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Q & A with ‘Go Green, Save Green’ author Nancy Sleeth

April 20, 2009

Nancy Sleeth of Wilmore is the author of “Go Green, Save Green,” a book about her family’s transition to an environmentally friendly lifestyle and how other families can save thousands of dollars a year by adopting several green principles. This an abridged version of that interview (her answers were very long and in-depth, which is good for a feature, not good for a straight Q & A), which I found to be really interesting. I am about a fourth of the way through the book right now, and while being a renter prevents me from using a lot of the tactics, it is an eye-opening read on how wasteful we can be in America. The book is available on right now for $10.19 and at Joseph Beth for $14.99. You will be able to read my story in Thursday’s Jessamine Journal.

TY: Why has this “Going Green” concept taken off so much in the last four years?

NS: Our planet’s in trouble. The crisis is hard to ignore. When you have major health problems, major health trends such as asthma and cancer rates absolutely exploding, when we have problems having access to clean water in most parts of the world, when we have a dome of smog hanging over any city that you come into, these are things that are hard to avoid. I think that interestingly right now because of economic times, going green makes a whole lot of economic sense right now for families that are struggling. If you drew a Venn diagram, 90 percent of the time, frugality and environmentalism overlap. So if I hang my clothes on the line, yes I’m saving five pounds of coal which means that the mountains of eastern Kentucky don’t have to be taken down to produce that electricity, but it also means that I am saving money on my electric bill. Last month’s electric bill was $16. So it’s a win-win in terms of my economic pocketbook, but also in terms of the environment.

When did you adopt these green principles?

NS: We made a major change in our lives about eight years ago. My husband was an emergency room doctor, and we were pursuing the American dream, and a couple of things happened. The first was that in one week’s time, he saw three women in the emergency room, and all three women had breast cancer, and all three women died. One of the women died right there in the emergency room. She was seizing for about 45 minutes and he couldn’t control it, and he had to do one of the most difficult things that a doctor has to do — he had to go out and tell the young dad that his wife had just passed away. He had one kid on one hip and one kid by the hand, and that’s a really difficult thing to do. One of the reasons I love my husband so much is he just held the man and hugged him and cried with him. Of course that shook him up. Matthew came home and said, ‘What are the lifetime odds of me seeing three women in their 30s and all of them dying in the same week?’ So we looked in this textbook from when he had started medicine, and the odds then were 1 in 19, and the odds at that time when he saw the women were 1 in 9, and now they’re around 1 in 7, maybe even heading down to 1 in 6. So the trend isn’t good, and he said maybe it’s time not just to be running for the cure, but to start looking for the cause as well.

A second thing that happened was we went on vacation as a family, got the kids to bed, and we were sitting outside. I asked him two questions that were going to change our life. The first was ‘What do you think is the biggest problem facing the world today?’ I know, what kind of wife am I to ask that on vacation? His answer was that the world is dying. He answered that, not based on being an environmentalist, but just on his observations in one person’s short lifetime. There are no elms on Elm St., no Chestnuts on Chestnut Lane, no caribou on Caribou Lane, no Buffalo in Buffalo New York. The blue pike, which used to be the most prolific fish in the great lakes, completely gone in our lifetime. You can go on and on and we’d have to hand out antidepressants if we thought about it too much. The second question I asked him was ‘What are we going to do about it?’

We started reading through the spiritual and sacred texts in the world. We found some truths in all of those sacred texts, but we weren’t finding the truth that we were looking for. So one slow day in the emergency room amongst the People Magazines spread on the table in the waiting room, he saw this orange Bible. He said ‘Hey, I don’t have one of those at home,’ and he likes to say he stole it, but of course it was a Gideon’s Bible, and you can’t steal those. He read the book of Matthew, and it changed his life. He found the truth that he was looking for. In particular, Matthew 7, which says “Judge not, lest you be judged. In whatever manner you are judging someone else, you will be judged as well.” It goes on to say it’s human nature for me to worry about the speck in your eye rather than the 2 x 4 in my own eye, so I should worry about getting first the plank out of my own eye, and then maybe I’ll be able to see clearly enough to help you with your speck. We took that really seriously and said, ‘How are we contributing to this environmental problem?’

