The Five-Ton Life: Carbon, America, and the Culture That May Save Us

The Five-Ton Life: Carbon, America, and the Culture That May Save Us

by Susan Subak

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Winner of the 2018 Nautilus Book Award, Silver, for Green Living/Sustainability 

At nearly twenty tons per person, American carbon dioxide emissions are among the highest in the world. Not every American fits this statistic, however. Across the country there are urban neighborhoods, suburbs, rural areas, and commercial institutions that have drastically lower carbon footprints. These exceptional places, as it turns out, are neither “poor” nor technologically advanced. Their low emissions are due to culture. 

In The Five-Ton Life, Susan Subak uses previously untapped sources to discover and explore various low-carbon locations. In Washington DC, Chicago suburbs, lower Manhattan, and Amish settlements in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, she examines the built and social environment to discern the characteristics that contribute to lower greenhouse-gas emissions. The most decisive factors that decrease energy use are a commitment to small interiors and social cohesion, although each example exhibits its own dynamics and offers its own lessons for the rest of the country.

Bringing a fresh approach to the quandary of American household consumption, Subak’s groundbreaking research provides many pathways toward a future that is inspiring and rooted in America’s own traditions.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496208095
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Series: Our Sustainable Future
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Susan Subak has twenty years of experience as an environmental analyst studying the causes and consequences of climate change and as a contractor and researcher in the United States and Europe with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of East Anglia, and the Stockholm Environment Institute, among others. She is the author of Rescue and Flight: American Relief Workers Who Defied the Nazis (Nebraska, 2010).

Read an Excerpt


Founding Mitigator

George Washington

George Washington might seem to be an irrelevant subject for a book about reducing contemporary greenhouse gas emissions. He lived some years before the greenhouse effect theory was proposed and about two centuries before it became a topic of presidential discourse. Washington lived in an era when many Americans viewed the new country's resources as infinite, and Washington and his wife took no small part in enjoying the abundance that a man of his stature could afford. Today, more people visit Mount Vernon than any other house in America, a fact that also held true in George Washington's own lifetime. From a contemporary perspective the hosting habits of George and Martha Washington can be a puzzle, an unusual degree of hospitality even for late eighteenth-century America. Was there something at Mount Vernon that George Washington wanted his guests to see? Something relevant for our own time?

In early 2014, Mount Vernon unveiled a new rendering of the mansion's largest room. In Washington's retirement years, what he called "the New Room" served as a reception area and art gallery. It was here that Washington, a confident and correct host, would greet his guests wearing the navy blue greatcoat with buff facings that he wore as general of the Continental Army. The landscape paintings mirror the dark blues and sandy shades of the general's uniform. Below, the wainscoting is of a "buff inclining to white" per Washington's own description. The largest and most prominent works of art on the walls are six landscape paintings showing scenes of the Hudson, Potomac, and Shenandoah Rivers. One of them recalls George Washington's first trip west when as a sixteen-year-old surveyor for Lord Fairfax he gave rare expression to his spontaneous enjoyment of the landscape: "Higher up the [Shenandoah] River we went through most beautiful groves of Sugar Trees & Spent the best part of the Day in admiring the Trees & richness of the Land."

Landscapes were not a subject seen in many of the great Virginia houses. In Europe and the Americas landscape paintings had a low place until the nineteenth century, and few serious renderings of American landscape were in existence. This is the first room that visitors saw when they arrived at Mount Vernon, and if they saw nothing else of the house they saw this spectacular room with the landscape paintings. A visitor to Mount Vernon in the 1790s arriving by horseback or carriage might also be privileged to see a mule, the curious long-eared draft animal that was stronger than a horse and ate less. The animal that George Washington introduced to the New World also happened to emit methane at half the rate of its equine cousin. Later, at dinnertime, the visitors would usually sit down to an elaborate meal of many courses, but one that was less methane intensive than the beefy meal typical to the Chesapeake region. George Washington diversified his protein sources, just as he had diversified his crops. In cold weather the room would be mildly heated using wood instead of the coal that many Virginia and Maryland elites preferred at that time. These differences alone would have dropped Mount Vernon's carbon footprint far below most of his peers and elite predecessors.

