Cheapskates Unite to Save Environment

 The Original Cheapskate 

Thoughts on environmentalism and the shocking election outcome.

By Reese Erlich

East Bay Monthly, December 2016

As the holiday season gets into gear, many East Bay residents spend far more than they can afford on gifts that end up in closets. So let me put in a word for the much-derided Ebenezer Scrooge. Spend less and help save the environment.

For many years the culture of environmentalism has been associated with white, upper-income people. Save the Bay, Save the Whales—while important issues—seem very distant to working-class folks struggling to survive. So I propose a rather offbeat method of bridging the gap. For most of my life, like Scrooge, I was a cheapskate. I once complained about buying a used armchair from Goodwill because it cost $5. Admittedly, that was a few years ago. But I’ve discovered that being a cheapskate has an upside. It made me an early environmentalist.

Case Study No. 1:Brewing Good Coffee

In the 1960s, I developed a taste for filter coffee, back when percolators were popular. Percolators basically reboiled the coffee endlessly into a dark, bitter mess. Next time some old geezers talk fondly of the “good old days,” just remind them of percolated coffee.

Early filter coffee was popularized by Chemex, which used an hour-glass shaped carafe and filter paper. Later machines like Mr. Coffee used a mesh filter instead of the paper. Both methods produced good coffee, but the wire-mesh filter was reusable. And it was cheaper because you didn’t buy filters. Later, I figured out that I, and my fellow mesh users, were preventing uncountable tons of waste paper being stuffed into landfills.

In the early 1980s I was invited to a friend’s house in Belgium where he brewed an espresso made with a home espresso machine. Until then, I had only enjoyed espresso at commercial establishments. As soon as home electric espresso machines became available in the United States, I bought one. They use less coffee than filter machines, and espresso tastes better. I became a coffee revolutionary at a time when most Americans were drinking bilge.

Fast-forward to 2016. When I was shopping for a new espresso machine at Oakland’s Bed, Bath & Beyond, the store carried almost no traditional espresso machines, having replaced them with Nespresso, Keurig, and similar brands. These machines make a single cup at a time and require small plastic containers, or pods, of ground coffee. You must buy the pods provided by the manufacturer. It costs more, gives less choice of coffee beans, and produces an environmental disaster of wasted pods. The nonreclyclable Keurig pods sold in one year, if put end to end, “would circle the globe roughly 10 times,” according to The New York Times.

Recently, Keurig began producing some recyclable pods, but they still won’t be compostable. And the Times even questioned the practicality of recycling the tiny pods.

They are convenient but are they necessary? Never has technology provided a more useless product than single-cup coffeemakers.

Case Study No. 2: Bottled Water

In 1966, I hitchhiked around Europe for $5 per day, a feat that was actually possible by sleeping in hostels and eating at student cafeterias. Europeans traditionally drank bottled water with meals. But I saw no reason to pay good money for water that could be obtained for free from any tap. For my efforts, I was considered a gauche American.

Europeans claim health benefits for their bottled spring water, a dubious assertion. But in the United States, corporate bottled water has become popular, despite a lack of health benefits or significant taste difference. Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coca Cola’s Dasani are no better than the tap water in most cities.

We’ve been duped into paying a lot of money for what should be free. If you feel compelled to “hydrate” all the time, buy a water bottle and fill it with tap water. And tell the snooty waiter at the restaurant to skip the Pellegrino and add ice to the tap water.

Case Study No 3: The Stick-Shift Car

Manual transmission cars used to cost less and get better gas mileage than automatics. From the time I could afford to buy a car—a 1970 green Saab 96, if you must know—it was always a stick shift. In addition to being cheaper and more environmentally friendly, manual shift gives the driver better control. I know, driving a car produces pollution. But let’s face it: Riding a bicycle isn’t practical for lots of folks, including this old geezer.

So what did the auto manufacturers do with stick shifts? They are all but discontinued. Today, they cost more, usually must be special ordered, and no longer produce significantly better gas mileage.

GM, meet Keurig.




I was just as shocked by Donald Trump’s victory as everyone else. There were a lot more angry white guys out there than the polls or the pundits predicted. Trump managed to convince whites left out of the economic recovery that a billionaire crook would be their salvation.

The elections also revealed a fatal flaw in mainstream Democratic Party thinking. The party has spent decades becoming more moderate to attract centrist voters. In fact, the party should have campaigned with a far more progressive populism in order to reach those alienated from mainstream politics.

Bernie Sanders may well have been able to win against Trump. Hilary Clinton brought a lot of baggage, mistrust, and suspicion that she would renege on her liberal promises.

She remains a centrist corporate Democrat who—left unchecked—would have gone soft on Wall Street, supported disastrous trade agreements, and engaged in escalating wars overseas.

The problem is: Trump is worse. Nixon in 1968 and Bush Jr. in 2000 also won election and had initial popularity. But today they are recognized as two of the worst presidents in modern history. Trump doesn’t even have their political abilities. Trump will make serious mistakes and a mass people’s movement will help expose them.

Don’t despair—organize. We have nothing to lose but our country.




I’m always anxious to meet East Bay Monthly readers. And you may be just a little curious about me. So here’s our chance to hook up. The updated, paperback edition of my book came out recently. Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect, foreword by Noam Chomsky, takes a critical look at all the Middle East players. I will be speaking about Syria at noon Dec. 9 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Come up and say hi.


Oakland-based journalist Reese Erlich’s column appears regularly in the East Bay Monthly. Follow him at, on Facebook “Reese Erlich” and Twitter @ReeseErlich. His email is .









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