Carbon-Neutral Costa Rica: How I Lost 5,400 lbs While Packing for the Trip of a Lifetime

In search of a guilt-free adventure in the tropics, Jason Daley discovers the line between saving the world–and seeing it.
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In search of a guilt-free adventure in the tropics, Jason Daley discovers the line between saving the world–and seeing it.

Somewhere in the canopy above me a howler monkey screams. Rising above the pounding rain, the disembodied voice sounds powerful but oddly creaky, like a chorus of angry, pubescent bullfrogs. Already on this trek I've seen a rare resplendent quetzal, an orange-kneed tarantula, and a wet sloth, and I'd like to add this loud but invisible primate to my life list. So I stand awhile in the tropical downpour, scanning the dense cecropias and strangler figs of Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve through foggy binoculars, hoping for a sight of simian life. I don't begrudge the howler its privacy, but I like to think that if it knew what I'd done to arrive at this patch of forest, if it understood the dark night of the eco-soul I'd suffered to get from Wisconsin to Central America, it would grant me a brief, blurry glimpse–or at least toss a little poo in my direction.

So far on this rainforest hike, I've marveled at air-eating epiphytes hanging in the dense canopy, seen the bizarre flight of a head-heavy toucan, and watched a palm-size wasp attack a tarantula. It's a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me, a personal epic that, after a few stiff drinks, will eventually bore listless teenagers and strangers at weddings through the rest of my life. It's the type of adventure all wilderness travelers dream of.

Just one problem: Some environmentalists don't think I should have come to Costa Rica at all, arguing that flying halfway around the hemisphere to sight-see in the cloud forest is an unforgivable, carbon-spewing eco-sin. In other words, passenger jets have become this decade's SUVs. I can sympathize with my would-be monkey-deniers: Air traffic produces up to four percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, and the number of flights is expected to triple in the next 40 years as increasingly affluent Indians and Chinese accumulate their own frequent-flier miles. George Monbiot, an earnest Brit and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, stated bluntly in a recent Guardian column, "Flying kills. We all know it and we all do it." And here I thought I was just enjoying a bag of salty nuts and half a can of Sprite.

I'm probably a lot like you. I keep an eye on environmental issues–as long as they don't involve Leonardo DiCaprio. I tithe my share to groups like the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, and Audubon. I volunteer with local enviro and trail groups. I carry a backpack and a Sigg bottle, but I don't wear a rasta hat or tofu shoes, or have tangled armpits that smell like hummus. I own a couple of suits and enjoy the occasional steak. I live in a conventional house, not a yurt made from empty yogurt containers. Yes–here's a radical idea–I'm an environmentalist who, nonetheless, still wants to engage with the rest of society and the rest of the world. I want to take advantage of the technologies that have moved us from covered wagons to Dreamliners. And, despite what I know about the evils of flying, once in a while I want to add another epic, far-flung trail to my backcountry resume without feeling like I've speared a manatee to get there.

Is that really so crazy? Three months before I jetted off to my rainforest rendezvous, the editors of this magazine presented me with a double-edged challenge: Travel to an exotic trekking destination for a bragging-rights adventure, but offset the trip's CO2 emissions with carbon-cutting changes in my daily life. No purchasing offsets. I would have to achieve a real reduction in total emissions. As a dyed-in-the-merino-wool greenie, I figured I was up to the challenge. I already knew it was possible to adopt eco-friendly practices without smelling like an Ewok. Get to Costa Rica guilt free? How hard could it be?

A flight from Truax Field in Madison, Wisconsin, to San Jose, Costa Rica, via Atlanta is 4,674 miles roundtrip, dumping about 5,400 pounds of carbon per passenger into the troposphere. It would take only seven hours sitting on my butt reading Sky Mall to produce 2.5 tons of carbon, so I figured it couldn't be much of a stretch to get rid of the same tonnage over three long months. I ran the numbers on several different websites, including the EPA's carbon counter, figuring out that my household–which includes me, my wife, Crystal, a cat, and a wiener dog named Oscar–produces about 45,000 pounds of CO2 per year, 10,000 pounds fewer than the national average, but still seven tropical treks higher than the global per capita average of 8,000 pounds per household. Not a bad start, I thought. As long as I wasn't comparing myself to a rural Ethiopian, I was already ahead of the curve.

