Conserve Your Energy

John Tierney makes the case for being an armchair environmentalist
This guide to effortless environmentalism is based on two assumptions: 1. You want to do your part to protect the earth. 2. Your name is not Ed Begley, Jr. If you are Ed Begley—in fact, if you’re anything like the actor—then you don’t really want to hear that it’s possible to be an armchair environmentalist. Begley delights in making sacrifices for Mother Earth. He lives in a two-bedroom home, microscopic by Hollywood standards, with solar panels on the roof to charge his electric car and heat the rainwater he collects. He composts compulsively and knows which of the seven kinds of plastic to recycle. He cooks food from his garden in a solar oven. He harangues his 82 wife about her wastefulness. As viewers of HGTV’s green reality show Living With Ed know, he has used a stopwatch to time her showers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this lifestyle—if you get the same satisfaction out of it that Begley does and if it doesn’t drive your family crazy (see what the Begleys say on page 88). But if you prefer to conserve your energy for other endeavors, you can ease your conscience. You don’t have to feel bad to do good. There are smart ways to reduce emissions of greenWhen he’s not in his pajamas saving the earth, John Tierney is a columnist and blogger (TierneyLab) covering science for The New York Times.


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house gases that don’t take much effort. They can even simplify your life by saving you time and money. To become an armchair environmentalist, just relax and follow these little steps:

1 Skip a trip Sitting in your La-Z-Boy instead of in an airplane seat is the easiest way to make a big difference in greenhouse emissions. Forgoing a single international trip might offset all the carbon dioxide you produce through your home and car during the entire year. Besides spewing CO2, jets emit water vapors and other greenhouse gases (like nitrogen oxides) that are believed to be at least as damaging as the CO2 (maybe even twice as damaging, by some estimates). The nonprofit group Environmental Defense calculates that an interna-

tional round-trip between cities 4,000 miles apart (like, say, Al Gore’s home in Nashville and Oslo, Norway, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize) produces approximately eight tons in CO2-equivalent gases per passenger. That’s roughly the amount of CO2 produced yearly, per person, to power the average American car and supply heat and electricity for the average home.

Hire someone 2 to seal up your house
You could weatherproof your home yourself, of course, but you can lazily delegate the job and still come out ahead financially in the long run. Merely sealing leaks in windows and doors and insulating ducts could save you at least $100 a year and reduce CO2 emissions by at least 1,000 pounds

5 Things Not to Sweat
Turning off your car’s air conditioner. Yes, the AC does affect fuel efficiency. But Consumer Reports figures it amounts to only one mile per gallon, and says you could end up burning more if you open the windows and increase air resistance. The green experts at both groups say it’s okay for highway drivers to use the AC on a low setting. Keeping cool makes sense because it’ll make you a safer driver. Filling up your tank with ethanol. The corn-based fuel is popular with politicians looking for votes from Iowa farmers, but environmental groups have opposed the subsidies because of all the land, water and energy needed to produce it. While using ethanol instead of gas may reduce greenhouse emissions by about 10 percent, the benefit is swamped by the adverse environmental consequences, according to an exhaustive study of biofuels last year by Swiss researchers. Recycling everything. While it can make economic sense to recycle aluminum and paper, towns frequently lose money recycling glass and plastics because they’re


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per year—and possibly much more. Adding insulation to your home could double the savings.

3 Work from home
You’ve heard the exhortations to carpool or take mass transit to work, but you probably haven’t heeded them. Despite all the official encouragement, like special carpool lanes and hefty subsidies for mass transit, in recent decades the percentage of people who drive alone to work has been increasing, while the share of commuters who carpool or take mass transit has been declining. Unless you live in New York or a few other cities, these options just aren’t practical when you’re juggling work and family responsibilities as more

and more jobs move to the suburbs and beyond. Meanwhile, though, there’s been

expensive to collect and aren’t worth much. Go ahead and recycle plastic if it gives you pleasure—you can feel virtuous about the energy savings. But there are easier and cheaper ways to reduce greenhouse emissions. And you may not be saving energy if you’re making a trip to the recycling center to haul a few bottles. Buying local food. If you want to support local farmers and love fresh food, fine, but don’t assume you’re

helping the planet. Foods from farther away may be grown and shipped so much more efficiently (and cheaply) that they produce fewer greenhouse gases. “There are lots of good reasons to eat local,” says David Victor, director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University. “But energy savings don’t top the list, because local production often requires more trips than mechanized food production.”

