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How this climate activist learned to 'walk the walk'

A bitter billing dispute with her electric company changed environmentalist Keya Chatterjee's life.

Battling Pepco over charges for electricity at her Washington, D.C., row house in the dead of winter six years ago, Chatterjee eventually just ordered the utility to shut off the power. She and her husband lived in the dark and cold for a few months, an experience that convinced them that even when they turned the lights back on, they could use less power.

They went on a strict energy diet, one that has only increased since having a baby two-and-a-half years ago.

"Getting mad at Pepco was like a gateway drug to sustainability," Chatterjee said. "Then we started getting rid of everything."

The World Wildlife Fund climate and renewable energy specialist sold her car. She slashed her air travel and videoconferenced into meetings in China from midnight to 5 a.m. She invested in solar power. And when she got pregnant in 2010, she vowed not to buy anything new for the baby.

The nothing-new pledge was going pretty well until her 6-month-old son, Siddarth, developed a sudden interest in solid food and Chatterjee realized she had no baby spoons. She fed him off her fingers for a day, then was thrilled when her husband found a discard on the street. He brought it home. She sterilized it in boiling water. Voila, a perfectly good baby spoon.

Does Chatterjee wonder sometimes whether she's gone off the deep end?

"Oh, I wonder that all the time," Chatterjee said with a laugh. "That's not like a moment. That is like every five moments of my life."

The baby himself figured into Chatterjee's energy plan as she calculated the carbon cost of bringing another person into the world.

She drew up a most ecologically sound maternity plan: a birthing center, not a hospital; diapering with cloth or, better yet, not using any diapers at all. Toys came from thrift shops or were created from repurposed cardboard boxes. Her baby shower was a parade of hand-me-downs.

Chatterjee, 36, tells all in her new book, "The Zero Footprint Baby: How to Save the Planet While Raising a Healthy Baby." The book has endorsements from climate activist Bill McKibben, actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., and Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann. It has also provided fodder for climate skeptics; the blog Climate Depot, for one, described the book as wacky left-wing alarmism.

To be sure, other environmentalists have written books on extreme low-carbon living. In 2009, a book and documentary, "No Impact Man," chronicled a New York City family's yearlong commitment to live a zero-waste, electricity-free lifestyle in New York City -- including everything from shunning elevators to toilet paper.

Chatterjee -- who said she had not heard of "No Impact Man" until after she started her project -- made an effort that was less extreme and more focused on the long term. Her book, written over the first two years of her son's life, offers practical advice on home energy-efficiency improvements parents can make during the "nesting" phase, how to find used and borrowed baby gear, food preparation, child care and breastfeeding. Her book was published by Ig Publishing, a smaller Brooklyn-based publisher.

For many of Chatterjee's colleagues, the book was their first glimpse of her intense personal committment to carbon reductions.

Lara Levison, domestic policy director for the U.S. Climate Action Network, which frequently schedules Chatterjee as a speaker on climate change, first heard of her personal lifestyle choices at a book launch party last month.

"She is notable for her eloquence, as well as her knowledge and understanding of international climate change negotiations -- but most notably for how clearly and forcefully she speaks to the topic," Levison said.

As WWF's international climate policy director, Chatterjee has advocated for the United States and other major emitters to cut carbon. Last year she and other environmentalists lobbied -- without success -- on legislation on aviation emissions. In a new role at WWF, she will launch a campaign to promote renewable energy and rooftop solar.

Levison, a former climate adviser to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said Chatterjee is "very good at pushing without being pushy."

"This," she said, "is real talent in lobbying."

Show, don't tell

Chatterjee is a cheerful optimist about the prospects for curbing climate change, even as she warns of severe threats to the environment and human health if individuals and nations do not reduce emissions. Scientists predict that by midcentury, the planet could be facing worse storms, wildfires and air quality -- effects that seem even more concerning with her son's future in mind.

She maintains that if more individuals adopt renewable energy and other environmentally friendly choices, they can inspire friends and neighbors and create an environment that would be more accepting of a national policy to support renewables or reduce emissions. If everyone works together, soon, she hopes some of the effects of climate change can be mitigated.

"My view is that what individuals do matters a lot," Chatterjee said. "The reason we are trying to get policy is to change individual action, but if you don't get some people doing it, and it looks a little bit less scary and more normal to people, how are we going to get policy?"

Chatterjee concedes her version of carbon reductions might scare away less hardy souls. So her advice on being green tends to be more moderate than her own actions.

