Energy Diet

Sum of the Parts

The idea of taking on the 360º Energy Diet tends to inspire a half-full or half-empty response in people: Some look at the list of suggestions and see opportunities to cut their energy usage, and maybe their bills too; others zero in on a few uncomfortable-sounding things (“I’m not giving up [insert creature comfort here]!”) and start balking.

The nine households who decided to take on this challenge went beyond the “half-full” approach. They not only cut back on energy by doing as much as they possibly could, they added checkboxes of their own. Two of them faced extraordinary circumstances that we never could have foreseen: Omar climbed the highest mountain in the Americas and returned to a homeland in the midst of a revolution, while Tatsuo faced the devastation following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.

Now that it’s over, let’s address some questions.

Who Won?
As Yogesh noted at the outset of this challenge, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” That’s true, to an extent, but the task of creating a numeric scale that would be fair to all participants in the diet proved impossible. We knew that we needed some way of tracking progress, but we also knew that the definition of “progress” was going to vary widely for each person.

A couple of things became clear as the diet went on. First, renters and non-drivers, though likely living lower carbon-footprint lifestyles already, were at a disadvantage for earning points, because they had fewer things on the list that they could control or improve. (This is not meant to excuse my relatively low showing on points, but to explain it somewhat.) For example, my utilities are included in my monthly rent; Lindsay doesn’t own a car. That left us with fewer things on the list to check off.

Second, it’s difficult to condense lifestyle changes that happen over a period of time, such as eating less meat or recycling more, into one easily checked box. What defines an action that’s worthy of earning points? There were many interpretations of this.

The point system proved to be a good motivator and measure of activity (and, as it turns out, creativity), but it couldn’t be used to fairly determine a single “winner.” That said, it’s no coincidence that the top three point accumulators were also standouts who deserve special recognition.

The Al Nowais Family: Of all the households who participated in the diet, Boudour probably had the greatest impact in terms of sharing the message. She spoke at her children’s school, she appeared in media coverage, created original illustrative graphics for some of her posts, and she even spoke onstage at an Earth Hour event in Abu Dhabi. She did all of these things on her own; they weren’t part of the challenge. But she understood that that all of us have to make changes if we are to have an impact on the planet. That said, she and her family pursued every single task on the diet relentlessly – she even had a checklist for her kids!

The Zupan Family: It was clear that the Zupans were a force to be reckoned with when they revealed extensive charts they had already been keeping on their natural gas, water and electricity consumption for several years. They continued to roll through each aspect of the challenge, making further upgrades to an already energy-efficient lifestyle. And while Mateja let on that the writing aspect was not exactly her favorite part of doing this challenge, she faithfully submitted thoughtful posts on deadline, week after week, even when she went on vacation. Be sure to check out her very popular post on food and foraging in Slovenia.

The Schmidt del Rio Family: Admittedly, Michele had an edge in this challenge: Her husband is a green architect, and she is a chef who gardens, composts and participates in her local Slow Food chapter. But she still certainly found opportunities for improvement in terms of energy consumption, got involved in a community bike path project and also wowed everyone with her beautiful, fun photo essays (see here and here) on life in Queretero.

Without exception, every single participant in this challenge demonstrated perseverance and thoughtfulness that far exceeded our hopes for this project. They have enlightened us with their discoveries and created a meaningful dialogue around energy issues that we’re all facing. So by that measure, (go ahead, roll your eyes), we’re all winners.

What Did We Learn?

It pays to look at your energy bills. Probably the most beneficial assignment of the project was asking everyone to assess how much gas, water and electricity they were using. Some dieters confessed that they had not been paying attention to their bills, and that useful information from utilities existed, but took a little legwork to find (see the cool, easy-to-read chart that Dirk obtained). For those who could get their data, the experience was motivating and enlightening. However, in some cases (me, Lindsay, Yogesh, Boudour), living in a rented abode complicated the efforts to get information. Still, on the whole, many dieters were able to cut their energy bills significantly by making some simple changes.

Awareness has a cascading effect. Dieters often noted that once they started thinking about one aspect of energy use, that consciousness tended to spread into all areas of their lives. Lindsay, who should get the “thinking outside the box” award for her posts, incorporated photography, yoga, art and filmmaking into her explorations of energy use. Simply being aware of how much energy is attached to everything we do and consume can help you recognize ways to cut back, whether it’s using less water to boil pasta to unplugging the coffee maker to flavoring tap water with fruit instead of buying soda or flavored bottled water.

Do some research. With increased awareness came more curiosity about energy use, and discoveries for dieters of energy drains that they’d never thought about before. Boudour found out that a simple online retail purchase had to hop several flights in order to reach her. Tatsuo, who was probably our most investigative dieter and did actual research and reporting for his blog posts, looked into where recycled plastic actually goes in Japan and found some notable inconsistencies. Yogesh took a close look at renewable energy options in India. And Omar’s thought-provoking post on the food-water-energy connection will have you seriously reconsidering your level of food consumption and waste.

Location matters. One of the many advantages of doing this diet on an international basis was to get a window into the advantages and disadvantages that a person faces depending on where he or she lives. In Slovenia, for example, Mateja pointed out that electronics stores are legally required to have recycling bins onsite for consumers to drop off their old electronics. And Tatsuo noted that his city in Japan has a strict recycling system with 15 categories. On the other side of the coin, Yogesh brought up a number of issues in India that thwart individual efforts to live sustainably: inadequate parking near public transit, counterfeiting of “green” products and lack of recycling programs. And Omar in Egypt noted that his country’s subsidizing of fuel offers residents little incentive to conserve or use public transportation, which in Cairo is “dilapidated.”

We can’t quit our cars. No matter how green everyone was willing to get, somewhere along the way every single one of us hit roadblocks (excuse the pun) when it came to transportation. Dirk had probably the most impressive habit among us: Biking 55 minutes each way to work in temperate weather. But that’s not so feasible during Colorado winters, and his experiment with taking the bus didn’t quite work out. Boudour’s adventure with public transport was similarly discouraging. Tatsuo confessed that he just loves to drive. Our schedules, weather, location and local transportation systems had each of us resorting to cars for one reason or another.

Bottled water: “Just don’t do it.” As Lindsay demonstrated over several posts, bottled water is a huge drain on natural resources that does more harm than good. It’s one of the easiest things for most people to give up, and yet many of us are addicted for reasons of convenience or perceived purity. Boudour, for example, detailed the huge amounts of bottled water her family was going through each week: 168 bottles, by her count. Eliminating those was not only a huge change in terms of the planet, but it made her trips to the recycling bin a lot less cumbersome!

What Happens Next?
The 360º Energy Diet starts all over again in late May, with a new group of dieters from around the world: Here’s how to apply. If you don’t get chosen to blog for us, you’ll still be able to keep your own checklist and share it with friends.

To see how you rate when it comes to energy consumption, measure yourself with our Personal Energy Meter. You can also follow the latest energy news and join the conversation at our energy blog.

Thank you to the dieters for their inspiring posts, and thanks to our readers for following along, sharing and commenting!