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Walking Our Talk

walktalk.jpg It's a classic double-bind: spreading the word about solutions to planetary problems involves doing things -- printing books, taking airplane flights, running servers -- that themselves contribute to the problems we face. We're sure that the net impact of our little non-profit is still positive, but we think we can do better, and so we've been making a real effort to start making Worldchanging a leader not only in ideas but action. We want to walk our talk.

That's why we're very pleased to be able to share with you our first big steps towards making Worldchanging a one-planet company.

Book printing has traditionally not gone easy on the Earth, so we're exceedingly happy to be able to announce that our book involves some big strides towards sustainability. Abrams, our publisher, has committed itself to going as far as it could, financially, and produced a book with substantial commitments. The book's printed on Opaque 100 by New Leaf, a 100% post-consumer waste paper which meets the high quality standards needed for a photo book, but offers the best environmental performance available. What kind of performance? Well, New Leaf tells us that, compared to most books, we'll be saving 3,846 trees, 1,651,641 gallons water, 2,765 million BTU's energy, 184,691 lbs solid waste, 360,244 lbs greenhouse gases. And the more people who read the book, the bigger those numbers will get.

What's more, Renewable Choice will offset the energy used to put out our book with investment in new windpower farms.

That still doesn't quite make it a one-planet project, but it's as close to a closed-loop, green energy book as it is commercially feasible to get. The team at Abrams deserves a real round of applause for this commitment.

Barnstorming across North America on our upcoming tour is our other major project that while important is not exactly green, so we're really pleased to announce that we'll be offsetting all the climate impacts of our tour with the Zerofootprint. Better yet, given our meager finances, they've volunteered to do it pro-bono. Here's how they describe what they're doing for us:

Zerofootprint applauds the WorldChanging team, and we're delighted to have the opportunity to offset the tour. By 'zero footprinting' the book tour, we can ensure that although carbon dioxide will be emitted due to tour-related travel by plane or car, the net addition of carbon to the atmosphere will be zero.
Our offsets are calculated very carefully, and in conformity with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol ( In this way we and our clients can be certain that our figures are in keeping with internationally endorsed standards of reporting and accounting that are backed by both the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the World Resources Institute. To offset our clients' CO2 emissions, Zerofootprint works with certified greenhouse gas reduction projects in North America. We research all of these projects to ensure that they meet the criterion of "additionality." That is, not only must our offsets mitigate carbon emissions, they must finance projects that wouldn't otherwise have existed. This is important, because it means that a windfarm or a new forest exists because organizations like Worldchanging make a decision.

Both our book and the tour we're launching are as green as we can get them. Furthermore, we're working on being able to announce that our servers themselves are climate-friendly. Stay tuned.

We still have a ways to go to become a one-planet company, but we're taking real strides towards being able to spend our days talking about fixing the problems without spending our nights worrying that we're making them worse. And we look forward to being able to report back in the coming months about other steps we're taking. Ultimately, I'd like to see us operate this little NGO of ours on a one-planet basis, which is, of course, what we all need to be doing as soon as we can.

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Outstanding, I'm glad you're being intentional with how you're going about your mission. I'm betting that you looked into putting the book on recyclable plastic. Was color printing unavailable, or were you convinced of the benefits of 100% PCR paper? Also, anything interesting about the ink?

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 13 Oct 06

Is it really impossible to travel by train in the United States ?
I ask because it frighten me a bit when you only think of taking the plane or the car to travel, and train stays in my mind as the greenest way of moving ourselves that is actually mass available.

Nonetheless I applauds you for your work and will keep reading you with much pleasure and interest :-)

Posted by: litteuldav on 13 Oct 06

you can walk the walk, and you can talk the talk. But you cannot walk the talk.

Congrats on the offsets! You guys are rad.

Posted by: SamW on 13 Oct 06

thanks for the good words.

