- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

The turning point for Mike Tidwell came in the summer of 2001.Mr. Tidwell, a 41-year-old writer and former Peace Corps volunteer, had always been environmentally conscious. But after reading a report on climate change, he knew he wanted to do everything he could to prevent it. That meant a career change as he founded a grass-roots group, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. It also meant a lifestyle shift, as he and his wife, Catherine Varchaver, took action in their Takoma Park home.

For families like theirs, it is not enough merely to recycle bottles or think about the environment on Earth Day. Living a green life involves choices — from the food on their plates (vegetarian) to the location of their home (within walking distance of most of their destinations).

The Takoma Park couple installed solar panels on the roof of their 88-year-old Colonial home. The solar power generates most of the electricity and hot water for the home. They replaced the light bulbs with more energy-efficient compact fluorescent ones.

Last fall, they installed a corn-burning stove in the living room. Organically fertilized corn kept the house toasty warm through the blizzard of 2003, saving the family about $600 in heating costs and letting them do their part to cut down on the use of fossil fuel.



The family was one of 12 in the area who organized the corn fuel cooperative. The city of Takoma Park, meanwhile, provided land on which to place a silo full of 21 tons of corn.

“Overall, we have been able to make changes and still have a modern, middle-class lifestyle,” Mr. Tidwell says. “Our house is a monument to solutions. It is not a geodesic dome. It is an old house that is run on wind, sun and corn. The only inconvenience was getting the corn, and that turned out to be a form of exercise. There are solutions everywhere to save money and have cleaner air.”

The solutions have not come without sacrifice. The corn stove and solar panels, for instance, were purchased with a $7,500 home-equity loan. That meant other home improvements, such as fixing a worn bathroom floor, would have to wait.

“The bathroom floor still isn’t fixed,” says Ms. Varchaver, 41. “We don’t make a ton of money, but to us, this is worth it. To us, this is what matters.”

Ms. Varchaver, a holistic nutritionist and mother of the couple’s 6-year-old son, Sasha, has made sure the family is environmentally responsible in many areas, too. The family follows a vegetarian diet, which they believe is better for the environment — because raising livestock has an impact on soil, air and water — and is healthier for them. They can walk from their home to the well-stocked Takoma Park Silver Spring Food Co-op, and they try to eat organically whenever possible.

“I try very hard to only have organic food,” Ms. Varchaver says. “The accumulation of chemicals and pesticides can be really hard on us, especially in small bodies. Sure, it is a financial sacrifice, but it is also expensive to eat processed food in restaurants. I’m not that strict about it, though. What we have at home is quality, so if Sasha wants to go a birthday party and eat, that’s OK. I believe the closer the food is to the original state, the better it is for us. That doesn’t mean I don’t eat out.”

Ms. Varchaver says her choices also help in her work as a nutritionist.

“Just as the way our house is a representation of Mike’s work, our food choices are an example of why I have to walk the walk,” she says. “Why would anyone come for nutrition advice from a pimply, overweight person?”

Sustainable life in the suburbs

Hana Newcomb says even small decisions can have a big impact on the world. That is why she chooses to raise organic produce on her family farm.

“If you look carefully at what you are doing, you can ask, ‘Am I making the world better or worse?’” says Ms. Newcomb, 43. “We pretty much have that choice about everything in life.”

Ms. Newcomb, her husband, Jonathan Groisser, and their three children have created an environmentally friendly lifestyle a stone’s throw from busy Route 7 in Fairfax County. Ms. Newcomb’s family has been running Potomac Vegetable Farms in Vienna for 40 years. Three years ago, they helped create Blueberry Hill, a cooperative housing development, on 10 of their farm’s 30 acres.

Nestled among the minimansions going up all around them, Blueberry Hill is home to 19 families. The houses are modern and spacious by any standard but have a few twists, including the use of environmentally conscious building materials, such as composite Trex decking on the front porch; geothermal heating systems that draw on moving heat from the ground instead of converting chemical energy; a common parking area; and no garages.

