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The Eco-Sins (and Virtues) of Barack Obama

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While this last campaign debate didn't do anything to further specifics on the candidates' environmental positions -- except that both men like hybrids - at least in terms of broad strokes, Senator Barack Obama's environmental platform is pretty clear. He supports clean coal, is cautiously pro-nuclear power, would create five million green-collar jobs if elected President, put a million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015, make sure 10 percent of our energy comes from renewable resources by 2012, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% using economic incentives (a.k.a. cap and trade program) by 2050. But enough about his plans, what about him?

1. Smoking Jacketed: For non-smokers and former smokers everywhere, the fact that Obama hasn't quite quit (he sneaks one once in a while but has reduced drastically from his six or seven cig-a-day habit) is either unfathomable ... or completely relatable. Either way, smoking is included among those vices that aren't very eco... (but let's just say right now: To not drink wine or eat chocolate for the environment is its own eco-sin). Cigarettes contain over 4,000 chemicals (fewer in American Spirit and other all-natural brands) and since 30% of all North Americans and a higher percentage of people in developing countries smoke, that's not a small amount of air pollution. Millions of butts litter the ground - half of California's trash are cigarette butts - and take 25 years to decompose. Meanwhile, their chemicals are being leached into the ground, into the water and the animals that ingest them; tobacco is highly toxic to birds. It's also a high-pesticide, soil nutrient-leaching crop, and for every two weeks a smoker indulges their pack-a-day habit, a tree is cut down to make the cigarette paper. Considering there are 46 million smokers in the U.S. alone, that's a lot of trees going up in smoke.

2. Healthy, Wealthy-ish Homeowner: The Obamas live in a two-story, six-bedroom, six-bathroom, four-fireplace, 6,400 square foot Georgian revival home with a four-car garage on a lot that is under a quarter of an acre. Their wine cellar can hold over 600 bottles. (This is the house deal that Chicago developer and Obama fundraiser Tony Rezko, who was convicted of political corruption in June, helped negotiate.) According to Carbon Fund, the average American's house is about 1,700 square feet in size, so the Obamas' 6,400 square foot house is about four times larger than the average, but not that large in comparison with other affluent individuals. (By comparison, and by the way, the White House is 55,000 square feet.) Oldest daughter Malia has asthma, so the Obamas are no strangers to the relationship between the ailment and indoor air pollutants. "Michelle Obama is just like every mom," says Christopher Gavigan, author of Healthy Child Healthy World, " and the family takes precautionary steps to reduce the indoor home hazards that can exacerbate their daughter's asthma," which presumably means good air circulation and green cleaning products. One area the Obamas may not have vetted for is their granite kitchen floor, as granite has been shown to produce cancer-causing radon. As for other décor, the house's overall high style reportedly includes antique Chinese sinks (re-use is the most eco of decorating approaches) and Honduran mahogany bookshelves (an endangered species that can't be legally traded unless from a sustainable source).

3. Travel Has Its Compensations: While the Obamas have a four-car garage, they only have one ride: a 2008 Ford Escape hybrid that they bought to replace a gas guzzling Chrysler 300C sedan, which only gets 18 mpg in the city. Like all other candidates, Obama uses a private jet for criss-crossing the country - as well as the world, with stops in Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and England - and his Boeing 757 has been noted to be quite grand and spacious. Steve Davidson, the president of Air Charter Team, which provides charter service to the Obama campaign, says that they carbon offset all their clients' flights, which means that in order to compensate for released carbon emissions, a fee for each mile travelled is paid toward research and development of alternative energy, among other green projects. As for holiday travel, you can't blame a man for going home, or to Hawaii, for that matter: It may be a long distance from D.C., but the golfing can't be beat. Like 27 percent of Americans who travel for leisure, Obama does tend to favor the beach vacay, having also hit the Virgin Islands, where his infamous bodysurfing pic was seen 'round the world.

4. Not Conspicuous, Low Consumption: Barack Obama has been quoted as saying he "hates to shop" and so doesn't buy new items very often, especially clothing: "I basically... buy five of the same suit, and then I patch them up and wear them repeatedly." He's been known to own only four pairs of shoes. Michelle, on the other hand, is a fan of J.Crew and the Gap, "Giorgio Armani and MaxMara for suits," according to Vogue, and you don't make Vanity Fair's International Best Dressed List in 2008 for wearing the same five of anything. However much Barack is unusually disinterested in consuming goods, Michelle is seemingly more typical of a woman of her means and professional position (previously earning $200K-plus annually as a University of Chicago hospital administrator) and for someone with a flair for modern classic chic.

5. Omnivores 'R' Us: While not a patron of caribou dishes, the Obamas have eaten at establishments that serve the usual range of (yup, water-pollutin', global warming-inducing) animal proteins, from poultry to seafood to lamb to hamburgers. Yet meat isn't on Barack's list of favorite foods, which includes a variety of nuts and vegetables, including broccoli and spinach (not asparagus), although he was raised with lots of it on the menu, having said: "I was raised in a setting, with my grandparents who grew up in small-town Kansas, where the dinner table would have been very familiar to anybody in Indiana, a lot of pot roasts and potatoes and Jell-O molds."

Bottom line: Barack Obama's lifestyle footprint, while not quite modest (like his running mate Joe Biden's), is normal in most ways (unlike opposing party VP candidate Sarah Palin's penchant for recreational vehicle use, which perhaps is only normal for affluent Alaskan) if not slightly low for Americans in his socio-economic range. Most Americans have a footprint that is at least double -- and sometimes many times more, especially for higher income brackets -- than what it should be to help us achieve sustainability with the planetary resources available to us. For the Obamas, that means: less meat, no smokes, keep carbon offsetting and improve home energy efficiencies. From our mouth to Michelle's ear! Coming soon: The Eco-Sins and Virtues of John McCain.-With research by Robert M. D'Entremont and Stacy Lipson

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