I'm in a tizzy over what not to do for Earth Day. My family and I have always been conscious about environmentally sound living and we've done our level best to green our lifestyle. Since I mostly work at home, my transportation/carbon footprint is almost nil -- except for the three trips I took to Costa Rica, Orlando and New York this year (and two more on the way this year).
Then I encountered EarthLab (http://www.earthlab.com), which laid a major guilt trip on me and I hardly felt I was doing enough. The site, which features Eco-celebrities like Eg Begley, Jr. and carbon offset companies, is a strange mix of green marketing and feel-good ways of countering climate change. Most of it is lifestyle oriented and stays positive by imploring you to make a pledge on more than 100 items that could further green your mode of living. The pledges range from the seemingly trivial (using natural personal care products, whatever that means), to the substantial (driving less).
Many of the pledge items we were already committed to: Turning off lights, eating locally, taking shorter showers, using cloth napkins (and washing them for re-use), composting kitchen waste, using left-over plastic shopping bags for garbage (and bringing our own bags to the grocery store), biodegradable cleaning products, cold/warm water washing and taking public transportation downtown (two train lines).
Some of our recent actions will even help us knock down our substantial energy bills. When the weather finally warmed up, we switched to carbon-neutral clothes drying (a clothesline) and I'm hoping to install a solar pump in my sump-water pond and collect some rainwater for gardening.
When I ran our basic lifestyle mode through the EarthLab carbon calculator, I found that while we were pouring somewhat less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the average Grayslake, Illinois and U.S. resident, we were still outputting 13.4 tons annually! I didn't feel good about that and I suspect the lion's share was generated by the tens of thousands of miles I will spend in an airplane this year. I'm at all sure how to address this problem other than to travel less, which is an option, but not always a good idea in the dynamic world I must inhabit. Face-to-face meetings are still quite valuable in this age of email and Facebook.
Still, I'm looking to improve our gargantuan carbon footprint, which rivals most households in Europe, Africa and Asia. The fact that we generate so much carbon dioxide is not only an eco-lifestyle issue, it's one of fairness. Why should my family use up a disproportionate amount of resources relative to families in developing countries? Somehow it's not fair that an accident of birth enabled me to eat heartily at the energy and resource trough, which is finite.
As Bill McKibben says in the recent issue of YES magazine:
"We need to stop insisting that we've figured out the best way on earth to live. For one thing, if it's wrecking the earth, then it's not all that great. But even by measures of life satisfaction and happiness, the Europeans have us beat -- and they manage it on half the energy use per capita. We need to be pointing the Indians and Chinese hard in the direction of London, not Los Angeles; Barcelona, not Boston."
Speaking of Barcelona, one way we can cut our carbon diet is to walk and ride bikes more. I've recently started a regular regimen of bike riding and will extend that to errands to the grocery/hardware stores and the number one destination for me: the library. Barcelona not only provides ample opportunities to walk in their many pedestrian strips, there are markets, restaurants and coffee shops along the way. Our own Prairie Croissant was infinitely more satisfying the other day because we could walk and bike there (and became a cheaper family meal as a result). Every US metropolitan area should take a good look at Barcelona and emulate her many charms.
I'm also pledging to grow more food and buy more locally grown produce. I can use compost and mulch (from my own compost bins) and can freeze what I don't eat this summer, which is usually what I do with my tomatoes. I'm adding to my winter stores by growing beans and other legumes. I'm not planning on watering my lawn or use any chemicals on it. I have an electric mower that I set on the highest mowing height.
Since most of my business is transacted via the Internet and the four computers in our household, I'm also going to squelch the energy vampires by turning off power strips at night on all my electric gear. I've seen my electric bill climb 25% over the past year and I know it's not because of air conditioning.
And I'm going to try to buy less stuff and recycle used things (like bicycles, clothes and other gear). I already patronize "Play it Again Sports" to get trade-ins on outgrown sports equipment and to upgrade. We've gone through three sets of skis and several pairs of ice skates through these transactions.
Finally, I'm going to monitor energy use and try to do low-tech things like employing shading in the summer and use ceiling fans more.
To broadcast my concerns, I'm going to urge my elected representatives to extend and increase tax credits for energy-efficient/producing appliances (which expire this year in the federal tax code). Lobbying may be the most effective thing anyone can do to help the earth. It's virtually carbon neutral and can impact everyone in a positive way.
Happy Earth Day!