Confronting the reality of climate change is a difficult thing. Once you come to terms with the magnitude of the challenge, it can be rather paralyzing. You realize that it is now likely that low-lying island nations will disappear under the waves; more than 30% of all species will likely go extinct, introducing the real possibility of cascading ecosystem collapses; storms will be larger; crops will fail; forests will burn bigger and more intensely; some diseases will spread to climates that did not previously have them; water will become more scarce in places that needed and when it comes it will come all at once, flooding towns and washing away soil; regional conflicts will become more common, whether due to water scarcity or environmental dislocation. This situation is deeply unjust as the consequences of our profligate consumption will fall hardest on those people in the world who have done the least to cause the problem, benefitted least from its creation, and have the fewest resources to adapt to the harsh new climate we are creating. This is a lot to come to terms with. Add to this the fact that the president elect of the United States has said global warming is a hoax and has nominated to key cabinet positions people who have made a career of attacking democrats and republicans who sought to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. It is hard to know what to do in such desperate times.
To fight back the feelings of helplessness and despair, I thought it might be helpful if we all shared some of the things that we do to reduce our impact on the planet and to pursue a meaningful life simple in means and rich in ends. I’ve started my list below and I hope you’ll help me to add to it, either in the comments below or writing a blog post yourself if you have a bit more to say. Perhaps it can be helpful if we realize that we are not alone in having these feelings and wanting to do more.
- Get informed, stay informed, and educate those around you. Follow websites like Inside Climate News in your FB feed or subscribe to their email updates. It is tempting to want to just bury our heads in the sand ostrich style, but the we have to have the courage to confront the world as it is and work to make it a better place.
- Get involved politically. Become a climate hawk at the ballot box. Citizens Climate Lobby is a good place to start, as is 350.org. Like them in FB and subscribe to their email lists. Stay informed and try to respond to their requests to sign petitions, write to public officials, attend rallies, gather signatures.
- Thinking globally and acting locally really is great advice. Participate in national trends as you can, but really get deeply involved in what is going on in your community. Organize, participate, educate. Get to know your neighbors. Participate in your neighborhood council. If you are able, run for local office. Find your people and get involved. If nothing seems to be happening in your community, then start something. Start a chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby (see above). Or start something of your own.
- Calculate your ecological footprint at the start of every year. This calculator is pretty good. It is important to be reminded of the number of resources it takes to sustain your lifestyle and how you might reduce work that year to reduce it a bit. If everyone lived like a typical American, it would take 4-5 planet earths worth of resources. We only have one.
- When they graduate, some Gonzaga students take the Green Graduation Pledge, which reads: “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work.” I took it myself and try to follow it.
- When you find yourself in the position of moving, consider buying or renting a place that is closer to your work. When we moved to Spokane I wanted the option to walk to work. So we drew a 2 mile circle around Gonzaga and only looked at houses in that radius. If you like to bike or have good public transportation, the circle might be wider. This is a really big one as this affects both the environment (resources burned in transit), but also quality of life (hours spent in traffic). I love my walk to work not just because it reduces my impact, but because it gets me a bit of exercise and it allows me a nice transition into and out of my work day.
- Purchase or rent the biggest home that you need, not the biggest home you can afford. The little home craze might be indication that the tide is turning against the McMansion. People are realizing that we all accumulate enough things to fill whatever space we purchase. This means that one natural way of curtailing how many things you acquire (and how much debt you accumulate) is deliberately choosing to limit the size of your space. It has the added benefit of reducing your energy and water footprints. This option may also reduce your monthly bills and debt, which can make you feel more free as you have additional time or resources for other things.
- Pick your Joneses. Whether intentional or not, most people inevitably compare themselves to their neighbors. Picking a neighborhood where people generally are much wealthier than you will likely make you feel like you have to keep up with them. One unexpected benefit of having purchased a home in a squarely working middle to lower-middle class neighborhood of Spokane (Emerson-Garfield) is that I feel very fortunate for what I have, rather than feeling inferior.
- Jimmy Carter is right, put on a sweater. Sometimes we think that we should put the temperature at the spot where we can walk around in a T-shirt and be comfortable any time of the year. This ends up being very wasteful. In the winter we try to have the heat at 64° during the day (if we are in the house, otherwise 60°) and 52° at night. (If you don’t have a programmable thermostat, consider getting one so you only heat or cool the house when you are in it.) When we are cold, we put on another layer. Blankets on the couches to cover up. To make the evenings bearable, our compromise is to use an electric blanket for an hour before bed to warm it up and then just put about 6 blankets on (in our room it is around 45° at night in the winter). I’m guessing some of you out there have the temp even lower in the winter? What do you put it at?
- Speaking of heat, consider getting a heat pump if your A/C dies. Half a dozen years ago our old A/C died and we got a new unit that is both an air conditioner and a heat pump. Heat pumps are more efficient than a furnace, generally speaking. So this saves some energy in those months in the late fall and late winter when it is cold but not super cold outside.
