Lifestyle changes go far in aiding Earth


Energy: Our driving and eating habits have a greater environmental impact than you might realize.

August 23, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

PEDALING TO THE post office today, biking it, substituting leg power for half a gallon of air- and bay-polluting, highway-supporting, foreign-depending petroleum -- just to send off a half-ounce, overdue bill.

It's one of those days when I just feel the need to try, if only a bit, to shrink the giant balloon that always floats over my head.

You haven't noticed the balloon? It's the size of a sperm whale. Stop snickering. You've got Moby Dick in tow, too, if you're anything like a typical American.

The balloon thing comes from an acquaintance who likes to calculate such things. The average American, he notes, uses about as many calories to make it through the day as the average sperm whale.

Now we don't ingest as much food as a giant whale. But we drive to the store for ours, and we refrigerate it and cook it, and consume it in heated or air-conditioned comfort. That translates into calories, too, often with adverse consequences for the environment, from air pollution to strip-mined landscapes.

Add to that the caloric luxuriousness of the actual food we eat in the meaty American diet -- that pound of pork chops, supplying a few thousand calories of food energy -- took several million calories of energy to produce, process, package, ship and distribute.

Making everyone tow around a giant whale balloon, my friend thinks, would help us realize the full and true impacts of added population growth on the environment.

One human does not appear to take up much space, or to create all that much pollution; but our whale-sized lifestyles say different.

The difference is huge between our physical footprints and our ecological footprints -- the pollution and natural resources' destruction from high-energy, high-consumption lifestyles.

So, how to shrink our balloons and leave smaller footprints on the Earth?

A useful starting point is a book by scientists Michael Brower and Warren Leon: The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (Three Rivers Press, New York).

It's full of good, non-judgmental information on the environmental consequences of our lifestyles. It eschews those "100 (or 1,000) things you can do for a better Earth" lists, which are well-meaning but overwhelming.

It focuses on just a few biggies, like transportation and diet, that cause the overwhelming bulk of what might be called our "lifestyle impacts" on the environment.

Within the transportation category, recreational boating, flying and off-roading -- all of which can be quite polluting -- are inconsequential compared with our everyday driving. We just do so much more of the latter.

Generally speaking, if you want to shrink your balloon the most on transportation, use inter-city bus service, followed by railroads. Commercial air travel has the next-least overall impact, with cars and motorcycles the most.

Changing our diet is another huge opportunity for balloon shrinking -- maybe more than transportation, as most of us have more control over what we eat than how we get around.

Cutting back on meat and poultry is the priority here. It takes so many more acres of farmland to produce food calories by feeding grain to animals than to get the same calories directly from fruits, vegetables, grains and pastas; and agriculture is the source of about 60 percent of the nation's water quality problems.

Within the meat category there are differences -- and differences of opinion. Brower and Leon say beef production is the worst polluter, followed by chickens and then pigs.

A different ranking comes from Worldwatch Institute, which has ranked dietary items strictly on the basis of calories of energy needed to produce a pound of edible food.

They rank pork far and away the most energy-intensive meat to feed ourselves, followed by beef, then chicken.

The third big avenue to shrink your balloon, based on Brower and Leon's perspective, is through "household operations," which include heating and air conditioning; appliances and lighting; and water, sewage and solid-waste disposal.

Refrigerators use the most energy in most homes, followed by lighting and televisions.

Comprising many categories is your choice of a home -- one that is close to work and shopping, and is energy-efficient, cuts driving, heating and air conditioning.

I have read that the great whales have big forebrains, full of the neural circuits required for higher-order thought.

Such brain tissue requires a lot of energy to sustain, and it's unlikely whales would have it without good reason.

Perhaps, they take deep pleasure in thinking how efficiently such huge creatures have learned to live within the limits of their environment, leaving tiny, human-sized balloons in their wake.

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