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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.'

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This growing interest in measurably reducing one's footprint is a textbook case of how new ideas spread throughout society, say sociologists, and how new movements are born. In the abstract, if a problem is to be acted upon, it has to be recognized as a problem, says Christopher Henke, assistant professor of sociology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. Generally speaking, problems are not recognized by a group until the leaders of that group acknowledge them as such. In this sense, a problem matures and grows up, says Mr. Henke, citing examples such as the civil rights movement in the 1960s and more recent antismoking campaigns. "It becomes something that we take on as our own set of beliefs, our own moral issue," he says, "and then it becomes a reality."

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In the case of global warming and faith networks, the past year has seen some important steps in this regard. In February, evangelical leaders around the country broke with the Bush administration and, in an open letter called the Evangelical Climate Initiative, said something had to be done. In August, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said that, because of the summer heat wave, he was a "convert" to the idea of human-driven global warming.

Once important figures in social groups adopt an idea, others in the group are much more likely to to follow along. Then, movements spread and grow along pre-existing social networks, says Bogdan Vasi, an assistant professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. "People join a movement because their friends and relatives are involved," he says. "If you hear that your friend is buying wind energy, you're more likely to buy wind energy as well."

Indeed, preceding and perhaps contributing to the apparent demand for "Low Carbon Diet" is a remarkable prior effort by The Regeneration Project and the IPL. During October, the organizations showed "An Inconvenient Truth" to 4,000 congregations nationwide, reaching an estimated 500,000 people. "Those were people who would not pay to see that movie," says the Rev. Sally Bingham, executive director of the Regeneration Project. "But they got to go see it for free." And the movie seems to have catalyzed the audience, she says. After seeing the movie, audience members around the country asked what, exactly, they could do about global warming.

"There's kind of a critical mass now around global warming," says Wes Sanders, vice chair of the Vermont IPL, which has already begun forming teams around Gershon's book. "It's suddenly become sexy, so to speak."

Although it's unclear whether the book is a beneficiary of, or a contributor to, a grass-roots movement, how ideas spread through groups is one of Gershon's central preoccupations. He ascribes to a classic theory by sociologist Everett Rogers on how innovations diffuse throughout a community. New ideas begin with a small group of innovators and move on to early adopters. They then pass on to early majority followed by a late majority. Finally, the most hardheaded – the laggards – adopt the new idea. Contrary to the oft-leveled criticism in environmental circles that by preaching to the choir nothing gets accomplished, Gershon argues that one should direct efforts at the group that's most receptive.

"Preach to the choir," says Gershon. "They'll sing loud enough to get everyone to go into the church, or synagogue, or mosque."

A few footprint shrinkers

U.S. homes account for 8 percent of the world's emissions, with the average household contributing 55,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually, according to author David Gershon. His "Low Carbon Diet" workbook makes dozens of suggestions for reducing one's carbon footprint. Here are a few of his book's recommendations and how much carbon he says participants can subtract from their footprints by following through:

• Together, washers and dryers generate five pounds of carbon dioxide per cycle. In warm or hot water loads, 90 percent of the required energy goes to heat the water. Using cold water saves two pounds per load. Front-loading washing machines cut the amount of water used in half. Drying clothes on a clothesline further diminishes emissions. All in all, using cold water once per week shrinks your carbon footprint by 275 pounds each year; not using the dryer once a week gets you another 200. Replacing an old machine with an Energy Star front-loading washer saves 500 pounds a year.

• A 10-minute shower generates up to four pounds of CO2. A 5-minute shower cuts that in half and a low-flow showerhead drops it further. In a household, each person who reduces their shower to five minutes cuts emissions by 175 pounds per year. A low-flow showerhead saves you another 250.

• Request to be removed from junk mail lists, which needlessly contribute to waste. If you can reduce your weekly waste by 60 gallons, credit yourself with 2,650 pounds yearly.

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