- Speaking of A/C, think creatively about how to use it less in the summer months. Last summer I think we used ours maybe 12 days total out of 5 summer months. Of course different climates make this easier or hotter. Spokane is similar to where I grew up in Boise, Idaho. It generally gets cool at night and the humidity is low. So at night we open all the windows and put window fans that suck the air into the house. Then when we wake up we close all the windows to trap the cool air. We close the shades on the south side of the house to keep the sunlight from heating up the interior. Finally, a few standing oscillating fans to move the air and we are pretty comfortable. I think
- If you have a home and the resources, consider getting a home energy audit. We got one 5 years ago. They calculate how much energy you use, how much it costs, and how much carbon dioxide your home currently creates and then it says how much each of those would be reduced if you pursued certain upgrades that they recommend. They also test the performance of your home for things like air leakage, insulation, windows, appliance, heating, cooling, etc. They also tell you what the return on investment (ROI) would be. That is, they say how much it would cost up front and how long it would take for the savings generated to pay for it. We have a home that was built in the 1930s. It leaks air in places. Each fall I try to install new weather stripping, but it is never quite enough. We may need to replace a door or two to get a better seal. The windows have already been replaced, so that isn’t a problem.
- Change your bulbs to LED. This is a no-brainer. They cost a bit more up front, but you make more than that back because the last longer and use less energy. We need to start thinking and acting for the longterm.
- The three Rs are in order of importance. First, reduce. Avoid purchasing what you don’t really need. Avoid buying junk. Retail therapy isn’t therapy, it is a symptom of affluenza. When you do need something, can you buy it at a thrift store? When you are done using something, donate it to a thrift store so it can be reused. Finally, recycle whatever your community collects. Earth911 is helpful in finding the recycling options near you.
- In most places on the planet, fresh water is going to become scarce. Separate from its use, we also have the heating of it, which requires significant amounts of electricity or natural gas. Think of ways to save water. Try to get your shower time down. My own goal is less than 5 minutes. We also installed some things provided by our town’s “slow the flow” program. They provided showerheads that have good pressure, but less flow. This saves a lot of water. They also provided these simple plastic bladders that you fill with water and hang inside the tank of your toilet. It reduces the amount of water used per flush without affecting the performance. Here are some other prudent suggestions from the EPA: pursue simple water-saving actions, such as not letting the water run while shaving or brushing teeth, and save money while conserving water by using products with the WaterSense label. Did you know a leaky toilet can waste 200 gallons of water per day? Repair all toilet and faucet leaks right away. Running your dishwasher only with a full load can save 100 pounds of carbon dioxide and $40 per year. Be smart when irrigating your lawn or landscape. Only water when needed, and do it during the coolest part of the day; early morning is best. More on watering lawns below.
- Water heater – When our natural gas tank water heater dies, I’m excited to look into a tankless hot water heater. I haven’t dug into the research yet, but I’m optimistic.
- Keep organic matter circulating. If you have a composting program in your city, consider using it for your organic yard waste and your household food waste. Let your organic waste be turned back into soil so that its nutrients stay in your bioregion, rather than get entombed in a landfill. We bought a simple stainless steel container that sits on our counter next to the sink. We just scrape food scraps, peels, or other organic matter into it. Eezee peezee. If your city doesn’t have composting but you have a yard, consider starting your own composting.
- Buy rechargeable batteries. Recycle any batteries that are at the end of their life. When you have the choice between a device that requires batteries or electricity and one that does not, consider buying the one that does not.
- Try shopping at and donating to thrift stores. Some items you will probably need to buy new; for me it is underwear and socks. But generally I’m able to buy most of the clothes that I need for leisure and for work at thrift stores. This keeps money in your community, gives useable clothes a second life, and reduces the amount of unnecessary production. Reuse!
- Ziplock bags. We tried avoiding the plastic zip bags altogether, but it didn’t stick. We tried wax bags, but those were expensive and don’t always work when you need it fully sealed. Our compromise has been to use them and resuse them and reuse them. The key to making this work for us was investing in a simple, inexpensive drying rack. When they are no longer usable, we recycle them with our plastic grocery bags.
- Reusable grocery bags are very common these days. I recommend buy about two dozen so that you have far more than you need. Keep some in your vehicle at all times but use them liberally around the house as needed too. When you do collect some plastic grocery bags, store them in a simple bag sock until you collect enough to recycle. Every grocery store has a collection point at the doors where they collect them.
