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What’s Old Is New

Fifty years ago, Americans used a fraction of the energy they now consider normal. People drove less, lived in smaller homes, ate local food, and took fewer trips abroad. Some of the latest carbon-cutting concepts seem to draw inspiration from that simpler time.

The milkman is making a comeback, along with community-supported agriculture and stores that deliver groceries. The overall reduction in driving can be significant. Even though the groceries arrive in a truck, the delivery routes are optimized to reduce travel, and carbon emissions drop. If grocery services become routine, parking lots will shrink—an added environmental and aesthetic benefit.

In the old days, people owned less. Now, creative new business models let you use products without the burdens of ownership. Zipcar, Flexcar, and their European counterparts offer strategically located cars that you rent by the hour. Zipcar claims that members drive fewer miles per year than car owners, and that each of its cars keeps several vehicles off the road.

Another “new” concept reaches back to the days when worn products were repaired, not trashed. But it has a new name: extended producer responsibility. Instead of buying wall-to-wall carpet, you contract for carpet service. When you would normally discard the carpet, the company takes it back, recycles the pile, and provides a replacement made from recycled material. This eliminates a vast amount of landfill waste and reduces the demand for virgin plastic. As similar concepts spread through other industries, especially electronics, we can expect to see both design modifications and carbon reductions.

Suburban sprawl notwithstanding, more than 40 percent of trips in the United States are of less than two miles. Decades ago, most short trips would have been made on foot, by bicycle, or by public transportation. But not today. Thanks to poor planning, high traffic volumes, and lack of investment, the streets in many communities are hazardous for bikes and the sidewalks inadequate for pedestrians. More than 90 percent of short trips are made by car. This is changing as cities like Chicago, Austin, and Boulder (and lately even Boston!) add amenities for bicycles and pedestrians.

As these “innovations” show, it may possible to turn back the clock on energy use without giving up comfort or convenience.

ANN RAPPAPORT, G92, who holds a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Tufts, is a lecturer in the university’s department of urban and environmental policy and planning and codirector of the Tufts Climate Initiative.

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