Try this patriotic move: Stop wasting energy


Conservation: A simple computer test allows users to evaluate their personal impact on the environment.

October 26, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HAVING RECENTLY assumed a $10,000 loan for my daughter's college tuition, I did not leap at calls to spend my $500 federal tax refund "symbolically" - giving it to groups opposing President Bush's bloated and polluting energy program, for example.

I am equally impervious to post-Sept. 11 exhortations to spend in the name of patriotism. There is nothing patriotic about more debt.

Still, I did allocate some refund money to buy energy-saving fluorescent lights after taking a simple and revealing test that lets you evaluate your personal impact on the environment.

I'll tell you how I did, and then you can take the test yourself by going to the Web site of the Center for a New American Dream (

The nonprofit, Maryland-based center is one of my favorites. It has been on my mind amid state and federal leaders' calls to Americans to get back to consuming as usual to prop up the struggling economy.

The center, whose motto is "More Fun, Less Stuff," is dedicated to helping Americans reduce and reprogram their consumer lifestyles to stem environmental waste and spend less time working.

They practice what they preach, with a four-day, 32-hour week for their 25 full- and part-time staffers, many who walk to work in downtown Takoma Park.

It's not that they couldn't put in longer hours, what with Americans - who make up 5 percent of the world's population - consuming about 30 percent of the earth's natural resources.

That means if the much-discussed global economy actually brought all people up to our current standards of living, we'd need about four more earths to support them.

And while making more money does buy happiness up to a certain income level, most Americans have long exceeded the point of diminishing returns.

National opinion polls taken periodically since the late 1950s show the number of us saying we're "very happy" has remained fairly constant, in the 30 percent to 40 percent range.

This despite drastic increases in per capita income, car ownership and home size. Among factors that might have kept the happiness quotient down are increases in traffic congestion and consumer debt, and substantial decreases in time spent with our kids.

"Turn the Tide," the center's online lifestyle rating test, "is for people who tell us, `Stop saying how bad it is, tell me what I can do,'" says Eric Brown, the center's communications director.

I took the test last week. It's built around nine actions any individual can take that will produce well-documented, positive environmental impacts.

No. 1 was my personal Achilles heel. "Skip one auto trip a week," it said. The program suggested saving 20 miles a week, but I decided to be honest. By combining a couple weekly runs into town, I agreed to save 10 miles weekly.

And voila, the program immediately calculated I would spare the planet about 320 pounds a year of carbon dioxide, a cause of global warming.

But then it asked me how much I drive - nearly 30,000 miles a year (hey, I have to cover the whole Chesapeake Bay). That means, the test calculated, that even with a car that gets 30 miles per gallon, I produce 4,696 more pounds of carbon dioxide than the average American. But 10 miles less a week is a start.

Action No. 2 asks you to skip one meal of beef a week. It takes far more grain, fertilizer, fossil fuels, irrigation and pesticides to produce meat than to feed someone eating pasta.

I don't eat much red meat, but said I'd cut back from 0.3 to 0.2 beef meals a week, which netted me an annual savings of 30 pounds of carbon dioxide, 7 pounds of grain and 4,620 gallons of water.

No. 3 was "Don't eat shrimp." About 5 pounds of other marine life is killed for each pound of shrimp caught, and shrimp farming, with impacts on wetlands and water quality, is no alternative.

I figured I eat a couple pounds a year, and thought I could realistically give up a pound.

Other actions involved home heating and cooling (you'll be surprised what changing the thermostat a degree or two can mean to the environment); also lawn pesticides, home water usage, replacing incandescent lights with fluorescents, and junk mail (reducing it saves hassle, saves trees).

Brown says the center wants to update its software so whole groups, like classes or schools, can register and compare their environmental impacts to one another.

He says they would also like to give the software to other groups to use. With some modifications, programs like "Turn the Tide" could be made region-specific, with actions and impacts tailored to a local environment like the Chesapeake Bay.

Several of the actions suggested by the center also reduce nitrogen, the principal pollutant of the Chesapeake. It should be a simple matter to let people calculate their nitrogen impact.

The ninth and last action urged by the test is to persuade two friends to join you in taking the first eight actions. Agreeing to that brought me in almost enough environmental savings to offset my driving addiction.

Brown thinks the recent terrorist attacks have created "a teachable moment" for organizations like the center: "People are looking for something more meaningful than a bigger car, a bigger house. They're focusing less on the chase [of more money] and more on family, friends coming together on what's deeply important."

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