Small Sacrifices for a Healthier Planet
It’s no secret — and, sadly, no surprise — that those of us living in industrialized nations are using up more than our share of the planet’s resources and releasing alarming amounts of greenhouse gases. In 2006, for example, the Sierra Club reported, “industrial countries with less than 20 percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than 60 percent of the total carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere.”
Yet, when we talk about making small sacrifices to save our species from extinction — or from future water wars, as the planet heats up and snowfalls all but disappear — most people resist making changes. We all have our limits, certainly. But without making sacrifices now, what quality of life will we leave our children or our grandchildren? What gives us the right to run lights, TVs, and air conditioners with no one in the room? To drive huge, gas-guzzling vehicles with no passengers or cargo? To plant and water lush lawns in the desert? To waste space, resources, water, energy — all of which are in limited supply? …
An environmentalist friend vows never to fly. “I won’t ever see Hawaii,” he says, “but that’s okay.” He doesn’t want his carbon footprint to be that big. And I applaud him for it. But I don’t know that I’ll join him in his aeronautic boycott. My elder son lives in California. If we’re ever to see each other, one of us will have to travel.
A retiree we know refuses to give up flying, but she makes other choices that reduce her impact. She and her husband live in a compact condominium. Though they have the resources to live more grandly, they deliberately choose to live small — and have throughout their careers. She also bikes or walks or takes public transportation, rather than driving where she needs to go. Her goal is to live an eco-friendly life, and other than the luxury of travel, she’s well on her way to achieving it.
Other friends keep their thermostat so low in the winter that I want to wrap myself in a blanket when I visit. They’re used to it, and consider it environmentally responsible as well as economically beneficial. When I visit, I find it hard to keep from shivering. As a young woman, I lived for several years in an old farm house with a single oil burner; the dog’s water froze in the kitchen over night, and I had to wear gloves to do household chores. I won’t do that again, if I have a choice at all. Yet my friends’ conscientiousness inspires me.
Trimming Our Footprint
Joe and I are alone now, with our two sets of kids grown and gone except for visits. So it’s easy to get consensus on what we two can do. Here’s how we are cutting back, trimming our collective footprint, at least for now. And like the increasingly tight fuel standards and tougher Energy Star ratings, we will work to make improvements every year.
No more meat and dairy. Perhaps this is the most significant contribution we are making, and one of the toughest. The meat industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the auto industry. The antibiotics injected into and fed to swine, poultry, and cattle are reducing our own immunity. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in milk cows has been shown to be harming our children. And none of this even begins to address the cruelty of mass animal confinement operations. We’re well on our way to becoming vegans. But we’re finding it challenging. (Suggestions will be appreciated.)
Become a locavore. We’re not truly locavores; we don’t exclusively eat local foods. But we’re working on it. We’re opting more for locally grown fruits and vegetables, and less for imports from thousands of miles away. We want to help sustain our local farmers and growers, but our choices are limited during the off season — and the off season covers two-thirds of the calendar here.
Buy organic and natural foods. This takes some work. And it isn’t always easy on the budget. But if we want farmers to invest in growing organic and natural foods, and if we want the cost of those organics to come down, then we must support organic farmers and producers with our dollars.
Use only natural cleaners. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in many of the cleaners on the market are unhealthy to breathe. And the harsh chemicals used to scrub our toilets and our tubs are unsafe to touch, let alone drink. If we want the air to be safe for our children and ourselves, we must not use dangerous, gaseous products. If we want clean water for future generations, we must not send toxic chemicals down our drains. We’ll save money, too, as the natural cleaners (vinegar, baking soda, water) are far more economical than other cleaners.
Grow food. We are transitioning part of our lawn into a vegetable garden. We’ve planted peas, beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and squash — all vining plants that we hope will climb the trellis Joe built. If I could, I’d plant fruit trees, but our yard is tiny and doesn’t get much sun.
Compost. All of our food waste now goes into the compost. Our gardens will soon be reaping the benefits of the additional fertilizers. We even recycle tissues, coffee filters, and Q-Tips. Will it all break down? We’ll find out in a few months.
Use less water. This means turning the water off between each dish we rinse, not letting it run as a constant stream in the sink. It means wearing our jeans a day or two longer than we used to and washing full loads, not partial ones. It means shorter showers, or showering together. It means not flushing every time — and purchasing dual-flush toilets when we next replace the ones we have. And it means we are filling up watering buckets rather than carrying a hose to water individual plants. (Yes, a nozzle on the end of the hose would work well, too, but we’re waiting till we have additional hardware needs instead of driving across town to the store for just one item.)
Heat/cool small spaces. We have a large house, which was designed for a lot of people. Our own numbers have dwindled, but the house hasn’t shrunk. So, we find ourselves heating or cooling just one room at a time. The rest of the house isn’t unbearable, but we don’t keep the thermostat set at our preferred temperature. We save a lot of money and resources by using a small space heater in the winter and a window air conditioner in the summer. (Did you know: “Only 2 to 3 percent of the energy produced by burning coal in a power station is eventually used to light a bulb or boil a kettle, because of inefficiencies at every stage of its conversion to electricity, its transmission and ultimate use.” That’s according to the AAAS Atlas.)