A little less than two years earlier, Crystal and I had moved from a centrally located split-level in Madison to a small town 18 miles away where we could afford a new green-built home. The tradeoffs seemed worth it. The commute to work was much longer than before and beyond the reach of public transportation, but the upside was a 2,000-square-foot house fully stocked with Energy Star appliances, hyper-efficient insulation, and a bikeable community during the three weeks a year it doesn't snow. In the first month, our energy bill dipped to one third of what we'd been paying in our leaky urban fixer-upper. If we'd ditched that much carbon just by moving, I thought, imagine how much we could save if we really applied ourselves.

To reach the goal, I hunted down a used copy (not being cheap, being green!) of David Gershon's Low Carbon Diet: A 30-Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds, the same book that The Climate Project distributes at training events for Al Gore's footsoldiers. It's a thin, 75-page workbook full of cartoons and a handy chart to track progress–carbon cutting for slackers. The suggested tasks, like turning down the water heater and changing light bulbs, seemed essentially painless. So I picked up a pre-owned trekking guide to Costa Rica as well.

Following Gershon's advice, I went to the hardware store and armed myself with compact fluorescent bulbs, power strips, and a bright-white new furnace filter. Then I started keeping score. I went into the laundry room and set the washing machine to the cold wash/cold rinse setting. Booyah! Minus 30 pounds. I ran to the basement and dialed the water heater from 130°F to 120°F for a 40-pound reduction over three months. I put eight compact fluorescents in frequently used fixtures and programmed our thermostat to stay a cool 60°F during the day and while we slept, but bump up to 68°F in the morning and evenings. I wrote a big note and put it on the kitchen counter, reminding us not to run the dishwasher until it was completely full, and then only once per week (running a full Energy Star dishwasher, it turns out, is twice as carbon-efficient as washing by hand). We were already dialed in terms of recycling; we had a compost bin to minimize solid waste, and we listed any large, usable items, like old stereo equipment or chairs, on FreeCycle or Craigslist to keep them out of the landfill. I signed us up at catalogchoice.org, a free service that stops junk mailers from sending catalogs that usually go straight from the mailbox to the recycling bin. I put an old travel alarm clock in the bathroom so we could keep our time under the low-flow shower head below five minutes–a sacrifice worth 150 pounds. It took me $40 and about an hour of small tweaks to drop our emissions by 1,600 pounds over three months. I rewarded myself with a Spanish phrasebook.

In fact, all this carbon-pinching seemed too easy. For the past year, almost daily, I'd come across stories about the extreme measures people were taking to cut their carbon emissions. One study tsked-tsked the traditional Christmas dinner, calling it carbon-insensitive; turns out the turkey is responsible for 60 percent of the 44 pounds of CO2 produced by an eight-person feast. Another claimed divorce was bad for your carbon footprint–if you can't stay together for the kids, do it for everyone else's kids! A Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Paul J. Crutzen, proposed that airplanes spray sulfur into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back into space. My favorite was an attempt by scientists to transfer intestinal bacteria from kangaroos, which don't create much methane, to cows, whose flatulence, by some estimates, produces 18 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the world. (The research has so far yielded nothing conclusive–not counting the job satisfaction one gets from knowing others collect livestock farts for a living.) With so many people going to such pains to save the world, I wondered if the simple steps I was taking from Low Carbon Diet were really worthwhile, or if the only real solution to reducing CO2 was arming myself with colonoscopy tools and chasing after kangaroos.

So I called David Gershon, the Low Carbon Diet's author, and accused him of dumbing down the carbon game. I mean, I was all for simplicity, but could turning a knob on a washing machine really save the planet?

"Listen, it's designed to be easy," he explained. "Lowering your carbon footprint does not mean you have to destroy your lifestyle. There's a huge amount of low-hanging fruit out there. You can improve your energy efficiency 20 to 40 percent by doing things around the house." His message was clear: Not only are the steps easy, they add up. According to the EPA, if all 110 million households in the United States replaced just one standard bulb with a compact fluorescent, it would be the equivalent of taking more than 800,000 cars off the road.

So I called the utility company to sign us up for 600 kilowatts of sustainable wind and solar energy–almost our entire usage–and bang, we hit the magic one-ton mark. I checked the tire pressure on my truck and my wife's Jetta and made sure they had both been tuned up recently. Swoosh, 375 pounds through the hoop. We ate vegetarian at least two days a week (okay, we ate grilled cheese twice a week). I spent half an hour re-rigging my home office and plugging the TV and DVD player into power strips to stop them from draining standby "vampire" power. Score: 2,875 pounds for fresh mango smoothies, 2,525 pounds to go.

