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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.
Backpacker_Magazine_How_I_Lost_5400_lbs_illoIllustration by Marcos Chin

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.

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