More than pretty pictures

Written by astern


It’s not every day that a mainstream magazine with a national circulation of eight million publishes a cover story on how to save energy at home. But that’s what National Geographic (March 2009 issue) delivers in an article about “the fastest, least expensive way to slow climate change.”

The magazine’s editor Peter Miller poses a challenge: can he and his wife reduce their household emissions to 30 pounds of CO2 per day, 80% less than the current U.S. average? This is the amount of reductions that scientists say the entire human population needs to achieve by 2050, if we are to avoid catastrophic alterations to the planet.

Together with a couple of his Northern Virginia neighbors, Miller begins a month-long quest to squeeze the carbon out of daily living. The families start tracking every source of emissions from home energy use to driving the car to taking airplane flights. Within days, Miller and his wife begin using a large fan instead of central AC, dial down the water heater, walk or bike for errands, and work from home when possible. An energy audit helps them to identify other home improvements they can take to cut out more waste.

At the end of the 30-day test, the Millers found that they had cut their electricity use by 70% compared to the same month the previous year, trimmed the natural gas bill by 40%, and reduced their driving by half. Overall, the Millers got down to 70 pounds of CO2 per day — not as much as they had hoped — but still impressive given the relatively modest lifestyle changes required.

A single round-trip airplane flight doubles their monthly carbon impact, a sobering fact that makes the writer question future discretionary trips.

Millions of people will need to replicate these personal carbon-saving vignettes if we’re going to get on a meaningful emission reduction path. National Geographic readers are the right audience to challenge.

*[Also, check out the very cool photos that accompany the National Geographic piece — Ed.]*

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  1. Anonymous

    Everyone focuses on cars, planes, and home electric. What about not eating meat? Eating locally as well as having a garden? Abstaining from buying as many new products as possible?
    Like I run my car on used veggie oil as well as bike to work but I find both of those very far down the list of what’s going to have significant change.

  2. Adam Stein

    We write about meat consumption quite a bit here (one, two, three).
    We also write about localism quite a bit, although we (I) tend to get a little contrarian, so feel free to flame me.

  3. Monty

    I have to say that the point by “Anonymous” struck me when I read the National Geographic article over the weekend. They never explained whether the 30 pounds of CO2 includes the items we consume as well as our own energy output. I assume it does not, but regardless – certainly someone who removes all cow products from their diet is having a significant impact on the environment, and the article never touched it.
    I also did not completely understand their explanation of driving versus riding in an airplane for their trip to Portland. It certainly depends on the number of people traveling, but a family of four in a 25mpg vehicle is far more energy efficient than the same family flying. Unless my figures are wrong? They seemed to say the opposite in the article, or at least I did not understand what they were saying.
    That said, I should not look this gift horse too closely. It is great they did the article, even if most of the people that read that magazine are already conscious to the problem. Maybe they can get Time to re-print it, and then I would be even more excited about it.

  4. Anonymous

    I completely agree…just cutting a few meals of meat of one’s diet every week provides a significant savings of carbon. People should not be afraid to spell out that fact, even it hurts the livestock industry.

  5. trent

    I have a challenge for National Geographic how about using recycled paper in their super glossy Tree KILLING magazine!I have looked all over and I cant even find an FSC compliance! Using recycled paper would cut lots of CO2.

  6. Amanda

    Agree! I have been a vegetarian since I was 10 (I’m now 28) and the environment was an as large reason as the meat industry and the lack of respect of animals that they represent (not all but I found that it was very difficult to single out the good from the bad). When it comes to saving the planet we have to think of and do EVERYTHING we can, changing our habits when it comes to food, housing, transport, clothing, hygiene, and so on. Many recommend to eat fish instead of red meat, but thats not the easiest thing either. Yesterday I saw a documentary about the fish industry, to produce one kg of salmon in a fish farm you have to feed the fish 2,5 kg wild caught fish…

  7. Tom

    I know a better way to reduce our emissions, have fewer or even better, no children! The biggest benefits will come from those using the most resources to have fewer or no children. A sustainable future means we live within our means (resources).

  8. Jake

    Tom you hit the nail on the head… less people using less resources means many of our planets problems will eventually vanish. Just stop having too many children… if people have to have more then two kids – adopt!

  9. Nancy

    Thanks for the comment, Nancy — and thanks for not reproducing!

  10. Anonymous

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept of not reproducing. What, exactly, are we saving the world for, if not for future generations?

  11. Jake

    My thinking is not to stop reproducing, it’s to slow down a little… have 2 kids instead of 10 and if you have to have a bigger family after 2 – adopt more!