me to start researching and experimenting with living on solar. I’m seeing if I can disconnect from Con Ed next time. Stay tuned.
  8. We’re freaking spoiled and entitled. American culture and the cultures of most peer countries make us dependent, spoiled, and entitled, insensitive and dismissive of people we know we’re hurting. Most people who are spoiled and entitled don’t know it. No one said no to them and they prefer keeping it that way. But I think we all know they’d prefer not to be spoiled if they knew. We are spoiled. We don’t want anyone denying us our fleeting indulgences either, but expand our horizons and we’ll stop being so entitled. In the middle of my experiment, the New York Times posted When One Fridge Is Not Enough, which started: “For many Americans, a second fridge—and sometimes a third—is another member of the family” with pictures of giant refrigerators filled with expensive, unhealthy, needless doof. Member of the family? What happened to us?
  9. Everyone wants to protect elderly and helpless, not thinking through that you can adjust for them. Common first reactions to hearing what I’m doing begin with, “You can do it because you’re privileged,” though not with questions to learn if I am or not. Something about me leads people to conclude that I must be privileged and out of touch with the lives of others. In any case, of course people range in their dependence on refrigerators and other technology. That some people need more doesn’t mean we can’t change for everyone else, nor should it stop us from thinking and discussing the possibilities.
  10. Freedom is opposite of neediness. The more I needed a fridge, the less freedom I had. I don’t mean political freedom. I mean mental, emotional, and physical freedom. Needing a fridge means dependence. Not needing one opens the world to where and what I can eat.
  11. The key word in “dependence on foreign oil” isn’t ‘foreign.’ It’s ‘dependence.’ Pundits talks about our dependence on foreign oil as if needing it from another country makes America unstable. On the contrary, the dependence is the main problem. Wherever it comes from, neediness means people can control us. When has desperation improved your life?
  12. Sustainability isn’t a goal or target but skills that once you start you find more. Speaking of commitments to pollute less, I picked up the following pattern from my podcast guests: guests who had already acted in stewardship the most tended to come up fastest with new things they could do. People who hadn’t done much tended to give up or push back. They’d say they already drove an electric car and avoided bottled water, ask (rhetorically) what more could they do, and declare themselves one of the good guys and stop thinking about it.

Future generations will recoil in horror at our choosing comfort and convenience that contributes to ten thousand years of degrading Earth’s ability to sustain life. We wantonly create suffering by compartmentalizing activities we think will improve our lives from the pollution they cause.

I’m describing a social, emotional problem. Technology rarely solves social and emotional problems Solving our social and emotional problems will not likely come from more tech. More often it will come from less, which helps us learn our values and act on them.

Learn Resilience Like Learning to Raise a Child

How does one learn to raise a child?

You can learn all you want before the child is born, but giving birth is where the learning begins. All the hypothetical becomes real and counts.

If we want to lower emissions, building more solar and wind is nice. I’m glad we’re doing it, but we’re using more than we need. Shutting down fossil fuel-based energy will transition us faster. Of course, plan for the helpless so their lights don’t go out. But face the problem to solve it. Analyzing and planning more than we have keep delaying and confusing. Let’s give birth to the baby. When we face actual problems, entrepreneurs will innovate the solutions to them. Not economists publishing papers on their imaginations. Create new markets. Use different metrics than GDP.

Baker’s Dozen

Here’s a baker’s dozen lesson 13. Turning on fridge felt gross. I plugged it in at last because today hit 90F (32C) and yesterday began my summer CSA, meaning many fresh leafy greens that would wilt in the heat.

I unplugged it November 22, expecting to last to March and made it to June instead. Next time I’ll start earlier to get month or two extra. Maybe October or September. Maybe I’ll try sooner.

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