Next I wanted to calculate Victor and Claudia’s carbon footprint. This was a bit trickier, because many of the questions were designed for an “average” household and didn’t apply to them. For instance, “Do you use energy star appliances?” Well, they have no appliances, which was not an available answer. “What have you done to change the impact of your food and diet?” Shooting and dressing one’s own meat certainly wasn’t among the choices.
Then there’s the question, “How many meals include meat?” Generally speaking, the more meat one eats the more carbon is emitted thanks to an agricultural system that prompts dependency on factory farm-raised products. Since Victor and Claudia eat only wild-caught meat, I chose “never” for the answer, assuming that wild-caught meat has negligible carbon impacts.
Results of my best guessing: Victor and Claudia emit 37 tons of carbon per year total (53 tons is the U.S. average for a two-person household), with 18 tons due to occasional flights to Europe to visit Claudia’s family. As a couple they emit 10 tons more than I do alone.
So what could my family do to dial back our carbon footprint?
I decided to look at one daily activity as a starting point: eating. In a recent New York Times article, Mark Bittman poses thought-provoking questions, including “How can food change my life?” And “How can food change the world?”
Like many American households, my small family faces a hugely dysfunctional food system and needs a starting point for change. Bittman suggests that people “fix school lunches. Support a farmer, or start growing your own vegetables. Work for a member of Congress who is committed to making Big Food pay its way. Support fair treatment of workers and of animals, too.”
Living off the grid—7 billion people living off the grid—is impossible, though many do it and not by choice. Killing my own food can’t be done in my neighborhood with my resources. Flying to critical conferences and meetings—a requirement to do my work at The Nature Conservancy—must remain an option.
But I can start with the possible. As Bittman says, however I choose to live and whatever changes I make, I have to begin somewhere. And why not at my table?
Randy Swaty is an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy based in Michigan. His work spans from microbial to landscape ecology. In his spare time he gardens, builds bikes, canoes and has a violin under construction—all with his two boys and wife.
Jeannie Patton is the program coordinator for The Nature Conservancy’s LANDFIRE project, providing administrative, communications and web support. She is an enthusiastic skier, hiker and river rafter.
Image: Randy Swaty and his son Ry working on their canoe. Courtesy of Randy Swaty.