By Cheryl Scott
Out of Oak Park, Forest Park, Maywood and Berwyn, one community earned the title of “greenest suburb” when comparing per capita carbon dioxide emissions, but the winner may surprise you.
Author, researcher and former Oak Park resident Susan Subak will reveal the answer on Wednesday, July 10, when discussing her 2018 book, “The Five-Ton Life: Carbon, America, and the Culture That May Save Us.” The presentation will include Susan’s research on the low carbon culture of west suburban Chicago compared to other environmental leaders on the East Coast, a slideshow and a book signing. The event will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Oak Park Public Library Main Branch, 834 Lake St., in the Veterans Room on the second floor.
Green Community Connections interviewed Susan on some of the topics in her book, including how she has lived the “five-ton life,” how everyone can calculate their greenhouse gas emissions to strive for a smaller carbon footprint and how LEED certified buildings or visible solar panels may not always be the best indicator of the lowest carbon dioxide emissions.
Q: In “The Five-Ton Life,” you state that five metric tons of carbon dioxide would be a good target for Americans to reach in any climate, especially because the zero carbon footprint goal can seem impossible to some. You also write that you don’t feel limited by the “five-ton life” because it creates a structure for your life choices. Can you explain this, so that readers can also embrace the five-ton lifestyle?
A: I began the five-ton concept as an overall budget while I tried to reduce my own emissions. I would ask myself whether I would get more out of say, one vacation in Orlando involving flying, or several weekend trips to the Delaware seashore involving driving. Would I want to consume my one pound per month of methane-intensive meat this way or that way? That wasn’t so hard.
Once I got started and knew my own emissions more thoroughly, I kept wanting to reduce further. But I see five tons as a good starting point, because people can live within it now, in a middle-income bracket in the absence of major technological improvements.
As I went along, I felt increasingly connected to local history (18th century Virginia) and some of my own in that my maternal grandparents were intensely local and were light consumers. I don’t like to be specific about how other people should live because everyone has their own family history and their own priorities, but I think that engaging with history can help us to go forward on climate in a more fulfilling way.
Q: How do Americans’ emissions compare with the rest of the world? Oak Parkers?
A: I think that many of your readers may know that USA per person emissions are about 20 metric tons of CO2, one of the highest footprints in the world. However, Illinois communities tend to do better than the USA average because the state of Illinois provides low carbon electricity options (nuclear and some wind). But as I relate in my book, west suburban Chicago does better than the state average due to … culture.
Q: Would you recommend that people calculate their greenhouse gas emissions and compare their number to peers or their community’s average? How would they calculate this?
A: A comprehensive calculator can be found at:
A basic calculator for residences and vehicles is at:
Like the Nike ad says, “Just Do It.”
Q: Do you think government actions or individual actions are more important in the fight against climate change? Why?
A: They are both important but many people overestimate what federal governments can really do and underestimate the power of individuals, institutions and local communities. The climate program of the previous USA administration (the Clean Power Program) aimed to reduce emissions by only 11%. On the other hand, communities can make a big difference in how they write their zoning code, building codes and transit options. We can choose how much we fly, how much we drive, how we handle our living space, and what we buy and eat, all of which are important for emissions. Doing this confidently can help change the conversation, and ultimately, our culture.
Q: I thought it was interesting that Oak Park used to be a “car unfriendly” suburb, and bikes were incredibly popular in the past. Would you be able to briefly discuss this history of Oak Park and the residents’ early love of bikes?
Growing up in Oak Park, I did not know that the Oak Park Club (now a condo building) began as a bicycle club. Reading May Estelle Cook’s “Little Old Oak Park,” I get the idea that the group bicycle excursions going on in the village during the gay nineties (1890s) were much more fun than the parlor-room socializing taking place in the large, fuel-intensive houses. A charming thing about Oak Park is that for its first half century, cars were just not a factor. Few people had them, and we can still see these fancy carriage houses and horse stables, which overlapped with the new bike craze, and commuter train.
Q: You seem pretty familiar with Oak Park. How long did you live here?
A: I attended Montessori at the old Lowell School, then Beye School and OPRF and lived in two different multi-units designed by John Van Bergen (Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentice). So, being surrounded by wonderful prairie architecture seemed completely normal.
While I was at OPRF I started an environmental group with a friend called the Student Ecology Corps. Our most memorable project involved salvaging seeds from a patch of prairie hidden behind a strip mall in a northwest suburb. The bit of prairie was doomed due to impending expansion of the mall, and over several weekends we collected more than 100 hefty bags of seeds. That was 1977, and the idea of prairie restoration was quite new but the Oak Park Conservatory stored and worked with some of our seeds. I now live in the DC area but when I visit Oak Park, I really enjoy seeing the beautiful prairie plantings.
Q: In your book, you say that the western suburbs of Oak Park, Forest Park, Berwyn and Maywood had pretty low emissions compared to most of the Midwest. Can you say why one was a clear winner?
A: Oh, we’ll have the big reveal on Wednesday, July 10.
Q: In the chapter on colleges, you mention that LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification or visible items such as solar panels may not mean a college is necessarily the most environmentally friendly. Can you explain what college students and their parents should be looking for if they want a green campus? Do you have any emissions data on Illinois colleges?
A: Looking for a green campus, I would look at actual CO2 emissions (per student), which may or not be stated on the college’s sustainability page. The website https://reporting.secondnature.org compiles hundreds of college greenhouse gas emissions inventories, and I found that DePaul University had the lowest carbon footprint in the state and one of the lowest in the country. None of the Illinois universities had extremely high emissions, and there are environmental advantages of choosing a university that is not far from home. Another benefit of lower emissions is that the class size may be smaller or the tuition may be lower because there may be fewer luxury buildings to maintain.