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October 17, 2007

A small green guide that puts big sustainable choices within arm's reach

By Rachel Tompa

A group of Stanford students and faculty in the School of Earth Sciences want to make reducing your carbon footprint as easy as reaching into your pocket.

The "Sustainable Choices" guide, which folds down to the size of a business card, was included in the welcome packets for all incoming freshmen last month. It also was handed out to alumni last weekend at Reunion Homecoming. Guides also are available at the School of Earth Sciences office or can be downloaded from the Sustainable Choices website, The group hopes to make the guide available off campus.

"Your personal choices can have big impacts if everyone starts making small changes," said Erin Gaines, one of about 10 graduate and undergraduate students in the school's Earth Systems program who worked on the guide. Gaines is a graduate student and coordinator for Stanford Dining's sustainable foods program.

The group was led by Julie Kennedy, associate director and senior lecturer in the Earth Systems program, and graduate student Kendall Madden. Both said they were inspired by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch," a widely used pocket guide that reminds consumers which choices of seafood have the least environmental impact.

In creating the Sustainable Choices guide last year, Kennedy and the students focused on making it accessible to a wide audience. Plans are already under way to make the guide available at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and Kennedy said she hopes it will soon be distributed at various other locations around the country.

"We wanted to try to not just preach to the converted with this card, but include things that appeal across the board," Kennedy said. The guide is part of a larger effort by the School of Earth Sciences to bridge the gap between academic research on environmental issues and public action.

"I feel very passionately about the need for research to be made publicly available," Madden said, "and for the layperson to have an idea [about] what they can do as individuals to address environmental problems. There's a lack of resources for the average person to get an idea of the small changes they can make."

The guide lays out environmentally conscious suggestions under three categories: In the Home, At the Store and On the Road¬ówith the choices in each category ranging from easiest to hardest. The easiest Get Started tips listed under the home heading include ideas such as "Take shorter showers," or under the road heading, "Track your gas mileage." The choices then progress through Step It Up and end with Go for Green, actions that require gradually more time or foresight but can also have bigger benefits for the environment. Go for Green tips include suggestions such as "Grow your own food" and "When buying a home or remodeling, consider green architecture."

The guide's website, which Kennedy said will continue to evolve, has additional tips and detailed information about why these choices will help the environment. Clay Sader, an undergraduate student in Earth Systems, said some of the choices are too complex to sum up in a sentence or two. For example, a driving-related tip states, "At low speeds, open windows; at higher speeds, use air conditioning." To clear up any confusion, the website explains that air conditioning reduces fuel efficiency¬óbut so does the drag created when a car's windows are rolled down. Which measure uses more fuel and thus causes more emissions is still somewhat unclear, according to the site. But as a general rule, the site recommends using air conditioning on the highway and rolling down the windows everywhere else.

"Our main goal was just to get information out," Sader said. "A lot of people are overwhelmed by the idea of reducing their [carbon] footprint. There are a lot of misconceptions out there. You don't have to have solar panels on your house to reduce your footprint."

Rachel Tompa is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.



Cynthia Gori, School of Earth Sciences: (650) 725-4395,

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