In terms of train travel, the problem is simply the number of stops and distance between them. It simply would have taken too much time.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 13 Oct 06

Is it really impossible to travel by train in the United States ? I ask because it frighten me a bit when you only think of taking the plane or the car to travel, and train stays in my mind as the greenest way of moving ourselves that is actually mass available.

When you look at consumer expenditure data, there's a category called "public transportation". Many people mistakenly assume this means local transit, when in fact it includes pretty much all shared modes which are open to consumers in general -- mass transit, taxi, limousine service, school bus, as well as intercity air, bus, train, and ship. Part of the rationale to group these things together (aside from the fact that per capita expenditures on each subcategory is rather small compared to overall tranportation expenditures, which are dominated by the costs of owning and operating a personal automobile) is that shared modes have a different energy dynamic than personal modes.

If I get in my own car and take a trip to the grocery store or wherever, the energy consumed on the trip is directly attributable to my decision to go to the store. It is a net increase in overall energy consumption. By contrast, if I take a shared mode (like transit) to the store, I'm simply getting aboard a vehicle which would go that way, regardless of whether I was on it or not. And since it's such a large vehicle relative to my size, the additional energy to transport me is marginal.

So when you contrast the two mode choices, between a personal vehicle and a shared mode, the net energy expenditure is always going to be much, much greater with the personal vehicle. The flip side of that, though, is that there's not much substantive difference between shared modes in terms of the marginal energy consumption of adding one body to the vehicle - it pales in comparison to the difference between a personal vehicle trip and any shared trip, distance being equal.

The only effect of my specific mode choice among shared modes is an indirect demand-side effect that may or may not effect future routing arrangements and how frequently vehicles are run (or flown or sailed) on that route. That's nearly impossible to quantify, especially when the unit of analysis is a relatively very small number of trips, as in Worldchanging's book tour.

That said, there are ways of comparing across the different shared modes, and also comparing those with personal modes. Usually what is used is a metric called "btu per passenger-mile" or "btu per vehicle-mile", depending on whether you're comparing the modes in terms of somewhat theoretical efficiency or rather efficiency in moving X number of people over Y distance.

The people who present such data often warn that it can be misleading and/or unreliable, and also, there's often conflicts between the different methodologies to calculate such things. But it's about the best means out there for comparison with respect to energy consumption.

In consideration of all that, in the US, flying on a plane is about 3,587 btu per passenger-mile, whereas going on Amtrak is 2,935 btu per passenger-mile. These are overall averages, and could be very different from the specific routes and vehicles used at the specific times people on this tour will be using them. Needless to say, the relative energy efficiency of the two modes is not that far apart - maybe 600 btu per passenger-mile. The mode that's substantially more efficient than either one is intercity bus at 932 btu per passenger-mile.

You'd need to make some adjustments to the numbers to reflect the fact that jet fuel puts out less CO2 per unit of energy than diesel (which is the primary fuel for intercity buses and most of Amtrak outside the Northeast), and then you might also factor in radiative forcing issues, which aren't very well understood at this point, and haven't really even been studied in the case of most ground transportation.

Point is, from the things that we do know, we know that the marginal energy consumption on any shared mode is pretty small compared to a personal mode, and that among shared modes, average energy consumption per person isn't substantially different between commercial air and intercity rail in the US.

Once you get that out of the way, there's more practical and direct issues to consider, like the costs involved, the time, the convenience, and this little thing called sleep. :) As someone who has travelled on every mode imaginable to test out the pros and cons, I will attest that a bus or train ride from the West Coast to the Midwest is not for the faint of heart. Certainly rail is a better human experience (in termns of comfort and the, um, "quality" of your fellow travelers), but bus is more reliable in terms of adhering to schedule, and there's far more points at which one can access intercity bus compared to intercity rail. The bus is also less expensive.

To give you a sense of the difference, take a theoretical one person, one city book tour to the Twin Cities from Seattle. Take a non-peak time period out past 3 weeks, like December 12 to December 18 (as departure dates).

