If saving the Earth feels overwhelming, take a look at four people whose lifestyle choices make a difference every day.
Photos by Cliff Grassmick & Sean Hennessy
Have you longed to make a positive impact on the environment but don’t know where to start? To help you on your way, let us introduce you to four people whose everyday green choices are making big strides toward slowing the environmental devastation humans have wreaked upon the Earth. As a result of centuries of burning fossil fuels for energy, heat, and transportation, our atmosphere contains 30 percent more carbon dioxide—the main culprit among greenhouse gases—than ever in history. And although it makes up only 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for a disproportionate 25 percent of that pollution, which is thought to contribute to melting arctic ice caps and other major, unforeseen changes.
With challenges planetary in scope, it’s easy to feel your efforts can’t make an appreciable difference. But the individuals profiled here—whether their environmental focus is on using less harmful, renewable energy sources or supporting their values through conscious financial investments—all are making a difference in the world, starting at home. Their stories also show how one person’s efforts can start a positive ripple effect.
“You must be the change you want to see in the world,” Gandhi said. We hope these stories illustrate the truth in those simple words and inspire you to take your own first step.
Joe Callahan: Living off the grid
Emerson Gulch, the dirt road that switchbacks up through snow-loaded pines to Joe Callahan’s mountain house, seems better suited to a prospector’s mule than a suburban station wagon, even in four-wheel drive. But upon arrival, it’s immediately apparent that this off-the-grid “earth ship,” or sustainably built structure, is far from an austere backcountry outpost.
From the front yard, where two mirrored solar ovens are set up, the scent of roasting butternut squash and apple pie wafts enticingly. Walk into the new, Santa Fe–style house, and it gets even more homey. Along the south-facing facade, warm sunlight floods through floor-to-ceiling windows that flank an indoor bed of rosemary, aloe, and birds of paradise. A pressure cooker huffs on the vintage stove—more home cooking—and all around are sculptural, organic forms: flagstone and ceramic tile floors; hand-built, curving stone walls; and rough-hewn timber beams, salvaged from standing dead firs on the property.
In keeping with the earth-ship model, the naturally appealing aesthetics belie solidly pragmatic, energy-smart functions. Massive adobe exterior walls hide used tires packed with dirt, virtually indestructible “bricks” that function as insulation. They’re the latest update on Native American wisdom about how thick walls absorb heat all day and radiate it all night, keeping interior temperatures remarkably stable and comfortable year-round. Inside, both the stonework and the gray-water-moistened garden soil also do double duty as thermal mass, soaking up heat, then releasing it throughout the house. Skylights illuminate northern rooms, which are dug almost completely into the ground to help conserve heat in winter and cool air in summer. Cranked open on hot days, the skylights also cross-ventilate for a breeze. On a 45-degree pitched roof outside, Thermoslike “evacuated tubes” efficiently transfer the sun’s heat to household water. And a small workshop nearby houses the solar electric system: photovoltaic panels, a bank of large batteries, and an inverter that changes 24-volt DC power to usable 120-volt AC power.
A soft-spoken 40-year-old who spent more than a year crafting his dream home (it’s still a work in progress) in Gold Hill, Colorado, Callahan makes his living designing and installing solar and wind systems for homeowners and public institutions. As he outlines the mechanics of photovoltaic panels, it’s clear that the former electrical engineering major delights in the technology itself.
Highly functional and dependable, today’s solar electric technology is already “there,” energy analysts say. It’s the initial investment price of photovoltaic-panel systems—$10,000 to $20,000 or more—that needs to come down before solar power can truly go mainstream. Callahan admits that off-the-grid sites are solar electricity’s biggest niche because of the relatively higher cost of bringing a power line to a remote area. But in a growing number of states, he says, rebates can help defray set-up costs even when you live closer to public utility hookups. And simpler, cheaper, solar hot-water systems are very cost-effective, Callahan explains. “The system pays for itself in a third of its lifetime.”
Economics aside, Callahan points out that the sun is the largest resource available to humans—and an unlimited one at that. “We wear sunglasses; we’re always trying to block out the sun,” he says. “We might as well use it!” Squinting out the windows at a fast-melting snowscape, he adds, “This house works. The batteries get happy when the sun comes out. It’s very simple.”
