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Why I Can't Reduce My Carbon Footprint

Tony Romm

Posted: Apr 25th 2009 5:40PM

Filed under: Environment, American University

Tony Romm is now a contributor for The Cram, a student news arm of the newly launched To follow his future work, click here.

It would not be Earth Day weekend without the requisite guilt: Pesky environmentalists proselytizing their cause ad nauseum, hoping to influence at least one group of complacent bystanders to evaluate their carbon footprint. Though annoying, their cause has ample merit: A recent study by the National Climate Data Center reveals that the period between January and March 2009 was the eighth hottest on record. The next three months, for that reason, are certain to pan out no differently.

So on the heels of an excessively warm Earth Day, from the couch in my excessively warm apartment in Washington D.C., I decide to question my own impact on the environment. To do so, I locate an informal quiz at, one of the "holiday's" leading advocacy groups. The verdict: I am a greedy, hoarding, inefficient waste of Earth space, living a lifestyle that, if emulated by billions, would destroy the Earth more than four times over:

I'm shocked; until now, I have no idea I'm truly wrecking the Earth, and I thus feel guilty. I subsequently consult the Web site's quiz-specific conservation guide, hoping to gain some insight into which specific behaviors contribute to my planet's downfall. What I find, however, verges on asinine.

The top tip offers me is predictable: I should replace my most common household appliances with machines or devices that are more energy efficient. Although I have not the resources to make any such purchases right now, I estimate their cost using anyway. My findings are hardly surprising. To replace the old refrigerator, washer, dryer, air conditioner and television in my apartment with the cheapest (and smallest) ENERGY STAR-compliant appliances on the market, it would cost me approximately $1,900, sans delivery and tax. This hefty sum excludes a host of other inefficient appliances that I normally use -- including my laptop and stove, for instance -- which would presumably cost me even more to replace.

(Click to read more about the quiz and what it means.)
The Web site also suggests I reduce my daily animal product intake by half, meat and poultry especially. I find this section considerably troubling, given that I eat poultry (never meat), at most twice per week. But I note it anyway: Abstaining from chicken and turkey saves me a few dollars -- until I decide to purchase an equivalent, pre-packaged good (which the Web site also discourages). On balance, I find I've actually spent more money than I would have normally budgeted for food, probably in a halfhearted attempt to purchase only those items packaged using recyclable materials. I also discover that I've produced about two times as much waste as I would have if I just ate the damn chicken sandwich I wanted in the first place.

Discouraged, I return to my checklist to note one final peculiarity -- my "energy land" consumption is massive. I start playing with the quiz's questions in a feeble attempt to lower this rating, and I discover only one: Turning off all power to my apartment, which somehow only reduces my overall Ecological Footprint by .2 global acres. I note similar changes to this measurement when I consent to living in a small house without any running water, or otherwise deprive myself of basic human amenities (that my apartment, much less the District, would not let me shut off even if I asked). I realize, at this point, that there's little net benefit to such massive inconvenience -- maybe $120 saved each month so that I can write this article in the dark without Internet -- so I quit the quiz and begin reflecting.

And it is at that point I realize I'm not alone in my frustration. It is somewhat indisputable that addressing global warming is a unparalleled "moral imperative," as the Goreacle told lawmakers at a committee hearing last week. The perennial images of melting ice caps and potent storms are haptic reminders of humankind's manifest wrath on the lonely planet that they greedily inhabit. To be sure, the green movement has its doubters, some of whom have received more attention than is naturally warranted. But Americans on balance seem to be slowly admitting their role in the Earth's progressive climate change, even if they are simultaneously taking credit for breakthroughs that are wholly fictional.

Consequently, it is no longer guilt or doubt preventing scores of Americans from altering their lifestyles in the name of a global pursuit. Rather, it's the economy: Utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number of people, suggests rationalism, an implicit understanding of losses and gains, and amid America's economic meltdown, that calculation has itself become a contradiction. How does a family without a steady income outfit their empty kitchen with a new set of energy-efficient appliances? How can an underpaid D.C.-based, entry-level journalist afford an energy efficient car, much less any personal form of transportation? And why should either feel guilty for those inabilities?

Hypotheticals aside, this has been the ubiquitous struggle of the modern environmentalist movement: how to balance a legitimate, rational concern for the environment with the equally legitimate, equally rational economic constraints that tug constantly at families' wallets. The green thumbs among us have not an answer to this quandary, and it is evident in a number of their public information campaigns -- this quiz included. Indeed, I reckon I am not the only college student this weekend to question the utility of Earth Day-induced guilt; it is 88 degrees Fahrenheit here, which is hot even by the District's standards. I also know I'm hardly the only soul too poor to afford to save the planet. It's not that I don't care, it's just that I can't -- at least, by the real environmentalists' rigid standards.

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