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Dear Carbon Diary: I Shrunk My Footprint Today

Nov 22, 2011

While Bigfoot may be the stuff of conspiracy theorists and bad Discovery Channel documentaries, the term is cropping up more often in the world of all things green. Since the goal of a green lifestyle is to shrink your "carbon footprint," or the amount of global emissions of greenhouse gases you personally are responsible for contributing to the environment, a "Bigfoot" is someone with a large carbon footprint: think of the guy who lives in the 5,000-square-foot starter castle with two furnaces and his back patio pulsing with colored light year-round like a well-funded rave. It's something to be especially aware of as Americans - though the U.S. has only four percent of the world's population, we produce 25 percent of the Earth's greenhouse gas emissions. (In fact, only Australians and citizens of Qatar top Americans when it comes to per-capita emissions. Canadians are not far behind.)

While it's technically possible to live a zero carbon lifestyle - though you'd have to live in a dark and naturally insulated cave and use a personal wind turbine or solar panels to generate any power you might need - most of us can never achieve it. Shrinking one's carbon footprint, however, is something everyone can do...even that neighbor of yours who backs his car down the driveway to get his mail rather than walk 50 feet to the mailbox.

Some experts suggest that - to make the process easier - you keep a journal or a "budget" of your carbon emissions, carbon-positive, negative and neutral - so you can see how much energy you are using and how much carbon you are emitting. (It never works very well when you're on a diet and keeping track of calories and carbs, but let's be optimistic.)

The best activities you can engage in to shrink your carbon footprint, of course, involve lowering your use of electricity and lessening the amount

you drive your car (or any vehicle). Keeping your house warmer in the summer months and cooler in the winter is one of the most important steps you can take as well, along with turning off all lights and electronics when they are not in use. Other activities that will put a substantial dent in your carbon footprint include using as little paper as possible by signing up for paperless billing for all your household expenses, not printing out e-mails (a strange compulsion often observed in computer users over 70) and by using cloths instead of paper towels at home; taking shorter showers and switching to electricity-sipping compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs rather than hot incandescent light bulbs, which waste energy when they release heat, even if CFL bulbs are contrary to the Constitution, and therefore unpatriotic.

Obvious solutions aside, there are a number of other, less obvious, activities that may never have occurred to you that will help you shrink your carbon footprint. To elucidate, I've prepared a sample carbon footprint diary that will help uncover hidden activities that can help you become, if not completely carbon-neutral, at least a carbon Lilliputian. Imagine a "point" system for carbon emissions that starts from a base of 100, adding and subtracting points for carbon-positive and carbon-negative activities. It might go something like this:

6:00 am. Woke up to mechanical alarm clock in unheated house (-7 points). Took 20-minute hot shower to unfreeze locked joints and stop shivering (+ 7 points). Skipped drying hair. (-2 points).

6:30 am. Got dressed, and realized favorite blazer contains rayon, a decidedly unnatural, petroleum-based fabric. Threw blazer in garbage (-2 points). Realized that since blazer is already manufactured, throwing it out might be a carbon-positive activity rather than a carbon-negative activity. Resolved to think it over.

6:45 am. Time for coffee. Bought Trader Joe's fair trade, shade-grown, karma positive coffee beans that were once devoured and then excreted by a small animal native to Indonesia called a luwak (-5 points). Not sure why this latter part is carbon-friendly, but resolved that if it's necessary to drink coffee mellowed by rat poop, it had better be beneficial to the environment in some way.

6:47 am. Realized coffee beans needed to be ground. Eschewed coffee grinder in favor of putting them in a recyclable cloth bag and hitting them with a hammer repeatedly (-1 point). Coarse texture of beans required boiling them in hot water until it turned brown (+ 2 points). Skipped milk, which is a product of the highly energy-intensive dairy farming industry thanks to both shipping in plastic bottles and bovine eructations, otherwise known as cow burps, which add to greenhouse gas emissions (-1 point).

7:00 am. Fed cat vegetables, aware that cat's carnivore lifestyle is a product of carbon-intensive meat farming (-5 points). Required petroleum-based bandage and antibacterial ointment to cover bleeding scratch from cat when it found vegetables in food dish (+1 point).

7:15 - 7:30 am. Fretted at poufy, un-blow-dried hair in bathroom mirror for 15 minutes. Cursed Daryl Hannah for an apparent ability to be both carbon-neutral and chic. Applied cosmetics carefully tested on humans, not animals, and labeled with color names inspired by fruits and vegetables. Wondered what a "sloe" is (-1 point).

7:30 am. Put on natural fiber, vegan-friendly shoes (-3 points), since manufacture of favorite leather flats generate 100 pounds of carbon dioxide, and walked to work (-20 points), since car emits one pound of carbon dioxide for every mile driven. Poured disgusting boiled coffee surreptitiously into a storm drain (carbon neutral, since coffee is biodegradable). Tried not to absorb marketing messages from billboards and lighted signs, thus denying marketers the satisfaction of counting me into their cost-per impression statistics and thus the success of their energy-intensive advertising methods.

8:00 am. Arrived at work and immediately purchased more coffee from building cafeteria. Decided this activity was carbon point neutral since someone else made the coffee. Let them take the carbon responsibility hit.

8:15. Popped two antacids from a plastic and aluminum blister package (+2 points) to stave off unpleasant digestive consequences of drinking black coffee. Wondered if human burps contribute to the build up of greenhouse gasses less intensively than diary cow burps.

8:30 am. Greeted co-workers and avoided questions as to why hair looked like it had an extended family of squirrels overwintering in it. Virtuously explained new carbon-neutral lifestyle to co-workers (-1 point for spreading the word about responsibility to the planet).

