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Tamar Haspel Headshot

Save the Planet: Wash Less

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In the three years since I left Manhattan, I've discovered that growing, fishing, hunting, and gathering my own food is an energy-intensive process. Boats, trucks, and power tools to catch fish, haul dirt, and build livestock enclosures leave the carbon footprint of a Sasquatch. Luckily, I've found a way to make up for it: wash less. Much less.

It was the pioneer ethos that prompted me to relax the hygiene rules; dirt seemed to be in the spirit of the enterprise. But saving the planet is a better reason, and I'm thinking we should all re-think grime. As cars are hybridized, homes are downsized, and diets are localized, perhaps we should extend the eco-scorn heaped on Hummers, McMansions, and factory beef to a deeply ingrained American institution: the daily shower.

We may be the best-washed people on the planet (statistics are hard to come by), but our cleanliness costs us in carbon. In an effort to justify letting my hair go one more day, I did the research. Depending on fuel source, water flow, and dawdling, an average shower releases four pounds of carbon dioxide. So I'll lather, rinse, and repeat in a couple of days.

I figure my jeans don't need daily washing any more than I do (chicken poop, when it's dry, scrapes right off), and each load of laundry costs over five pounds of CO2.

I've discovered that washing myself and my wardrobe less often has non-trivial ancillary benefits. My clothes last longer. My skin doesn't dry out. It's hard to tell, but I think my immune system is thriving. I save money not just on energy and water, but on soap and detergent. And the extra time! Every hour spent not showering is one more hour I can spend tracking deer, or winter-proofing the hoop house, or maybe, just maybe, reading a book.

What, you may be thinking, do my family and friends think of my new cleanliness regimen? Unless a whole lot of them have been very polite, I think they're okay with it. It seems to take more than a couple of showerless days to build up enough body odor to hit friends' olfactory radar. Only one person gets really close to me, and my husband is as dirty as I am.

Trust me, you don't have to be zestfully clean to venture out in the world .

I do take compensatory measures. There's daily deodorant, and spot-washing of the naughty bits. There are at least a couple of people (they know who they are) who will tell me if I've gone too far. And I make sure most of my clothes are gray or brown to begin with.

But that's a small price to pay for the climate bonanza. If every American (about three hundred million) took three fewer showers per week, and every household (about one hundred million) did two fewer loads of laundry, our atmosphere would benefit to the tune of 118 million tons -- tons! -- of carbon dioxide per year. That's like saving thirteen billion -- billion! -- gallons of gasoline.

Perhaps it's griminess that's next to godliness.

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