You hear of one study saying that the energy used washing ceramic coffee cups is as damaging to the environment as the use of disposable plastic cups that won’t biodegrade for thousands of years. You hear of another that says destroying trees to make paper towels is no worse than using hot water and toxic detergent to wash cloth rags.
Everything, if you listen to conventional wisdom, is as bad as everything else. The spin merchants have got us believing that to try to make any difference is futile. You might as well give up. Throw away another plastic coffee cup. Don’t bother with the hybrid car. Go on, guzzle.
Meanwhile, I mention to a very liberal friend, a guy who used to be spokesman for a Democratic senator, that I’m trying to figure out how to live no impact here in New York. “Forget it. It’s impossible,” he says. It’s one thing to try it in the countryside, maybe in the woods, like Henry David Thoreau, or on a farm, where you grow your own food. But in New York City? No way.
The fact is that if city dwellers can’t learn to live without reducing their ecological footprint then we’re in deep trouble because most of the world’s population now lives in cities. Saving the world can’t be left to the country bumpkins. It’s an urban problem.
True, a city like New York does have the environmental advantage of economy of scale—people share transport, buildings and resources—but cities are also responsible for the production and concentration of pollutants in massive amounts. Thanks to car and truck exhaust alone, which makes for 90 percent of Manhattan’s air pollution, the island’s residents face the highest risk in the country of developing cancer from chemicals in the air.
Add to that the annual 9 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions resulting from New York’s electricity use, our 8 billion pounds of garbage and half a trillion gallons of sewage and you have a supersized serving of world-killing poisons. Energy efficient city though New York might be, we remain an ecological nightmare, which is why—in addition to the feeling that we just have to do something—my wife Michelle and I began talking about going off the grid for a year, unplugging from the matrix.
In specific terms, the challenge is to take a year to develop and live a no impact lifestyle. Our approach will be to research our ecological options and run down our damage in one area at a time—solid waste, transportation, energy, for example. Our aim, over the course of the year, is to do no net harm to the environment. We’ll wind down in stages.
But to cause no net impact is impossible to do merely by restricting consumption and waste output. Just participating in society makes us responsible for the negative environmental impacts of society’s functioning, even if our personal lifestyle does no harm. To offset our societal ecological debt, we also plan to take actions that will have positive environmental impact. For example, we’ll volunteer with the Nature Conservancy to clean up garbage off the beach. To help sop up our share of the year’s CO2, we will take part in a reforestation project to help plant trees.
Meanwhile, I’ll research and answer many of the niggling questions that have had us and everyone we know throwing our hands in the air when trying to do less harm to the environment. Do you do more harm by living in the country or the city? Is it better to drive a thousand miles or take an airplane? Is it really true that the tiniest moped, because of its lack of a catalytic converter, causes more pollution than an SUV? Could we all, by video conferencing, virtual collaboration and tele-commuting, cut down our travel enough to cause a worthwhile reduction in carbon emissions? What, exactly, comprises sufficient individual effort that, if taken by each of us, would save the planet?
During the course of the year, Michelle, Isabella and I will traverse the range of lifestyles from making a limited number of concessions to the environment to becoming eco-extremists. This means that when we’re done, we can reenter the world of normal consumerdom equipped to decide which parts of our no impact lifestyle we’re willing to keep and which ones we’re not. In other words, in addition to the no impact year, we’ll have figured out our way forward.