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Acting locally, in the local manner

I was chatting with a friend in Sydney, Australia not long ago and came away with an enhanced appreciation of what it means to *act locally*.

My Bay Area was suffering an unseasonable heat wave while hers was unusually rainy, so we talked about how the weather affected our households. “At least I get my water heated for free,” I noted, explaining that we installed a solar-heated hot water system. While she was duly impressed, she replied that systems like that weren’t very practical in her neighborhood because she, like most of her neighbors, has on-demand gas water heating and no hot water tank. Without a tank, solar hot water is problematic because you can’t moderate its temperature.

On the other hand, she wasn’t complaining about the rain. “We have a rooftop rainwater cistern directly plumbed to the clothes washer,” she said. “It rains about the same amount here as there, but it’s distributed all year-round instead of dumping it all in the winter. We almost never need to supplement the cistern.” I found this idea quite enchanting, but such a system would only be useful to me five months of the year.

As we discussed our efforts to save electricity, she reminded me that in Australia, all outlets have switches built in so saving on stand-by power is a little easier. Her challenge is to make the switches more convenient: the ones in the kitchen are fine as they’re at counter height, but the switches behind the TV cabinet are too hard to reach.

These local flavors reminded me of a lecture given by a university professor known for his energy conservation ethic. He had recently visited Japan armed with energy management and measurement devices. When visiting traditional Japanese homes, he had expected to find them horribly inefficient, as they do not feature much insulation. What he found instead is that Japanese approach heating very differently than American. Some rely on micro-heat located where needed instead of central heat. When he joined a family for dinner, he basked in the warmth of a small heater attached to the bottom of the dining table.

In a similar way, I discovered one of my favorite “appliances” in a bed and breakfast kept fairly cool during a New Zealand winter: a mattress pad heater, perfect for a room where sleeping comprised 90% of the room’s use.

Which leads me to wonder what else I might be missing in my immersion in the American version of living lightly, and a West Coast version, at that. Any local practices employed which people would like to share?

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