Reducing our collective carbon footprint is an imperative if we are to avoid further climate catastrophe. Unfortunately, as author Susan Subak fully recognizes in her latest book, The Five-Ton Life, it is a task fraught with difficulties of perception and measurement as well as ingrained cultural practices.

In her rather lengthy introduction, Subak, a former Oak Parker, explores the stickiness of the problem: that despite (and perhaps because of) technological increases, we are putting more carbon into the atmosphere than 25 years ago. Even though the amount of energy generated in the United States by solar and wind increased enormously from only eight trillion British thermal units (BTUs) per month to 262 trillion between the years 1990 and 2016, that gain was eclipsed by the additional 400 trillion BTUs per month that we were consuming. She refrains from using the term “greenwashing” but calls out multiple offenders (high on her list are universities) for high-minded rhetoric combined with actions that exacerbate the problem.

Cultural trends toward ever larger houses, large commercial spaces, and an explosion in air travel are a large part of the problem, according to Subak. In fact, a constant theme in her analysis is construction, even when Leeds certified, that leads to a larger carbon footprint per person. Among others, she singles out Caltech for being the highest-emitting university on record, despite having one of the largest rooftop solar arrays in higher education.

The Five-Ton Life is a somewhat eccentric, sometimes cranky, but always interesting ramble through various aspects of our history and culture looking for clues to reducing our enormous national carbon footprint of nearly 20 metric tons per person per year. One chapter of her book, “The Greenest Suburb: Berwyn, Illinois,” starts by looking at the advantages readily apparent in her hometown and in Forest Park before fixing on Berwyn as the low-carbon champion in the Chicago area and possibly the Midwest. It is fun to take a deep dive with Subak into towns like Berwyn, Oak Park, and Forest Park as models that offer promise in better understanding and maintaining a sustainable lifestyle.

Having grown up here, she knows her stuff, even giving a shout-out to FitzGerald’s music venue in Berwyn. It’s slightly disappointing, however, that she references but doesn’t seem to understand or care about, Oak Park’s flirtation with 100 percent clean power in 2012 and 2013 through the purchase of Voluntary Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs). Subak seems unaware of the controversy over the value of such RECs and that the village subsequently channeled the money it had used to purchase the RECs into a fund for direct expenditure on more tangible local projects, including vastly more efficient LED streetlights. 

I have to cut her some slack, however; the granular level at which she examines virtually everything in her book is very impressive. Overall, you have to appreciate the fact that she demonstrates firsthand knowledge of all the people and places she profiles.

Subak looks to the history of sustainability in our country as demonstrated through the practices of George Washington (“Our Founding Mitigator”), as well as other Founding Fathers such as Jefferson, Madison and Franklin. Who knew that Washington was an early eco-hero, a champion of native species and an early student of agriculture and crop rotation? Apparently, he was also an early promoter of vegetable gardens and more modest beef consumption than most of his contemporaries.

She examines rural, urban and suburban communities that are closer to the goal she proposes of a carbon footprint of five metric tons per person. Rather than immediately shoot for a zero carbon footprint, she figures that this more modest goal is demonstrably achievable and, as such, would be more encouraging to people as a first step. 

But don’t think that she is working under the assumption that we can “lifestyle” our ways out of this impending climate crisis. She does recognize the importance of policy and tax incentives for achieving her goals. I think she rightly assumes that people who more closely scrutinize their own carbon footprints will be more inclined to question their schools and governments toward the same end.

Along with her chapter on George Washington, she looks at the Amish, her very urban neighborhood in Washington D.C., our fairly densely populated west suburban Chicago communities, as well as colleges having the lowest carbon footprint. DePaul comes in second to the New School in New York City.

Interestingly, the places Subak identifies are not low-carbon lifestyles by design but “because they are deeply engaged in some aspect of life in these communities.” In a similar vein, the places with the low-carbon footprints don’t necessarily employ the latest technology. The Amish, for example, consciously view any technology through the lens of how it will affect the cohesiveness of their families and communities. Their general level of concern about global warming, per se, seems pretty low, according to Subak.

Her section on the Amish is jammed with insight into their practices and lifestyle. Although they don’t allow ownership of automobiles, nearly all Amish communities allow the use of washing machines, powered by compressed air, which, according to Subak, are more efficient than the most highly rated Energy Star machines that run on conventional electricity.

She also waxes poetic about that Chicago invention, the bungalow, which reigns supreme in Berwyn. A large reason for Berwyn meeting the five-ton standard is the population density of the community made possible by the proliferation of very modest-sized bungalows. Another is the walkability of the town and the easy access to grocery stores.

Subak has 20 years of experience as an environmental analyst, working for the likes of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the University of East Anglia, and the Stockholm Environmental Institute. She knows how to access hard data about her topic, but because she sees stubborn cultural barriers to progress on this problem in the U.S. she takes a deep dive into our culture as well.

One of her biggest pet peeves is the immense amount of construction at colleges and universities that seems designed to enhance their prestige rather than further their educational mission. A corollary problem is LEEDS and other awards for new construction, which can obscure the fact that they may not be very energy efficient.

She strongly advocates local ordinances mandating the disclosure of energy use, as currently exist in Washington D.C., Chicago and Evanston.

The winner of the 2018 Nautilus Book Award, Silver, for Green Living/Sustainability, The Five-Ton Life is well worth the attention of every citizen.

Nick Bridge is an Oak Park artist and chair of the village of Oak Park’s Environment and Energy Commission.

Join the discussion on social media!