Mission -- No fossil fuels

July 08, 2008|By FEDORA COPLEY / Pulse corresondent

Editor's note: This is the first article in a two-part series about one teen's struggle to go fossil free for a week.

What would life be like without fossil fuels? Pretty hard to imagine, in a civilization where nearly everything we do involves petroleum, natural gas or coal. When we use electrical appliances, we're using fossil fuels - the production of electricity uses coal. When we drive in cars, we're burning gasoline, a refined version of petroleum. When companies make things - furniture, silverware, pasta, soap or this newspaper - fossil fuels help them.

The plan:

Fossil fuel free

But while fossil fuels run our planet, they also have the potential to change it. As Al Gore tells you in his book, "An Inconvenient Truth," burning fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, which in turn cause our atmosphere to thicken and trap more infrared rays from the sun. Infrared light heats up our atmosphere. This is the basic science of global warming.


When temperatures rise, some bad things start to happen. For example, ice melts, leading to dwindling homes for polar bears and other animals that need ice to survive. Oceans heat up. Weather patterns change. Wilderness areas dry out, leading to more wildfires.

While nearly all the inhabitants of the world add to greenhouse gas emissions, the United States is a major contributor. We emit about 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, even though we only have about 5 percent of the world's population.

I decided I wanted to live without the use of fossil fuels for a week. Though it would make little difference to the U.S. carbon footprint, I wanted to try to reduce my own carbon footprint to zero for a week. And maybe notice easy ways to reduce my footprint always.

So I decided that during this week, I would get around by bike only, eat only foods raised and transported without the use of fossil fuels (which basically means foods I harvested myself) and not turn on any electrical devices.

A false start:

Dandelion salad

I was inspired to tackle this adventure when I read an article in The New York Times about U.S. greenhouse emissions. I wanted to start right away. This was in April, mind you, when the ground was still chilly and the only edible plant life I saw were dandelions.

Well, my parents eventually talked some sense into me, but the idea stayed. I thought it was really cool, because, as I discovered upon researching the matter, most things in modern American life use fossil fuels somehow.

Take just one thing: food. Whether or not farmers involve fossil fuels in their farming practices (which they probably do via irrigation, tractor use, fertilizing, etc.), it certainly takes fuel to get food to grocery stores. Transportation contributes about 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Emma Carlson Berne in "Global Warming and Climate Change." Fortunately, I'm used to riding my bike, so that wouldn't be a big deal.

Power is the biggest contributor at 24 percent of global emissions, according to Berne. Processing foods into potato chips, pasta, juice, cereal, bread and the thousands of other processed foods in a grocery store takes power. Also, electricity is a major part of our household, powering everything from our TV to refrigerator. So I couldn't use the refrigerator, stove, microwave or any other appliance during my fossil fuel fast.

Fossil fuels everywhere

All my possessions have been transported by fuel sometime in their existence, but I figured it was pointless to, for instance, not wear clothes. After all, the damage is already done. But during my week, I couldn't buy new clothes, because that would promote more production and transportation. I could buy used clothes, as they are in their second life and have been recycled.

Water was a hard one. For one thing, I couldn't be sure whether or not fossil fuels were used to deliver water to my house. I read that sometimes water systems simply take advantage of gravity in their transportation to houses. Of course, it takes some kind of fuel to heat up water, so hot showers were out.

But another thing dawned on me. All the water I use is treated by the city in processing plants to make sure it is clean. This most certainly uses fossil fuels of some kind.

Things I could do: read, write, ride my bike, work in the garden, hang out with friends, play musical instruments.

In a nutshell, things I couldn't do: Eat foods other than those I harvested, use electricity, use water from a tap, ride in a car or other vehicles or buy things that have been transported using fuel.

Next week: The fossil fuel fast begins

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