Most days Rebecca Williams can be found riding her brakeless ﬁxed–gear bicycle at full speed around the Baker and Capitol Hill neighborhoods of Denver, dividing her time between two jobs as a climbing instructor and a bicycle mechanic, while her evenings are often devoted to fronting her local garage-punk band, Thee Dang Dangs. She lives an ecologically conscious lifestyle, but not because anyone told her to.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me, in a small city, for everyone to drive cars,” Williams said. “People drive a few blocks to school, or work, thinking they have to. People don’t need as much as they think they do. In Denver, you don’t have to drive, you can ride your bike to the store and not waste all that energy. It’s easier and better. I get really frustrated if I have to drive anywhere.”
Like most things in her life, Williams discovered her love of biking on her own. After getting her degree in business (despite being tattooed guitar player with rock–life ambitions) from The University of Denver, the Colorado native backpacked her way around the Southwest, temporarily landing in Tucson, where she fell in with a bohemian community of artists.
“I had about $280 to my name, and was just traveling, meeting people, rock climbing, hanging out in coffee shops, and if I ran out of money just played my guitar on a street corner. I hated riding the bus, so I went to this bicycle collective, and they had a work–for–trade program where you put in some hours in their shop, and then you could build a bike with their donated parts. I built a bike from scratch, and just fell in love with it. I shipped it back with me to Denver.”
Williams’ earth-friendly lifestyle of biking, gardening and composting has become a popular way to live. More people are deciding to live collectively, with up to a dozen people in a single house, many riding bikes built at the queer-friendly bicycle collective, Derailer, and sharing meals through Food Not Bombs, a peace organization that distributes responsibly–grown food to the hungry.
For the most part the motivation for people like Williams to live this way is less inspired by fear of a dying planet than that the simple sense it makes – a path of least–resistance, requiring less money and leaving more freedom and time to enjoy life.“When it comes to gardening, I just like growing my own food,” Williams said. “I want to have fresh kale with no pesticides on it, and to say ‘I grew that.’ And bikes are just a great way to stay in shape, save money and be happy.”
Regardless of a century of expanding human awareness of our impact on the planet and a broad scientific consensus about the threat of climate change, concern for a green lifestyle is still divided along political lines.
Visiting an Iowa wind farm on Earth Day 2009, President Obama announced his intent to put a cap on U.S. carbon emissions, hoping to prevent “the worst consequences of climate change.” On the same afternoon, conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh delivered what he called a “solemn” tribute to Gordon Dancy, inventor of the plastic bag, on his talk radio show.
Yet despite the political split on environmental issues, those responsible for the greatest impacts on the environment – and by the same measure, those with the greatest power to lessen human impacts – are divided along economic, rather than political lines.
“The heaviest responsibility for addressing the issues of climate change falls upon the economic elite,” wrote Chris Goodall in his 2007 book, How To Live A Low-Carbon Life. “You may not think of yourself as a member of this club, but you probably are. If you travel abroad for holidays, run a reasonably sized sedan car and have a conventional middle class lifestyle, your damage to the global environment may be double that of the national average. … In general, it is the poorest countries that are going to ﬁnd it most difﬁcult to adapt to rising temperatures and disruption of weather patterns. The carbon emissions of the rich world will ruin the lives of the poor.”
The concept is a “carbon footprint” – a common measure for the amount of fossil–fuel–derived carbon dioxide gas an individual contributes to the some 9 and a half billion metric tons added to the atmosphere each year. A typical American contributes around 20 tons a year, by not only using gasoline and electricity from non-renewable power generation, but also by buying and using ordinary products and food that requires carbon–emitting fuels to manufacture, transport and sell.
Goodall doesn’t ask in his book for everyone to live in sod houses and wear lambskin condoms, but simply nudge the lifestyles they have. Using energy-efﬁcient refrigerators, low-water toilets and shower faucets, and unplugging cellphone chargers when not in use (a user of “phantom energy” – electricity drawn by appliances that are plugged in while not in use – which can suck up 10 percent of a home’s total electric use) can all make a difference without significant change in lifestyle.
This is where the communication breakdown has occurred between the political left and right on this issue. Often, Democrats have pitched green living as a sacriﬁce we must all make (Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise Speech” comes to mind), while Republicans instill fear of a nanny state that wants to control your thermostat, hurt small businesses and revoke your God-given right to roam the roads in your personal automobile. In fact, many green–living choices are painless and benefit an individual or business’s pocketbook.
“To the average person that doesn’t give a rats about sustainability, that doesn’t matter, because it makes smart business sense,” said Janet Burgesser, program director of Certiﬁably Green Denver, a civic program that evaluates local businesses on an ecological level, and awards those with high standards. Burgesser touts this process as “reducing costs, and helps keep small businesses alive. About 85 percent of Denver’s businesses are small and independently owned. They’re the lifeblood of our economy.”
