The high carbon cost of la vida rural

  My wife recently calculated our carbon footprint for a project at the school where she teaches. Just how much CO2 are we contributing to global warming? I was smugly confident that our footprint would be tiny compared to others. We are seriously green, after all, trying to live a simple rural life. We heat with sun and wood, pay a little extra for wind-powered electricity, drive fuel-efficient cars and don’t take too many plane trips; we grow a small vegetable garden, eat local meat and produce, compost and recycle everything possible and buy a lot of used stuff. So we’ve got to be far below the national average. No sweat.

We were looking good as she plugged in the numbers – well below average on our household energy use, consumer habits are conservative. But then she got to driving. Suddenly our footprint looked like Sasquatch and bumped our cumulative score up higher than the national average.

Like many Westerners, we live in the boonies with nice views, open space and recreational opportunities all around us, but we have to drive ridiculous distances to go anywhere else. It’s two miles just to the pavement, then another eight or ten to get to the nearest grocery store, my son’s school or the office of the conservation organization I work for. Even the local farmers market is a solid 12 miles away.

We are also dangerously addicted to long road trip vacations. Like many people I know, we love to travel and enjoy the wild countryside. One summer we passed through every Western state and two Canadian provinces in a month.

It’s not surprising that Westerners drive more than the rest of the country. The national average per driver is 14,425 miles a year, while those of us living in the 11 states covered by this newspaper drive 15,238 miles. My home state of New Mexico is one of the worst offenders, with 18,369 miles per year – the fourth highest figure for all 50 states.

It comes with the territory of wide open spaces and long distances between cities, as well as the free-wheeling, independent nature of Western culture – we love the open road. But if you’re serious about reducing your footprint, it’s also part of a questionable trade off for the bucolic rural life.

A lot of us harbor the illusion of living an environmentally-conscious life out on the land. Between the old land-based community and more recent back-to-the-earth immigrants around here, many neighbors are trying to sustain local traditions of farming and keeping some livestock, cutting their own firewood, buying local and living off the grid as much as possible. But we turn a blind eye to how much we drive. Everyday I pass friends and neighbors zooming to and from work, getting our kids to school and soccer practice, running important errands, picking up our weekly CSA produce or raw milk from the farmer up the road. And don’t forget all those meetings about pressing conservation issues.

My daughter lives in the steel and concrete of New York City, where thousands of people live on the number of acres where we have three. She is about as far as you can get from living on the land, yet her carbon footprint is tiny – a lot closer to what we all need to reach in order to make a difference. The average annual U.S. carbon footprint is 20.4 tons per person, and driving is about a third of that. My family’s total footprint with our embarrassing driving habits comes to 24.25 tons. Of course this country provides a very poor yardstick for measuring global resource use. The average worldwide footprint is four tons. According to one website, we need to reach two tons per person to have any effect on global warming.

The question, then, is what are we willing to give up? Jared Diamond recently wrote about the economic importance of the number 32. That’s the number that describes the difference in consumption and resource use between developed nations and the rest of the world – that is, we use 32 times as much as everyone else. Part of his point was that it is simply impossible for everyone in the world to enjoy the same quality of life as us. If we want to create a genuinely fair and sustainable world some of us have to learn to do without. But does that mean that I have to reduce my driving to less than 1/32 of what I drive now?

I love those long road trips, weekend warrior camping and backpacking and zipping into town for a quick errand or when we need a movie or meal fix. Even as we’re facing the worst environmental consequence of our age, I’ll bet most of us in the driving-addicted West won’t give up our vehicles until they pry the steering wheel from our cold, dead fingers.

The old Subaru finally died at 313,000 miles, despite our best efforts to keep it going. We can’t afford a hybrid, but hope we can find something that gets better gas mileage. Maybe a horse and buggy. Or maybe I’ll just quit my job as a professional conservationist and stay home.

Ernest Atencio spends most of his time driving around his native northern New Mexico working on land conservation projects.