When asked what motivates his passion for solar power, Callahan doesn’t cite the obvious problems of finite fossil fuels and worsening global pollution. Angry protests and railing against multinational corporate greed aren’t his style, explains the dedicated student of meditation and spiritualism. “It just adds to the negative energy in the world,” he says. “And it tends not to acknowledge that we’re all responsible for these problems. I believe the best thing is just to ‘go inside’ and affect people through example.”
Kellie & Tony Falbo: Driving a biodiesel car
When her husband slid on some ice and totaled their 1991 Toyota Tercel early last year, Kellie Falbo found herself focusing on the positive. After all, Tony escaped unharmed, explains Kellie, a fit, outgoing 34-year-old, who spends her free time teaching wilderness medicine and EMT workshops, volunteer firefighting, boating whitewater rapids, and piloting a beefy Yamaha motorcycle. What was the accident’s best windfall? The couple finally had carte blanche to go out and buy a used diesel-powered VW Jetta—and join the biodiesel revolution.
Biodiesel is a biodegradable, nontoxic fuel made from vegetable oils or animal fats. Running diesel engines on vegetable oil is not a new or complicated concept; it was an original intention of Rudolph Diesel, who in 1900 introduced an engine that ran on peanut oil. (Shortly after he died in 1913, the auto industry adapted the engine to run on the cheapest available fuel, which was a by-product of gasoline distillation.) The eco-friendly biodiesel fuel is relatively simple to make. In fact, some enthusiasts collect restaurant “waste grease,” add methanol and lye, and concoct homemade biodiesel in their garages, which accounts for their cars’ french fry-scented exhaust. Domestically produced and sustainable—and a welcome use for agricultural by-products such as soybean oil—biodiesel reduces U.S. dependence on foreign oil. It cuts life-cycle emissions of carbon dioxide by more than 78 percent. And pragmatically, any diesel engine made during the past decade runs beautifully on pure biodiesel. “Ten times better,” in fact, says Kellie, explaining that the natural solvent effectively cleans out engine deposits and silences rattles.
As executive director of the Rocky Mountain Sustainable Living Association and Fair, held every September in Fort Collins, Colorado, Kellie was already well informed about the latest alternative-energy options and committed to using them at home whenever possible. “We’d love to be off the grid,” for example, she says, “but we just can’t afford a solar system right now.” Switching to biodiesel seemed a great way to be part of a growing solution—not least because Tony, 33, had recently cofounded Blue Sun Biodiesel, a company that has helped open 13 biodiesel pumps at Colorado gas stations. (To find specific locations, go to www.goBlueSun.com.)
In practice, driving a car emblazoned with “Powered by Biodiesel” stickers seems to mesh perfectly with Kellie’s sociable, community-minded style of eco-activism. “It’s made my ideals more of a way of life, in a way that’s especially tangible to other people,” she says. “People see the stickers and ask me about it all the time. I love explaining it to them.”
Having once worked delivering microbrews via a big, “stinky” diesel rig, Tony says he immediately recognized the potential of a cleaner, renewable fuel. Compared with efficiency-minded Europe and Asia, he explains, U.S. diesel passenger-car ownership is still tiny—partly due to a reputation for being noisy and sooty, earned during a vogue following the ’70s oil shock. But improved technology, he says, means diesel cars being introduced here today—including most Volkswagen models and Jeep’s Liberty SUV—tend to emit less greenhouse gases than the other fuel versions. “I tell people, ‘Buy a diesel for your next car, then use biodiesel,’” he says.
Like other nascent alternative-energy technologies, biodiesel isn’t perfect yet. When temperatures get cold, it runs best mixed with 80 percent diesel fuel, the mix currently sold at most gas stations. (Older diesels’ “plug-in” engine-block heaters aren’t sufficient to counteract these cold-weather problems, but you can buy after-market products that heat the whole fuel system.) Early adapters such as the Falbos run 100 percent biodiesel whenever they can, by pumping it out of 55-gallon drums in their garage. As demand rises, they hope more gas stations start stocking it, too.
Compared to electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, biodiesel-powered cars get similar gas mileage—from 40 to 55 miles per gallon or more. City dwellers should probably consider hybrids over diesels, Tony concedes, because they are more efficient for stop-and-start driving. For the Falbos, biodiesel’s benefits far outweigh any growing-pain inconvenience. “You can just put biodiesel into an existing diesel car; you don’t have to get on a waiting list to buy a new car,” Tony says. “And you don’t have to sacrifice size or power. We get 44 mpg with turbo and fuel injection.” But given the country’s current political and economic woes, Kellie and Tony seem most inspired by their desire to be part of a viable solution. “We’re fueling our car with an American-grown crop,” says Kellie. “It’s sustainable, and it brings that industry home. That’s huge for me.”
