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  September/October 2006
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My Low-Carbon Diet
Interview: Al Gore
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One Small Step
Lay of the Land
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My Low-Carbon Diet
From gas gluttony to fuel fitness in three weeks
by Seth Zuckerman
September/October 2006

(page 2 of 2)

Week Two: Curbing My Appetite

Jon and I concocted a plan to bring my carbon dioxide emissions down to the world average. I had to use 80 percent less energy than the typical American, which meant lowering the emissions under my control to 13 pounds a day.

I read my apartment building's gas meter daily, probably stirring suspicions from neighbors who saw me skulking behind the dumpster with my notebook. Jon used those readings to figure out my share of the steam heat during Seattle's cool, rainy spring. I couldn't do much to reduce that, since heating is controlled centrally for the whole building, but it ate up a quarter of my carbon dioxide budget all the same. So I became even more determined to limit my other uses of natural gas. I monitored how much hot water I drew in the shower and at the kitchen sink and converted those gallons into carbon dioxide emissions. Here my training from living through droughts in California came in handy. It was no hardship to fill a basin with soapy water and rinse dishes in cold water, and it did save a few ounces of carbon dioxide each day. Turning off the water while shampooing or soaping saved gas, but at a considerable cost to pleasure. I opted instead just to hurry through my bathing routine.

As for electricity, I converted nearly all our incandescent lightbulbs to compact fluorescents, which use a quarter to a third as much juice. Millions of these lights, distributed for free, had been part of California's survival strategy during the 2000-01 electricity crisis, and now they were part of mine. I became ultravigilant about turning the lights off when Jen and I weren't using them.

Parts of our power appetite would be hard to control. A plug-in kilowatt-hour meter revealed that the fridge alone was responsible for more than two pounds of carbon dioxide daily. As tenants, we weren't about to replace it with a more efficient model, nor would we install a gas range, which emits about a third as much carbon as our electric one.

Beyond that, my wife and I hardly use enough electricity to conserve. We drag our TV out of the closet a couple of times a month, and the Pacific Ocean is our air conditioner, providing a temperate and cooling breeze. Our computers are both laptops, which use about 20 percent as much power as a desktop with a standard monitor.

When it came to transportation, my mission was clear. I biked or walked whenever possible. Nearly every day, an appointment drew me halfway across town. Once I got past the dread of biking back up the hill to my neighborhood at the end of a jaunt, ten-mile round-trips didn't seem like a big deal anymore. (I did learn the hard way, however, to cushion strawberries before returning from the farmers' market.) Jen and I relished our half-hour walk to a jazz club downtown. It was especially good for my carbon budget, since those short trips in town depress gas mileage. Plus, I felt invigorated at the end of each journey. Unlike the Navy-style showers, this was a change I might actually make permanent.

Still, I wasn't planning any heroics. When we had to cross the lake again (12 miles each way) and then head in the opposite direction for a picnic on the shores of Puget Sound, it was obvious that we were going to need a car. The only way we could cover the necessary ground and stay within my carbon parameters would be to drive a car that was twice as efficient as our VW. So a peppy Prius it was, and 44 miles later, we had used less than a gallon of gas and each added just nine pounds of carbon dioxide to the air--our splurge for the week.

The next day, when Jon toted up my carbon dioxide emissions, he didn't cut me any slack. "It's just chance that you're doing this in May," he said and forced me to count the average yearly consumption for the steam radiators that keep our building warm in winter. Even so, it turned out that I'd beaten my 13-pound goal, cutting my daily emissions to a mere 10 pounds, less than a sixth of the average American's personal emissions. That put me on par with the typical Mongolian and 20 percent below the world average.

But my carbon coach wouldn't let me savor the accomplishment for too long. Jon pointed out that trips I had planned outside the Seattle area would quickly gobble up those extra few pounds of carbon dioxide. A three-and-a-half-hour train ride to Portland, Oregon, and back would cost me 100 pounds--meaning I could afford it barely once a month. Driving with my wife to the Northern California coast would ding each of us four times as much. And jet travel, at an average of more than half a pound of carbon dioxide per person per mile, is the height of carbon extravagance because the miles add up so quickly. A round-trip to visit my brother in Los Angeles? Some 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide. The East Coast? Almost 3,000 pounds. A rendezvous in Paris, at 5,600 pounds of climate-sizzling carbon dioxide, would by itself account for as much carbon emissions as the average human is responsible for in eight months. Paging through my frequent-flier statements suddenly became a climatically humbling experience.

