Save the Planet (and Money) by Living Your Values
“It doesn’t matter if you think you’re an environmentalist,” says Susan Roothaan, executive director of A Nurtured World, “your footprint isn’t proportional to your opinions and views, but to your income level. I’ve seen some conservatives with lower carbon footprints than radical leftists. People’s actions don’t always follow their opinions.”
Roothaan’s nonprofit provides workshops for both high- and low-income families, to help them reduce expenses by reducing their carbon footprints. What follows is part two of a two-part interview with Roothan, where we continue the discussion about A Nurtured World. — Publisher
BPGL: The Rays of Hope project (see Renewable Energy, a Tool for Social Equity), which is under the umbrella of your 501(c)3, focuses on families with limited incomes. Are you having as great an effect with upper-income families?
ROOTHAN: The people who need to drop their footprint the most are the upper-income people, so we started with a focus on them. And it’s working.
I’m a chemical engineer and a measurement nut. I talk to 15 percent of our workshop participants afterward to find out what they’ve done, so I have detailed knowledge of their actions. Measuring not only tells us how our programs are doing, but it also makes an impact on the workshop participant. When they see that their actions cause measurable results, it motivates more action.
BPGL: What caused you to add workshops for people in lower income groups?
ROOTHAAN: We began to work with people in lower-income groups to help them save money. There are a couple of reasons that we became excited about working with them. One is how much of a difference we’re making in their lives. For example, our partners in Meals on Wheels tell us that some of these families are forced to choose between energy and food. Our program has made it easier for them to meet their expenses.
The hope in this country is that everyone can become upper income. What A Nurtured World provides is a way to increase fulfillment without increasing your footprint. As people improve their economic position in society, we teach them how to do it in a way that adds a lot of fulfillment but not a lot of carbon footprint.
BPGL: Give an example of how that works.
ROOTHAAN: One thing we work on is helping people cut back how much money they spend. When people spend money, they usually think, I’m spending $10, not I had to work x amount of time to earn the money to pay for this. We teach people to shift how they look at money, to think of it as time. We ask them, “When you spend $10 at a fast food place, how long do you have to work to earn that?”
We show people that they don’t just have to work long enough to earn $10; they also have to pay tax on the money they earn. So, if they earn $10 an hour, they really work longer than an hour to pay for the item. When you spend, you need to ask, Is it worth the time I gave for that thing?
As Vicki Robin says in Your Money or Your Life, spending is not just giving away money, it’s giving away your life energy.
BPGL: That’s an important lesson that every kid should learn.
ROOTHAAN: I agree. One of my attendees suggested we take what we teach to adults and correlate it to the school system in Texas, so we’ve started a professional development program to train teachers on how to teach their students these concepts.
BPGL: How do you translate the workshop information to something meaningful for kids?
ROOTHAAN: We took a look at the Texas state standards, which are very prescriptive, and adapted our curriculum to middle school. We kept the heart of it, but shored it up to show the connections that make it relevant to the kids.
We adapt the money versus time issue to kids by asking, If you buy a CD for $14, how many times do you have to mow the lawn to pay for it? And we teach this in a way that meets an algebra standard. We look at what the kids are learning and figure out an activity to connect it to.
BPGL: How widespread is your teacher-training program?
ROOTHAAN: We’re working with 6th- through 8th-grade teachers of math, science, and English. Right now we’re only in Texas, but we’ll soon be doing programs in Oklahoma and Arizona.
We’ve also started to develop a program for second-grade teachers. I’m interested in science and environment being real for people, so it’s not this environment OUT THERE, like a nature preserve, but right here, right now, where it makes a difference. When you’re little and see a picture of a bird, that picture isn’t part of you. It’s “out there”; it isn’t real to you.
In second grade, the kids learn through hands-on experience about the effort it takes to move things. So the teachers have the kids load up little trucks with something heavy, like gravel, and something light, like cotton balls. We let them push the little trucks to see which takes more effort to move. Then we take the students outside to look at real trucks and get them to think about which ones require more gas to move. We get them to see it firsthand so it becomes real to them.
BPGL: How are the school programs funded?
ROOTHAAN: We have support from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has been our lifeblood in many ways. One of the first people at EPA who believed in us and saw what we could do was Joy Campbell.
BPGL: It seems that what you’re doing is as much about clarifying one’s values as it is about environmentalism.
ROOTHAAN: An interesting question that we raise — primarily with middle and upper-income groups — is, “How much of what I spend goes to fulfillment versus waste? In over 1,000 people so far, we’re hearing that it’s roughly 50 percent before the workshop. This is a huge place where most environmental groups are not working.
By rethinking before we spend, and spending only for things that provide actual fulfillment, we also reduce our ecological footprint. Mathis Wakernagel and William Rees first put forth the concept of the ecological footprint in 1992. In 2003, experts calculated that the earth’s carrying capacity was about 1.8 global hectares (4.4 acres) per person. Meanwhile, the average American’s ecological footprint is about 9.6 global hectares (23.7 acres) per person for resource use and waste absorption.
BPGL: We’re very out of balance. Certainly, we all need to make changes in our lifestyles.
ROOTHAAN: The good news is that giving up a fair portion of our footprint isn’t much of a hardship for many people. If what we give up isn’t providing us with fulfillment, then giving it up is actually a freedom.
However, when you start looking at lower income groups, reducing your footprint can be a hardship, especially if it means giving up food. That’s why the Rays of Hope/One House project is so exciting. We help people lower their energy footprint so they have that extra money for food. Dropping your footprint when you can’t eat isn’t something you want to think about. Many people in lower income groups say, “Listen, I don’t want to give anything up.” Yet, for a lot of people in middle- and upper income groups, it’s freeing. If you can give up the clutter before you’re forced to, you’re ahead of the game.
BPGL: What would you say to our readers if they were in your workshop today?
ROOTHAN: I would ask each of your readers — and you — to commit to a specific change right now. So if you liked what you learned from this article, commit to and implement something to save money, drop your footprint, and improve your level of fulfillment. I encourage you all to email me with your commitment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make it your New Year’s resolution.
Part 1: Improve Quality of Life by Lowering Your Carbon Footprint
Part 2: Save the Planet (and Money) by Living Your Values (Top of Page)
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)