An End and a Beginning: My Last Dispatch for 'Going Green'

So this is it. My final post for “Going Green: Cutting Environmental Impact on Campus,” this fascinating, frustrating, peculiar, enjoyable and enlightening month-long project to live as sustainably and “green” as possible.

No more blogging and writing and filming about solar-powered vibrators or Zipcars or “green” grocery shopping or unsatisfying Wendy’s salads or phantom energy. (At least for In that sense, this post is an ending of sorts.

But it’s a beginning, too. The question I’ve been asked most often by friends, family and other journalists is whether I’ll keep up with my new green lifestyle.

To be honest, I didn’t think twice in responding. With all this knowledge about sustainability and eco-friendly consumption, I fully intend to keep living as “green” as I can from now on.

I may not be writing about it (as much), but that doesn’t mean I’m going to leave all of my appliances plugged in, indulge in 30-minute showers and eat steaks and pork each night of the week.

Prior to this project, I’d written about sustainability and dabbled in eco-friendly living, like going to the farmer’s market or driving my car less. But having to immerse myself into this kind of lifestyle and maintain what amounted to a public diary recording my experiences, plus some more objective reporting on “green” topics, showed me how many of my previous habits I could change and how much of an impact I could have. It’s an experiment I’d recommend to anyone even if only for a week instead of an entire month.

Now looking back at that month, it’s time to assess how I did starting with my goal of cutting my carbon footprint in half. As you’ll remember, I estimated my personal carbon footprint to be 35 tons of CO2 per year using the The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Footprint Calculator. The average carbon footprint in the U.S. is 27 tons, and worldwide it’s 5.5 tons, according to The Nature Conservancy.

Did I reach my goal of about 17.5 tons? Sadly, no.

As I mentioned in my first post, The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Footprint Calculator takes into the account “Home Energy,” “Driving & Flying,” “Food & Diet” and “Recycling & Waste” when calculating your footprint. And even though I made improvements in each of these categories—by eating less meat, by conserving energy in my house, by starting a compost pile, by recycling—the factor that pushed me past my goal was, again, the amount of flights I’ve taken in the past year. Granted, I didn’t fly at all during my month of green living, but the number of flights I’ve taken in the past year still boosted my total. Which is a reminder that flying less, if you can help it, is crucial to a more sustainable lifestyle.

Here’s my carbon footprint now:

So I did manage to decrease my carbon footprint by an estimated 14 tons of CO2 per year and drop below the U.S. average though I’m nowhere near the world average. In short, I’m pleased with the result and now know how to decrease my footprint even more. (Adios airport, hello bus stop.)

Making a mosaic

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to lunch with the writer Terry Tempest Williams, who was speaking at my dad’s college in Kalamazoo, Mich., and a number of other people from the college. She asked me about this project, and when I explained what I had been up to, Williams pressed me on what specifically I had learned and could share with everyone at the table.

What I told her, and what resonates with me the most now that my month-long project is over, is that sustainable living isn’t some massive overhaul of your life or a revolutionary change in how you live. Rather, it’s the sum of a lot of small changes, some more noticeable than others: You unplug your computer when you’re not using it instead of leaving it on; turn the thermostat down 10 degrees or so before you go to bed; flip off the lights when you leave a room; bring your own coffee mug or water bottle with you; and many, many others.

In Williams’ most recent book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, the metaphor of a mosaic runs throughout each section, from Italy to the American prairie to war-torn Rwanda. That same metaphor, in a sense, can be applied to eco-friendly living: Lots of small pieces of change comprise the big-picture changes I set out to make.

Some of those changes, as you saw, were more successful than others. Cutting down on phantom energy was easy—I just needed to be more aware of the electricity and appliances I used. I embraced the idea of shopping at the Salvation Army, especially as it was something I did somewhat often before this project.

And one of the biggest surprises was my decision to cut my meat intake. At first it was painful. I missed hamburgers and steak burritos and pork chops, and I loathed the salads that replaced them. But with each day, I grew more accustomed to a meat-less diet, and soon finding non-meat meals at the grocery store became an adventure of sorts. Everyone can find the ground chuck at the grocery store, but can you find the tofu section (if your store has tofu at all)?

Not that there weren’t failures. Two words: Compost pile. As I write, a few inches of snow rest atop my compost pile, thanks to a freakish first week of April here in Michigan. Then again, I think the compost pile was doomed from day one, as I’ve come to think that I may have used the wrong fertilizer for the pile and that it was too cold for it to work, anyway.

But my roommates, the good sports they are, were willing to throw their orange peels and food scraps into my compost jar for the pile. Their encouragement leads me to believe that I could have pulled it off, had it been later in the year and had I read the directions more closely.

And my roommates weren’t the only ones generally supportive of the project. Throughout the month I received lots of feedback from readers who shared their thoughts on the project, critiqued my individual posts and, in one case, even sent me some vegetarian recipes to try.

Having the posts appear at shared my project with many more readers, and even helped spark discussion of my posts at environmental sites like Grist and The amazing Kaitlin Urka of and the University of Michigan’s own WOLV TV station, who shot, produced and edited the videos on, said the blog was even mentioned on Fox News’ program, the Strategy Room.

With that, I’ll be signing off. It was a pleasure, and I hope that some of the ideas and lessons and experiences shared here will be helpful to others as they try to go green, too. Thanks!