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A grass-roots push for a 'low carbon diet'

David Gershon's book guides readers through a series of behavioral changes to reduce their 'carbon footprint.'

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 2006

Last June, David Gershon saw Al Gore's global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." The time was ripe, he realized, to finish an old project.

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In 2000, Mr. Gershon created a step-by-step program, à la Weight Watchers, designed to reduce a person's carbon footprint. The idea received positive reviews after a pilot program was run in Portland, Ore., but it eventually fell by the wayside for lack of interest. "The world wasn't ready," says Gershon, who heads the Empowerment Institute in Woodstock, N.Y., a consulting organization that specializes in changing group behavior.

But since then, Americans witnessed the catastrophic fury of hurricane Katrina, which, if nothing else, showed them what a major city looks like underwater. A substantial body of evidence supporting the idea of human-induced global warming accumulated. And, of course, Mr. Gore made his movie.

Attitudes toward global warming had shifted considerably. (Indeed, a recent poll by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that nearly half of Americans cited global warming as the No. 1 environmental concern; in 2003, only one-fifth considered it that critical.)

Gershon put his nose to the grindstone, and a slim workbook titled "Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds" was the result. Replete with checklists and illustrations, the user-friendly guide is a serious attempt at changing American energy-consumption behavior.

Although representing 4.5 percent of the world's population, the United States contributes an estimated 25 percent of its greenhouse gases. Faced with this fact and news reports of spring arriving earlier, winter arriving later, and the Arctic melting, the subject of climate change has gone from an abstract issue debated among scientists to something with apparently measurable effects in daily life.

This is where Gershon's book comes in. The book guides participants through a month-long process of behavioral change. Each participant calculates his or her footprint – the average US household emits 55,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually, the book says – and then browses a list of emissions-lowering actions. The goal is to reduce that amount bit by bit. Replacing an incandescent bulb with a fluorescent, for example, counts for a 100-pound annual reduction. Purchasing an energy-efficient furnace counts for 2,400 pounds. Just tuning up your existing furnace reduces your carbon emissions by 300 pounds while insulating your warm air ducts lowers them by 800 pounds.

But the key to the program's success, say those who've participated, is in forming a support group. People have good intentions, says Gershon, but alone, they often lack the will to follow through. Like Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous, the formation of a group encourages follow-through by socially reinforcing the new, desired behavior.

"I think it's essential," says Nathaniel Charny, a New York lawyer who participated in the recently completed testing phase of "Low Carbon Diet." "Everybody's reinforcing the goals, and you're having frank discussions about things."

And as Gershon sensed, the timing for a book offering day-to-day solutions to an overwhelming global problem couldn't be better. Gore's group, The Climate Project, which recently began training 1,000 volunteers to give Gore's now-famous slide show, is handing out 600 copies of the book at the end of the session.

Meanwhile, a handful of environmental and religious groups are recommending the book to its members. The Regeneration Project, a San Francisco-based interfaith ministry, has linked to the book on its main page. So have Climate Solutions, a nonprofit group in Olympia, Wash., and the Vermont chapter of Interfaith Power and Light (IPL), a nationwide organization dedicated to "greening" congregations.

Tellingly, before the advent of Gershon's book, several congregations around the country spontaneously embarked on carbon-reduction programs of their own. The Michigan IPL worked out a deal with suppliers to sell compact fluorescents to members at a lower price, and the Georgia IPL came up with a program called "preparing for a new light" whereby for each candle lit during holidays such as Hanukkah or Christmas Eve, participants change one incandescent bulb in their home for a compact fluorescent. And three congregants at St. Luke's in Cedar Falls, Iowa, started a comprehensive, step-by-step program like Gershon's called "cool congregations."