Her book, for example, encourages light-emitting diode light bulbs and hybrid cars. In an upcoming holiday catalog from WWF, Chatterjee writes a cheeky column about the fun of putting on a favorite holiday sweater and turning the thermostat down a couple of degrees.

But would she ever tell someone they should cut off the heat or air conditioning completely, as she has, to shrink their carbon footprint?

"Oh no! Nobody should tell anybody that," Chatterjee said. "It's a really bad idea to tell anybody that. They won't like you."

Chatterjee grew up in an average energy-consuming, car-driving family of four in Gaithersburg, Md., an outer suburb of Washington. Her mom is a systems analyst at a pharmaceutical company, and her dad was a mechanical engineer. She regularly visited her grandmother and other relatives in India but never imagined she would one day consult them for tips on how they survived without diapers.

She was an environmentalist in high school, in the same way that many teenagers were in the 1990s: She had a rainforest poster in her bedroom and an "extinction is forever" T-shirt. But she was no activist.

Chatterjee was inspired to fight climate change in her 20s, when she was working for the director of research at the NASA Earth Science Enterprise and saw images in 2002 of thinning Arctic sea ice.

"It was this visually stunning loss of sea ice," Chatterjee said. "It was shocking, so shocking nobody thought it was real at first. I knew this was a big, big deal, and we needed to do something about it really soon. It is what sparked the urgency in me."

It was at that point that Chatterjee oriented her professional life toward global warming. She became a manager for communications and outreach at NASA and was a part of an interagency working group that tried to craft how the George W. Bush administration would communicate the science on climate.

But federal politics around climate change frustrated her. So Chatterjee moved in 2006 to WWF.

'The Pepco incident'

At the time of her move to the environmental group, Chatterjee and her husband, Andrew Kravetz, were in many ways living an off-the-rack American middle-class life. The pair met at the University of Virginia, where Chatterjee got her bachelor's and master's degrees in environmental science; they married in 2003.

As young Washingtonians, the couple watched television, let the air conditioning flow during hot spells and stored food in the refrigerator.

But Chatterjee pulled the plug on all of that, literally, during the Pepco fight in 2007 and 2008.

"The sea ice data shook me professionally. But it is not what shook me into changing our personal life. What really led me to the extreme was the Pepco incident," Chatterjee recounted in a recent interview at her townhouse, kept at 80 degrees on a hot summer's day with the help of double honeycomb blinds. "That was when we lost it and went into not-relatable territory."

The dispute started when the couple noticed their electricity bills were close to $300 a month -- three times the city average, according to the District of Columbia Public Service Commission. Chatterjee called the electricity company, caulked, turned down the heat, unplugged appliances and even cut everything off at the circuit board when they went out of town for three weeks -- but the bills did not change.

After one particularly frustrating phone call, Chatterjee brashly ordered the power cut off.

"I was like, 'Oh, I am done with you people. You think I have no choice? I have a choice. Cut it off now,'" Chatterjee recalled.

She notes the decision was made in a moment of customer service rage, but she said it was fueled by years of concern over coal-fueled power.

Kravetz explained: "By education and by general disposition, Keya was primed. And Pepco threw the spark."

So the couple got out their camping gear and endured a cold winter without heat or power. They bought a queen-sized sleeping bag they lovingly named "Big Agnes" and started walking around the house with hot water bottles tucked into their down coats. They lit candles.

Chatterjee remembers jumping out of a sleeping bag to put on a ball gown for President Obama's 2008 inauguration on a bitterly cold day, then jumping back into the bag to warm up before leaving the house.

'We have adapted'

Chatterjee and Kravetz eventually resolved the billing error and received a settlement from Pepco in 2008. They turned the power back on after they installed solar panels later that year.

They were thrilled to get back the wireless router for Internet service and music.

But the rest they said they didn't miss.

They got rid of their refrigerator, the one major item in the house that is always running. They left vegetables on the counter and made sure to eat them before they would go bad. If they bought a pint of ice cream, they ate the whole thing right away. Kravetz made the transition from being a beer guy to a wine drinker.

With solar panels in place, it became a game to try to keep their overall energy use below what they produced. They never plugged in the stove and instead use their more energy-efficient induction burner, microwave, slow cooker or outdoor solar oven, a large mirrored box where they make stews or bake potatoes in the summer.

They hang laundered clothes outside to dry.

The thermostat is set at 65 degrees during winter days and 55 degrees at night, and 95 degrees during the summer.