In the fields of Mount Vernon, Washington undertook soil enhancement experiments that were unprecedented in the New World — experiments designed to improve the fertility of the soil, and which incidentally stored more carbon. Above ground, Mount Vernon's walkways showcased some of America's fastest-growing tree species, trees that are now viewed as some of the most effective at carbon sequestration. His hedgerows and live fences sought to replace the practice of clearing hardwoods for fencing. Although in the late eighteenth century the presence of western lands conveyed a notion of limitless resources in America, George Washington viewed the nation's resources as rare and precious, deserving of study and conservation. In his day fuel wood and coal were not very expensive relative to the price of other household goods, just as today energy costs make up a small share of American's expenditures. His discipline in conserving that which seemed abundant, today has a pointed message when it is all too easy to forget how our household energy consumption affects the atmosphere. Through Mount Vernon and a life whose motto was "Deeds, Not Words," George Washington left a legacy of actions and activities that had a tangible bearing on greenhouse gas emissions in his own time and afterwards.

A visit to the Mount Vernon mansion today does not begin at the mansion itself but at a small house next door where the servants of Washington's guests were provided room and board. Today, the building is used to orient visitors to the idea that the Mount Vernon mansion is very large despite its appearance, and despite the fact that many visitors own houses that are larger than the one that they are now touring. The current president's Florida residence happens to be more than ten times larger. The Mount Vernon guides inform us that even the small room we are standing in was larger than the average Virginia house, and the room we are about to enter in the mansion was many times larger. Mount Vernon was impressively large for its time, and we should be awed that Washington built such a house totaling about seven thousand square feet, including kitchen and guesthouse. Or should we? More likely Washington was trying to impress not with the size of his house, but with its vantage point on a hill overlooking the Potomac River, the verdant gardens, and the undulating, serpentine path through newly planted native trees.

The point may be rather that Mount Vernon was impressively small for its time, an era when, like most eras, house size corresponded with social status and wealth. In England in the eighteenth century new buildings were known for their scale, which was much larger than in previous eras. Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, and others that belonged to aristocratic families but not royalty, were all over one hundred thousand square feet. Most of the English administrators who returned to England in 1776 and who had held positions of governor or lesser stations in the colonies were now returning to houses larger than Mount Vernon.

In the New World, George Washington had no peer. In Europe, Washington's contemporary George III had at his disposal Windsor Castle (484,000 square feet), Buckingham House, Saint James, Hampton Court, and Frogmore House. George III's smallest residence, Frogmore House, with its eighteen bedrooms and formal rooms, still dwarfed Mount Vernon. The largest, Windsor Castle, was much smaller than the royal residences of France and Spain. The Palace de Madrid encompassed some 1.4 million square feet. The English king expanded Buckingham House into a Palace that became one hundred times larger than Mount Vernon. It was inconceivable for a European head of state to live without multiple residences, vacation houses, and vast kitchens that could feed hundreds of guests at a sitting. George Washington did not aspire to a palace or even an aristocratic house in the European tradition. When he returned to Mount Vernon after the Revolutionary War, he put his attention to managing the estate's fields, landscape, and enterprises, not to house expansion or addition. During his retirement years after the presidency he put renewed focus on his agricultural endeavors and did not seek to enlarge his house despite his many visitors. While Thomas Jefferson responded to the crowds that flocked to Monticello by building Poplar Forest, his retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Washington did not do likewise. Washington built a house that was about the size of the "great" Virginia houses, such as Berkeley Plantation, Stratford Hall, and Carlisle House. It was as though Washington built a house as large as was expected of his station, but not an inch larger.

