This Diet Does Work

A local expert’s “Low Carbon Diet” can help you cut your CO2 output — and save money in the process

David Gershon once had a very big carbon footprint. In fact, he scored at the highest level of household CO2 emissions possible. He was responsible for more than 80,000 pounds per year, when the average home produces about 55,000 pounds. You might think that especially embarrassing given that Gershon is one of the world’s leading experts on lowering carbon use, and that he scored so poorly on a scale he himself devised. But Gershon admits to his past bad behavior to prove a point.

Being “green” and doing things like recycling and conserving water doesn’t necessarily mean you’re living a low-carbon lifestyle, says Gershon, 62, of West Hurley. His own footprint suffered mainly because he travels so often around the country and the world, helping local governments, businesses, and communities lower their own carbon dependency. As founder and CEO of the Woodstock-based Empowerment Institute, and an expert in behavior change, Gershon consults with and trains both public- and private-sector organizations on making lasting changes. Much of his work during the last two decades has involved changing the way we treat our planet. When he took a look at his household activities, he knew just where to turn: his own proven program, as described in his 2006 book, Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds.

Low Carbon Diet is a how-to manual. Specifically, as the book jacket puts it, it tells you how to “save money… save energy… save the planet.” The book serves as a hands-on guide to reducing energy consumption in 24 concrete areas, such as producing less garbage and switching to renewable energy sources. Each area covers why you need to act, what actions you should take, the time and materials involved, the final goal, and a “CO2 credit” — the amount of carbon you save. For example, if you exchange five frequently used incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs, you get a CO2 credit of 500 pounds a year. Or, rather than use your dryer once a week, hang your clothes on an outdoor laundry line and earn a credit of 260 pounds a year. “Not much in it is revelatory,” he says. “But I put a carbon number next to everything.”

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The more suggestions you follow, the fewer CO2 pounds you consume. And you also cut your energy bills. “Using carbon means using energy, and that costs money,” Gershon says. “In this economy, spending money we don’t need to spend is what I call an ignorance tax.”

Cutting Carbon at Home

Do you know your carbon footprint? Most people don’t, says Gershon. They are often shocked when they calculate it (which you can do using the simple “carbon calculator” at his Web site; see box below).

“America accounts for one-fourth of the world’s carbon footprint, and 50 percent of that comes from the residential sector,” he says. In communities with little or no industry (such as much of the Hudson Valley), private homes account for 90 percent of released CO2. “The one area in which we can have a major impact, right now, is through conservation, particularly at the household level,” he says. “That leaves it up to us as individuals to become part of the solution.”

Just about everyone who’s paying even a little bit of attention already knows this. But knowing it and doing something about it are two very different things. That’s where Gershon’s expertise as an agent of change comes in. “I help people who want to do the right thing but don’t know how. Any change model has to answer the four questions people always have: How do I start? What are the important actions I should take? How do I do them? And will it make a difference?”

Low Carbon Diet answers those questions by breaking down what Gershon calls “the overwhelming list of things to do” into three sections: “cool lifestyle practices,” “cool household systems,” and “empowering others to lose unwanted pounds.” There are also a series of charts to help you track your progress.

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Gershon's book, "Low Carbon Diet"Gershon’s book “helps people who want to do the right thing but don’t know how,” he says

It Takes a Clean Village

In 2000, Gershon was hired by the city of Portland, Oregon, to try to institute his model for carbon change. Even with such concrete instructions, Gerhson found it was still hard to get people to take action. “We discovered that people need a support system,” he says. “It’s like losing weight. You need Weight Watchers to provide support, peer pressure, and peer motivation.” A program he developed created “ecoteams” — small neighborhood groups of five to eight households — which banded together to foster environmental change literally in their own backyards.

“People were often motivated by the fact that they didn’t know their neighbors and wanted to,” he says. “To get to know them, and at the same time improve things together, was very appealing to people. We developed a simple script for neighbors to reach out to one another and invite them to their home for three reasons: to help conserve the planet’s resources for the sake of their children, to get to know each other, and to make their neighborhood healthier and safer.”

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Testing this model in Portland, Gershon found that those three simple ideas motivated upwards of 85 percent of those approached to say they were interested, and about 40 percent to actually attend the meeting. “That’s a remarkable number; you never see participation that high,” Gershon says.

Even more remarkable, he found that participants were actually reducing solid waste by 40 percent, increasing water efficiency 32 percent and energy efficiency 15 percent, cutting their miles driven by 8 percent, and saving about $250 a year in the process. “It’s extremely gratifying and exciting,” he says.

Since then he has consulted with 25 U.S. cities and towns (including Portland and Bend, Oregon, as well as the Rockland County government here in the Valley), and overseas. “We now have the whole package for people and communities to take effective action,” he says. “It can help people to very systematically reduce their footprint by about 25 percent.” The book contains a section of support tools to help form an ecoteam in your neighborhood.

Now, what about Gershon’s own oversized footprint? He used some of his own principles to cut it in half. “I installed triple-pane windows, better roof insulation, a solar hot-water system, I purchase green power from the utility company, and many smaller things,” he says. “I got down to 45,000 pounds. And by purchasing carbon offsets, my home is now carbon-neutral.”

Gershon hopes that his program has reached the tipping point and will spread across the country. There is still time to save the planet, he says, but not much of it. “Will we get there? Do we have the will?” he asks. “Yes, if people understand the problem, see that a solution is available, and say to themselves, ‘If not me, then who? If not now, when?’ ”


The Top Carbon Cutters

Low Carbon Diet lists 24 areas in which you can reduce your carbon footprint.
Here are some examples:

CO2 Savings (per year, in pounds)

Cut weekly trash by one garbage can size 


Maximize home energy efficiency
(better windows and insulation) 


Reduce miles driven by 20% a year  


Tune car engine regularly and keep tires fully inflated   


Set thermostat at 65°F when active, 55°F at night       


Practice fuel-efficient driving 











What’s Your Carbon Footprint?

To calculate your own carbon footprint, and to learn more about the Low Carbon Diet program, go to


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