The houses have front porches and a door that opens directly into the kitchen in an effort to create the kind of neighborhood friendliness people knew a generation ago.

Ms. Newcomb’s mother and sister own homes here. There is also a common house, where families gather for dinner several times a week and preteens hang out with others from the neighborhood.

In the common house, the basement lounge that is popular with the 9-to-12-year-old set has couches and a foosball table — but no TV. That’s another choice, Ms. Newcomb says.

“We had one for about two weeks,” she says. “But they just sat and watched TV. It was so silly, so we took it out. This group mostly hangs out outside anyway.”

The front porch of Ms. Newcomb’s home is home to the usual shoes and sporting goods of a busy family. There also are cartons of eggs from the farm that neighbors can pick up on the honor system. In turn, the neighbors leave plastic bags and egg cartons for reuse.

The porch is a beacon of recycling. Ms. Newcomb has a bin for cardboard and one for cans. She has a bucket for used eggshells that will enrich the soil. She has a compost bin for anything that can go back into the earth, such as melon rinds and coffee grounds. Finally, there is a bin of earthworms. The earthworms are fed garbage such as fruit peels. The worms, in turn, produce castings to enrich the farm soil.

“I’m a little over the top,” Ms. Newcomb concedes. “This is recycling at its core.”

The recycling system can seem complicated. So can explaining to her children — ages 16, 13 and 11 — why she isn’t that interested in being a major consumer.

“Nothing important is easy,” Ms. Newcomb says. “If it were easy, then it wouldn’t be important. One thing I’m trying to train them to do is to buy things from small, local businesses. I have never been to Wal-Mart. We don’t spend a lot of money on new stuff. I am trying to teach them to be conscientious about buying.”

Ms. Newcomb’s goals for her family are made somewhat clearer by living near others with the same goals, she says. Blueberry Hill has attracted more families who are interested in carpooling, driving hybrid cars and using the school bus to get to school, she adds.

“I know my kids are influenced by whomever they are around,” she says. “There is probably only one SUV in the neighborhood. So maybe my neighbors are not triaging their garbage, but other than that, they are very conscientious.”

Small changes, big impact

Back at Mike Tidwell’s home, there is one purchase of which he is extremely proud.

It is not the innovative corn stove.

It is a Kenmore refrigerator, purchased at Sears for less than $700.

“This refrigerator uses as much energy as a 50-watt light bulb,” he says proudly. “It is the most energy-efficient refrigerator we could find. Of all the gadgetry in this house, this is the one that impresses me the most.”

Mr. Tidwell says you can be modern and mainstream and still help the environment. It is just a matter of researching before buying.

“Little things make a big difference,” he says. “Imagine if all manufacturers sold appliances that were this energy-efficient.”

Making small changes is the center of the Turn the Tide campaign, a 2-year-old program sponsored by the Center for a New American Dream, a Maryland-based advocacy group.

“These are simple actions anyone can take,” says Sean Sheehan, Turn the Tides’ outreach director. “But they have a measurable impact on the environment. What we are trying to say is that what each of us does matters, that you are not alone, and that it is possible to have more fun with less stuff.

“We are not saying people should shiver in the dark or knit sweaters out of old mop heads,” he says. “We want to make it as easy as possible.”

One of Mr. Sheehan’s easy suggestions: Skip one car trip each week. Replacing one 20-mile, round-trip drive with, say, biking or compressing errands, will result in reducing annual carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 1,000 pounds, he says. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports the same payoff and adds that commuters spend 9 billion gallons of fuel a year just sitting in traffic congestion.

Jen Boulden, a Silver Spring graduate student, says she has put the Turn the Tide suggestions to good use. Ms. Boulden, 29, replaced her light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. Those bulbs cost a little more upfront but result in saving electricity. She recently began composting, and she now takes the Metro whenever she can.

“I read that 75 percent of car trips are less than three miles,” Ms. Boulden says. “So I made the decision to live a quarter-mile from the Metro and across the street from the grocery store.”

