On a cool Saturday morning in April, a group of strangers sat in my living room. On the surface, we didn’t have much in common—two were older women, and the children ranged in age from 3 to 12. Still, we were all there for a common purpose: to see how we could reduce our carbon footprints.
In front of us: a book with a blue cover with a colorful cartoon. The book: The Low Carbon Diet by David Gershon. It’s a kind of workbook for going green—simple steps you can take to reduce your water and energy use, cutting down on the amount of carbon dioxide each of us releases into the air, all to counteract global warming. The program promises (and, as we learned, delivers) a reduction of 5,000 pounds to your carbon footprint.
You might think each of us could just buy or borrow the book and do the steps at home. You could. I once did. But when it’s just you and no one is talking with you about it, it’s easy to cheat and let yourself off the hook. It’s easy to start a diet, but having a support group helps you keep the pounds off, be they molecules of sugar or CO2. That is why we gathered, to take a few steps together for the sake of our health and for the earth that will cradle our children’s children.
The first step is to calculate how much carbon dioxide you make in the first place. We went home, gathered our utility bills and made some simple calculations (no math needed). We were surprised by the amount of water we used. And we came face to face with how much we travel, especially by airplane, to visit far-off relatives. When we got our final results, we smiled—all of us made less carbon dioxide than the average American, but about the same as the average European, and still 10 times that of a person in India.
The next step: deciding what actions we would take. Should we change out five regular light bulbs for compact fluorescent light bulbs or put in a clothesline in our apartment? Could I really, truly commit to avoiding the dryer? Were we willing to try alternative transportation? We debated the pros and cons of many resource-saving ideas and shared our thoughts and difficulties with one another.
We also talked to the kids about what “global warming” and “carbon dioxide” mean. The little ones understood that we want to save trees, and they suggested ways they can use less water. The older ones wanted to be more proactive by packing eco-friendly lunches and promoting recycling and reuse at school. The children chose eco-friendly options from a set of pictures: car or bicycle? (bicycle) Shower or bath? (shower, with a five-minute timer) And the tricky ones—hand washing or dishwasher? (with an efficient system and water-saving techniques, hand washing) Stove or microwave to heat water? (neither—an electric kettle)
Over four weeks, we also addressed areas that confused us. How could we beat bedbugs if we wanted to save energy and wash our clothes in cold water instead of hot? (As treating bedbugs is a rarity, you can air-dry clothes and then dry them in the dryer for 20 minutes.) How could people with outdoor allergies still line-dry their clothes? (Dry them indoors on a rack or a retractable clothesline.) And how do some people get their air-dried towels so fluffy? (Line dry, then throw them in the dryer for a few minutes on the no-heat setting.)
The next step involved moving on to the bigger home systems—cars, heating systems, air conditioning, waste management and so on. We gave one another bits of foam to insulate water heater pipes. The kids helped the parents stay eco-friendly: one tells her mom to turn off the heater or the water, and they ride their bikes to school. At home they can recycle food waste by composting with worms. Another woman avoids the grocery store and goes to the farmer’s market because the average grocery-store vegetable goes through multiple plastic bags to get there. By meeting together, rather than trying to go it alone, we were able to share tools, ideas and even supplies.
In the end, the final step—passing the word—took on greater meaning. How could we get our communities engaged? How could we let everyone else know how to help us save the earth? The kids got this immediately. One mentioned doing something at school, and one by one, the others chimed in, wanting to help, too. Soon we were discussing a Low Carbon Diet class at school.
A week later, I began to notice small changes I was making. I taught my son to turn off the light when he left the room, gave the kids at school one paper towel instead of two, and began to switch to a cloth towel to dry their hands. We introduced neighborhood kids to our home garden, where they could eat fresh, pesticide-free blueberries and peas right off the plant.
These days, I’ve started a Green Team at my child’s school, and the kids have me energized. After my Low Carbon Diet, I feel lighter. This is the beginning of something positive. I’m ready to save the world.
rani Jayakumar is a volunteer with Transition Palo Alto and co-founder of the Midtown Palo Alto Green Team. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more information about Low Carbon Diet classes at www.pagreenteams.org.