When the house is too hot during the day, they flee to museums, libraries or the pool. They say it forces them to get out and have fun. At night they use a trick they learned as Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco and soak their sheets in cool water.

In their marriage, Chatterjee is the one who seeks out new sustainability challenges and sets rules to try to reduce their energy use and consumption, the couple says.

In 2006, she signed up for a yearlong challenge to not buy anything new, unless it was 100 percent recycled. They discovered recycled toilet paper and underwear made from recycled fiber.

At the end of the challenge -- which Kravetz says didn't thrill him -- they went back to buying toothpaste and other standard products, but they still shop for clothing or furniture exclusively from resale shops. When they vowed not to buy new items for their baby, they were inundated with boxes of used clothes and toys.

When it comes to the family's carbon budget, Kravetz, a data analyst for federal aid programs, says he is mostly along for the ride.

But Kravetz says he likes pushing things to the next level, for fun. For instance, when they turned the power back on and Chatterjee suggested using less heat and air conditioning by a few degrees, Kravetz said that was boring and challenged her to go even further.

To satisfy Kravetz's desire for new things, he focuses on gadgets that support their lifestyle. He gets excited about things like their solar speakers or toilet sink, which uses the run-off water from hand-washing to fill the toilet.

"We have adapted in a way where we don't both go crazy," Kravetz said. "I am always searching for that perfect crossover thing that is both something awesome to buy and that Keya might be into."

His current campaign is for buying a urinal sink.

'Diapers are the entry point'

For Chatterjee, having a baby was a major environmental splurge.

A 2009 study from Oregon State University estimated the carbon footprint of having a child in the United States to be 562 tons to 12,730 tons, when grandchildren and great-grandchildren are added to the calculation.

"It is funny because we used to have these long talks about how having a baby is one of the worst things you can do environmentally," said Brian Levy, a friend of the couple and an ally in extreme environmental living.

Levy lives in a 210-square-foot house but says he still "strives to be more like Keya."

When Chatterjee and Kravetz decided to have a child, she took it as a challenge to up their environmental commitment.

"Are we willing to be committed enough to tackling this problem that we are going to bring a baby into it?" Chatterjee asked.

The new challenge: Scale down their energy use and consumption even more to offset the environmental "cost" of another human. The couple bought a custom-made, super-efficient refrigerator for breast milk and baby food but otherwise kept their car-free, low-energy lifestyle intact.

But in order to offset the long-term energy use of bringing a new child into the world, Chatterjee had to find something big from her carbon "budget" to cut. For her, it was air travel. She took six international flights the year before her son was born with emissions totaling nearly 17,000 pounds of carbon.

Chatterjee and Kravetz vowed not to take more than one flight per year. They missed some weddings and events and took a bus to a recent beach vacation in Delaware. She started to focus on more domestic issues at work. When asked to speak at a conference in Atlanta, Chatterjee opted for an overnight train instead of a 90-minute flight.

Leah Karrer, an economist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, met Chatterjee in 2004 and says she has been inspired by her commitment -- even if she thought Chatterjee was "crazy" when she turned off her power.

"I am surrounded by people who are conservation-minded, but Keya is one of a few who walks the walk," Karrer said. "I go to so many meetings and conferences and everybody flies in, very few think about it or the hotels they stay in or food they eat. It is really impressive she is so committed."

Karrer, who has two young daughters, has read the book and says it inspired her to consider solar panels, redouble her commitment to bike to work and to think about "consuming less and keeping things simple." But she says she is still a far cry from Chatterjee: She still flies and plans to keep her air conditioner on.

Chatterjee wrote the book to share her research and try to encourage others seeking a lower-impact lifestyle. When she was pregnant, she found countless books on baby-rearing but little information on how it relates to energy use.

She acknowledges that in the big picture of global climate change, the energy savings from diapers, recycled underwear or buying one fewer spoon do not matter.

"My underwear doesn't matter, a spoon doesn't matter. But it's a question of, like, it's almost easier for me to follow these rules I make up for myself if I'm just strict about it and don't allow it to creep," Chatterjee said. "What matters is your house, how you get around and what you eat. That's all that matters."

She hopes she can help other parents consider those big choices -- staying in a smaller house, reducing travel emissions, installing solar panels and even pushing for climate policy -- by appealing to them where they are, which is up to their elbows in diapers.

"Diapers are the entry point. The thing you are doing every day is the thing that you are going to think about," Chatterjee said. "There is a very, very little part of your carbon footprint that is diapering. But it totally matters for your identity, and identity dictates so much of what we do."

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