Your vacation is killing the earth. Try ours

File photograph from 2011 of an old growth forest on the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state. (wild trees via Flickr)

File photograph from 2011 of an old growth forest on the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state. (wild trees via Flickr)

We Americans, who are just about the world’s biggest carbon burners, are the cause of a global problem that hurts poor people the most. If we choose to drive a gas-guzzling SUV, we share responsibility for forcing the Quinault Indian Nation to move the village of Tahola to higher ground. If we book a flight to an exotic vacation spot, we are making it less likely that our grandsons will live in peace and prosperity.

Every pound of carbon we add to the atmosphere turns the land of more African farmers into desert, makes Gulf Coast hurricanes more deadly, intensifies Northwest wildfires and bleaches coral reefs.

As a fairly typical middle class American couple, we have put some 34 tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year — year after year after year.

So for three months this year we participated in Taming Bigfoot, a friendly, grassroots competition in which teams of ordinary citizens tracked their carbon footprint and then worked to reduce it. In the first month we calculated the amount of heat-trapping carbon pollution we created through our food choices, transportation and home energy. Then for the next two months, we worked to reduce that pollution.

The first Taming Bigfoot competition was created in 2016 by a Jefferson County citizens’ group after one member, retired NASA climate scientist Bob Bindschadler, got tired of giving doom-and-gloom speeches that seemed to change nothing. This year, Edmonds and Seattle took up the challenge. As active members of faith-based climate action groups, we joined the Seattle competition because we wanted to see if we could walk the talk in our own lives. Taming Bigfoot was funded by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, with support from numerous local businesses and non-profit groups.

Looking squarely at our carbon use has been an eye-opener. It’s one thing to know that we burn too much carbon. It’s another to track it and see it. The carbon footprint associated with eating a beef steak or a lamb chop is surprisingly large. Heating our home, substantial. The impact of driving a car is shocking. Flying? So bad that one flight overwhelms our carbon pollution from all other sources.

You can check out your own carbon footprint on any of several online calculators, including at Taming Bigfoot.

To our distress, we learned how difficult it is to reduce the amount of carbon we burn. It’s hard even to talk or think about.

Progressive Seattleites know climate change is real and dangerous, but we have a hard time connecting global warming with our own actions. We don’t think twice about the pollution from our frequent flights to fascinating places or from driving to the mountains. We all have reasons we don’t want to change. We have to travel to see family, to learn about other cultures, to bring aid to those who need it, to have a vacation, to fulfill a dream.

Taking personal inventory through Taming Bigfoot has made the two of us more aware of what we’re doing and has made it difficult for us to keep quiet about the consequences of our shared, carbon-drenched lifestyle.

It’s no fun to be the one in the room who can’t get excited about a friend’s exotic travels, new car, or lamb recipe. But with awareness of the moral implications of our actions comes the need to start speaking with honesty and courage.

Our lives are deeply intertwined with burning carbon, and it’s hard to change. We are in this predicament together. Although the two of us are now grandparents and retirees, we’ve done our share of flying and schlepping kids around by car. We still have a gas furnace and have only just begun to discuss when we might replace it with a heat pump.

There has actually also been a joyous side to Taming Bigfoot. We’ve found that it’s a relief to face reality. Living more lightly on the earth, as it turns out, brings both peace and exhilaration. Planting vegetables and watching them produce food is a miracle. Hanging clothes on the back deck has become an opportunity to listen to the birds.

We’ve cut back on needless purchases, we consume less meat and we’re becoming savvier riders of buses and light rail. Replacing our old car with a used plug-in hybrid electric vehicle has cut our gasoline consumption to less than one-fifth of what it used to be. Before booking a flight, we ask ourselves if this is a necessary trip or a luxury. Just asking the question is a step toward living in harmony with our values.

Reducing our individual carbon footprint won’t, by itself, save humanity. We are in a planetary emergency. If we are to share the planet with the rest of humanity and pass on a livable world to the next generations, we must put a realistic price on coal, oil and natural gas; switch our electric utilities to 100 percent renewable energy; replace gas-burning cars with electric vehicles; and change our agricultural practices. And we must do this quickly.

In Washington state, a good first step will be to put Initiative 1631 on the November ballot. If passed, I-1631 would use revenues from a carbon fee to fund clean air and clean energy projects.

Astonishingly, our Congress and president have abdicated responsibility for the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. That means the future is up to us. We must recognize our dire situation, accept our personal responsibility, talk urgently with all who will listen, and build a mass movement to maintain a habitable planet. A great rising is underway. Many states, cities and major corporations have made commitments to move rapidly to sustainable energy. 

Until institutional change really takes hold, we, the most privileged and the most polluting people on Earth, must change our way of living. No individual or small group will turn the tide. Many of us working together can make all the difference.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Cindy and Keith Ervin

Cindy and Keith Ervin participated in the Taming Bigfoot, a competition funded by the Neighborhood Matching Fund from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.