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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

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, 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?

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