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To listen to all of our archived shows please subscribe to our iTunes podcast.View Our Expert Profile for Ron Dembo
Mathematician Ron Dembo is applying his knowledge of science and engineering to one of the greatest missions of our time—creating a greener world. He is the founder and CEO of Zerofootprint.net, a not-for-profit organization that helps people measure their environmental impact in order to guide them in reducing their overall footprint. Dembo has taught at Yale University in the department of computer science and the school of management and is the co-author of three books, including Everything You Wanted to Know About Offsetting But Were Afraid to Ask, with Clive Davidson. In this special Earth Day episode of Change Nation, Dembo explains why Sweden is an ideal green country, debunks the myths that keep us from making radical change and encourages you to take small but significant steps to go green.
What is the good news about the environment?
I think the best news is that the level of awareness of environmental issues has really changed dramatically over the last year or so and people are actually doing things that are both profitable and have a big impact. So a lot has started. You know, you can actually see how people will mobilize. That’s what so exciting.
Are you seeing [change] more at a grass roots level or are you seeing it in businesses?
It’s happening almost in three layers. Certain governments are really getting it and doing stuff that’s quite amazing. The business community has taken this on in an extensive way and there is a lot of grass root [action]. When I say certain governments, I wouldn’t include our government [Canada], for example, and perhaps the U.S. as well. Grass roots [movements] are taking off mainly because of the lack of government action in our country.
What governments do you think do merit some credit and acknowledgement?
I think the UK and a lot of Europe—Spain, Germany, Norway and Sweden. I’d say the one of most interest is Sweden because they’ve been at this for a long time and they’ve created quite a culture of green. To give you a pretty quick summary, an average Swede has one-third the footprint of an average American and yet they live as well or better. They’ve really managed to cut their carbon dramatically.
Why is it that so many of us are not taking this more seriously at a consumer level?
You know there is a real disconnect. I’m sitting in a wonderful room now, the lights work, perfectly heated, my computer is working, the electricity is constant and you are trying to tell me that the world is going under. It’s really very hard to connect what you are experiencing now with what’s actually happening. You can’t connect the fact that this little action that you are going to take when you change your light bulb or switch off your screen saver is really going to make a difference—it doesn’t seem to make a difference, yet it does.
What do you think is the most important myth that we’re still buying into?
There is a myth that there is a silver bullet. That, you know, we are going to discover hydrogen [is the answer] and we will suddenly be able to drive Hummers based on hydrogen and life will be just as good as it was and we won’t have to do anything. The reality is we are going to have to change the way we do things.
Explain in really easy terms what a carbon footprint is and why it is so important.
When you perform any service or build any product or live in a heated or a cooled building, you are using energy. Typically that energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Whenever you burn fossil fuels you are taking carbon that has been stored for centuries deep down in the ground and you’re releasing that in the form of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That gas actually stays in the atmosphere for a long time and forms a layer around the earth. As that layer increases in density you capture more and more of the heat of the earth. So in some sense what you are doing is you are taking the earth out of balance.
What are some very practical things [to do] that you might be able to inspire us to actually execute this time?
The first thing to note is that more than 40% of all the energy in North America is used to operate buildings like your home and office. To put that into perspective, if you took every SUV out of North America, that would be 3% of the energy. So if you were to improve the efficiency of how you operate your home or your office by 10%, you would do more [for the environment] than taking all SUVs off the road. [You can do this] just by wearing a sweater [when you’re cold] or wearing lighter clothes in summer or using natural ventilation.
What are the most important things an individual can do as they start on the first 30 days of being green?
I think the very first thing to do is to look at the way that you heat and cool your house and see what you can do to reduce that by any amount. Start by measuring [your energy use] and pick the areas where you have the biggest impact. [Usually] the biggest impact would be flying, [energy use in] your home and [consumption]. There is a very simple way to reduce your footprint and that is to consume less.
What is the belief that you personally go to in times of change?
I’d say it’s the connections to other humans.
The best thing about change is…
…that it forces us out of our box.
What is the best change you have ever made?
The best change I’ve ever made is going into completely new fields where I can apply the stuff I’ve learned. In the case of [environmentalism] it’s applying financial engineering and good software to the world of green and if you look around there is not a lot of that.
For more information on Ron Dembo, visit Zerofootprint.net.
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I agree. I've been making an effort not to waste water when I brush my teeth, wash the dishes, etc. and doing lots of other little things, like declining bags when I really don't need one, using my tote when I'm shopping, walking more/driving less, washing clothes in cold water. I've changed my lightbulbs.
Every little bit helps. No one will do this for us, so we have to each take responsibility.
I truly believe that if we all do one thing to conserve energy we can save our planet. The simplest thing to do would be to switch to energy saving bulbs for all your lights. The initial expense may be more than regular ones but what you save in energy and money will help all of us.