For a number of years, now, I have been following a leading to see how far I could reduce my carbon footprint without significantly altering my lifestyle. The reasoning behind beginning this quest was simple: I thought it might be much easier to convince people to make the necessary changes to keep the planet livable if they could see that those changes wouldn’t necessarily hurt. It would also, not incidentally, lower my own level of hypocrisy. As an environmental writer, I had been preaching the evils of fossil-fuel use for decades. It was time to bring my own life into congruence with my ideals.
The first concrete steps were taken in 2010, with the full cooperation and support of my wife: we sold the home we had lived in for nearly 40 years and bought a house in a nearby town that was more appropriately sited for solar access. In keeping with the idea that our lifestyle shouldn’t change, this wasn’t a downsizing, just a sideways shift – we brought everything with us. Within two months of arriving, we had a 3200-watt solar array mounted on the roof, and our use of grid power dropped by half. We had not yet altered a single habit or lifestyle pattern.
Other choices followed. We traded our CRT-based TV for a larger LED-based flat screen, achieving a reduction in power use simultaneously with an improvement in TV viewing. We traded our incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents (and are now trading the CFLs for LED bulbs). We signed up for what our power company calls “Blue Sky power” for the portion of our electricity we continue to get from them; this costs us a little more each month, but helps convert the grid to renewable generation. And we dumped a perfectly good gas water heater and put an electric model in its place. That significantly dropped the proportion of our electricity that we were able to generate ourselves, but – in conjunction with the solar panels and the Blue Sky power – it also converted the entire house to non-carbon-based energy use.
Then there was transportation. As detailed elsewhere on this website, the beginning of our adjustment of this part of our lives predated the household changes by several decades, beginning with smaller cars as early as 1967, moving to hybrids as soon as they were available (2001), and trying various combinations of electric and gasoline power beginning in 2011. In late 2018, we finally took the last step, trading in both of our partially-gasoline-powered cars for a single all-electric. This has ended all of our direct personal use of fossil fuels completely, except for those times that we charge the car away from home – which only happens on long trips.
There remains indirect fossil fuel use, primarily in the food and consumer goods we purchase. We can’t entirely eliminate that, but we’ve taken steps to reduce it. These include:
- Reducing packaging, especially plastics. Whenever possible, we buy things packaged in glass or paper. We especially avoid items packed in plastic bubbles, whenever possible – seeing something neatly set up to show it to best advantage, and then put behind plastic so you can’t feel or manipulate it, is bad in a number of ways unrelated to plastic use, anyway.
- Buying used things instead of new ones. Our primary source for clothing and entertainment items is now the local Goodwill. This saves the carbon costs of new manufacture of those items.
- Eating less meat. I’m not suggesting vegetarianism or veganism, here: humans are omnivores, biologically designed to get some of our necessary nutrients from animal products, and though it is possible to get them by careful vegetable choices, this is an unnatural diet which not everyone can follow (I have food sensitivities which make most of the vegetables that vegetarians use to get these nutrients inaccessible to me, and I am not alone). But raising meat does require more carbon input than raising vegetables does, and the American diet has considerably more meat in it than is necessary for nutrition. Melody and I have reduced the size of our meat portions, and have increased the proportion of our meat that comes from poultry rather than beef or pork – raising chickens being less carbon-demanding than raising cows or pigs. (We also strive to purchase meat only from humanely-raised animals, but that’s for reasons unrelated to carbon reduction.)
- Buying organic. Organic agriculture usually (though not always) uses less fossil-fuel inputs than conventional ag does. There’s some extra expense involved at the consumer end, though, so each item has to be judged on its own merits. My rule of thumb is this: if the price of an organic item is more than half again as much as its conventional equivalent, go conventional; otherwise, go organic.
- Avoiding air travel. This is about the only thing we do in the name of carbon-footprint reduction that actually does change our lifestyle in comparison to the average American’s. It is also not done entirely for carbon-reduction reasons. Airport security is dehumanizing, and it raises barriers unfairly to those who, for one reason or another, don’t look like the rest of us. These problems are inherent in any system that emphasizes security over trust. Travelers demand this level of security, so it’s not likely to go away. Which means I probably will never fly again, even if aircraft begin to be run on renewable energy.
There is also buying local, which deserves more than a bullet-point discussion. It is one of the most important tools we have for lowering our carbon footprints as consumers. It is also one of the most difficult to apply. If you recall that the transportation sector is the part of the economy that generates the most greenhouse gases, it is not difficult to understand that, the shorter the distance from product to consumer, the lower the carbon footprint. The problem comes when you try to act on that understanding.
Remember, we’re trying to lower our footprint without changing our lives any more than necessary. Unfortunately, all American lives, including ours, are deeply entwined with non-local production sources. Most of the consumer goods that surround us are made in just a few locations, scattered not only across the country but across the planet. This is especially true for electronics, but it also includes other things: paper and ink, for example, and pots and pans, and pocket combs, and shoes. It does not make sense to produce these things in every town in America, or even necessarily in every state. So transportation costs are always going to be incurred, both for raw goods going to factories and for consumer goods leaving them, and we have to begin with the assumption that this is going to happen.
What’s true of consumer goods is even more true of food. Most places in America can’t grow vegetables in the winter, and they can’t grow some things at all – avocados, olives, bananas, and coffee being conspicuous examples. It is technically possible to get along without these things, but you can’t do that and maintain a semblance of the same diet as the rest of America. If the goal is to demonstrate that carbon reduction doesn’t need to hurt, a deeply impoverished diet is not going to do the job.
Our solution to this dilemma has been to translate “buy local” into “buy as close to home as you can.” For produce in season, this includes our local farmers’ market and food co-op, as well as a few supermarkets which buy partially from local growers. For meats, dairy products, and year-round staples like potatoes and breads, our local horizons expand somewhat: we look for foods from companies within a roughly 300-mile radius of our town. For packaged foods, and for manufactured consumer goods, we check labels for the locations of the companies responsible for them and buy from the closest ones: olive oil from California instead of Italy, shoes from Boston instead of Bavaria, kippered snacks from Maine instead of sardines from Portugal. How much one can do in this regard, obviously, varies by where you live. We are fortunate enough to live in a wine-growing region, and can buy wine made from grapes grown, vinted, and bottled at a vinyard we can (almost) see from our house. The nearest coffee tree, on the other hand, is in Central America, so for coffee the best we can do is buy from local roasters who claim to source their beans responsibly.
We eat out regularly once a week. We usually choose restaurants that make a point of buying from local sources.
The thread that runs through all of this, I guess, is: do what you can. Most of us get no joy from asceticism, nor do we have to; avoiding profligacy will do. Be aware of those things in your life that contribute to climate change (read: carbon dioxide release) and find ways to do them less. Usually there will be substitutes that are equally pleasurable and less harmful. In many cases, though not all, there will be a little extra expense. Think of that as you would think of any investment: you are buying a better future. Poverty can be a barrier, but we do what we do on Social Security and a pair of very small pensions. You do not need wealth, just adequacy.
Inability to do it all is no excuse for not doing what you can. Do something. Combatting climate change doesn’t have to hurt.
The Monterey List
My book on the philosophy of sustainable living, The Monterey List, originated as an actual list I made in a Monterey, California hotel room one November night in 1997 (hence the name). The items on the list were all short observations pertaining to sustaining human life on this planet, couched as aphorisms that I mostly made up on the spot. There were 112 of them. Over the next few years I rearranged the aphorisms into a coherent order, combined a couple of them with others (there are now 110), expanded them into essays, and collected the essays into a book. For more information, including a link to buy the book, click on the button below.