Looking at the lowest fares trips, this is what I found.

Cost (incl taxes and fees)
Bus - $194.00
Air - $215.20
Rail - $268.00

Time (round trip, scheduled)
Air - 11h 8 m
Rail - 73h25m (3 days 1h 25m)
Bus - 79h5m (3 days 5h 5m)

Distance, round-trip
Bus - 3,346 miles
Rail - 3,346 miles
Air - 3,372 miles

The distances for rail and bus are simply the road distance calculated by Google's driving distance calculator, as the routes taken are roughly the same as if you drove. The air distance is actually for a Delta flight that goes via Salt Lake City. Even though it's not going directly, the fact that it's flying makes it so the total distance is almost exactly the same as going by ground.

So, the basic fare for rail is actually more than the air ride, and bus only saves about 20 bucks over air. Distance is pretty much the same on all modes, so the average energy consumption should correspond to the relative btu per passenger-mile numbers mentioned above, again acknowledging that it's a theoretical, global construct and not the actual, tangible energy consumed to move one specific extra body on one of the shared modes for the specific trips in question.

As for time, it's pretty clear there's a huge difference between air and the two ground modes. Plus, service frequency is very limited with rail (as there is only one company and one direct route connecting Seattle and the Twin Cities), and a little less so with bus. Consequently, the times that the route scheduler popped out had departure times varying from 6:15 in the morning to 11:30 at night. Either way, the length of the trips means 4 total nights on a round trip while you're in-transit. Plus, the bus has some difficult layovers along the way, especially in Billings (the first being over 5 hours long and lasting until nearly midnight, the other being a 45 minuter layover until 1 in the morning). There's a total of 5 layovers on the bus trip totalling 8 hours.

On top of that, Amtrak cedes right of way to freight whenever they're running 10 minutes late or more, if I remember correctly. Consequently, on the longer rail trips I've done, it's been pretty normal to be 8 or more hours late by the time I arrive.

You can try to get around that on rail by getting a room, but on the trip I plugged in, the cheapest one was $158 each way, which would bring the trip cost up from $268 to $584. And I've slept in one of those things and it really wasn't restful (b/c trains sway a lot, stop and start a lot, have people walking by a lot, and the beds themselves are pretty small for guys like myself and Alex Steffen).

To top that off, there's the whole issue of food expense and quality. You might luck out and get a food break on a bus trip that stops at a good local cafe, but the predominant situation is rushing in to convenience stores and gas stations, or whatever little business is near the bus stop. On the train, you've got the dining car options and the snack bar. You can always bring your own things, but that's a lot of food and beverages if you're talking about 80 hours of travel.

Cost-wise, there are Greyhound alternatives in certain areas of the country - like Megabus and Green Tortoise - but these are even less frequent. I don't even think Green Tortoise runs their west coast shuttle any longer.

There's certainly other factors to consider, like safety (both personal and vehicle accident probability - bus stations can be very sketchy, for example), as well as intangibles like pace, seat comfort, interaction with others, views, etc. But if this is simple a question of A to B movement (as opposed to being a traveler on vacation), those intangibles aren't really very relevant.

Finally, with this specific trip, it's pretty much a book tour, so they don't have as much scheduling flexibility as someone on vacation would. The publisher (and their funders) are going to have their events and schedules, and the people who are accomodating them in the various cities have their own constraints. It has them going from Seattle out to New York, then back to Vancouver, then east to the Twin Cities and then sticks to a somewhat "grand circle" route going clockwise. But the distances between some of the stops are immense (eg, NYC to Austin).

So, it's not as simple as it sounds, to say the least.

