The coming of the colder weather means that the wood stove in my living room has been brought back to life, and I have spent several nights already this fall watching the fire flickering through its glass front. I, like many of my neighbors and I presume many other residents of the UP, burn wood at home as a source of heat. Although there’s another heating source in my home (propane), I prefer to use the wood burning stove. Yet I’ve recently been reading up on the down sides of burning wood, and have been contemplating what it means for living sustainably.
There’s a lot of science out there about the harmful emissions from burning wood. One report claims that it could be as harmful for you as cigarette smoke or as toxic as what comes out of a diesel tailpipe. Apparently, some physicians in Utah have even proposed banning wood burning stoves in the state (although at least one Utah resident is starkly opposed). The Environmental Protection Agency has set emissions limits on wood burning stoves, and recommends using only newer, more efficient, EPA certified stoves. Yet despite concerns about their negative environmental impacts from emissions, people are arguably driven to burn wood for heat for economic reasons – it’s less expensive than other, fossil-fuel derived heat sources.
The appeal of a wood burning stove, for me, goes beyond economic considerations. Burning wood for heat means that the individual or family seeking heat becomes entirely responsible for their own comfort. Instead of having to pay a monthly bill and rely on a system of technical experts, invisible technologies, and far away bureaucracies, burning wood for heat requires that we rely on ourselves. Burning wood as a heat source mirrors, to me, what energy expert Amory Lovins said long ago when contrasting energy systems on the “hard path” and the “soft path” – it puts energy usage into the hands of the user, making us reliant on our own knowledge, experience, and participation.
At least, that’s always been my experience with using wood as a heat source. Perhaps I would feel very differently about it if I’d ever had to pay for wood to burn, instead of relying on resources on my private property. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to land with suitable wood to burn, a real issue of justice that I would be remiss to ignore. Nonetheless, when I look at the flickering firelight in my wood burning stove, I can’t help but contemplate how we define, measure, and pursue sustainability. Is it just about emissions calculations? Do issues of ownership matter? I am interested in pursuing alternatives where individuals and communities can take more ownership and be more responsible for the resources we all depend upon – like clean water, healthy food, and enough energy to provide for our needs and comforts. Does the concept of sustainability captures my concerns about social organization or community resilience, or do I need to look elsewhere for a concept that more accurately represents my interest in ‘sustainable’ living?