03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Walking the Talk -- My Week of Environmentally Responsible Living

My first thought when I learned of No Impact Week was, "Why couldn't this have been three weeks ago, when I was in Alaska?!" My carbon footprint that week would certainly have been admirably low, with the credit going to my hosts, the Ernsts. They are an example of how one can enjoy all the trappings of a full, rich 21st century life, raise a wonderful family, live well and stay healthy, all the while having little or no impact on the earth. They use solar power and are entirely off the grid. Their household produces barely any waste. Everywhere I went in Alaska, I met people like them who use minimal resources, directly from the land, rivers and forests, and haven't become dependent on large industrial systems that encourage overconsumption. People grow much of the fruits, vegetables and herbs they eat, often raise their own animals for meat, catch their fish according to legally established quotas based on Maximum Sustainable Yield principles, and treat themselves to nature's freshest berries, mushrooms, ferns and lots more.

Here in New York City, my strategy for sustainable living clearly has some constraints. My closet-sized studio doesn't lend itself to backyard farming. I have to buy much of what I use in stores, instead of building it out of raw material from the forests. And I need my little city-life indulgences like good restaurants and the movies. Of course, for an environmentalist in America wishing to minimize his or her footprint, New York City is one of the better choices to live in -- less sprawl, more compact living, one of the lowest per-capita energy usages in the country, and a public transit system that -- despite its many frustrations! -- provides a high degree of round-the-clock connectivity. Like many New Yorkers, I don't own a car, and have never felt the need to. And, like most New Yorkers, the puny square footage of my studio automatically keeps my footprint relatively low. In fact, having measured my footprint with Berkeley"s Lifecycle Climate Footprint Calculator, I know that my footprint is 18 tons of CO2e a year, which is about the American average, but a lot lower than "similar households" - at about 41%, according to the calculator.

So, backed by some of these advantages, I've decided to take the plunge and sign up for No Impact Week. Except that I'm making my own rules and turning it into Low Impact Week. Because I cannot have zero impact, and more crucially, I don't think championing 'No Impact' is a particularly compelling strategy for environmentalists. I myself am not ready to change my life in dramatic and onerous ways, so I cannot advocate that to others. But I can advocate what I have always tried to do myself - keep moving along the continuum of environmentally sound living in small steps, making tiny incremental changes. A small step in the right direction which can be sustained is more meaningful than one large but temporary action. So, I am calling this my "tread lightly week", and here are the rules I am going to do this by:

  1. Do everything I normally would do, but just do it in the most environmentally friendly way I can: I am not going to make any drastic sacrifices, and will continue to enjoy the comforts and conveniences I am used to. But with just a little education, I know I can find the best way to go through my routine, and choose the alternatives that have the lowest impact.
  2. Low Cost or No Cost: I will adopt practices or choose options that are not too burdensome in terms of my budget. Respecting the earth should not have to lead one towards bankruptcy!
  3. Energy: Use the least energy possible, and when I do, try to make sure it comes from the cleanest sources. To this end, I signed up yesterday for Wind Power from ConEd Solutions. It took under five minutes to make the switch, and is going to cost me approximately14.20 per Kilowatt Hour, just a few dollars more every month than the existing mix of dirty fossil fuel power I used to get. I already have Powerstrips that reduce phantom power but I will be watchful of my energy use and reduce even more where I can.
  4. Food: I already am a vegetarian (no meat, poultry or fish), so the only way to lower my impact here is by reducing or giving up Dairy (the livestock industry is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases, and milk and milk products from corn-fed cows comprise part of the demand that enables the large factory farms to persist). If I lived outside of New York City, I would have chosen to merely reduce. But here in NYC, there are a number of exciting and tasty options for vegans, so I know I'll be able to be vegan all week long and still be the gushing foodie that I am. Additionally, I will cook more at home from ingredients that are as fresh, organic and local as possible (I work a few blocks from the Union Square Farmer's Market, so this shouldn't be too bad), and reduce my eating out.
  5. Water: The primary reason water use contributes to one's footprint is heating. Big culprits are hot showers and laundry. I would have considered installing a low-flow showerhead, but my shower pressure is already very low. So I will reduce my shower time by a few minutes each day, and use less hot water for other uses like washing dishes.
  6. Waste: Avoid any packaging that cannot be easily recycled. If I have to buy plastic, metal or paper products, make sure they are recyclable. Reduce paper usage at home and the office. Carry re-usable bottles with me to coffee shops or to soda dispensers. Use less of everything.
  7. Cleaning: Use the most environmentally benign cleaning products, and use less of them. This includes dishwashing soap, laundry soap, tub-cleaning soap and bath products. Simple Steps offers some great tips for reducing exposure to toxics at home, including cleaning products.
  8. Laundry: Instead of the free pick up and drop off home delivery service I use (which transports my laundry in a van), I will walk with my own laundry to the Laundromat three blocks away and take some environmentally safe laundry detergent with me.
  9. Make it Measurable, Reportable and Verifiable where possible: While some things just can't be measured, others can, and I will try to keep track of how I do on all my goals this week, and calculate the impacts of changes using the best possible approximations.
  10. Inform and educate others about climate issues: The Climate Bill is going to the Senate soon, and we are 48 days away from Copenhagen. The time is NOW, and the best way to tread lighter on the planet is to get others to come along with you.

Day 1 pat-on-the-back: Minimizing gas use with a low cooking-time veggie stir fry recipe. A vegan dinner, plus vegan lunch the next day.

Tomorrow: How does my "American" carbon footprint compare with those around the world and in my home country, India? And would I have a lower footprint just by living the typical New Delhi lifestyle? Plus, of course, my progress during "Tread Lightly Week".

This post originally appeared on NRDC"s Switchboard blog.