Improve Quality of Life by Lowering Your Carbon Footprint
Of the three terms most associated with environmentalism at the consumer level — Rethink, Reuse, Recycle — the first one is probably the most overlooked. Yet, according to Susan Roothaan, founder and executive director of A Nurtured World, rethinking how we spend our money can have a huge impact on the environment. It can also increase our quality of life.
It might be surprising to learn how easily the average person in an industrialized nation can make changes to reduce our carbon footprints. Want to learn how to reduce yours? Roothaan’s workshop teaches how to improve your quality of life and save money all while reducing your impact on the planet.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) talked with Roothaan from her home office in Austin, Texas, and later met her at the Bears/Packers tailgate I wrote about yesterday (see Tailgating for a Common Green Purpose). What follows is part one of a two-part series. — Publisher
BPGL: Your environmental work combines ecology and economy. How did you get interested in the combination of the two?
ROOTHAAN: For 20 years, I worked to help businesses, industries, and the military reduce their waste output. They call it “pollution prevention.” You’re reducing something at its source versus cleaning up at the end. This is also being a good businessperson.
So I did a lot of thinking about how this would apply to the consumer sector. When I first started this nonprofit, consumer environmentalism was in its infancy. I realized that the model of environmentalism for the consumer is that it’s saving money. Most people think it’s just going and buying a more expensive product [to reduce energy use]. But if you’re really going to be green, it’s about being frugal — how to get more fulfillment out of fewer resources and less waste.
Then I started to think about what was the mission, or product, of an individual. One of the things we do — and this is what started A Nurtured World — we developed a workshop that caused people to fundamentally change their behavior. It caused them to look at what’s important to them, as well as how they’re spending their money.
BPGL: What do participants learn in your workshops?
ROOTHAAN: In the workshops, we teach that the top three consumer impacts on the environment are transportation, food consumption, and home energy use. If you’re going to change your behavior, it’s good to know what the big impacts are. And, according to the US Consumer Bureau Statistics, the top areas of spending are transportation, home, and eating. So, if you want to protect the environment, then be cheap.
We partnered with the military and gave a series of three workshops at Fort Hood with the soldiers and their spouses. Most of the people were not environmentalists, but it was really great. We measured the results of our workshop, and the average participant is saving $1,500 per year.
On average, Americans produce about 20 tons of carbon per person per year. If you remember, a couple years ago, Sting did a concert to raise awareness and tried to get everyone to reduce their carbon footprints by a ton and a half a year. Our workshop participants each reduced their footprint by two tons per year.
BPGL: How do you get people to make such a big shift in behavior?
ROOTHAAN: A lot of the footprint reduction we see is the result of being more conscious about what you’re choosing to do and asking if it’s leading to what you really want in life. It’s all about cost vs. payoff. We look at what’s important to them. Mostly we hear them say family and religion, God, and faith. These are two areas that are really important to people.
We get them to look at how they spend their money. A lot of spending is not done consciously. We work with people to let go of things that don’t lead to fulfillment.
It’s moving to me to see the results some of these people make. I’ve heard comments like, “I’m saving $50 a month now, and I wasn’t saving anything before.” That kind of money makes a difference to soldiers. Another attendee remarked, “Things are much more harmonious [in my home].” She indicated that her family was finally paying off debt and had money now for family vacations.
We didn’t start with the intention to help people save money, but that really is very meaningful for people on a day-to-day basis.
BPGL: That’s interesting, to approach environmentalism through personal finances. It sounds like a very positive way to make behavioral change.
ROOTHAAN: In 2002, when I started this, we hadn’t had [Hurricane] Katrina or Al Gore’s movie. Now the consciousness is changing; people really care about the environment. But they were always pushed back by [environmental leaders] saying, “You’re bad and wrong.” There was not a lot of space for someone who had never done anything to start doing something about the environment. People may not know what to do, but the desire to do something is really strong.
BPGL: So, your approach requires people to look at the way they spend money. Anything else?
ROOTHAAN: We’re hitting on three things: commitment to the environment, saving money, and having a life that’s more fulfilling. Different people are motivated by different things. If we’re teaching a higher-income person, money may not be their motivation. Their motivation might be that they want to leave a better place for their kids. Or they may decide that harming the environment is inconsistent with their faith.
BPGL: Recently, we ran an article about Rays of Hope (see Renewable Energy, a Tool for Social Equity), which is one of the projects under the umbrella of A Nurtured World. How does the Rays of Hope project tie in with your workshops?
ROOTHAAN: In Rays of Hope, we upgrade low-income homes. What we’ve done is to take ideas from the workshop and build them into the retrofit. We’re not doing just a physical retrofit, but also teaching the homeowners to make behavioral changes with information from our workshop.
My interest is in shifting behavior for all people in a way that gives them great lives. Months to years after the workshop, some of the participants have told me, “I’m spending more time with my family than I did before.” Because they’ve got their money under control, they now have more time for what matters to them.
In some cases, they realize that instead of spending their time working for the money to acquire things, then spending time maintaining those things, they’re now spending time “being” with their family. It could be that, through the workshop, they got clear on what’s most important to them: their family, not their stuff.
Part 1: Improve Quality of Life by Lowering Your Carbon Footprint (Top of Page)
Part 2: Save the Planet (and Money) by Living Your Values
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)