It's not easy being green

Sandra Leong Straits Times 21 Mar 10;

For the first time in a few hectic months, I'm sitting at my desk in the office, twiddling my thumbs in utter boredom. My laptop, my lifeline to the outside world, is clamped shut and lifeless. I feel it taunting me in that cold, cruel manner that inanimate objects are wont to do.

E-mail, Google, MSN, Facebook. That's work, information, friends, fun. All within sight but not within reach.

Worse still, I'm hungry (had a salad for lunch), tired (cycled and took the MRT instead of driving to work) and smell like unwashed socks (took a ridiculously short shower).

Welcome to the day I became an accidental environmentalist. The assignment: to reduce energy usage and minimise my carbon footprint as much as is humanly possible - all within 24 hours.

It sounds extreme but desperate times call for drastic measures. I've seen An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary about global warming. Even a late adopter like me knows that if most of us continue to be apathetic, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide may heat up the planet by 4 deg C by 2100.

Worst-case scenario is the Earth becomes one gigantic wave pool and my children's children end up living like Kevin Costner and his gang of dreadlocked men in that doomsday flop, Waterworld (1995). I wouldn't wish that fate on anyone.

But first, how big a culprit am I in the impending destruction of Mother Earth? According to the Singapore Environment Council's Carbon Calculator (, which tallies a household's carbon footprint based on its chosen modes of transport, usage of electrical appliances and recycling habits, I produce about 6,500kg of C02 a year.

In comparison, the carbon footprint of an average Singapore household is 9,200kg of C02 a year, with the global average being 1,300kg of CO2 a year. A fine, Earth-hugging lot we Singaporeans are.

The folks behind this year's Earth Hour are hammering home the point that going green should be a long-term commitment, rather than a symbolic lights-off once every 365 days. Everyday lifestyle changes must be made, they say.

So what can you change, how torturous will it be and will it really make a difference? I go cold turkey to find out.

Environmentalist Eugene Tay, editor of website Low Carbon SG, offers to help me along. Heeding his recommendations, I decide to say goodbye to all the major amenities in my urban existence - no car, no air-conditioning, no fan, no stove, no computer, no TV, no hot water and no washing machine.

Painfully, he also suggests I go vegetarian for the day. Meat consumption, and the production processes it involves, leaves a considerable carbon footprint, he explains.

To preserve my sanity, I make exceptions for work essentials such as my mobile and office phones (without them, this story would not have made the print deadline) and leave the refrigerator running so my food does not turn stale.

But 24 hours and a few sacrifices are nothing. New York writer Colin Beavan, his wife Michelle Conlin and their then two-year-old daughter Isabelle swore off all creature comforts for a year starting 2007. Called No Impact, the rules of his project included no automated transportation, no shopping, no paper and eating only local food.

Their experiences have now been documented in a blog (www.noimpactman. com), book and film.

Inspired, I roll out of bed an hour earlier to adapt to my new life of austerity. Any residual tiredness is shocked out of my system when I take my first cold - icy, rather - shower in years.

Thankfully, three minutes is all I'm allowed. I'm barely clean, but I need to ration water as energy is used to deliver it to our homes.

After using the toilet, I consider a suggestion I came across on the Internet: 'If it's brown, flush it down. If it's yellow, let it mellow.' I shudder, and choose the former.

I remember I have to wash some exercise gear for running practice the next day. The washing machine is out of the question. I end up hand-washing my clothes with a basin and soapy water. I have a strange image of myself running through padi fields while belting out a folk song. Too much TV, I think.

Not being able to cook, I pack a lunch of unappetising-looking greens. I end up cheating by boiling some eggs to go with my sad salad. Then, I turn off all the power switches I can see in my house, cast one last forlorn look at my car and bike to the train station, my wet hair streaming behind me.

Technology woes strike when I arrive at work. I become an unwilling Luddite. With my laptop banned, I try to be as productive as possible: conduct an interview by telephone and take notes in shorthand, read 50 Ways To Save Water & Energy by Sian Berry and walk around pestering my colleagues.

Lunch is a challenge. Says one unhelpful colleague: 'Don't you really want to eat foie gras, blue fin tuna and shark's fin?' I grudgingly finish my salad but am still famished.

Not knowing what else to do with my day, I nip into a bookstore in town to research my story the old-school way - by reading a book.

I have dinner - salad again - with friends who again think I've lost the plot. I beat a hasty retreat. Well, not so hasty. It's still a 40-minute train ride plus bike journey home.

I fall in bed, exhausted from a day of doing nothing. I'm about to switch on the TV when I see I had taped a big 'X' over it in the morning to remind myself that the Earth is more important than American Idol.

The windows are open, air-conditioner is off and there's a muggy stillness in the air. Sleep is fitful. I wake up drenched in perspiration and with three mosquito bites on my face.

In the morning, I'm eager to see how much energy I've saved. I'm pleasantly startled. If I were to repeat the last 24 hours over a year, I'll be looking at a carbon footprint of about 590kg of CO2 a year, a drastic reduction of about 10 times compared to the previous figure.

Yes, there are flaws in my little experiment. A complete abandonment of modernity is clearly impractical. And given that the calculations are based on every household, it means that theoretically speaking, I'll be expecting the rest of the family to make the same sacrifices to achieve such results.

But there is a point amid all the fantasy. If average Singaporeans like me took the time to better understand the nature of their own carbon footprints, they would perhaps realise that the difference they can make in proportionate figures is more than discernible.

Major energy-suckers such as my car (about 400kg of CO2 a year) and my air-conditioning (3,605kg of CO2 a year) can be done without if I put my mind to it. And surely, there is a case for gradual reductions of energy use, if drastic measures like mine seem highly unrealistic.

Still, I can identify with the inertia that people feel. It seems easy to be completely uncaring or at the other end of the spectrum, somebody like Beavan who has chosen to dedicate his whole life to the green message. But what about the rest of us in-betweeners who have to juggle real- life dependence on energy with environmental conscience? A housewife who wants to recycle but feels she shouldn't bother because she still needs a gas- guzzling MPV to ferry her kids to school?

I share my thoughts with Eugene, who confesses that at times, he too lapses into the 'old ways', like turning up his office air-conditioning on hot days and hailing a taxi when he is in a rush.

We're only human, we both concede. But that may be the very point. We're only human and we may not survive the onslaught of climate change. Maybe it's time for a salad.

Some savings according to the SEC Carbon Calculator

Before: 6,509kg CO2 a year
After: 590kg CO2 a year

Car: 400kg of CO2 a year
Bike/train: 22kg of CO2 a year

Air-conditioning: 3,605kg of CO2 a year
Fresh air: 0kg of CO2 a year

Hot shower: 110kg of CO2 a year
Cold shower: 0kg of CO2 a year (but some energy used to deliver water to the house)

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