Going organic. Buying organic food makes sense if you believe it’s tastier, more nutritious or safer than conventionally grown food (despite conflicting opinions on these points). But there is one major environmental downside: Since organic farms often yield less per acre than factory farms, organic food requires more land, leaving less room for forests that absorb carbon dioxide and wilderness areas that promote biodiversity.


one encouraging trend: The number of people who telecommute has increased by more than 40 percent since 1980. Today more than 4 million workers telecommute most days, and nearly 20 million Americans work from home at least once a month. In most U.S. metro areas, telecommuters now outnumber people who get to work by mass transit, says Ted Balaker, a fellow at the Reason Foundation. Telecommuting isn’t for everyone, of course, but surveys have found that both employers and employees are warming up to this option. Companies like American Express have found telecommuting increases worker productivity. Businesses that let people work at home save money on rent and utilities by using less office space, and attract and retain employees more easily. In one survey, a third of Americans said they’d rather have the option to telecommute than an increase in salary. What’s good for the bottom line and worker morale is also good for the atmosphere: One person telecommuting just one day a week can reduce emissions by 400 pounds per year.

thousands of dollars and tens of thousands of pounds of CO2 over the life of the car. On a social level, getting people to drive more efficient cars is a much smarter carbon-busting strategy than trying to lure them to mass transit, according to Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. He calculates that most urban transit systems emit at least as much CO2 per passenger mile (because of all the empty seats) as the average passenger car. (The transit systems in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland, Boston and Chicago are exceptions.) “Getting commuters to switch to hybrid or biodiesel cars will cost less and save more energy than getting them to switch to public transit,” says O’Toole, noting that a Toyota Prius has lower CO2 emissions per passenger mile than every transit system except for the New York City subways and the San Francisco BART trains.

5 Use cruise control
Letting your car’s computer control the speed is a win-win for laziness and the environment. Most tips for improving gas mileage require some work on your part, like keeping your tires inflated properly (which can improve mileage by 3 percent and save about 250 pounds of CO2 annually for the average driver). But you might double that improvement just by relaxing with cruise conREADER’S DIGEST

4 Drive a fuelefficient car
Choosing the right car is a tricky thing. How, for instance, do you balance fuel efficiency with other factors like safety and convenience? But this is one task that merits the attention of even the laziest environmentalist. A few hours of research can save 86

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trol. Tests by found that using cruise control improved mileage by 7 percent. (One exception: Cruise control can use more gas if you’re driving in very hilly terrain.) Even more savings are possible if you’ve got a car with the new “adaptive cruise control” that uses radar or lasers to keep you at a safe distance from other cars. The more drivers who use these systems, the more smoothly traffic flows, resulting in less congestion and therefore less fuel wasted.

your water heater to 120 degrees and washing clothes in cold or warm water instead of hot. You can save even more by replacing a water heater that’s more than 10 or 15 years old.

7 Don’t wash the dishes
Leave the job to a professional: your dishwasher. As long as you wait until it’s full to run it, it uses less than a third of the water that you’d use doing the job by hand. And for extra points in armchair environmentalism, go ahead and scrape your dishes but don’t rinse them before loading (if you can run the washer soon and not worry about bugs or smell). A good modern dishwasher should be able to do the job without your help.

6 Cool your waterheating bills
You can easily save money, and hundreds of pounds of CO2 per year, by lowering the temperature of

8 Use a laptop, and let it nap
Replacing your desktop and monitor with an efficient laptop that displays the Energy Star logo, and setting it to go to sleep when you’re not using it, can save about 500 pounds of carbon dioxide every year.

