Week of 11/02/2008

Dear EarthTalk: My wife and I drive more than 20,000 miles a year in our recreational vehicle (RV) which gets about seven miles to the gallon, but high fuel prices are eating into our nest egg. Are there more fuel efficient ways to enjoy the RV lifestyle?

—Walter Hendricks, Tampa, Florida

Major RV manufacturers all report a downturn in sales since the price of fuel started to skyrocket a few years ago. A typical RV weighs more and gets worse gas mileage than an 18-wheeler truck, and those who might have bought one in the past to save money on lodging and food on their road travels are now realizing that filling "er up might end up costing more than hotels and restaurants.

But as with the auto and truck industry overall, some RV manufacturers are scrambling to incorporate new features and design new models with better fuel efficiency and a lower overall carbon footprint.

According to the website RV.net, several factors go into designing a greener RV. First and foremost is reducing weight, which can be accomplished by using lighter materials and improving the structural design. Reducing the size of RV engines also can help reduce fuel consumption (as well as overall weight)—if owners can live with trading off some horsepower, that is. More efficient transmissions, better aerodynamics and increased non-powered engine cooling round out the suggestions on RV.net.

RV makers are scrambling to green up their offerings in response to consumer demand and high fuel prices. Pictured: Damon Motor Coach's Avanti, which offers a 70 percent or more increase in fuel economy over other large ("Class A") RVs.
© Damon Motor Coach

Some of these features can be found in the new Avanti line of RVs from Indiana-based Damon Motor Coach, which offers a 70 percent or more increase in fuel economy over other large ("Class A") RVs. Damon essentially converted the ultra-efficient chassis, engine and transmission of a leading parcel delivery fleet truck—package delivery companies optimize for fuel efficiency in their fleets to save on fuel—for use as an RV. The Avanti's chassis also sits lower than other RVs, so it gets less wind resistance. These factors add up in fuel efficiency—14.5 miles per gallon—double that of other RVs in its class.

Of course, size isn't everything. Ontario-based Roadtrek takes stripped down commercial vans—such as the Chevrolet Express or Dodge Sprinter—and converts them into deluxe, albeit smaller, motor homes with fuel efficiency ranging from 15 to 30 miles per gallon. Meanwhile, Sportsmobile also offers a wide range of converted GM and Ford vans customized as motor homes. Owners of Volkswagen's popular "pop-top" Eurovan, discontinued in North America in 2003, can reportedly sell their vans for what they paid for them new, even with high mileage, due to surging demand and lack of supply.

Another option for reducing fuel consumption is to put a "slide-in" camper-top onto an existing pick-up truck. The additional weight will decrease fuel efficiency slightly, but you"ll still get much better mileage than with any kind of large RV. Those used to roomier accommodations might opt to tow a "fifth-wheel"—a large RV-style trailer with all the amenities—behind a suitable car, pick-up or SUV with a trailer hitch.

But no matter what, living on the road is not going to be good for your carbon footprint or for the environment in general. If the environment is a big concern, giving up the RV—and outfitting your home with energy efficient windows and appliances—might just be the most responsible thing you can do.

CONTACTS: RV.net; Damon Motor Coach; Roadtrek; Sportsmobile


Dear EarthTalk: I caught the tail end of a discussion about "ecopsychology" recently on the radio, something about the negative impacts of people not communing with nature enough, spending too much time watching TV, sitting at computers, etc… Can you enlighten?

—Bridget W., Seattle, WA

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv, argues that kids are so plugged into television and video games that they've lost their connection to the natural world.
© Algonquin Books

The term ecopsychology, first coined by writer and theorist Theodore Roszak in his 1992 book, Voice of the Earth, is loosely defined as the connection between ecology and human psychology. Roszak argues that humans can heal what he calls their "psychological alienation" from nature and build a more sustainable society if they recognize that we all have an innate emotional bond with the natural world.

The basic premise is that we operate under an illusion that people are separate from nature, and that humans are more apt to derive comfort and even inspiration from contact with the natural world—with which they evolved over the millennia—than with the relatively recent construct of modern urban society. Distancing ourselves from nature, Roszak maintains, has negative psychological consequences for people and also leads to ecological devastation at the hands of a society that, as a result, lacks empathy for nature.

In a more recent essay called "Ecopsychology: Eight Principles," Roszak, who went on to start the non-profit Ecopsychology Institute, states that the core of the mind is the ecological unconscious, which, if repressed, can lead to an "insane" treatment of nature. "For ecopsychology, repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society," he writes, adding that "open access to the ecological unconscious is the path to sanity."

While many psychotherapists have adopted aspects of ecopsychology in treating various mental illnesses and psychological disorders, the teachings of Roszak and other contributors to the still-evolving field can be helpful even for those not in need of a therapist's care. John V. Davis, a Naropa University professor who teaches and writes about ecopsychology, for example, says that meditating in the outdoors, participating in wilderness retreats, involving oneself in nature-based festivals or celebrations of the seasons or other natural phenomena, joining in Earth-nurturing activities such as environmental restoration or advocacy work, and spending time around animals (including pets, which have been shown to have healing effects with the elderly and with people with psychological disabilities) are just a few ways in which the discipline can be used by everyday people to the benefit of their psychological health.

Getting kids involved with nature and the outdoors is viewed by ecopsychology fans as key to their development, especially in the technological age we occupy now. Richard Louv, author of the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, argues that kids are so plugged into television and video games that they've lost their connection to the natural world. This disconnect, Louv maintains, has led not only to poor physical fitness among our youth (including obesity), but also long-term mental and spiritual health problems. His work has sparked a worldwide movement to introduce more kids to the wonders of nature through various planned and spontaneous activities.

CONTACTS: Ecopsychology Institute; John V. Davis; Richard Louv; International Institute for Ecopsychology; Project NatureConnect.