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A grass-roots push for a ‘low carbon diet’

Moises Velasquez-Manoff, The Christian Science Monitor
David Gershon’s book guides readers through a series of behavioral changes to reduce their ‘carbon footprint.’
Last June, David Gershon saw Al Gore’s global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” The time was ripe, he realized, to finish an old project.

In 2000, Mr. Gershon created a step-by-step program, à la Weight Watchers, designed to reduce a person’s carbon footprint. The idea received positive reviews after a pilot program was run in Portland, Ore., but it eventually fell by the wayside for lack of interest. “The world wasn’t ready,” says Gershon, who heads the Empowerment Institute in Woodstock, N.Y., a consulting organization that specializes in changing group behavior.

But since then, Americans witnessed the catastrophic fury of hurricane Katrina, which, if nothing else, showed them what a major city looks like underwater. A substantial body of evidence supporting the idea of human-induced global warming accumulated. And, of course, Mr. Gore made his movie.

Attitudes toward global warming had shifted considerably. (Indeed, a recent poll by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that nearly half of Americans cited global warming as the No. 1 environmental concern; in 2003, only one-fifth considered it that critical.)

Gershon put his nose to the grindstone, and a slim workbook titled “Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds” was the result. Replete with checklists and illustrations, the user-friendly guide is a serious attempt at changing American energy-consumption behavior.

…the key to the program’s success, say those who’ve participated, is in forming a support group. People have good intentions, says Gershon, but alone, they often lack the will to follow through. Like Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous, the formation of a group encourages follow-through by socially reinforcing the new, desired behavior.

…Meanwhile, a handful of environmental and religious groups are recommending the book to its members.

…This growing interest in measurably reducing one’s footprint is a textbook case of how new ideas spread throughout society, say sociologists, and how new movements are born. In the abstract, if a problem is to be acted upon, it has to be recognized as a problem, says Christopher Henke, assistant professor of sociology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. Generally speaking, problems are not recognized by a group until the leaders of that group acknowledge them as such. In this sense, a problem matures and grows up, says Mr. Henke, citing examples such as the civil rights movement in the 1960s and more recent antismoking campaigns. “It becomes something that we take on as our own set of beliefs, our own moral issue,” he says, “and then it becomes a reality.”

In the case of global warming and faith networks, the past year has seen some important steps in this regard. In February, evangelical leaders around the country broke with the Bush administration and, in an open letter called the Evangelical Climate Initiative, said something had to be done. In August, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said that, because of the summer heat wave, he was a “convert” to the idea of human-driven global warming.

Once important figures in social groups adopt an idea, others in the group are much more likely to to follow along. Then, movements spread and grow along pre-existing social networks, says Bogdan Vasi, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “People join a movement because their friends and relatives are involved,” he says. “If you hear that your friend is buying wind energy, you’re more likely to buy wind energy as well.”

…[Gershon] ascribes to a classic theory by sociologist Everett Rogers on how innovations diffuse throughout a community. New ideas begin with a small group of innovators and move on to early adopters. They then pass on to early majority followed by a late majority. Finally, the most hardheaded – the laggards – adopt the new idea. Contrary to the oft-leveled criticism in environmental circles that by preaching to the choir nothing gets accomplished, Gershon argues that one should direct efforts at the group that’s most receptive.

“Preach to the choir,” says Gershon. “They’ll sing loud enough to get everyone to go into the church, or synagogue, or mosque.
(28 Dec 2006)

Visit to an Island Nation

Kelpie Wilson, t r u t h o u t

Part I: Coming Home to Scotland

For several years now I’ve had a hankering to go abroad. Though I lived in Germany as a child, I hadn’t been out of North America since the age of ten. After 9/11, America, always provincial, seems to have pulled in on itself even more. I needed to peek out from under the covers and see for myself what life outside the Homeland is like, so I decided on a trip to Great Britain.

My trip would be partly a personal pilgrimage to experience the land of my ancestors and partly a quest for answers to the question of our times: how to live peacefully and sustainably on our small planet. I was curious to see how 60 million people inhabit an island smaller than my home state of Oregon while using half the per-capita energy.

…Back at the Kilmartin Hotel that night, I am sitting next to Nigel McPhail again and I tell him that I’m traveling on my own because my husband is a bioregionalist. “He doesn’t like to leave Oregon,” I say. A taciturn leprechaun, Nigel nods slowly. “Aye,” he says, “I don’t ever leave Scotland.”

… My eyes sting now. “I am so ashamed of my country,” I say. I’ve been prepared for this. I know that everything we have done in the Middle East for the past five years has fueled what’s happening now and even though Tony Blair has been right there with us I’m prepared to take some heat for America’s leading role in this Armageddon. But Nigel surprises me. With fierceness, this quiet man says, “Never be ashamed of your country. I could never be ashamed of Scotland.”

I don’t know what to say. I shrug. Maybe that is what having a deep history does for you, makes you unable to turn your back and say, it’s not my country, really. I’m ashamed of those people, it’s not me.

Part II: England’s Green and Pleasant Land

…Though it was Britain’s hottest July on record and no air conditioning was available, I was happy to put up with the heat and avoid running the energy-intensive AC that is ubiquitous in America, even in areas with mild climates like Oregon. Another English advantage is that all power outlets have switches on them so you can turn things off that normally suck power on standby, like televisions. The existence of such things as switched outlets and efficient public transport mean that conservation is built into the infrastructure of British society far more than we experience in the US, and that is how Brits can use half of our per capita energy without even really thinking about it.

…Flying home, I saw Greenland’s vast white ice sheet pockmarked everywhere with blue pools of meltwater. These lakes did not exist just a few years ago. Global warming is accelerating, and we are reaching the point of no return. If we are to survive, we must do what it takes to transform our human culture once again. For one thing, we must stop flying so much.

The British are far more aware of the climate change threat than Americans are. Perhaps it is because they live on a small island where farmland is limited, an island that will lose precious land to the rising seas. British politicians and scientists have taken the lead in raising the alarm on global warming. They have even hired Al Gore to reach out to Americans on the issue, sending our own rejected prophet back to us.

Al Gore as the Merlin for our age? Works for me.

Kelpie Wilson is the Truthout environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic Books.
(21 and 26 Dec 2006)