Mr. Tidwell and Ms. Varchaver try to walk on those small trips, too.

“We live in a very walkable community,” he says. “We can walk to church, to my son’s bus stop, to restaurants, to the Metro. We don’t use our car that much.”

If you are not making large purchases, you don’t have so much to carry home anyway.

“The key to happiness is having what you want and wanting what you have,” Mr. Tidwell says. “I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. I know what poverty is. Living here, I consider myself a millionaire a thousand times over. We in America are all extremely wealthy compared to the history of civilization.

TIPS:

WANT TO HAVE AN ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY LIFESTYLE? HERE ARE SOME SMALL CHANGES FAMILIES CAN MAKE TOWARD IMPROVING THE EARTH:

• SKIP A CAR TRIP EACH WEEK. REDUCING A TRIP OF 20 MILES OR SO BY WALKING, TELECOMMUTING, BIKING OR COMPRESSING ERRANDS CAN REDUCE CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS BY 1,000 POUNDS ANNUALLY.

• REPLACE FOUR STANDARD LIGHT BULBS WITH ENERGY-EFFICIENT COMPACT FLUORESCENT ONES. THIS COULD REDUCE ENERGY COSTS BY $100 A YEAR.

• MOVE THE THERMOSTAT 3 DEGREES. USING SLIGHTLY LESS HEAT IN WINTER AND COOLING IN SUMMER CAN REDUCE CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS AS WELL AS SAVE MONEY ON THE ELECTRIC BILL.

M ELIMINATE LAWN AND GARDEN PESTICIDES. THESE HAVE AN EFFECT ON BIRDS AND OTHER WILDLIFE AND CONTRIBUTE TO WATER POLLUTION. MANY EARTH-FRIENDLY SUBSTITUTES ARE AVAILABLE TO CONTROL INSECTS AND OTHER GARDEN PESTS.

M CHECK YOUR FAUCETS AND SHOWER HEADS. INSTALLING 1,000 EFFICIENT SHOWER HEADS AND LOW-FLOW FAUCET AERATORS CAN SAVE 8 MILLION GALLONS OF WATER A YEAR.

• LOOK FOR THE ENERGY STAR LABEL WHEN BUYING A NEW APPLIANCE. PRODUCTS THAT EARN THE ENERGY STAR CLASSIFICATION HAVE MET STRICT CRITERIA SET BY THE U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY OR THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY. TO EARN THE LABEL, PRODUCTS MUST USE LESS ENERGY THAN STANDARD PRODUCTS.

• THIS SUMMER, KEEP AIR-CONDITIONING SYSTEMS WORKING OPTIMALLY TO USE LESS ENERGY. THAT MEANS REPLACING FURNACE FILTERS MONTHLY, TURNING DOWN THE THERMOSTAT WHEN YOU ARE OUT AND KEEPING PLANTS AND FURNITURE AWAY FROM REGISTERS.

M TRY ORGANIC PRODUCE. ORGANIC PRODUCTS HAVE BEEN GROWN WITHOUT CHEMICAL PESTICIDES AND WITH PRACTICES THAT PROTECT SOIL, AIR AND WATER RESOURCES. THEY OFTEN TEND TO BE FROM LOCAL GROWERS, WHICH MEANS THEY MIGHT BE FRESHER BECAUSE THERE IS A REDUCTION IN SHIPPING TIME.

• ASSESS WHAT KIND OF CHEMICALS ARE USED TO CLEAN YOUR HOME. ALMOST ANYTHING DUMPED DOWN THE DRAIN CAN HAVE AN EFFECT ON THE SOIL, WATER, AIR AND WILDLIFE. NATURAL ALTERNATIVES ARE AVAILABLE THAT CLEAN WELL. ALSO, BUY CONCENTRATES. THIS WILL CUT DOWN ON THROWING AWAY BOTTLES AND PLASTIC SPRAY CONTAINERS.

