My husband and I live in China, which you’re probably aware is one of the most polluted countries in the world right now. Is it as bad as the media makes it sound? Well… sometimes. We live in Chengdu, which has relatively clean air for its size (fifth largest city in the country) due to its propensity for rain and the mountains that surround it, but even so, Nathan wears a mask all winter long. In the past year, I only wore my mask a handful of times—but I did get sick from the pollution almost as many times.
We did have one or two days of “hazardous” air quality last winter.
Before we moved to China, I was very concerned about climate change; my senior year of college I wrote my 100-page creative writing “thesis” on climate change in the Midwest, and it was my second major climate-related writing project. I have a third in the planning stages, incidentally.
But when we moved to China, our focus on the environment really sharpened. It’s easy to ignore environmental problems when you live in a developed country. It’s a very different perspective when you live next to a waterway that alternates between olive green and dog-poop brown, when you have to boil the tap water before you can drink it*, when you might get food poisoning from eating the vegetables raw. When breathing the air can make you sick.
*even then it might not strictly be safe—I had a student miss class last semester because he had to have surgery to remove collected sediment (“small rocks,” as he put it) from his stomach.
I wouldn’t want to drink that water…
We quit eating animal products in January, after learning that animal agriculture accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all transportation combined. And when we learned that more than 70% of Chinese electricity comes from coal, we resolved to do our part in reducing that coal burning by drastically reducing our energy consumption.
In fact, we reduced it to less than 1/5 of what it was before.
For a little context, we receive a 300RMB energy allowance per month—evidently the average monthly energy consumption of a three-person Chinese family. When we first arrived, we used that amount approximately monthly. But in February we decided to take seriously the environmental burden of our energy consumption, and we took some big steps to cut back. This is how we used less than one month’s energy allowance (200RMB) to last us five months—without sacrificing our comfort.
We turned off the lights.
This is such an obvious solution, it’s the first energy-saving measure you hear: turn the lights off when you leave the room. But why can’t you turn the lights off while you’re in the room?
We don’t get great natural lighting in our apartment. In fact, our natural lighting situation is pretty abysmal. Our apartment’s windows face away from the sun, a few hundred feet from the next tall apartment building, with trees in between. Add that to the fact that Chengdu has fewer sunny days than Seattle, and you’ve got a recipe for a dark apartment.
But you know what? We can still see. We rarely turn the lights on before 7 or 8pm, except for the bathroom light and a small LED lamp that Nathan uses to study Chinese by. Low light is easy to get used to, even a bit relaxing. And if you have bad eyesight or find it hard to focus in low lighting, a small, energy-efficient lamp that lets off cool-colored light will be at least as effective as an overhead light.
At night, of course, we do turn on lights—but only the lights we’re actually using.
We turned off the A/C and the heater.
This one is a little conditional, and it’s the one that makes people think we’re crazy. It only gets down to about 40 Fahrenheit (about 4 Celsius) during your average Chengdu winter. I grew up in Wisconsin—40 Fahrenheit is a balmy spring day to me! But the climate control in our apartment was our biggest energy sink by far, so it was an obvious choice to stop.
That said, not using the heater still took some adjusting. Even if, like me, you don’t think 40 degrees is a big deal, people expect to be warm and comfortable in their home, and after a few days at those temperatures, you start feeling cold to the bone.
But there are easy solutions to this that are much more energy-efficient than using your heater!
For one thing, long underwear. Buy a comfortable, high-quality pair of long underwear. Mine is purple and lined with synthetic fleece inside. They’re comfortable, cozy, and oh-so-warm. And I wear them all winter. If long underwear alone isn’t warm enough, layer on those sweaters! Who doesn’t love an oversized sweater? I mean, really? Shouldn’t you be celebrating the excuse to walk around basically covered in blankets all day?
For another thing, we bought heat fans. This is something I’ve never seen in the United States, but they’re everywhere in China. Now, these still use electricity to run, so we do try not to use them too much. But because you’re able to focus a blast of heat directly onto your body, you don’t need them on for too long. You can turn one on facing you until you feel nice and toasty, then turn it back off until you’re cold again.
We don’t use a dishwasher or a clothes dryer.
Okay, that’s mostly because we don’t own either one, and if I had access to a dishwasher I would definitely use it. But I don’t particularly miss a clothes dryer. We just have a line strung up in our laundry room, and we keep that small window open to dry our clothes more effectively. (We close the door to the laundry room during the cold months to try and contain the cold air.)
Additionally, our refrigerator is very small—it doesn’t even come up to my shoulders. How do we live with a small refrigerator? Easy: we eat a fresh diet of plant-based whole foods. We don’t waste space on drinks like milk, juice, or soda. We keep almost exclusively condiments and leftovers in our refrigerator, because the fresh produce that makes up a majority of our diet is by and large purchased within a day of when we plan to eat it, at one of the markets within a 15-minute walk of our apartment.
We made DIY dehumidifiers.
Chengdu is extremely damp. When we first moved into our apartment, it had a horror-movie mold problem, which it had evidently cultivated over the course of just one rainy, humid summer sans inhabitants. Aside from plugging some holes with spray foam and scrubbing the shit out of our walls with bleach water, we had to find a way to dehumidify our apartment. But we didn’t want to buy a dehumidifier, for both cost and environmental reasons. So instead we bought a few cute buckets, some colanders that approximately fit the mouths of the buckets, and some bags of calcium chloride. You just put the colander inside the bucket and add calcium chloride to it—and boom! Instant energy-efficient dehumidifier. The bucket collects the water from the atmosphere.
You can buy calcium chloride quite cheap online, at least here in China!
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And here we are, living in comfort with low energy costs! I hope you’ve found this post somewhat informative! Make sure to follow me for more posts about living low on the food, energy, and generational chain, from vegan health posts to cheap and ethical fashion and lifestyle posts and more!