Common Fuel

When visitors to Mount Vernon step into the mansion's New Room, the sight of its high ceilings and spectacular furnishings draws the eye, so it is understandable if most visitors do not notice a cast steel and iron grate embedded in the fireplace. Beginning in 1797, the fireplace could use coal, which it burned with unknown frequency, and was the only site in the mansion outfitted for coal. The rest of the mansion's twenty-two fireplaces were set up to take wood, which was Washington's fuel of choice. Some visitors might be surprised that Mount Vernon would have used coal already in the late eighteenth century. But in Virginia, some of the elite of Washington's circle were choosing to heat all of their rooms with coal.

By the late 1700s, many Richmond and Williamsburg families were burning coal in their houses using fuel mined in Virginia as well as from the British Isles. More than ten thousand bushels were shipped from the James River and from England annually. The Chesterfield County, Virginia coal pits near Richmond had been worked already since the early 1700s, and the coal was of similar quality to that mined in England and Scotland. By the 1770s, coal fields were actively mined in Newcastle and Henrico counties, Virginia, in addition to the coal from Chesterfield. The last British governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, was also importing coal from his own holdings in Scotland and selling it to his Williamsburg neighbors.

A preference for coal over wood knew no partisan boundaries and was used in Williamsburg by British loyalists and colonial rebels alike. In the American colonies, the British administrators often used imported coal and house inventories show that stoves and fireplaces were often adapted for coal use. The governor of Maryland, Robert Eden, had his Annapolis house outfitted for coal, and the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg contained some fourteen stoves and grates fitted for holding coal. Williamsburg merchants sold coal in their stores, and some Williamsburg residents such as George Wythe, who had hosted George Washington in his home in preparation for the battle of Yorktown, had coal shipped directly to his household and used it for heating. Coal use extended to the middle class; Williamsburg printer and journalist William Rind, whose Virginia Gazette was critical of British rule, used coal for his family's home heating.

Coal was relatively cheap in the mid-Atlantic in the late eighteenth century. One hundred bushels of coal, totaling eight thousand pounds in weight, was worth as much as five hogsheads of "syder." Wealthy households typically spent much more on liquor than on coal or charcoal. Even blacksmiths, who were the most invested in coal during that era, were spending relatively little on coal, which made up at most 8 percent of their household assets. In the Williamsburg stores, coal typically made up about 5 percent of the value of their goods.

George Washington was, of course, aware he could buy coal mined locally. In a trip to the Ohio River Valley in 1770, Washington became acquainted with a coal site whose contents he knew to be superior to the bituminous coal of Virginia, and wrote of his visit that he "went to see a coal mine. ... The coal seemed to be the very best kind." But although he understood the capabilities of coal, he took little interest in coal for household use despite the fact he emulated many other aspects of British material culture. For the most part he confined his usage to the trade of blacksmithing on his estate. The Continental Army used coal for a range of industries, but after the war Washington's interest in coal became tepid. Over the next twenty years, if he continued to rely on coal instead of charcoal, the orders no longer appear in the estate's accounts. George Washington's long probate inventory issued after his death lacks any mention of coal stocks. The coal grate installed in the New Room in 1797 remained the sole fireplace in Mount Vernon adapted for burning coal.

In England the scarcity of wood generally made coal a necessity for many households. It was thought to be more convenient than wood for chasing out the drafts of the castles and palaces, and for the work of ironmongers and other occupations that needed fire. Coal was excavated from underground mines in Scotland, often using bonded labor, and women and children often performed the dangerous work of digging and hauling coal. The hazard of explosions in the mines was a familiar one, and coal-bed methane was identified by the name "fire damp." Beyond the practical advantages of the fuel itself, the burning devices held a certain cachet. A very ornate, three-tiered model of a new coal-burning stove arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia around 1770 at the request of the governor, Lord Botetourt. The iron stoves, which the Virginia governor installed in his home and at the House of Burgess, were said by their inventor Abraham Buzaglo to "surpass in Utility, Beauty & goodness any thing hitherto invented in all Europe." They "cast an equal & agreeable heat to any part of the room, and are not attended by any stench." However agreeable the heat from the stove, neither George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson purchased anything similar for their houses. Although George Washington took a keen interest in fashion when it came to English clothing and furniture, on the subject of natural resources and how to utilize them, he kept his own counsel.