There's nothing worse than a holier-than-thou greenie who brags about his bamboo floors at cocktail parties. But my quick, easy savings had me feeling like a postmodern John Muir, and I succumbed, briefly, to enviro-hubris. "So, how do you like using cold water in the washing machine?" I smugly asked my wife as she folded a load of laundry.

"You set it to cold? I didn't even notice the difference."

I beamed. This was definitely Crystal's house; she took note of every nick in the wall and splatter in the microwave. If she couldn't tell the difference, who would? She hadn't even noticed the change to compact fluorescents throughout the house until I pointed them out to her.

But ignorance is not always bliss. I'd made these changes without fully involving her in our household's carbon cutting. As with many people, the environment is low on her list of priorities, behind things like the economy, health care, cocktails, pedicures, and making sure Oscar gets his seizure medicine. That's not to say my wife is anti-environment–she recycles cardboard–but mention Kyoto and she'll tell you she doesn't like sushi.

So when the power bill came, she didn't rush into my arms, rapturous about the 100 kilowatts we'd already saved. Instead, she grimaced. "What's this $12 for?" she asked, pointing to the Renewable Energy Charge on the bill. I explained how I'd signed us up for Solar! Wind! and Hydro Power! I made the logical argument that the more renewable power people bought, the cheaper and more widely available it would become. Her eyes glazed. I could tell her enthusiasm for the project was waning. As far as she was concerned, I had just dumped a $12 pomegranate martini down the toilet.

In fact, we'd been backsliding all week. The first thing to go was the evil short-shower regimen. After a few days of "accidentally" forgetting to set the alarm, the annoying five-minute timer somehow found its way back into a drawer. "It's winter in Wisconsin," I argued to myself. "Sometimes a steamy seven-minute shower is required to restore the will to live." I took a 150-pound penalty.

Winter had come early, and temperatures were regularly dropping into single digits. When Crystal would return from work, she'd pull on a pair of thick socks, purple sweatpants, and a ratty pink nightgown, along with an oversized stocking cap and a sexy hoodie to complete the hobo-chic ensemble. Both thinly furred animals were constantly shivering under a blanket on her lap. She began bathing every other day so she wouldn't catch a chill after getting out of the shower. "It's so cold in here," she said each night, her nose red and runny. In an act of mercy, I raised the temp to 70°F and left it there, giving up on programming the thermostat until the next warm spell. I felt another 150 pounds of carbon fall back on my shoulders, but at least my wife started bathing again.

Beyond those few setbacks and some personal notes to change more bulbs to CFLs as they burned out, the house was dialed. Transportation, however, was the hurdle I'd avoided as long as possible, in particular the monster in my garage. Five years earlier, Truckasaurus, an Amazon-green Ford Ranger 4WD pickup, carried me every weekend down rugged forest roads to trails and trout streams throughout New Mexico. But since the move to Wisconsin, it had become little more than a gas-guzzling 16.6-mpg city car, an occasional canoe carrier, and a Snocat when Crystal needed to get to work during blizzards. All those day-to-day grocery runs and trips to my small downtown office in Madison added up to a big carboniferous cloud floating above my head. Truckasaurus spewed about 16,600 pounds of carbon per year, more than an average Swedish family produces in the same time. I might as well have been flying a Lear jet down I-94.

The only way to get over the carbon hump and make it to Costa Rica scot-free was to ditch the truck, at least for a little while. So I arranged a two-month trade with my friend Michael in Milwaukee, who was rehabbing a downtown building and needed a pickup. I proposed the deal as an emissions trade: If carbon credits could work between countries and companies, why not individuals? There are already projects proposed–like Personal Carbon Allowances and Tradable Energy Quotas–that promise to do just that, allowing private citizens to buy and sell carbon quotas. Needless to say, the idea is controversial and nothing is official. But what's a little carbon-trading between friends? I would give him the polluting shortbed and I'd get his black 45-mpg Prius, which over 60 days would save me 1,834 pounds of carbon–putting me within tree-hugging distance of my goal. "So you just want to trade cars. Right?" he asked.

"No, I want to trade emissions, like they do at the Chicago Climate Exchange. I want your CO2. That is, I want you to have mine."

