Namaskar Y'all - 2017

My Big Fat Carbon Footprint

By Shyama Parui

Stop! Take a look around you. How many light bulbs do you see? If you count carefully the answer may surprise you. More than likely you don't know the exact number of light bulbs in your house but go ahead and take a wild guess-20? 30? That's what I had guessed but soon realized that we had a whopping 94 light bulbs in our average sized single family home. The only reason our family had uncovered this fact was because of a math project that my kids worked on. Alas, this discovery shattered my self-image or rather delusion of being an environmentally responsible citizen of the world.

How did I end up being such a gluttonous consumer of natural resources?

If I recall my formative years, they were spent worry free in a two-bedroom flat that accommodated a big family. It was a time when having your own car, telephone and color television were considered small luxuries. Gas for the kitchen was supplied in cylinders and water supply for the day was just enough for all essential purposes. If you forgot to turn open the knob to the loft tank, you could be out of water in the middle of your shower. It may surprise you but a bucketful of water was considered sufficient to bathe your kid and washing your car was highly discouraged. Trust me, I am not making all this up. We did our best to grin and bear the unforgiving heat and humidity of Mumbai's summer because the costs of running the air conditioner all day was forbidding. We were forced to be eco-friendly because we wanted to be wallet-friendly. I still maintain that it was a comfortable childhood and these annoyances were not such a big deal as we constantly learned to do more with less. Even as Mumbai's real estate prices have risen brutally and it's ever- increasing population has stripped the city of its natural beauty, these challenges have given rise to creative minds and resourceful ideas that maximize living and work spaces.

In comparison, the lifestyle led by middle income Americans appears highly acquisitive and wasteful. In general, the average size of the home has increased along with the desire and need for possessions and as a consequence we are grabbing nature's gifts in the form of land, water, air, and fossil fuels without any hesitation. Along with millions of other Americans, we contribute to making this country one of the highest users of natural resources and emitter of carbon dioxide. I do want to recognize, however, that one of America's biggest strengths is that necessities and comforts for human life are accessible and affordable to most.

One of the biggest differences I noticed when I started exploring Charlotte in the year 2000 was the poor public transportation. I had heard of the inefficient bus service around the city but the Mumbai girl in me was hardly deterred. I was used to less than ideal bus, train and auto rickshaw services so riding in a temperature controlled bus where all passengers had a seat wasn't really a problem. Boy was I wrong. While the ride was comfortable, I was bored to tears as a 20-minute distance from South Charlotte to the University campus took 120 minutes. Over the years, things have improved with the light rail and ride-sharing services but have we really reduced auto emissions? Probably not because when I go back to Mumbai, I see that the number of cars on the road have increased exponentially. If I still lived in Mumbai, I too would ditch public transportation in favor of a car. After all, the environmental benefits of buses and trains are not attractive when the commuter has to put up with pickpockets, indecent stares or hazardous levels of noise pollution. For years, I took Mumbai's local train to college and work and phew, I am still reeling from its psychological effects.

We are all choking the planet but you could take a different approach if you want to calculate just your individual carbon footprint. It can be done using a free, online calculator but be honest and dig up the information on how much energy you use, your transportation, as well as eating and vacation habits. The list for our family is extensive, heavy with energy consumption and laden with guilt.

Sometime last year a program on National Public Radio covered a story about the effects of fossil fuels on the environment and I was struck by one figure, 52 million. That's how many trees we need to plant so that we can offset the negative effects of a coal power plant. In North Carolina alone we have 67 of them. My kids crunched the numbers and based on the population, we North Carolinians need to plant at least 347 trees each. Well, I have added this task to my list of action items and plan to complete my fair share of tree planting before I am 80. Let's hope that I live and there are no more coal power plants added. On a more serious note, I have been pondering over what I can do to reduce the size of my carbon footprint. It would be hypocritical to say that our family follows or intends to follow a minimalist lifestyle. Moving to a trendy “Tiny House" is not in our plans and neither is a suburban McMansion. Instead of abandoning all the comforts of modern life, I am going on a diet. My attempt is to adopt small changes with big effects which are often recommended to people trying to lose weight. In this case, it will be about consuming less energy. Younger generations are a part of the solution too, so it's fitting that my children enlightened me about the advantages of using LED lights at home, tested which of our entertainment devices used the least power and discouraged me from buying light fixtures requiring multiple lightbulbs. All of these have noticeably reduced our energy consumption.

Motivated by the changes in real life, I have modified the vision of my dream house too. The magnificent villa of my imagination has been replaced by a tastefully designed, mid-sized home built with natural materials inspired by the Tri Lanka hotel in Sri Lanka and Limalimo Lodge in Ethiopia. I see the home borrowing from nature, not stealing and giving back more than it takes. A girl can dream, can she not?