The Green Mile

The Green Mile

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Despite having a lifestyle punctuated by an eco-friendly conscience (or so they believed), one desi couple became aware of the fact that their carbon footprint was among the highest in a U.S. population approaching 300 million people. According to wikipedia, a carbon footprint is “the total set of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions caused by an organization, event or product.” It is often expressed in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide, or its equivalent of other GHGs, emitted.

The 2006 film, "An Inconvenient Truth," which documented the effects of global warming, prompted Anirvan Chatterjee and his fiancée Barnali Ghosh to visit a website equipped with a carbon calculator one evening and indulge their curiosity of just how green their lifestyle choices were. Energy consumption, waste production, and, most notably in their situation, airline travel were a few of the factors used to tally the amount of carbon emissions produced by the couple. The outcome: a cartoon character jumping up and down in dismay!

“There are people driving SUVs that are greener than us,” admits Chatterjee, self-ascribed data geek and founder of bookfinder.com. “For us it was a huge shock. If 90 percent of Americans have carbon footprints lower than us, we’re obviously doing something wrong. You can’t really argue with the numbers.”

Chatterjee and Ghosh, who works as a landscape architect, are Indian-Americans and reside in Berkeley, CA. Now in their 30s, the two have never owned a vehicle, in large part due to the proximity of their apartment building to three major bus lines. The train line, bicycling, public transportation, and carpooling substitute the need for a car, and because their neighborhood is situated in a densely populated area, many of the shops and restaurants the couple frequent are walking distance from their home. They maintain a vegetarian diet, reuse products and, above all else, recycle.

Fluorescent light bulbs and canvas grocery bags aside, Chatterjee and Ghosh are plagued by one fundamental flaw contradictory to their efforts to live a green, sustainable life: air travel. Business trips and vacationing significantly affected their carbon footprint. Their annual visits home to be with family and friends in India, in addition to work-related trips throughout the United States, rendered some startling conclusions. One flight from San Francisco to Mumbai, India generates carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to that of driving a car for 1,095 consecutive days. A flight from SFO to JFK airport in New York, generates the same footprint as vehicle emissions exerted from three to four months of driving. According to their research, civilian flying accounts for 4.9 percent of climate impacts world-wide. And the number of passengers is expected to triple by 2025.

“I think it really shook up our world,” Ghosh says, reliving her initial reaction. “[It] made us realize that a lot of people don’t have an awareness about that impact and therefore don’t have the ability to make a choice based on that awareness.” The couple, vested in doing right by the environment, felt an overwhelming sense of guilt.

On a (carbon-intensive) trip back from India, the couple devised a plan to remove flying from their lives for one year as a way to make amends for their surprisingly high impact on the planet. They planned their trip in March 2009, and six months later, on September 15, the couple set sail on a freighter ship across the Pacific Ocean. The two crossed borders spanning 14 different countries, from Japan all the way to Russia and several in between. They routed their journey utilizing local buses and trains, traveling in much the same way as the native population, gathering information to post on their website, http://yearofnoflying.com. In Vietnam they discovered that low-lying farmlands were among the most affected by climate change, due to ever-changing agricultural patterns which are seemingly becoming more and more unpredictable. Much to their surprise, the younger generation in that country embraced environmental activism completely, having seen the toll taken on their elders by a gradual erosion of what is becoming infertile land.

“It was really inspiring to see folks [take up the cause of environmentalism],” Chatterjee explains. “But they’re standing up against industrialized nations like the United States. It is dispiriting to see anti-environment legislation like Proposition 23 have support.” (The proposition was defeated in the 2010 midterm elections by a narrow margin.) “We didn’t want to just take a year and not have anything to contribute,” Ghosh said. “So we decided that, since the discourse about climate change in the United States is limited to green jobs and not really about environmental justice issues or an awareness of what’s happening in the rest of the world—countries that are impacted like India, Bangladesh and Vietnam—our focus would be the impact of aviation, transportation, and climate issues [on the rest of the world.]”

What started as a year meant to cultivate information and help raise awareness in the United States slowly evolved into a reflection of their own lives when their journey took them to the Indian sub-continent.

India and Bangladesh, the duo explain, are at significant risk over the next 30 years due to global warming. They talk about what British environmental journalist George Monbiot calls “Love Miles”—the miles we fly for the people we love. “This is the biggest challenge facing our immigrant communities as we fly to see family to the very countries that are the most at risk—India and Bangladesh are the top two countries most vulnerable to climate change,” says Ghosh. In much the same way that Vietnam will bear the repercussions of a warming climate, India and Bangladesh will suffer from rising sea levels, submerging low-lying regions where agriculture is the daily norm. And in a geographical region where cyclones are already prevalent, the phenomena are not only growing in strength but in frequency as well.

Some of the most apparent concerns are found in the coastal areas where fishermen are discouraged by the increase in storm warnings, a cautionary measure taken due to continuously shifting weather patterns. Those who do not own their boats or the necessary fishing supplies have no other choice but to rent the equipment, and are ultimately sidelined by the negative economics of their livelihood. “It’s a very, very real issue,” Ghosh explains. “And sitting in the United States—even for us, who are more aware than the average American—we had not realized how problematic, how real it was for people on the ground there.”

There were two legs of the journey that the couple were forced to fly; one from Bangkok, Thailand to Kolkata, India and the other from Bangalore, India to Shanghai, China. For the couple determined to avoid air travel, these were definitely setbacks. “We’d come from California to Thailand by car, container ship, train, ferry, and bus,” writes Ghosh on the blog. “And then we were stuck. We had no way of getting from Thailand to South Asia, to see family in India, and to try to learn about the real impacts of climate change in Bangladesh. It was infuriating to be so close, and yet unable to get there by land or sea.”

In their failure to go from Thailand to India, they learnt how the easiest task is made impossible by political boundaries (Myanmar border issues), weather (Himalayan route) and aviation-oriented development (lack of trains, buses and ships due to cheap flights).

Back home in the States, just months after returning from their year-long journey, Ghosh and Chatterjee are developing a second wind educating family, friends, neighbors—anyone willing to listen to their experiences and emotional travails. They’re hopeful in bridging the gap between local environmental communities and are taking an even more active role in their own by reaching out to various organizations in the SF Bay Area such as Transportation for America and Transform. The couple is determined to create an awareness, especially within the Indian American community, that what we do here in the United States—whether driving, flying or simply being uninformed about environmental issues—affects everyone. “It’s not this theoretical thing,” Chatterjee said. “There are real people with real names and faces whose lives are going to be changed.”

Angelo Scrofani is a graduate from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University.
Image from India Currents.