About the SA Blog Network

Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

Epiphany from up high: Can a suburban family live sustainably?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

There we were, racing through the stratosphere on a short flight home from Baltimore to Atlanta (577 miles and approximately 230 pounds of carbon dioxide per person). My husband, Mike, was tuned to his iPod, and me to my book, How, Flat and Crowded 2.0 when a sentence in the section on oil and geopolitics struck me: "The question for you Americans is when will prices [of oil] go down?"

Friedman was examining what he calls the "First Law of Petropolitics," the inverse relationship between crude oil prices and political reform in countries where oil provides much of the GDP and that have highly repressive or unreliable governments. Countries like the Russian Federation, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Angola.

He argues that at $81/barrel of oil there’s little incentive for those leaders to cultivate democracy when their coffers overflow with black gold’s proceeds, independent of their citizen’s ingenuity. Americans are tied to this oil lifeline with harmful economic and environmental consequences. Friedman furthers that to rebuild our economy, clean the environment and promote nation building, Americans need to launch a green revolution by shunning our dependence on oil and embracing cleaner energy.

Does this include me? Gulp.

Whether or not Friedman’s thinking is foolproof, his point resonated with me: global politics, energy consumption and human and environmental wellbeing are as difficult to unbundle as the Gordian knot.

This is not only true for oil. Freshwater resources, food security, forest resources and biodiversity are all threatened due to our lifestyle choices. According to the Global Footprint Network, if everyone lived like the typical American, we would need five Earths to sustain it.

So what I read in that brief sentence while soaring 32,000 feet above ground and emitting twice as much CO2 as the average individual in Mali emits annually, was a request to recognize my responsibility to strive to live in a mutualistic relationship with other people and the planet. Not next year. Not next week. Now.

But, what can a lone person or family do?

I consider myself fairly versed in the status of the environment. It’s my job. Even so, I don’t have the vaguest notion about how much energy my family consumes, the tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) we emit or where our carbon footprint—the amount of greenhouse gasses we send into the atmosphere from habits like driving and flying—stands on a world sustainability scale.

Our footprint probably deserves hisses and boos over a Goldman Prize. Still, I aspire to live what I learn. It’s not as if the climate negotiations or stalled Senate climate bill serve as bright beacons guiding our increasingly CO2-encapsulated world into a climatically temperate carbon-neutral future.

So perhaps it’s time to be a “green” guinea pig and learn where I stand.

Here’s the question: Can a suburban American family live sustainably without having to return to the days of living by campfire in huts without electricity? Fingers crossed that the answer is yes since I’ve already done that and it was tough.

The plan is to learn by doing. It’s time to undergo a full energy audit. If considered higher than scientifically sustainable (enough to keep our CO2 emissions from exceeding 350ppm and to only require the resources of one Earth) then I’m putting my family on a low-carbon, low-consumption diet. Perhaps you’ll join me…

About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 9 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. jtdwyer 1:04 pm 11/25/2010

    Reducing our individual carbon footprint is a positive step towards reducing humanity’s impact on the Earth’s environment. However, as I understand, any reduction in co2 emissions will have little impact on atmospheric co2 levels and, over the next hundred years or so, even less impact on global warming as a result of the enormous mass of the Earth and its thermal momentum.

    Moreover, while reducing individual carbon emissions may be beneficial, the more critical factor in the carbon equation is the number of people contributing to carbon emissions. I happen to have been born in 1950 when the global population was about 2.5 billion people. In just a few years from now the population will have tripled. Those nearly 4.5 billion additional people have a greater impact on the carbon footprint and more importantly resource depletion of the Earth than do individual practices. Being green may makes us feel like we’re contributing to the solution, but unless we can reduce the global population its mostly self deception.

    The minimum a person should do towards managing the already devastating impact of human population growth would be to ensure that each person produce no more than one child.

    Link to this
  2. 2. GoonSquadSarah 5:17 pm 11/25/2010

    We’re not too bad (considering) but I know that my family can get better. Hopefully we can follow your example.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jsg278 12:31 am 11/26/2010

    If you wish to find out your effect on the environment, perhaps it is your ecological footprint that interests you. Find out what it is. I have found a resource at myfootprint (org). Learn your footprint and what you can actually do about it.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rogersgeorge 9:42 am 11/26/2010

    I confess that I’m somewhat pessimistic about our culture’s ability/willingness to turn the tide, as it were, by living greener. Yes, we are reducing our footprint, but these reductions are outcomes of my goal to gain as much independence from this about-to-collapse system as possible. The change is going to happen, I fear. We’d best be prepared to deal with it.

    Link to this
  5. 5. tharter 11:16 am 11/26/2010

    I’d like to point out though that ALL action is individual. No other path logically exists except that every person reduce their unsustainable practices, individually. There is no other medium of action through which humanity affects its environment.

    Of course policies that are enacted at the organizing level of society can catalyze changes in behavior of large numbers of people, so they are key factors. Still, in the end we each have to individually make the choices and take the actions that will make the difference. Individual responsibility cannot be escaped.

    Link to this
  6. 6. jtdwyer 2:12 pm 11/26/2010

    I wholeheartedly agree that everyone should modify their behavior to minimize their individual impact on the environment.

    My point is that humanity’s primary influence on the environment has been the nearly tripling of our population since 1950. While all humans do not impact the environment equally, much of the ‘individual’ impact is produced collectively by local and regional infrastructure. Extension of infrastructure to larger segments of the global population, such as the building of coal fired power plants in China seems only fair, but exacerbates the global environmental impact.

    Meanwhile, sensitive, intelligent individuals are most likely to buy an electric car and feel satisfied with their life. However, this makes no significant difference to the increasing global impact which is primarily driven by increasing populations and extension of (even improved technology) infrastructure to additional segments of the global population.

    Even _eliminating_ humanity’s existing co2 emissions would not likely stabilize the global temperature: it would most likely continue to increase for decades, at least. Only some safe and effective means of directly reducing atmospheric co2 levels could produce a short term reversal of our historical co2 emissions’ effects on our future climate.

    In the meantime, our increasing population’s increasing demand for land, water, and food and our continuing direct depletion of those resources through overharvesting requires the direct reduction of the population. I’m afraid this will be somehow achieved with or without our cooperation.

    Unless there is global acknowledgement of the problems facing humanity, many of which are directly related to the continuously increasing global population, no effective individual action can be taken. That the population issue receives so little media attention and that individuals generally feel completely powerless to affect its correction dooms us to ignoring the fundamental issues facing us.

    Link to this
  7. 7. verdai 6:19 pm 12/2/2010


    time will pass, along with the resources;
    and there will be a new way, that may be the old way.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Dr. Strangelove 11:06 pm 12/2/2010

    There are some errors in the article. Atmospheric CO2 has already exceeded 350 ppm. It is now at 387 ppm. We don’t need five earths to sustain a typical American consumption. One earth is enough. Do the calculation. Total arable land in the world and ave. rice yield per hectare. You can feed up to 100 billion people. Of course this is very undesirable. A small population is better.

    We can get fresh water by desalinating sea water. The world is over 70% oceans. Forest resources like wood are renewable. They will not deplete as long as we do reforestation. But I do agree we have to conserve earth’s resources.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Dr. Strangelove 12:22 am 12/3/2010

    Ms. Boyd,

    You can start by getting rid of your internal combustion engine car. Use public transport or a bicycle or an electric car. Use solar panels in your house for electric power. Avoid using aircon, heater, iron as they consume more than 1 hp. Use heat insulating materials and natural ventilation in your home to reduce electric consumption to control room temp.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article