SOURCES: TURN THE TIDE, EARTH SHARE, TWO NONPROFIT ADVOCACY GROUPS; U.S. EPA

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

• “THE HEALTHY HOUSE: HOW TO BUY ONE, HOW TO BUILD ONE, HOW TO CURE A SICK ONE,” BY JOHN BOWER, HEALTHY HOUSE, 2001. THIS GUIDE TO HEALTHY HOUSE CONSTRUCTION CONTAINS INFORMATION ON EVERYTHING FROM SITING A HOUSE TO CHEMICALS IN CARPETING AND DECK LUMBER. IT HAS CONTACT INFORMATION ON MORE THAN 600 ORGANIZATIONS AND SUPPLIERS, AND MORE THAN 1,300 REFERENCES FOR MORE INFORMATION.

• “RAISING HEALTHY CHILDREN IN A TOXIC WORLD: 101 SMART SOLUTIONS FOR EVERY FAMILY,” BY PHILIP J. LANDRIGAN, HERBERT L. NEEDLEMAN AND MARY LANDRIGAN, RODALE PRESS, 2002. THIS BOOK HAS IDEAS FOR IMPROVING THE ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH AND SAFETY OF CHILDREN AT HOME, WORK, SCHOOL AND THE LOCAL PARK.

M”NATURAL HOUSE CATALOG: WHERE TO GET EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO CREATE AN ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY HOME,” BY DAVID PEARSON, FIRESIDE, 1999. THIS CATALOG FEATURES RESOURCES FOR HOLISTIC LIVING, SAVING ENERGY AND NONTOXIC CLEANING.

ASSOCIATION —

• NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL, 1200 NEW YORK AVE. NW, SUITE 400, WASHINGTON DC 20005. PHONE: 202/289-6868. WEB SITE: WWW.NRDC.ORG. THIS NONPROFIT ENVIRONMENTAL GROUP HAS STUDIES, REPORTS AND INFORMATION AVAILABLE AS WELL AS TIPS FOR GREEN LIVING AND A CHILDREN’S PAGE ON ITS WEB SITE.

ONLINE —

• EARTH SHARE (WWW.EARTHSHARE.ORG), A NETWORK OF NONPROFIT CONSERVATION ORGANIZATIONS, HAS HUNDREDS OF TIPS FOR GREEN LIVING ON ITS WEB SITE.

MCHESAPEAKE CLIMATE ACTION NETWORK (WWW.CHESAPEAKECLIMATE.ORG), A NONPROFIT GROUP THAT ADDRESSES CLIMATE CHANGE IN MARYLAND, HAS INFORMATION ABOUT THE IMPACT MARYLANDERS CAN HAVE ON REDUCING GLOBAL WARMING. UPCOMING LOCAL EVENTS IN JULY INCLUDE A TOUR OF MIKE TIDWELL’S RENEWABLE-ENERGY HOME AND A SPORT UTILITY VEHICLE “TICKETING” DAY.

MTHE COOPERATIVE HOUSING DEVELOPMENT BLUEBERRY HILL HAS A WEB SITE, WWW.BLUEBERRYHILL.ORG, THAT EXPLAINS THE ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS OF CO-HOUSING. THE SITE ALSO HAS LINKS TO OTHER CO-HOUSING SITES.

• THE U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY’S ENVIROSENSE PROJECT (ES.EPA.GOV) CONTAINS COMMON-SENSE SOLUTIONS TO ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS. THE SITE FEATURES GOOD SECTIONS ON COMPOSTING AND NONTOXIC CLEANING SUBSTITUTES.

MTURN THE TIDE (WWW.NEWDREAM.ORG/TURNTHETIDE/), A CAMPAIGN OF THE TAKOMA PARK-BASED CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN DREAM, CHALLENGES THOSE WHO SIGN UP TO MAKE CHANGES THAT WILL RESULT IN A COLLECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL PAYOFF. THE SITE INCLUDES TIPS AND IDEAS AS WELL AS CALCULATORS TO SHOW ENERGY SAVINGS AND OTHER RESULTS.

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