TY: What did you do about it?

NS: My husband came back to me and answered that second question — what should we do about it? And he said, “I think I need to quit my job as emergency room doctor and chief of staff and director of the emergency room, and we need to move to a house the size of our garage” — don’t feel sorry for us, we had a doctor-size garage — “we need to give away half of our possessions, and we need to pursue a much simpler life.” My answer to him was, “Are you sure we need to do that much?” It was really scary, it was really terrifying to leave the salary, the friends, all the things that I was accustomed to — the things I was accustomed to — to start this new experiment. But we did do it, and during that process, one by one, everybody came to Christ. My son was next, and then me, and then my daughter. We had started practicing the Sabbath as a family, and that was one of the biggest steps that we took, to just come to a complete stop. Once you’re still, you pray, and you can see the beauty that God has given you, then you start to have a different relationship the other six days of the week. Once our family was on the whole page, these changes became easy to make. Did we ever have any discussions — yes. People ask, “How did your kids react?” Of course, they’re kids, but I can tell you that they’re the least materialistic people I know. Some of their fondest memories are hanging up laundry together or watching dishes together. We’ve become really afraid to ask our children to do anything, to do any work, but work is one of the privileges of life, it’s a form of monastic prayer. It keeps our bodies healthy, it keeps our minds healthy, it keeps our emotions healthy. Instead of sitting in front of the TV — we stopped having a TV seven or eight years ago — we read together as a family, or we go on walks, or we have picnics, or our kids chop wood. We found that all of us because more joyful because of that lifestyle.

TY: Why did you write the book?

NS: My husband wrote a book called “Serve God Save the Planet,” and that came out just when we moved to Wilmore. He set about teaching and preaching about why there’s a biblical case for going green. When the book came out, our ministry exploded. We’ve had 850 speaking engagements in the last two years, and everywhere we go, people say, “I’m inspired to go green now, but how do I do it, how do I get started?” In response to that question, that’s why I wrote “Go Green, Save Green.” It’s a faith-based practical book about going green. It’s 400 pages of tips about what you can do, but based on scripture and based on our family’s personal stories about what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.

TY: Obviously many families won’t be able to make the drastic changes you did, but where can they start to begin seeing results quickly?

NS: It can be overwhelming, and you don’t have to do it like I did it. You should listen to your own heart. It’s a journey. If you can do 10 percent better each year, then you’re well on the way. I think that you need to find out what’s speaking the most to you. For a lot of people, the first step is to take an energy audit. In Kentucky, you can get Kentucky Utilities to come to your home for 10 or 15 dollars, and they will do an audit of your complete home. They will tell you where you’re losing energy and what are the simplest things you can do and what it will cost you and what the payback is going to be. That’s a great first step. Simple things such as turning your thermostat down 3 degrees in the winter and up 3 degrees in the summer, you’ll save about 10 percent of your heating and cooling costs which is the greatest energy user in your home. Hang your clothes out on the line. It costs about $25 to put up a clothesline. It costs somewhere between $20-25,000 to put up the same amount of solar panels on your home to create 150 watts of energy, which is what it takes to run your dryer. That’s a really simple fix. If you can’t do it all year-round, just do it in the summertime. We are blessed with a long spring, summer and winter, so if you don’t want to do it in the winter, just do it when the weather’s nice. We haven’t had a dryer for eight years or so, and we have a line in our basement as well. That humidifies the air in the winter as well, which is great because it gets too dry in the winter.

