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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Counting Carbs

Air Date: Week of

Seth Zuckerman recently wanted to shed some pounds. But instead of trying to cut carbs, he cut his carbon dioxide output. Seth Zuckerman wrote an article about it for Sierra magazine and tells host Bruce Gellerman about the trials and tribulations of regulating his carbon footprint.


GELLERMAN: Seth Zuckerman, of Seattle Washington, recently went on a crash diet. He wanted to cut the carbs. Not carbohydrates, but carbon dioxide, those greenhouse gases partly responsible for global warming. So Seth got a personal trainer – sort of a carbon coach – to help him count his CO2 output, and find ways to cut back. Seth Zuckerman wrote about his experience in the current issue of Sierra magazine and he joins me from Seattle. Seth, welcome to Living on Earth.

ZUCKERMAN: Thanks for having me, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: So, Seth, you actually went on not one diet but three carbon dioxide diets.

ZUCKERMAN: That’s right. The first week I was trying to get my carbon dioxide emissions to about 122 pounds per day, which is the US average. And in the second week to the world average of 24 pounds per day of carbon dioxide, which is what the average person in the world emits. And finally, I was trying to get them down to 9 pounds per day of carbon dioxide, which is my share of what the earth’s systems of soil, forest, and ocean can absorb on our behalf.

GELLERMAN: How much carbon dioxide were you producing before you went on the first diet?

ZUCKERMAN: It was probably on the order of about 40 pounds per day of carbon dioxide. It was a time when I wasn’t counting every pound as I did once I started to go on the diet. And so, it actually took some effort to get my consumption up to the range of the average American.

GELLERMAN: Really, what’d you have to do?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, one of the first things I realized was that if I didn’t use more gasoline there’d be no way I’d be on par with the average American. So, I rented an SUV, and for the errands that I had to do around town or in the Seattle metro area I just drove everywhere. And it made a huge difference compared to what I was driving at the time.

GELLERMAN: How much extra carbon dioxide were you producing with that SUV?

ZUCKERMAN: That brought my carbon dioxide emissions up by at least 10 pounds a day, no question. And it depended how much driving I actually had to do. There was another time when we just used our own car, which is a relatively fuel-efficient VW Golf, and we just traveled further. So, it was a matter of getting out of town. Loading up the car with the kayak, taking the ferry, which burns diesel like there’s no tomorrow. So, either driving farther or driving less efficiently seemed to be one of the key factors.

GELLERMAN: Did you ever figure out how much one gallon of gasoline was producing in terms of carbon dioxide?

ZUCKERMAN: It’s between 19 and 20 pounds of carbon dioxide for each gallon.

GELLERMAN: Seth, admit it. Wasn’t if fun driving the SUV?

ZUCKERMAN: It was a different experience. I had a much better view crossing Lake Washington with that extra foot or so under my bum. And it wasn’t so much that the SUV itself was fun, but not having to feel any limits was the most fun of all. Realizing that my objective wasn’t to conserve, which is so often my mindset, my objective was to consume.

GELLERMAN: But you really had to slim down that second week. You went from 122 pounds a day of carbon dioxide to what, 24, the world average?

ZUCKERMAN: That was the objective, right. So it meant pretty much the diametric opposite. Instead of trading my VW Gulf for an SUV, I had to trade it for a bicycle. I had to take that and the bus when I was going places. We had to save up. We were going to take one car trip that week and we rented a Prius to do it. And we managed to keep our consumption down to 9 pounds of carbon dioxide each, by using that Prius. And you know as it happened, pulling out all of the stops, by the end of the week I found that I’d actually beaten that world average and gotten my consumption down 20 percent below. That was the equivalent of about a Mongolian’s fossil fuel use. And let me tell you, it was rough. I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t cold but I had to think about my fossil fuel use every moment of the day.

GELLERMAN: And then you really had to slim down to 9 pounds of carbon dioxide a day. How did you do that?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, what we realized, my carbon coach and I, was that there was no way I was going to make it down to 9 pounds a day, short of turning off all of the lights and the heat in the apartment building and fasting in a closet for a week. So instead my carbon coach suggested, why don’t we think about the structural changes it would take to get down, for me or anybody else, to get down to that level in this country. And those turned out to be structural changes in the efficiency standards in our cars. They turned out to be changes in the kind of electricity we produce.

GELLERMAN: But Seth, given the fact that you enjoyed that high-carb diet so much and it was so difficult to get low, um. I guess what I’m getting at here is that this lifestyle that Americans have enjoyed and do enjoy is not without its rewards. It’s a little bit like, you know, eating candy.

ZUCKERMAN: You know, and you can’t stop with just one. When I was doing this project, after finishing the first high-carbon week, I didn’t really want it to end. I just said, well, I just kept putting off the low carbon diet. I’ll start the diet next Tuesday. Oh, well that’s not really convenient. We have to go see this friend who lives across town. Let’s wait just another couple of days. And it was hard to give up, this idea of wanting to use more. It brought home to me that unless there is some really compelling reason to do it, it is going to be really hard for me or any of the rest of us to make the changes it’ll take to keep ourselves from warping the climate any farther.

GELLERMAN: Seth Zuckerman is a freelance writer based in Seattle and author of “My Low Carbon Diet: From Gas Gluttony to Fuel Fitness in 3 Weeks.” Seth, I enjoyed talking with you. Thank you very much.

ZUCKERMAN: Thanks for having me.



"My Low Carbon Diet: From Gas Gluttony to Fuel Fitness in Three Weeks" in Sierra

Seth Zuckerman's Website


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