By 1800 England's rate of burning coal resulted in about twenty-seven million metric tons of CO annually, a much higher level than found anywhere in the world at that time. King George and his entourage were responsible for a large amount and Windsor Castle alone could use thousands of tons of coal in a year. In per-capita terms, in 1800 the English emitted about 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person, surpassing the consumption level found in about eighty nations contemporaneous with our own time. In the United States, coal was not commonly used in households until the 1830s, and the country's slowness to utilize coal resources was due in part to the example of the material culture of America's founding presidents. Using biomass instead of fossil fuels for heat and power has been a greenhouse gas mitigation policy in many parts of the world so long as harvested trees are not "old growth" and are replanted and allowed to soak up carbon over time. Although soot and the other solid components of smoke can contribute to global warming, the biomass is still preferable to fossil fuels in its net heating effects.

In their choice of fuel, the other founders followed the example of Mount Vernon and relied on wood. Thomas Jefferson eventually used coal in the White House, but at Monticello, heating was done with wood, as it was at James Madison's Montpelier. The founders chose fuelwood because it was conveniently plentiful on their vast estates, or because they knew that it was well distributed throughout America compared to the few known coal deposits in the New World. Fuelwood could be harvested from the detritus of the land. Wood fuel fit into the worldview of resource stewardship and self-reliance, in contrast to the domain of coal, which was risky, exclusive, and left a black stain.

So considering the Washingtons' reliance on wood fuel through the winter months, I asked one of the museum guides where the wood was stored in Washington's day, because stacks of wood do not figure in the current presentation. The guide hesitated and said, "Good question. But wherever it was, there must have been a lot of it. ... All those fireplaces!" The answer was, of course, a pretense to explain again that Mount Vernon was a very large house that used considerable resources. But the absence of wood stacks reminds us that today we treat energy as though it is invisible and cheap, in contrast to Mount Vernon's original owner, who managed his fuel and other resources judiciously as though they were valuable and dear.

In other aspects of Washington's material life, the exterior of his house, he chose a common building material — wood — instead of the more prestigious alternatives of brick and stone. Mount Vernon's walls are made from "rusticated" wood: that is, wood cut, painted, and coated with sand to give the appearance of a stone surface. George Washington made a decision to rusticate his home already in 1758 when he prepared the house for his new bride. The surface is very different from the elite houses of Virginia and the mid-Atlantic, which were usually made with brick. Washington's choice of building material puzzles some — he could have afforded stately brick, and rustication was not a traditional style. But Washington's choice of surface can be seen in the context of the choices he developed later in life. He was willing to buck the trend and avoid exclusive materials in his house exterior just as he had avoided coal inside the house. Decades later, when rusticated wood seemed all the more unusual, he continued to rusticate, and Thomas Jefferson constructed some rusticated walls at Monticello.

In the eighteenth century and earlier, heating a room with fire was an uncomfortable proposition–"scorched in front, frozen behind." In the last years of the eighteenth century, fireplaces in Britain and Europe were refashioned to heat rooms more effectively. The new fireplace and chimney design, called the Rumford Fireplace, entailed a shallow, angled base that helped the heat from the fuel to penetrate the room. At the same time, the chimney was made to be more narrow and rounder to improve the escape of smoke. In the words of its inventor, Count Rumford, the design would "remove those local hindrances which forcibly prevent the smoke from following its natural tendency to go up the chimney."


Excerpted from "The Five-Ton Life"
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Copyright © 2018 Susan Subak.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations    
List of Tables
1. Founding Mitigator: George Washington    
2. Carbon Dissenters: The Amish    
3. Urban Families: Washington DC    
4. The Greenest Suburb: Berwyn, Illinois    
5. College, Commercial Carbon: The New School, New York City    
6. Becoming Five Tons: Anywhere, USA    

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