8:45. Checked e-mail on work laptop rather than work desktop computer (-8 points) and resisted inexplicable urge to print e-mails out and bring them to co-workers to discuss their contents (-2 points). Answered e-mails and included a line in all responses that read, "Consider the environment before printing out this e-mail" (-2 points).

9:00 am. Unwilling to use the carbon points to have another cup of coffee, drank a glass of tap water thereby avoiding expensive, carbon-intensive bottled water (-2 points).

9:15 am. Initiated video conference with client to save on carbon-intensive travel to client location (-50 points.)

10:15 am. Discovered that video conferencing software is hosted in a cloud-based facility in Mississippi that draws energy from a coal-burning power generation plant whose facilities were last updated when the catchphrase "Dy-no-mite!" was still in vogue (+ 25 points.)

12:00 noon. Had healthy, all natural granola bar for lunch, no cooking or heating required (-2 points). Read the package while eating it and discovered that the first two ingredients were high-fructose corn syrup and something called Flav-R-Bites®. Don't know what those are, but am inherently suspicious of all foods with adorably misspelled ingredient names followed by a trademark symbol (+ 2 points). Also had locally grown organic apple instead of package of Oreos from workplace vending machine (-1 point).

12:30 pm. Tried to stave off caffeine withdrawal headache with a handful of ibuprofen which will later be peed into the public sewer system, contaminating the fish in nearby waterways, requiring ever more energy-intensive water treatment (+ 2 points). Wondered if it's permissible to ignore carbon implications in medical emergencies. Had another glass of tap water (-1 point).

12:45. Spent last 15 minutes of lunch handing out fliers about community's local climate initiative, encouraging coworkers to become involved (-3 points). Fliers that were printed on non-recyclable colored paper and copied on a giant, electricity-sucking photocopier (+4 points).

3:45 to 4:00 pm. Daydreamed about Oreos not eaten at lunch, wasting 15 minutes of computer electricity with non-productivity (+1 point).

5:15 pm. Turned off computer and monitor to save power, and made rounds of co-workers to remind them to do the same (-10 points). Co-workers comments seemed largely positive, particularly the one calling me "sanctimonious." That's something to do with having virtue, isn't it?

5:30 pm. Walked home from work (-20 points). Traded vegan-friendly shoes for organic cotton slippers. Found that the cat, indignant from being fed vegetables earlier, had coughed up a headless, partially masticated mouse into slippers. Washed slippers in washing machine (+4 points), though with concentrated liquid detergent instead of powder (-1 point) and dried them in dryer (+4 points). Tossed decapitated dead mouse into garden to act as natural fertilizer (-1 point).

6:00 pm. Exercised intensively for 30 minutes in freezing cold house and pretended not to look longingly at the thermostat (-5 points). Took a fast, cool shower (+2 points) and dressed in organic cotton sweatpants and t-shirt. Wondered idly if there are any carbon-neutral treatments for pneumonia.

6:15 pm. Read on the Internet that rayon can be made from exceedingly eco-friendly bamboo, which may offer favorite blazer a stay of execution. Rescued blazer from trash. That's recycling, isn't it? (-2 points). Remembered bamboo is grown in Pacific Rim countries, and checked label on blazer to find that it was made in Vietnam, requiring heavy carbon emissions in shipping to local department store. Tossed blazer back on trash. Wondered if it's fair to keep the two points for recycling.

6:30 pm. Broke down and decided not to freeze to death for the sake of climate virtue. Debated which option was better: cheerful wood fire in fireplace or impersonal oil-burning furnace. Chose the latter, since it won't lead to the destruction of carbon-sucking trees (+50 points). Hoped local utility derived power from renewable sources (-1 point for optimism).

6:45. Eyed beer longingly, but remembered that beer is one of the most energy-intensive beverage in the world. Instead chose glass of organic wine, drunk at room temperature (-2 points).

7:00 pm. Chose cold vegan nut-loaf purchased from natural foods market for supper. (-5 points). Discovered it tasted vile and microwaved a jar of nacho cheese sauce to pour over the top (+5). Put leftover scraps of nut loaf into compost pile after cat refused them rather than use garbage disposal (-1 point).

7:25 pm. Hand-washed dishes, skipping carbon-intensive dishwasher. (-5 points)

7:30 pm. Received phone call from solar panel salesperson with information about upcoming installation (-50 points taken as an advance against actual usage of solar panels).

8:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Read paperback book, leaving Kindle e-reader turned off, thus saving electricity (-2 points). Remembered books are made out of trees (+ 2 points). Resolved to spend evenings reciting folk takes aloud, in the dark, from now on (-2 points).

10:00 pm. Turned off furnace and got into bed under organic cotton blankets (-10 points).

10:00 pm to 3:00 am. Lay awake shivering and worrying about how to pay for expensive solar panels.

3:00 am to 6:00 am. Spent three hours in bathroom with upset stomach. Used toilet paper with greater than 30 percent post-consumer recycled content (-2 points). And 37 gallons of water to flush (+3 points).

9:00 am. Diagnosed by doctor as infected with microscopic bug Giardia lamblia from drinking tap water. Accepted prescription for non-environmentally friendly antibiotics (+8). Pretended not to notice doctor's snort of derision after introducing the topic of natural, holistic, garlic-based therapies.

9:45 am. Spent the rest of the day asleep in bed, using no electronics or vehicles (-250 points).

6:00 pm. Resolved to determine exact carbon footprint for previous two days. Discovered that the method for doing so involves determining the spatial and temporal boundaries of my personal eco-system, and calculating the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) by using the relevant 100-year global warming potential, otherwise known as GWP100. Took more ibuprofen (+ 2 points).

6:15 pm. Opened a cold beer (+ 4 points). Wondered how much carbon offset credits cost to buy, and if they're cheaper than solar panels.