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Friday, July 10, 2009

Carbon Counting

Before last week’s FGC Gathering, one of the scheduled plenary speakers, Shane Claiborne, challenged the planners to offset the carbon that would be released into the atmosphere as a result of his travel to the event. As many of you know, some people purchase carbon offsets to support initiatives aimed at reducing global warming and to reduce their guilt at contributing to it. So, for example, if you go on a cruise, you can visit Cool Pass to assess the damage and buy what some people call an “indulgence.” Shane’s travel wasn’t offset that way, however. Instead participants in the Gathering were asked to look at their own lifestyles and see if there were ways they could pledge to reduce their carbon footprint in the coming year. Members of Quaker Earthcare Witness hung out in front of the dining hall at lunch and dinner hearing people’s pledges and calculating how much impact they would make, and then putting up yellow sticky notes to show how much we were covering. By the end of the week, the offsets covered all the speakers and Gathering staff, and I believe we made a small dent in the carbon released as a result of 1,300 Quakers from all over traveling to Blacksburg, Virginia. I wish I had taken a picture of all the sticky notes pressed together, demonstrating an impact none of us would have felt acting alone.

I debated through the week what I should pledge. The first time I approached the carbon reduction table, Hollister Knowlton said, “It will be harder for you because you already do a lot,” an assessment I believe was overly kind. It’s true that we own a Prius, live in a small house that’s well insulated, shop at a food co-op, and don’t make our children shower as often as other parents. “You don’t fly that much, which is huge,” pointed out Hollister, though I can’t help wondering if that is because of our virtue or our finances. I suspect that if we could afford it, we might be buying indulgences for fancy vacations, too. I never got around to calculating my carbon footprint this trip, but last time I did it was better than the average American and quite a bit worse than the rest of the world. (See Carbon Footprint by Country.) 

The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t think of ways to reduce my carbon footprint. The problem was thinking of promises I knew I could keep. I thought of giving up chocolate. I already try to buy Fair Trade, but my previous attempts to give up chocolate completely have been deliciously unsuccessful, despite the heartburn it sometimes given me. I thought of giving up all processed or fast food, which would also be good for our health, but the problem is that we usually buy those foods when we are on the road and have hungry kids. I want to make an effort to plan ahead better with healthy snacks for such occasions, but could I really promise that when we drove from Philadelphia to Wisconsin at Thanksgiving that we wouldn’t still stop at Burger King? Likewise, could I promise that I wouldn’t drive over the speed limit on such trips? No, I couldn’t.

The Prius has made me more conscious of my lead foot—I can see that my husband gets better mileage than I do—so I thought about ways I could work on that, without promising more than I could deliver. I suspect that part of the reason my husband gets better mileage is that he doesn’t gun it out of the red lights like I do. (But I’m the one who drives the kids to camp, doctor appointments, and the orthodontist, the defensive part of me protests, and it’s not my fault we’re always running late!) So I’ve been trying to drive more slowly in the city, especially being aware of the quick acceleration habit. It’s been going well, though we have been slightly late to camp most days this week. The other pledge was to turn our hot water heater down below 120. I figured that one would be easy—but I remember it every time I take a shower, though I haven’t managed to remember when I’m in the basement yet. (Not in the house right now, or I’d go do it right now so I could post with a clear conscious.) 

It makes me wonder how the honor system is going for everyone else. Somehow I think going public with my story may help me feel accountable, as I felt a weight of accountability watching Hollister put my sticky note up on the board. We need community see our collective impact. We also need community to support one another in making changes because it doesn't look like the G8 is going to solve this problem for us any time soon.


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