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.