Anyway, I think they should all be applauded for being conscientious about the impact of their travel and printing the books, as I'm sure that's far better than 99.9% of books and their tours.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 13 Oct 06

print is far so behind product in terms of available green technology...hopefully one day the demand will become loud enough that suppliers begin to develop truly C2C systems. in the meantime, congrats on the reductions you were able to make.

my hope (i'm a print designer myself) is that in the not-too-distant future we'll all print in non-toxic inks on PP with a system in place to wash the ink off at the end of use, so the PP and the ink could both be upcycled. until the ink part of the equation is tackled all reclamation processes are...dubious, at best.

Posted by: e on 13 Oct 06

I applaud you on your efforts to walk the walk.

I was wondering if you could break your numbers down on a "per book" basis (basically, how many books are in this printing)?

You state how much savings there are over normal printing, but I am wondering how much energy, water, trees, waste and greenhouse gases are in the books themselves as they are printed (actually I am really only interested in the energy part, but others might want to know the rest). I have often wondered, if I choose to download a digital copy of a book rather than purchase a print version, how much energy am I really saving?

Also, how much additional did it cost for this greenness?

Thanks for any additional information you can share.

Posted by: Matt on 13 Oct 06

Did I **really** just see a post called "walking our talk" here?

I am a model of restraint.

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 13 Oct 06

Good job. I admire your efforts. Now I have another reason why this is my favorite website. I look forward to reading your book!

Posted by: Larry on 14 Oct 06

Thank you Joseph for your explanation, I expect nobody thought I was blaming anyone for the great work done. And as you explain train is not as adapted for the US as it is for Europe.
I'll try to have a French version of the book as soon as it shelves.

Keep on the good work and good luck for the tour

Posted by: litteuldav on 14 Oct 06

I applaud your new book and also your efforts to travel lightly upon the planet via carbon offsetting projects.
Your efforts clearly show the willingness necessary to forge a new way, despite the myriad challenges.

Mo Riddiford
PS: check out the glory (IMHO!) that is German train travel when next you're over here in Europe.

Posted by: Mo Riddiford on 15 Oct 06

Litteuldav, you raise a very interesting question about mode choice. France and the US are at pretty extreme ends of things when it comes to rail. TGV is probably going to average speeds at least as twice as much as Amtrak on average, and even the most conservative estimates I've seen show that the energy used per unit of passenger distance is well below 1/2 of Amtrak's level - possibly down to almost 1/10 of Amtrak's numbers. On top of that, TGV is running on electricity that's about 90% carbon-free (78% nuke, 11% hydro, 1% renewable). So in terms of CO2 emissions per unit of passenger distance, you folks get a train which puts out 1% of the CO2 at twice the speed.

Part of that, of course, is because you have shorter distances to cover between population centers, higher capacity utilization, and so forth. And those dynamics reinforce themselves to keep a robust system.

Amtrak, outside of the Northeast, is mostly just a nostalgic form of travel, a quasi-piblic monopoly, and it's essentially left to waste by the Feds.

Be that as it may, I thought I'd explore some alternative scenarios to their trip choices. First, taking the trip as-is, but going by rail. Then, I constructed "great circle" scenarios by train and air that attempt to minimize distance traveled by going clockwise from tour stop to tour stop.

If you look at how they have it scheduled now, I'm guessing this is how they'll do it:

1) Drive to Portland and back from Seattle
2) Fly to New York and back to Seattle
3) Drive to Vancouver and back from Seattle
4) Fly from Seattle to the Twin Cities, then to Chicago, Toronto, Washington (DC), and New York, then fly back to Seattle
5) After about a week, fly from Seattle to Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, then back to Seattle
6) After a few days in Seattle, fly to New York (for the 3rd time), then Denver, then back to Seattle

That's just a guess, and it's possible they could take the train to Portland or Vancouver from Seattle, and the time between their Twin Cities and Chicago events easily leaves enough time for a non-air segment there. The DC to New York segment in #4 is also easily done by rail, though air is cheaper even on that route.

