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The Green House Effect

I've always thought everything in your life should just be beautiful. And sustainable. It was the marriage of the two that felt like an oxymoron: style and sustainability.
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When you share the same birthday as Earth Day, you can't help but notice your birth date is celebrated on a "holiday" that reminds people that rainforests are burning, whales are being harpooned, and the ozone layer is disappearing. So, imagine me on my 12th birthday, eager to open presents, and seeing nothing but gloom and doom in the newspaper about the planet. We're dying, I thought. I decided to start an environmental group right then and there, and used my birthday money (all $23) to launch Earth 2000. It was 1989, and I thought by the time I doubled in age, it would be the new millennium. So how hard could it be to save the entire planet by the year 2000?

Over the next six years I grew this organization organically over time -- from just a group of seven kids meeting in the basement of my parents' house into a national organization of 25,000 members. We lobbied our elected officials, organized corporate boycott campaigns, and even retained lawyers to sue developers and protect environmentally sensitive areas. As a group of thousands of teenagers, we proved we could more than just sing a "Save the Earth" song at an Earth Day festival; we were going to really make a difference. And we did.

I retired from Earth 2000 at age 18. I had a D- grade point average (I was never at school, instead playing hooky to go to Washington to lobby) and didn't get accepted to college. I instead turned to book writing, and wrote a number of guides for young people who wanted to start their own organizations or become activists. The money from these books afforded me the luxury of moving into my own apartment in Washington, DC--where I also lobbied for a nonprofit forest preservation group--and it allowed to furnish my first home exactly as I saw fit.

As a child, in addition to be the lone environmentalist in the family, I was also very opinionated on how the house should look and feel. I tagged along to the furniture store to prevent my mother from buying rainforest wood, but also protested when I thought a greener choice was ugly. I'd be right there at the garden nursery helping to identify naturally deer-resistant plants, all while commenting, "Don't you think we have enough evergreens in the front yard?" I even plated my vegetarian Thanksgiving meal in a beautiful way for the meat-eating family to see (and hopefully envy). I've always thought everything in your life should just be beautiful. And sustainable. It was the marriage of the two that felt like an oxymoron: style and sustainability.

As I wrote books and worked as environmental lobbyist in Washington, I used my apartment as an eco-laboratory. I stripped paint off the appliances using a non-toxic citrus-based paint remover to reveal gleaming stainless steel underneath (before stainless refrigerators became chic). I repurposed old wood furniture cast-offs thrown away from a church into TV stands and desks. And I hunted for the best organic cotton towels, sheets and products to make my home as comfortable as possible. I even found a tribe in the rainforest who made smoked latex fabric (very leathery) that I reupholstered an ottoman with! I threw organic wine tasting parties. And my friends recruited me to help them furnish their homes or come up with menus for their own entertaining. It was fun to be green.

It wasn't until a reporter from the Washington Post came over that I began connecting the dots. She was working on a story about my book Heaven on Earth, which was a guide to altruism and philanthropy, nothing at all about lifestyle. It was lunch time when she arrived, so I prepared some all-organic treats (this was before Whole Foods existed). She asked about the furniture and the paint on the walls and the food that was served. She scribbled away.

Weeks later, a cover story appeared about green style and design. It featured ideas and tips from my own home and eco-philosophy: the simple idea that doing good can also mean living good. Keep in mind, this was more than ten years ago, before there was ever a green issue of Vanity Fair, a Toyota hybrid Prius or the "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" tote bag. Rush Limbaugh was still relevant and lambasted environmentalism. I instantly became one of those ubiquitous "lifestyle" experts. And suddenly, people were interested in learning my insider tips and secrets to go green.

In reality, even though I get called "eco-Martha' all the time, I really see myself more as a teacher, sharing ideas, how-to information, and projects. I realize sharing a project on how to reupholster a dining room chair with an old sweater isn't going to stop global warming. But it is a sugar-coated step to get people interested in going green. There is substance to my home styling projects. I've always felt as an environmental community, we spend too much time telling people what's wrong with the world, but then we never tell people how to be part of the solution. And when we did, the ideas were boring or unrealistic and presented like a big spoon of medicine: do it because it's good for you, not because you want to.

All of the projects and segments I come up with for my books, on my TV shows and regular segments on CBS' "The Early Show," in the magazine columns and online, are designed to help people transform from dreamers of going green into doers. Recycling your furniture teaches people how to be resourceful. Our best picks on energy-efficient lighting helps people choose the right CFL lightbulb, not the harsh, white bright bulbs (dimmable CFLs are best! They mimic the light output of incandescent bulbs), so they are happy with their green switch. And people who can't afford a hybrid car can learn 10 easy ways to tune-up your existing car to be as fuel efficient as possible. Pretty soon, as people try different projects and put ideas to practice, going green becomes intuitive. You just know what's the right thing to do.

With Earth Day and my 31st birthday just six months away, it's hard not to look back and not wonder, "What was I thinking when I was 12?!?" I was so fearless and energetic back then; I never thought twice about cold-calling elected officials at home to discuss legislation or put together a press conference to denounce a proposed development. In retrospect, I was a bit naive, but I think that was a good thing: I try my best to harness that same naïve, idealistic energy today and charge forward. All in all, I've never known what the "rules" are when it comes to making a difference. And I think that's just the way it should be.

Danny Seo is in the process of buying a fixer upper home in Bucks County, PA. He'll be writing about the restoration and renovation of the home in a column called "The Green House Effect" here on The Huffington Post, where he'll give his real insight into the trials and tribulations of greening this home.