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Leisure Spending

My Environmental Grades

Knight Kiplinger shares what good -- and not so good -- he's doing for the environment.

When it comes to "living green," I suspect that I'm a lot like most Americans -- a walking bundle of contradictions. I do a pretty good job in some areas and fall down badly in others. My environmental report card would contain mostly B's and C's, with a smattering of A's and D's.

Commuting confessions. Let's get the ugly stuff out of the way first: On most days, I drive to and from work, alone in my car. I'd rather commute on Washington, D.C.'s excellent subway, which I use during my workdays to get around town to appointments. But the closest Metrorail station is about a mile from my house, which makes it tough to use for regular commuting. (Excuses, excuses.) Sometimes, my wife drives me to the subway and meets me there after work.

Another demerit on my report card: This publishing company, which I head, subsidizes parking for its employees. That's generous but not environmentally responsible. On the other hand, we also subsidize employee commuting by subway, but the parking benefit is more lucrative.

Okay, so what are my wife and I doing right? Our cars get more than 20 miles per gallon of gasoline. The electricity that powers our home is generated by wind turbines in West Virginia rather than by coal-fired plants. For this, we gladly pay our local utility a premium rate.


We set our thermostat at 68 degrees in winter, 76 in summer. Whenever the legendary Washington humidity drops to comfortable levels, we cut off the A/C and use our exhaust fans to draw air in through first-floor windows and out the attic. Some of our hot water is supplied by an on-demand heater, which is more efficient than a big tank. We're gradually replacing our single-pane windows and swapping incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents.

When our children were teenagers, it was a constant struggle to get them to turn off lights, computers and stereos after they were done using them (I tagged my children and their peers as the "always-on generation"). Now, as twentysomethings, they get it.

They kid me that my energy conservation is rooted more in Yankee frugality than in environmental awareness. They're probably right, and I come by it genetically. My paternal grandmother, of thrifty Ohio stock, was a passionate recycler long before it was chic. Every Christmas morning she would carefully remove the Scotch tape from gift wrappings and fold the paper for re-use the next year.

A cousin of mine, from the New England side of our family, often invokes the old admonition, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." Practicing this myself, I have a strong preference for repair over replacement.


That means buying things of high quality and classic design -- whether clothes, cars or furnishings -- and maintaining them well. Repair requires vastly less energy than making new things, and those who do the repairing almost always are -- or work for -- local businesspeople rather than faceless global enterprises. The two trends -- frugality and environmental concern -- intersect in a burgeoning movement called simple living, which I find enticing.

Other steps to take. How can I improve my green report card most dramatically? By moving to a much smaller, more energy-efficient home in an urban neighborhood close to a subway stop. And by focusing my grocery shopping on locally grown, seasonal produce, which requires far less energy to transport than fruits and vegetables that come from the far reaches of the U.S. and the globe.

In the words of Kermit the Frog, "It's not easy being green." Realistically, my attempts to contribute to a cleaner and safer environment are likely to remain inconsistent. But whatever steps I take will be well worth the effort.