Jack Robinson: Investing in environmentally responsible companies
Jack Robinson’s credentials are impeccably green. He grew up on a Connecticut homestead complete with fruit trees, vegetable gardens, a fishpond, a passive-solar greenhouse, and a full complement of barnyard animals. (In 1947, his parents authored a popular back-to-the-land guide—The Have-More Plan: A Little Land, A Lot of Living (Storey Books, 1995)—that’s still in print today.) Although Robinson has worked mostly as a money manager, he also was president of the nonprofit National Gardening Association. But one of the biggest environmental impacts Robinson has made began in 1984, when he founded the Boston-based Winslow Management Company, one of the first U.S. firms to focus exclusively on green investing, or, as Robinson likes to say, investing in “companies that are part of the solution, not part of the problem.” A green company, he explains, “not only behaves in a responsible way but has a sustainable product or service that impacts the environment, hopefully in a positive way, but no worse than neutral.”
Robinson’s heart is clearly in the environmental camp, but he’s all business when it comes to making a case for green investing. “At Winslow, we’ve developed a highly disciplined financial and environmental approach that we apply assiduously to every company we consider investing in,” says the professorial 62-year-old, whose easygoing calm seems thoroughly unflappable. “We’re not tree-huggers.” The no-nonsense approach appears to be working: Last year, Winslow Green Growth Fund posted the second-highest return for any small-cap growth mutual fund in the country—nearly 92 percent.
Convincing investors that they can do well by doing good for the environment has become what Robinson refers to as his “ministry.” He says, “There’s a misconception that when you screen out companies that commit environmental ‘sins,’ you have to sacrifice financial returns.” Winslow’s investment approach, he contends, is “all about [making] money.” Screening out companies with environmental liabilities—such as Superfund sites, which require corporations to pay to clean up their own toxic spills—reduces the risk of unpredictable, costly setbacks, he explains. Looking for companies that recycle materials and water reduces the net cost of doing business, improving the chance that profits will be passed on to investors. And finding companies that offer a product or service that’s sustainable creates ways to grow revenues. “It’s a wonderful set of financial characteristics that any investor would look for [in an investment opportunity],” he says.
Pragmatically, Winslow doesn’t invest only in environmental “angels,” however. Its “best in class” category focuses on companies that operate in traditionally “dirty” industries but are taking significant steps to minimize their impact. A case in point is longtime toxic-pesticide and cheap-labor-user Chiquita, which recently brought in the Rainforest Alliance to overhaul its environmental policy and now markets some organic produce.
Recent trends support Robinson’s positive outlook. Green investing—and the broader niche of socially responsible investing (SRI), which screens for environmental practices along with labor and human rights policies—is on the upswing. Even as losses and corporate scandals chased off overall investor dollars, socially screened assets grew 7 percent last year, to more than $2 trillion. There are now more than 200 SRI funds from which to choose, and several regularly achieve attention-grabbing returns. More investors are following their social and environmental consciences these days partly because more consumers are.
The $20 billion natural and organic food industry is enjoying double-digit growth, much faster than conventional foods. (Whole Foods Market is a longtime holding of Winslow’s Growth Fund.) And as improving technology brings down the costs of generating, storing, and delivering forms of renewable energy, the opportunities are “huge,” Robinson says. “Wind power is already price-competitive with fossil fuels in many places and will continue to grow worldwide,” he says. (Vestas, another Winslow holding, is the leading wind turbine maker in the world and is headquartered in Denmark, a country that uses 20 percent wind power.)
With more than $200 million invested in companies that manage to make a profit without trashing the environment, Winslow satisfies its founder’s financier’s head and his naturalist’s heart. It’s a balance Robinson thinks we all can achieve more easily these days, whether we are investing in green mutual-fund shares, buying a hybrid car, or making resource-efficient home renovations. Even when initial price tags for eco-friendly investments are higher, he points out, they often “pay for themselves” with a lifetime of lower gas or electric bills, not to mention the incalculable benefit of “feeling good about it.” He adds, “More and more, you don’t have to sacrifice your pocketbook to support your beliefs.”
A former editor for Outside magazine, Susan Enfield is now inspired to green-build a new deck and start collecting gray water at home.