Shop with care. Americans in general have a lot of stuff. And we’re no exception. We’re used to finding bargains and getting excited by how much we saved on any given item. But we’re learning to shop more selectively, purchasing only what we really need and seeking the best quality we can afford. We want every dollar to count, and we don’t want junk that will fall apart and head to the landfill before it has time to gather dust. It’s not economical or good for the planet.
Buy quality used items. We know lots of people who’ve gotten great bargains on used clothes, used cars, used homes, used wood, and used furniture. We’re not big shoppers, but when we need something, we’ll consider the option of quality second-hand goods.
Don’t buy over-packaged goods. We look critically at the containers holding the products that we buy. Can the packaging be recycled? Is it made from post-consumer waste? How many layers of protection are there?
No new gold or gems. We don’t purchase a lot of jewelry, so this particular action doesn’t affect us much. After learning about the pollution associated with mining gold, silver, and precious gems, we won’t be buying jewelry unless it’s used or recycled. (Did you know that six tons of rock must be mined to yield two average gold rings?)
Print less. I used to think I had to have paper copies of just about everything. Those reams of paper took a huge toll on my time and consumed many square feet of space in my office, only to end up in the recycling bin after months and years of neglect. Crazy, eh? And I shudder to think of all the chemicals I used to print those papers, the trees that died unnecessarily, and the money that I wasted.
Here are a few sobering facts from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Atlas of Population and the Environment:
The average European uses 130 kilos of paper a year — the equivalent of two trees. The average American uses more than twice as much — a staggering 330 kilos a year. The paper and board industry is the United States’ third largest source of pollution, while its products make up 38 percent of municipal waste.
Replace old appliances. With rebates and incentives, in some states it makes a lot of sense to replace old appliances before they wear out. We’re not quite ready to do that — most of ours are less than 10 years old — but when we do, we’ll buy appliances with solid Energy Star ratings.
Pass stuff on. For 33 years, Joe ran the local university’s surplus system. He’s fond of reminding people that having stuff requires energy. If you rent space, you have to waste good money storing stuff you’ll never use. It requires space that has to be heated or cooled, and whatever you store has to be handled, dusted, moved, repaired… We are selling — or giving away on Freecycle — the things we do not need, passing them on for others to use and enjoy.
NOTE: For a good read filled with helpful suggestions about how to trim the stuff in your life, I highly recommend our friend Greg Johnson’s book, Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons from Living in 140 Square Feet.
Recycle more, trash less. Because we have increased our recycling dramatically, we have reduced what we send to the landfill by about 60-70 percent. Our city requires us to sort recyclables for pick up. It takes time to evaluate every item in our trash, but it makes us more conscious consumers.
Collect rain water. This isn’t legal everywhere, but in our city, we can collect our rain water for watering our garden and flowers. A friend gave us clean, used 55-gallon drums to make into rain barrels. Now, all we have to do is camouflage them so they don’t stick out like sore thumbs at the front of our house where all the gutters run. We are still working on that one.
Refuse lawn chemicals. It’s not worth having a pretty lawn when it comes at the cost of clean water. If you should see a dandelion in our turf, great! I hear they make great salads. In fact, we’d prefer to get rid of our lawn entirely and use our small plot in a more productive way. But that’s for another day.
Use alternative energy. If we get this done, it will be at a significant cost. We’re looking into adding solar thermal panels for heating our water, and setting up a geothermal system. But this is an older home, and retrofitting is expensive. It might not yet be feasible with today’s technology.
Use less gasoline. When we were faced with a long-distance move last year, we had no choice but to replace our old cars with a newer one. We bought a hybrid that gets 46 miles per gallon. It’s not a perfect solution. But we now work out of our home, and we limit our travels. We try to walk if the distance isn’t too great or time is not pressing. We’re toning up on a stationary bike, with plans to hit the actual pavement in the near future (if our knees don’t rebel too much).
No more newspapers. We save a lot of trees by getting our news on line. The down side is that newspapers are going out of business at record rates as consumers turn to electronic media. The world still needs investigative reporters, the likes of which are rarely seen outside of printed publications (with the exception of National Public Radio).
Toss the television. We haven’t owned a TV for about two years, and we rarely miss it. Besides the huge electricity drain, it’s a brain suck. (Ask us how we know. We used to have our brains sucked regularly.)
Our (Current) Non-negotiables. We all draw our own lines somewhere. Joe and I won’t give up our computers. We won’t give up our cars entirely. We won’t say “never” to air travel. And we will take daily showers. Will we always feel so tightly bound to these conveniences? Perhaps not. In the meantime, we’ll do our part by cutting back on the things we can live without.
I started the article by calling the things we do to limit our footprint “small sacrifices.” But as I look over the list, none of these things Joe and I do are sacrifices at all. Some take a bit more time, some take more energy, and they all take discipline. But the payoff — the small reductions in our carbon footprint and the lessened amount of pollution for which we must take responsibility — is well worth any extra effort.
So, I challenge you. Reimagine your own life with a smaller impact on the environment. Cut back on those things you can do without. Trim your household’s waistline. Reinvent your way of interacting with the world. Do what you can — whatever it is, whatever you’re willing to do now, today. Then tell us about it. Let’s learn from each other.
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