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D.C. Area Families Take Green to the Extreme
Eco-Enthusiasts Step on Some Toes in a Bid to Reduce Their Carbon Footprints

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 20, 2009

Near Leesburg, a woman parks her hybrid car and erases its computer memory. She doesn't want her husband to find out she's getting just 30-something miles per gallon.

In Takoma Park, a dirty plastic to-go container forces a woman to face down her brother. He thinks she should wash it out and reuse it at another restaurant. She thinks . . . no.

And in western Loudoun County, a family quietly defies a mother's rules. She likes locally raised bacon, whole-grain bread and raw milk. But somebody keeps smuggling in Chef Boyardee.

This is life on the dark -- or at least the cranky -- side of green.

Across the Washington region, a few residents have embraced eco-friendly living with a fervor that makes Al Gore look like an oil company lobbyist. They give up everything from furnace heat (too many emissions) to store-bought meat (too much factory farming) to plans for a second child (too much of everything, given the average American's environmental impact).

But for the people who have to live with these enthusiasts, this much green can sometimes be hard to take.

In many households, the result is a bubbling mix of bemusement, tension and furtive resistance. But the Washington area has already had at least one green divorce.

"You're kind of in a perpetual state of feeling like you're not measuring up," said Janet Tupper, 50, of Cheverly, who is still happily married to her environmentalist husband. Because of his convictions, they layer up indoors during the winter: The house's heat usually comes from a single stove burning wood pellets.

"I'm behind it. I'm supportive. I wish, you know -- I wish it was easier," Tupper said. "Our kids complain about us living like the Amish."

For those Washington area residents trying to give their families an eco-overhaul, the idea is that Earth Day -- or at least the plant-a-tree, change-a-light bulb way Earth Day will be celebrated Wednesday -- isn't nearly enough.

They say that such problems as climate change and polluted waterways demand immediate shifts in the rhythms of modern living.

"The American way of life, as we've come to know it, just uses -- wastes -- too many resources," said Sat Jiwan Iklé-Khalsa, 31, a green-building consultant who lives in Takoma Park. Iklé-Khalsa said he wants his home, where he lives with his wife, his 2-year-old daughter and his sister, to be an example to others that "you can have a pretty normal and happy life by making these small changes."

To which his family might say: Small?

"I drew the line at keeping a bucket in my shower," said his sister, Ava Khalsa, who lives in an apartment in the basement. She was refusing her brother's idea to keep a five-gallon bucket in the shower to catch the water that bounces off her and then use it to do the laundry. "He was like, 'It's simple.' And I was like, 'No. I'm just not doing it.' "

She also occasionally disobeys his rules about used to-go containers: "I just don't want to deal with cleaning it out. . . . I'm like, 'I'm throwing this out.' "

For Iklé-Khalsa's wife, his push for green living has affected a much bigger decision.

"I'm 40, so my clock is going boom! Boom! Boom! Sometimes, I just roll my eyes and go, 'Come on, honey, think about who our child could be!' " said Mimi Iklé-Khalsa. But her husband says a second child could have too high an environmental cost. "We've had the discussion of, 'If we have another biological child, it means we never fly,' " and do other things to offset the child's carbon footprint, she said.

But theirs is an extreme case, even among the region's greenest households. Many spouses and children said they support what the family environmentalist is trying to do . . . but they're not above snickering as he does it.

"When we're going down a hill, he's like 'Okay, watch this! Watch this!' " said Helen Ross, 15, of Columbia, whose father, Brian Ross, delights in taking his hybrid Honda Civic down hills and watching the display show his sky-high miles-per-gallon rate. She says it's a worthwhile thing to do, even if it's a little dorky: "He says, like, 'Oh, woo! Fifty on the way down!' "

Sometimes, being the non-green member of the family has its benefits. After Amanda Hartle of Northwest Washington hired a local expert called the "Eco-Coach" to scour her apartment for objectionable products such as detergents, bleach and plastic containers, she gave many of them to her sister. "She doesn't care about going green yet, and she lives right upstairs," Hartle said.

Usually, however, the process involves giving up things. Like heat.

"It just feels cold, and then I [went] into my friend's house and they had the heat on, and I was like 'Oh, my God, that feels so good!' " said Sophie Barnet-Higgins, 10, of Mount Rainier. Her parents keep the thermostat at 54 degrees on winter nights, and Sophie often begins her day by warming up in front of a stove burning corn kernels.

"It's kind of easy to put up with it," Sophie said. "I mean, we've been green for a long time, because I don't even remember when we had the heat on all the time."

But even in families in which everybody agrees that green is good, things can be pushed too far. Signs of resistance turn up: a fiance who starts eating dinner out after repeated nights of locally grown organic salad. A child who pleads to have Hot Wheels-trademarked Valentine's Day cards instead of home-made ones, despite the evils of their plastic packaging.

In Gina Faber's house, it was the SpaghettiOs.

"It seems like every time [my daughter] and my husband go grocery shopping, a can of SpaghettiOs makes it into the bag," said Faber, 42, of Loudoun's Round Hill area. She tries to get most of her food from local farms and her own garden. There is no room in that diet for something like Chef Boyardee.

"I would want to make that myself, with ingredients that I trust," she said. But she does let them eat it.

Occasionally, though, extreme eco-friendliness runs into even stiffer opposition. As in: divorce.

Grant Moher, a family law attorney in Fairfax County, said the case is at least four years old. He represented a husband who had been married for about a decade and had no children. The husband wanted to move to Arizona and live in the desert in a trailer, with only an experimental kind of air conditioner to keep cool.

His wife was with him until the experimental air conditioner, Moher said. Then she wasn't with him at all.

Near Leesburg, Ann and Will Stewart are making their green-and-greener marriage work. She said yes to some of his ideas: turning off most lights, turning down the heat and using a herd of sheep as a low-emissions mower. But she said no to canning her own food and hand-grinding her own flour.

And, a few times, she has learned it's best to say nothing at all. One recent day, her hybrid's readout showed 42 mpg -- not terrible, but he could do better. And, if he saw a number like this, he might tell her how.

Again.

"Here we go," she said, demonstrating how to find the right button on the touch screen. "Reset, zero!"

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