Most of it is things that you don’t do rather than things that you do. Go on a spending fast one week out of every month, and just by medicine and food and any absolute essentials. Everything we purchase has an environmental cost. It has to be manufactured, which uses huge amounts of water and energy. It has to be transported, it has to be stored, it has to be marketed — everything has an environmental cost. So simply by not buying stuff that we don’t need, you’re going to have a great impact on your pocketbook and on the environment. A simple thing that everybody’s heard about by now is to change your bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs. You can save about $200 a year by doing that. As we approach summer, what a lot of people don’t know, not only are you going to save on lighting costs, but 90 percent of the energy consumed by an incandescent light bulb goes towards making heat. So when you have those all around your house, your air conditioning is fighting that heat as well, so you’re also going to save on your air conditioning costs by changing those light bulbs. Another really easy fix is to install a low-flow shower head. They cost somewhere between $5-7, and they’re as easy as screwing in a light bulb. You can save about $130 a year in water. Not only are you saving water and saving money, but we know we’ve had droughts here the last couple of years. That’s helping your neighbor by not taking more than our share of clean water. Even if you can’t do that, reduce your shower time by two minutes a day. Those are very simple things. Don’t run your water when you are brushing your teeth. You can save about $50-70 a year if everybody in your family did that. Those are very simple changes that anybody can do, and it costs very very little. They all add up.

TY: About how much does your family save each year with these techniques?

NS: We have reduced our electricity use by nine-tenths of the national average and our fossil fuel use by two-thirds. So I would say on electricity alone, $1,000 a year just on electricity, and fossil fuels a couple thousand a year. We also made changes like, our kids go to Asbury College, so we wanted to live within walking distance of everything. I was teaching at Asbury, our kids were going there, I wanted to be able to walk to the grocery store and to the post office. So we were able to exist on one car instead of two. That saves us about $8,000 a year in depreciation in car costs — that’s huge. Yes, I drive a Prius, which some people say not everybody can afford one, but it cost $22,000, which was a huge amount of money for us. We usually wouldn’t buy new cars, but when you save all that energy, when you save all of that depreciation on a second car. The average new car in America costs between $25-27,000. Yet, we’re putting out way less pollution in the air — that’s loving my neighbor — and I’m getting 40-some miles to the gallon, so I’m saving in my pocketbook too, both by not having a second car and by driving an energy-efficient one.

TY: Has this become second-nature to your family after eight years?

NS: There are so many things that we don’t think about in terms of, we don’t have a television. We don’t have cable, which is very expensive as well. We do watch movies — we have little DVD player. We don’t have a big plasma screen TV, and guess what? We can see it just fine. We still think of it as a journey, and so I am still trying to do 10 percent better each year. I work on different issues. Last year I worked on food issues. We had moved from a very rural area where it was easy for me to get local meat and local eggs and things like that. When you move someplace, you have to reestablish all those connections, and it took work. Last Saturday I had 1,100 pounds of local beef delivered that was hormone-free and antibiotic-free and grass-fed, and about 12 families participated. Not only did I help myself — we don’t eat a lot of beef — but a dozen families invested in local beef, and we got it for $2.50 a pound, which is really inexpensive for really fantastic quality meat. And it’s local, so I’m supporting local farmers. That means that that farm can stay in business. I get eggs now from a janitor at the local church who, because he needs more money now, he’s raising chickens for about a dozen families. It’s local, they taste better, they’re healthier, and we’re giving money to a local person, so it makes you feel good. It just took reestablishing those ties — where to get local honey, where to get local maple syrup. We started an organic garden here at our house. We grow all of our own summer vegetables, and we can a lot for the winter, then we’re able to give produce away too. Anybody in my neighborhood is allowed to enjoy anything from my garden anytime in the summertime, but we also can tons of tomato sauce, and it feels good to be able to eat out of our garden in the wintertime.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 30, 2009 5:40 pm

    If you are going to get a low flow shower head you might as well replace your faucet aerators with low flow faucet aerators Typical faucet aerators can allow as much as 5 gallons per minute of water flow vs. low flow aerators that restrict water flow from 2.2 gallons as low as .5 gallons per minute without giving up water pressure. They only cost a few dollars and you can get them at any local hardware store.

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