I tried to fit train times to their schedule, but there's a couple of points where there wouldn't be enough time - for example, taking the train all the way out to New York then needing to come back to Vancouver would only leave 35 minutes in New York to get to Vancouver in time. It's also impossible to have an evening event in Austin then take the train to LA and have an event the next night. The train to Toronto from Chicago would probably arrive to late in the evening, and they also would make another futile trip to New York for a 35 minute layover just to get back to Denver on time. Point is, the schedule they have is impossible to keep using Amtrak.

Another problem with such a trip is that they'd be on the road the whole time - not able to return to Seattle for a break here and there as it seems they have planned with their air flight schedule.

Plus, there is a HUGE time difference involved. A train trip that adheres to their schedule (as best as it can) would entail over 526 hours of travel time, 47 hours of which would be layover time. To compare, their existing schedule will probably involve about 67 hours of travel time -- only 13% of the time it would take to go by train.

And even though they're probably flying back to Seattle occasionally (whereas that wouldn't happen with the train), the total number of miles covered on a train trip would be a staggering 22,435 miles, compared to the estimated 20,331 miles of mostly air travel on the schedule I'm guessing they're using. So when you look at all that, a train substitution for their existing schedule, when you run the numbers, would only reduce their CO2 emissions about 15%.

Also, going by train with their existing schedule would have them on-board on 21 nights. So, unless they can sleep in their chairs (which would be brutal over that much distance), they'd need to get sleeping accomodations, which would end up costing almost 3 times as much as the driving and flying as they're likely to go now.

Now compare that to a scenario where they would have made their schedule follow a "great circle" (going Seattle to Vancouver to the Twin Cities and so on) -- no backtracking, flying back and forth from coast to coast, and so on. Such an approach would reduce their emissions by about 2/3 compared to their existing plan, simply by shaving off about 2/3 of the flying miles. It would also be about $650 cheaper and reduce travel time by 60%, saving 40 hours.

And even though a "great circle" train trip would emit less allocated carbon than either the "as is" plane or train scenarios compared above, it still would end up with 15% more emissions than going by plane, cost 80% more (again mostly because of room costs on overnights), and take over 9 times the amount of travel time.

Assuming they could get into a town, have all their events that day, then leave the next morning, they could do such a tour in just a little under 11 days. As it stands, the tour will take a little over 48 days to finish.

Another thing that was surprising is that a "great circle" air tour would only run about $1,260 with another $300 or so in taxes and fees. That comes to about 21 cents per mile at an average travel speed of 283 mph. By comparison, an average new vehicle going 15,000 miles per year costs over 52 cents per mile.

Like I was saying before, most of these emissions estimates are conceptual, allocated numbers based on averages, not actual marginal emissions (with the exception of the trip segments via personal vehicle). Plus, the models don't account for connecting transportation, which has its own complexities to calculate (eg, taxis and the shared modes might be making a trip whether the traveler is aboard or not), and the costs don't take into account multiple travelers and potential discounts and amortization of costs (like lodging on trains, which can accomodate two people).

I'm sure that's far more than you care to know, but I'm grateful that you raised the question, because it brings up a lot of interesting things to consider.

And if anyone plowed through what I just wrote and wants to see the supporting numbers, I'd be more than happy to make the spreadsheet available.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 15 Oct 06

I congratulate you, the worldchanging team, for not only running a webpage that brings focus to the green side of life (with all it's ups and downs) but also trying to reflect those philosophies in your work and life as best possible!

I look forward to reading the book!

Posted by: Papilionoidea on 16 Oct 06

would love to interview you and your great adventure!!!!

annie loyd
publisher one planet magazine

Posted by: Annie Loyd on 22 Oct 06

Didn't Sir Richard Branson state airline could reduce their CO2 emissions 15-20% if planes did not excessively idle on the tarmac?

Posted by: CO2 charlie on 25 Oct 06

This is very good news. You have done well. Screw the skeptics. How many of them would go this far? You're doing the right thing.

Posted by: Jack on 26 Oct 06



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