After the swap, I felt pretty smug piloting Michael's fuel-sipper on the four-hour drive to visit my parents for Thanksgiving. On the backseat was a copy of the Low Carbon Diet and five CFLs. If I couldn't limbo under my personal carbon goal, then Gershon suggests that the next best thing is to get out and evangelize–which I understood to be another type of carbon credit. Like my wife, my parents were devoted recyclers and lapsed car campers, but had conveniently ignored An Inconvenient Truth. They'd be open to a few harmless changes as long as nothing screwed up their cable.

While the turkey was roasting–I tried not to dwell on the bird's carbon implications–I walked my mom around the house replacing bulbs in the living room and bedroom. Then we went down to the basement to turn the water heater from 140°F to 120°F. I was just about to award myself another 125 pounds when I heard my brother-in-law walk out of the bathroom, closing the door on what sounded like a tidal wave. "Mr. Daley," he said, addressing my dad. "Is there something wrong with that toilet?"

"Aw, no," replied my dad, "but I hate those low-flow things. That's all they sell now and that one got clogged three times this month. So I took a saw and cut that piece of plastic, the governor, off." The 1.6-gallon low-flow was now some sort of maxi-flow, powerful enough to dispose of dead cats and entire hams. I went into the bathroom and pulled the handle, listening to that great wooshing flush as the magnificently inefficient crapper sucked down gallons of water and my carbon gains for the day. That night, I got a phone call from Michael in Milwaukee. He'd already crashed my truck–twice–and was fed up. He wanted his emissions back.

Nothing in Lonely Planet's Costa Rica could solve this dilemma: I was stymied with 700 pounds of CO2 left to cut, or no Monteverde Cloud Forest. Short of selling my truck and moving to an urban condo, I was at a loss. If I couldn't reduce emissions equal to one measly flight, maybe George Monbiot was right. Maybe I shouldn't be flying at all.

A quick fix was required. So in the grand American tradition, I went shopping. As eco-chic has gone mainstream, the market has responded with a mall full of green products. I poured over lazyenvironmentalist.com, hunting for a solution. Vegan shoes designed by Natalie Portman? No. Modmix Organic Cocktail Mixer? Nope. A corncob hoodie? Fair-trade white gold? All bad ideas, of course. The only thing worse than blowing my goal, I realized, would be filling my closet with useless eco-kitsch.
I stewed over ways to finish the job in the final two weeks. I tried to squeeze each gram of carbon from my daily habits. I bathed Navy style and shaved every third day, stopped going to my downtown office, and kept the house dark when I was alone. I kept track of how many times I opened the refrigerator. I developed a mild case of eco-OCD, washing my hands less than was probably prudent. I lamented missed opportunities. Should I have asked my neighbors to turn down their water heaters? Passed out light bulbs to strangers on the street? Why did I eat that big, carbon-intensive ham sandwich when I could have had another provolone on rye?

One evening, heading into the dark basement to fetch a jar of green beans, I missed a step and tumbled down the last two stairs, landing hard on the cold concrete floor. I lay there nursing my foot. I worried that I would have to drive 24 miles roundtrip to the nearest emergency room if my ankle was broken, and then make several more trips for follow-up exams. And that's not counting the cast, the crutches, the painkillers. Lying in my frigid, air-raid-dark basement, I estimated that a broken ankle would cost me upwards of 200 pounds.

Then I heard something on the stairs in the blackness. A shivering Oscar padded over and licked my stubbly chin, bringing me back to my senses. It occurred to me that my simple mission had become a twisted obsession, as if I could reverse climate change on my own if I just got rank enough. Did I really think that living in the dark would get me a ride in George Clooney's Tesla?
I can't say for certain if my final two-week freakout put me over the top or not. But even after making necessary adjustments to save my marriage–like goosing the thermostat and taking longer showers–I had cut our annual emissions by 32 percent, an impressive figure by any measure. So I carpooled it to the airport and got on my flight to Costa Rica, and felt no remorse as I sipped my ginger ale over the Gulf.

Nor do I feel any guilt here in the Monteverde jungle. My ankle has healed, my conscience is clear, and that howler might reveal itself yet. More importantly, I'll really know what people are talking about when they say "Save the Rainforest." I could try to justify my flight by reciting the old chestnuts–travel raises awareness, which ultimately outweighs the damage done by flying–but there's no way to prove that. What I do know is that environmental commitment needs to be based on dreams, not sacrifices. Lying on a cold floor wondering how to stop cows from farting? Not gonna cut it. Chasing monkeys through the cloud forest? Occasionally, an experience like that is worth its weight in jet fuel.

Jason Daley swears he took a short shower and enjoyed a grilled-cheese dinner when he returned from Costa Rica.