Certiﬁably Green Denver is not a regulatory force, but a an optional program that aides restaurants, ofﬁce spaces and auto repair shops in reducing carbon footprints, meanwhile decreasing liabilities for improper waste disposal. “In restaurants, there are tons of wasted food, water and energy,” Burgesser said. For just one example, “the lighting in a restaurant is on for 12 to 18 hours of day, and purchasing energy efﬁcient light bulbs can signiﬁcantly cut costs.”
Many businesses have been taking their own initiative to approach Burgesser requesting evaluations, for their own sense of responsibility or an added appeal to customers. “Green Certiﬁed businesses are promoted through sticker in the window, and we provide a list of businesses on our website and Facebook page,” she said. “I often get calls from conference organizers coming to town who want a list of certiﬁed restaurants for their attendees. One of our auto repair shops sends out a survey to their customers each year, and they ask if being Green Certiﬁed is important to them. 80 or 90 percent said that it was, and that’s why they do business there. It means a lot to consumers.”
There are also technological advances on the horizon that could completely revolutionize how we generate and use energy, said Ken Schroeppel, an urban planner who lectures at the University of Colorado at Denver and founded his urbanism blog denverinfill.com, where he reports on Denver’s progress developing a more livable, attractive and pedestrian-friendly urban environment. (Schroeppel also writes his monthly column in Out Front, Denver Urbanism.)
Schroeppel is looking forward to the day when “buildings will generate their own electricity,” he said. “We’ve made such great progress in the power generating capacity of solar photo-voltaic cells, that you collect so much energy by putting these panels on your roof. This is heading toward being able to convert siding, or shingles, or simply the facade material of the building being coated in a way that it becomes a solar collector. Twenty years from now we could have every building be skinned in solar collecting material that would still look like brick or windows, but it would be generating energy for the building.”
As the scientiﬁc community becomes more invested in green technology, Schroeppel is also hoping for cultural and social change, including around built environments and transportation – which means re-thinking certain aspects of the American Dream for a suburban family home with a white picket fence, two cars and a big green lawn.
In fact, residents of dense urban areas tend to have drastically–reduced carbon footprints, even though that isn’t the main reason people choose to live there. Densely-populated cities reduce carbon emissions with shorter daily commutes, greater use of public transportation and inhabiting and upgrading older buildings so there’s less need for energy-consuming construction on pristine outlying land. It’s less costly to heat and cool 100 units in a single apartment building or condo than the same number of single-family homes, and urbanites are more likely to share recreation spaces in public pools, plazas and parks rather than maintain their own pools or lawns, which are less frequently put to use yet still take energy to water, maintain or mow.
“After World War II, it was all about the automobile,” Schroeppel said. “We tore down buildings for parking lots, put highways through neighborhoods, everything was so auto-centric. Now we’re heading in the other direction where we realize that the while the automobile is a great invention, like anything in life if you overdo it, you get into trouble. We need a mix of auto, pedestrian, bicycle and transit. Though it took us 50 years to get into this, and it’ll probably take at least 20 or 30 years to get to a more European or Asian mode of travel.”
We can change our daily lives today, without waiting for new technology. Schroeppel said that many everyday choices affect how many engines need roar down the highway. “Every tomato or cucumber or whatever that you grow on your own property – even if it’s in a container on your balcony – that’s one less piece of fruit or vegetable that has to be transported across the country in some big truck. Not to mention the fact that it’s so much more healthy for you.”
While Rebecca Williams tries to live as green-friendly lifestyle as she can, she also stresses the need for patience and dialogue when trying to educate the public. Fair or not, environmentalists have developed a reputation over the years for being preachy and condescending, and the perception is part of what drives conservative–minded Americans to identify with Limbaugh and his advocacy of gas-guzzling cars and giant TV screens, sometimes even taking pleasure in the fact that these things offend mother nature’s foot soldiers.
“I’ve known people who get angry at people who don’t live the way they do,” Williams said of some of her environmentally–minded peers. “Like anything else in life, in order for someone to see your point and for them to respect you, you have to respect them ﬁrst. I know I don’t want to be yelled at for not recycling something that I didn’t know could be recycled. A lot of people get confused about those things. If someone gets mad at something you were ignorant about, it turns you off to the whole idea.”
That said, it doesn’t discount what’s at stake – the risk of forfeiting a planet that could actually peacefully sustain the some 10 billion human inhabitants projected to exist by 2100, not to mention the estimated 8.7 million other species we currently share it with.
“People do need to be aware,” Williams said. “It’s not too late. Everyone needs to do their part. This isn’t so much for our generation, it’s for the next.”