Week Three: How Low Can I Go?

I didn't see how I could reduce my consumption much further. After the exacting efforts to bring my emissions down to ten pounds of carbon dioxide daily, getting to my share of what Earth can absorb--five pounds--seemed impossible.

Jon was merciful. Instead of telling me to adopt a raw-food diet, unplug the refrigerator, and move into a yurt, he sent me to see a former neighbor on California's northern coast, who had severed many of the bonds that tied him to the fossil-fuel economy. Michael Evenson--a used-lumber broker whose 40 cows enjoy one of the world's best views from his seaside ranch--showed me around the homestead he shares with his partner, Ellen. Their refrigerator, lights, and appliances run on solar photovoltaic cells and a miniature hydroelectric installation. No climate-changing carbon in this part of the operation. Winter warmth comes from a cast-iron stove, stoked with wood he cuts on the other side of the river. Although burning wood emits carbon dioxide, it is later removed from the air as new trees grow into the spaces created by the thinning. Another zero-carbon arrangement.

I was impressed. Perhaps here was a household spewing no more than its fair share of carbon dioxide. But one large carbon drain remained: driving. The general store and post office are five miles away, which means that Michael's typical daily trip to the village center by diesel truck accounts for 12 pounds of carbon dioxide. Add to that his weekly trip to the county seat in Eureka, and his emissions top the world average, even without counting the propane he uses to cook and heat water. Yes, the rural subsistence lifestyle can remain in balance with the climate--but only for the hardy few who go back to the land and stay there.

If Michael couldn't get his emissions down to what the planet can absorb on his behalf, I concluded that few people outside Amish country could either. Besides, there isn't enough productive land for every family in the United States to have a spread like Michael and Ellen's. And in a city, wood smoke wouldn't just perfume the air; it would pollute it.

But perhaps thinking about individual lifestyles was the wrong approach. Take electricity: The carbon dioxide implicit in nearly every kilowatt-hour is the result of policies set by utilities, regulatory commissions, and federal tax bills. I could reduce my personal demand only so far. Jon had suggested that I calculate the national average of one and a half pounds of carbon dioxide for each kilowatt-hour. But in the coal-rich Midwest, the true number is two pounds, while on the West Coast, where coal power is scarce and hydroelectricity plentiful, it is just half a pound. As more wind, solar, and geothermal energy comes onto the grid, that number will decrease even further and give us better choices.

The same need for sensible energy policies applies on the road. When Jen and I went looking for an affordable, gas-sipping car a few years ago, our hopes were dashed. The federal government hadn't significantly advanced fuel-economy standards in nearly two decades. We wanted to buy a used hybrid, but they had come on the U.S. market only two years before and were too pricey for our budget. Better mileage standards could mean more fuel-efficient options.

There is some sound government policy, and we're already profiting by it. Our refrigerator would have drawn two or three times more power were it not for efficiency standards enacted in the 1980s and '90s. The zoning laws that limit sprawl in Washington State have probably helped maintain the vibrancy of our inner Seattle neighborhood, reducing my need to travel. A dense network of frequent public buses can make mass transit as quick and convenient as driving, especially where traffic and parking are hassles.

Bringing my life into balance with the climate was clearly not a challenge I could solve all on my own. This was somewhat of a relief because my carbon dieting had grown tiresome. Almost everything I do involves emissions, even such subtle choices as buying local food or food that has to be hauled long distances to market. Monitoring each decision felt like such an obsession that I worried psychiatrists would name a syndrome after me.

I wanted utilities to provide low-carbon electricity for everyone and carmakers to offer a minimum of 40 miles per gallon. I wanted the cost of spewing carbon dioxide into the air reflected in the prices I pay, so that someone else would be keeping track. Then everyone would pay attention, not just odd carbon neurotics like me. It would take concerted political action to get there, and I was ready to pitch in. But first, I had to straddle my bike and pedal off to my evening class.

Seth Zuckerman is coauthor and coeditor of Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home (Ecotrust).

To calculate your own emissions and share carbon-dieting tips with other Sierra readers, go to To find out about Low Carbon Diet, a lively, illustrated workbook that can help you and your neighbors lose 5,000 pounds in 30 days, go to

Illustration by John Cuneo

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