9 Drink tap water
Instead of lugging bottles of water home from the store, leave the work to your local utility. In most 87

Shades of Green
If you, too, are an armchair environmentalist, you may have already watched television’s green giant, Ed Begley, Jr., wrangling with his wife of seven years, Rachelle, on HGTV’s Living With Ed. Here’s a sampling of what Ed says about saving the earth, and what Rachelle says about saving their family’s sanity. ED A charcoal grill releases nasty emissions, so I cook with a solar oven, an insulated box with a pane of glass and four reflectors to focus light. I even built a rolling stand so I can move it around to capture maximum sun. On a really good day, I can get it to 375 degrees. When I need more flexibility than a public bus or my bike can offer, I use my 100 percent electric car. If you charge it using any kind of green power, it’s a true zeroemissions vehicle. I installed photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of my house and garage. They do need maintenance. Four times a year, I have to hose off the panels and brush them.

RACHELLE That solar oven used to be the bane of my existence. Ed was always moving it. I’d come out into the yard and—boom!—walk straight into it. It does work; Ed makes really good soups and stews. But I think he likes the novelty of it. I like the fact that I’m not cooking. When Ed and I started dating, electric cars were not reliable. We ran out of electricity many times. Then there was the time I went into labor with our daughter, Hayden. Ed wanted to drive me to the hospital in his electric car. I said, “No way!” Ed is so in love with those solar panels. Sometimes he spends more time on the roof than with me. Growing up in Atlanta, I never thought the electricity in my house would depend on a man on the roof with a broom.
Buy a copy of Living Like Ed at

places tap water is just as safe, much cheaper and more convenient. (See “Rethink What You Drink” in the February issue.) Replacing just two storebought bottles of water every week with tap water from the faucet can mean 500 fewer pounds of CO2 emissions over a year. 88

10 Stay married
Happy in your marriage? Turns out, staying together is better for the earth. Converting one household into two means bigger utility bills and, therefore, more greenhouse gases. Researchers at Michigan

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State University last year computed that the extra electricity consumed by divorced families amounts to 73 billion kilowatt-hours, which works out to about 6,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per household.

Consider 11 carbon offsets, but be careful
The ultimate in lazy strategies is to pay other people to offset your emissions by planting trees or installing green technologies. In theory, the money you would spend at home could be put to more efficient use by experts in charge of larger projects. In practice, though, it all depends on buying offsets from a trustworthy organization (such as Climate Trust) that’s doing the job correctly. You can find guidelines on how to buy them at

12 Support carbon taxes
A wide range of experts, liberal and conservative, agree that imposing a carbon tax on gasoline, coal and other sources of fuel would be the simplest and most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions. This would be a surcharge imposed on users of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas according to the amount of carbon dioxide produced. Some have proposed easing the pain by returning all the revenues of the tax to the public, either through other tax

cuts or direct rebates. My favorite scheme to keep the money out of Congress’s hands calls for divvying it up into retirement accounts for every American. The problem is that an equally wide range of politicians are convinced that voters would turn them out of office for even suggesting such a tax. A few bills to tax carbon have been introduced in Congress, but none is expected to become law anytime soon—certainly not in an election year. For their part, voters, unfortunately, don’t seem to appreciate how blessedly simple a tax would be, compared with the elaborate energy plans, regulations and incentives that are being enacted instead. If the costs of gasoline, electricity and other products took into account the amount of carbon they produce, you wouldn’t have to wade through calculations in articles like this one. You could choose the most convenient green alternatives just by looking at the price tag. For an armchair environmentalist, what could be easier?

The Impact
If every RD reader followed this green advice for a year, we’d prevent the release of

104 million tons of CO2.
That’s roughly the amount of greenhouse gas produced by powering the state of Arizona or driving 21 million cars for one year.
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