When Keya Chatterjee and her husband Andrew Kravetz decided to have a child, they knew it would test their commitment to sustainable living. Although they had installed solar panels on their home, lowered their energy use, and purchased only recycled or used items, they recognized that having a child would dramatically increase their carbon footprint if they didn’t take action.
As the (former) Director of Renewable Energy and Footprint Outreach at World Wildlife Fund, and now as the Executive Director of USCAN, Keya knows that climate change will have a big impact on her child’s future. With runaway greenhouse gas emissions causing things like more severe storms, rising seas, wildfires, and drought, many parents are understandably anxious about the world their children will grow up in.
That’s why Keya decided to raise her son with as little environmental impact as possible. She published her experiences in a new book, The Zero Footprint Baby: How to Save the Planet While Raising a Healthy Baby, and answered some questions about her experiences for us.
EarthShare: What will readers learn from your new book The Zero Footprint Baby?
Keya Chatterjee: Parents who care about climate change will learn both how climate change will affect their babies and what the most relevant things are that they can do about it during pregnancy and the first year.
Some of my favorite little factoids that I discovered were about the carbon footprint of breastfeeding and diapering. It turns out that there is an enormous difference in your carbon footprint if you breastfeed with your extra 500 calories from lamb vs breastfeeding with your extra 500 calories from lentils. It also turns out that cloth diapers have about the same carbon footprint as disposable diapers unless you line dry the diapers.
Why is it important to raise children sustainably?
I consider tackling climate change to be my responsibility as a parent. Advocacy and sustainable living are as important to me as making sure my son doesn't run into the street or fall into a pool. I do it to protect my son. And it's not just me -- parents have more at stake than anyone else in society. It is our kids who will grow up in the era of climate change. By showing an example of sustainable living, and sustainable advocacy, we can reduce opposition to policies that will enable the transition off of the fossil fuels that are causing climate change.
How has your approach changed now that your son is a toddler?
Some sustainable actions are even more fun with a toddler! My son can now help with the compost and recycling, which is fun for him. He particularly likes the worms in the compost. Some things are also a little more challenging. We never even looked for used baby clothes, they just showed up in our house. We generally have to ask our friends for used toddler clothes, because toddler clothes are used for longer and people are a little more reluctant to give away clothes that look a little used.
Well, we have gained the gleeful feeling I get when our meter is running backwards thanks to our solar panels!
We also definitely have a richer life because we get out of the house more than we used to. We don't use much heat or air conditioning and that means we spend more time experiencing Washington, DC, where we live, as well as more time in nature at Rock Creek Park and the National Zoo. We are also healthier because we bike to get around and walk a lot more than we did when we had a car.
On a more baby-specific note, by not using diapers when we were home for the first year, we avoided a lot of messy poop clean ups, since the poop usually went straight into the potty (sadly, we did not avoid all poop clean ups!).
Among environmental issues, population is arguably the most controversial. How do we talk about population’s impact on the planet without turning people off?
Yes, it's not considered polite to tell new parents that babies are not great for the planet, so I definitely would not suggest that way of communicating! I think that Hans Rosling actually does an excellent job of explaining the challenge of population and putting it into the context of global poverty. After all, it's not population alone that affects the environment; it's the number of people times their consumption equals our impact on the planet.
Right now it would take one and half planets for the rate of our consumption to be sustainable. We don't have 1.5 planets so we are drawing down resources that will be impossible to recover. That's not just because of the number of people, but also because we are being too slow in adopting technologies that would reduce our pollution -- like solar panels.
You also deal with climate change in your professional life as Director of Renewable Energy and Footprint Outreach at World Wildlife Fund. What are you working on now?
I'm working on launching a renewable energy campaign focused on helping cities transition to 100% renewable energy and inspiring home owners to install solar panels. Many people don't realize how cheap and easy solar panels have become. In over fifteen states, you can install solar with zero money down, and save money immediately. Solar panels have come down in price by 80% just since 2008. Just imagine if a t-shirt at the Gap were 75% off, once people knew about the sale, it'd probably fly off the racks!
How have other parents responded to your book?
It's a very practical book, so I've had lots of people thank me for specific tips -- particularly around feeding, cloth diapering, and not using diapers. I have friends who now give away the book at every baby shower they go to, which is very sweet of them.
If you had to pick just one change, what would you suggest parents do to lower their family’s carbon footprint?
Well, if they are homeowners, then it would definitely be to install solar panels -- which are far cheaper than people realize, and even free in many cases. New parents are so busy that it's important to take actions that automate pollution reduction. Realistically a new parent operating on three hours of sleep is not going to be able to think about even little things like turning out lights, so it's best to install LED bulbs, low-flow shower heads, efficient appliances and solar panels -- so that you'll be in the environmental vanguard even if you are so exhausted that you accidentally fall asleep with the lights on and appliances running.
And what can political and business leaders do to make it easier for parents to raise zero footprint babies?
Politicians are making it harder than it needs to be for parents by not passing any of the dozens of policy interventions that effectively tackle pollution. One of the many available policies is to substitute income taxes for carbon taxes, and use some of the revenue to help the least among us make a transition to renewable energy. Another is to strictly regulate sources of carbon pollution like power plants. And yet another would be to incentivize renewable energy instead of subsidizing fossil fuels. There are literally dozens of other effective policies they could pursue if there was enough pressure from voters.
To learn more about what you can do to fight climate change and protect future generations, visit our Climate Change Issues page or encourage your town to join the WWF Earth Hour City Challenge. Keya’s book is available for purchase from IG publishing.