Until a hundred years ago as humans we had a simple, uncomplicated biological connect. It was a straight-forward equation: we drew roughly 3000 calories each of energy out of Earth for our food and life's sustenance. Today that number per capita has grown to 100,000 calories. We still need only 3000 calories each to nourish life itself. All the rest of this energy is what we extract from Earth for everything else besides keeping ourselves alive. In some countries, like the US, this per capita number runs at over 200,000 calories.

Some of us are concerned about this. We fret over what we could - and should - really be doing to soften this abuse of resources. Little things fox us in the welter of things that we get to read. What is sustainable development? How can it be started at our homes? Beyond the ceremonial planting of green and getting people to run marathons of various lengths in support of the environment, is there more that we can add to the abstract value of 'sustainability'? What are the little things we can do in our day-to-day lives, to reduce demand for things that people make and market?

Of course, we know that it helps to avoid a plastic bag when you can use a newspaper bag, or a brown bag, or even a jute a bag which you can use for many more years unlike a plastic bag which you throw away in less than a week or after a few uses. Can I avoid using the car when I can use a mobike? Can I avoid using a mobike when I can use a bicycle? Can I avoid using petrol or kerosene or diesel and use other alternate fuels which are renewable?

These are common, and widely-understood ideas of environmental responsibility. And the more of us practising them the better. However, there's actually quite a bit more that you and I can do, without compromise on comfort, with very little as cost incurred, with financial savings that you can gain on energy and water use, and with solutions that are very feasible and within your reach.

Conventional bricks and clay blocks are highly energy intensive. On the other hand, soil-stabilised blocks are naturally baked under the sun, durable, and energy-free. (Above: Soil-stabilised blocks with hydraulic mould.)

 •  Upstream on the Energy Road
 •  The bills we pay
 •  Codifying indigenous building
 •  Waiting for the 'green' light

You could do more by making an effort to understand the simple equations of the environment around us-at the level of your house, your neighborhood, your city, and the country. Not only that, this can be done without the risk of relapsing into intellectualising it and reflecting on some large and fuzzy concepts of sustainability that 'others' and the government should be practicing. It is possible to understand our ecological footprint and its disastrous consequences, not merely in terms of our own behaviour as consumers, but really in terms of the impact on the environment we make. Such a deeper exercise is something, dear reader, you can bring into your lives with a conscious effort you make to bring respectful balance with nature.

Embodied energy

I've reflected on, and wrestled with, for many years the challenge of 'embodied energy' in the materials we use for many things that we need in the humdrum of daily life. When you look at any material, or at even the foods that you buy in a shopping mall or at the vegetable store, think of the distances they have traveled for them to be accessible to you as a consumer.

The tomatoes you see on the shelves have probably traveled 80-100 km for you to be able to buy them conveniently in your neighbourhood. Touch any thing around you at the table you work at, at home or office, and you know it has had to come from the earth with such raw ore or earth or sand that is extracted, and twisted and shaped into products that you can use. They have had to be carted long distances as raw material to some place of manufacture, and then again transported to market centres that gain access to people like you and I.

Look at the travesty of travel that milk takes on its energy-intense journey from the bowels of a cow or buffalo to the time you drink it. When milked, it is warm. In the complex system of distribution that we have over the last 50 years, we collect it from many, then transport it from multiple centres to one processing plant. We then heat it to over 100 deg C at the dairy plant. We then deep-chill it to below 4 deg C to pasteurize. It is then transported to multiple centres with massive amounts of transportation energy incurred again. You buy the milk sachet, heat the entire liter or two liters, make your coffee or tea with a tenth of the entire hot stuff, and put the rest back in the freezer for use another day!

A nominee to the Ignobel Awards worked on a paper some years ago to compute the energy joules used up in the entire traverse from the buffalo's bowels to the human, and concluded that the equivalent of the energy used per liter of milk - in its entire embodied energy cycle - could light up 75 homes for 3 nights with all lights burning!

You could say the same of the building blocks that have been used to construct the house you live in; or the concrete that was used to build the roof of the house; or the wood that was used from either distant Burma or a remote forest in Cameroon! The energy that we use up in transporting materials is about 40 times the energy that the product sometimes uses for its own making. Sustainability in our homes can be secured more efficiently if we picked on materials that use much less energy - not only in the manufacture, but also in their transport.

When it comes to 'building green' there are some simple questions, driven more out of common knowledge and common sense, that we need to ask: How can I invite wind and the sun into my home without having to face the discomfort of heat that is gained by a house? How can I use painting material which uses less energy, or chemicals in its making? How can I use floors that don't travel many thousand miles before they have reached my house construction site? If I buy Italian marble, you know the thousands of 'carbon miles' it has traveled before it is of use to me in my house. But if I buy Kadapa stone, it has traveled only 200 km if I reside in Chennai or Bangalore.

How can I avoid using materials for my floors that use too much energy in their production-vitrified tile needs a furnace at 1200 degrees Celsius for manufacture, while a natural stone uses no artificial energy and is something that we bring from some geological deposit of either slate stone or marble or any other such stone.

Old wisdom says that if I can use the seed or fruit of the tree for making my living, then I live harmoniously. When I cut a tree, I use the capital of the planet. When I use its seed, I live off the interest. That is the difference - between life that is beyond our ecological means, and sustainable living. In this series of four features, we will discuss other aspects of how you can potentially save energy in the process of construction and post-construction; how energy saving is possible every day and how much can you save on your monthly electricity bills; and the future that spells buildings and housing townships going 'grid free' and why that will make a big difference to the world.