- This can be a tricky one. The green lawn aesthetic is deeply engrained and supported by lots of passive and active advertising. Grass is a great organism, in its proper ecological niche. The thing is, most of us don’t live in a climate that is suitable for grass (like Scotland or Seattle say). For most of us, having a grass yard means lots and lots of water. I’m struggling with this one. I want to get rid of the grass and do xeriscape. But we can’t afford to do that just now. Here are my compromises. First, no chemicals, whether fertilizer or herbicide. I don’t mind the dandelions. They are good for the bees. But expect your neighbors to point it out. My rule is: if it is green, it can stay. The bigger problem is water. This last summer I tried to just not water at all. I got some snide comments from neighbors, but I can handle that. What worried me is that it was taking a toll on the trees. When we moved in 9 years ago, we planted a half dozen oak and maple trees. We also have three mature maples. They were needing some water. So as a compromise I set my watering timer to water every other day for 10 minutes per zone. I set it to go off at the early morning hours so there was less evaporation. This kept the trees healthy and the grass marginally alive. I only had to mow the lawn maybe once a month. Speaking of mowing, if you have a small enough yard, consider a push reel mower. I used one in Pennsylvania and loved it. If your yard is too big and you want or need to keep it as lawn, then consider buying an electric mower. I bought one a few years ago and it works great. It creates less air pollution and is quieter. Of course better still would be to convert the lawn to a vegetable garden. I really should be doing this, but so far I’ve not been able to make the commitment of time and money. I know I should. It is on my list for sure.
- If you have to buy a new appliance, pick the most efficient model that you can afford. We recently had our dishwasher die. It couldn’t be repaired, so we looked for a new one. We looked for the lowest water use and the lowest electricity use. We also looked for one that allowed you to not use the heat/dry cycle, since this uses the most electricity. The same is true of other appliances. Look for the yellow tag that lists annual electricity use and for the EnergyStar label.
- As I mentioned above, the best thing to do is to choose a place to live that is near where you work or has convenient access to mass transit. In many American communities it is very difficult to live without a car. They’ve literally been designed with the assumption that each resident has a vehicle. It isn’t impossible, as Satish has pointed out. But if you do need a car, try to get the most efficient one you can afford. As with a home, don’t buy the biggest or nicest one you can afford. If you are single, consider walking or biking or taking mass transit. If you need a vehicle, can you use a scooter? They are super efficient. If that doesn’t work, maybe a compact car or small sedan? If you can afford it, a hybrid is better than traditional. A plugin hybrid is better than a traditional hybrid. And a full electric is better still, for most people and depending on where you live. Do as much as you can with what you have. If you have the resources, but are wondering if it isn’t better to keep an old car than to buy a newer one, according to one study, fully 75 percent of a car’s lifetime carbon emissions stem from the fuel it burns, not its production. A further 19 percent of that is production and transportation of the fuel, leaving just six percent for the car’s manufacture.
- Support mass transit whenever possible, whether at the ballot box or in your daily commute. The car isn’t going away any time soon, but it also isn’t a longterm possibility that significant numbers of humans will have their own vehicles. There are just too many of us and too few resources.
- Walk or bike if you can. Make your commute something you cherish, rather than loath. I love my walk to and from work. But first you have to live within a reasonable difference of your work. That is the key.
- Air travel is almost always the single largest part of my footprint. In general, I try to pick the mode of transportation that has the least impact, rather than the greatest speed or the greatest convenience. However, being in the Inland Northwest, it is rarely possible to get to conferences for work without flying. And flying has a huge impact on the environment. I try to ask myself, “Is the carbon I’ll create worth what I hope to get out of or bring about from the event I’m attending?” Honestly sometimes I’m not sure that it is. But we should remember Emerson’s point that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The question is not whether one is having an impact on the environment, but whether how one impacts the environment is leading to a better world or a worse one. For more on the problem of moral hypocrisy, see the final chapter of my Riders in the Storm
Food – Being more intentional about what we put in our bodies to sustain ourselves is one of the most important things you can do on a daily basis to magnify or lessen your impact on the planet.
- Local – There are many wonderful farmers markets in most areas. Just google it and you’ll almost certainly find one near you. Smaller farmers are more likely to be good stewards of their land. They are more likely to charge what it actually costs to create healthy food for you and the planet. If you have room to grow your own, do so. This is a place where, as I’ve noted above, I’m falling short. I have the space and resources, I just don’t yet have the time. Or rather I should say I haven’t yet made the time. Growing your own food helps remind us what it takes to create the food on our plate. It reconnects us to the land we inhabit and of which we are a part. Join a COOP or CSA.
- Organic – Many think organic produce is better for your health. The evidence isn’t great that this is the case. But it is possible. I buy organic not because I think it is good for my health but because I know it is good for the planet. The application of herbicides and pesticides destroy good organisms with the bad and pollutes our waters. It is the essence of the attempt to dominate nature, rather than work with it as part of it. When Suzie and I were students, we couldn’t afford to pay for organic; we couldn’t afford to pay the true cost of the food we ate. Now that we have more resources, we always try to buy the organic version, if one is available. Do as much as you can. It isn’t all or nothing.
- Bulk – lately we’ve gotten into buying more things in bulk. Rather than buying a tin of mixed nuts, we buy some from the bulk section. Rather than buying canned black beans and refried beans, we’ve started buying dried versions in bulk. We buy rice bulk, rather than in packages. Next I’d like to start buying our spices from the bulk section. A helpful thing to do is to invest in some nice containers that can store all the stuff. We found some great glass containers at the thrift store. That helped a lot. Buying bulk reduces packaging and it usually reduces shipping emissions. A bag of dried beans ways far less than beans in liquid in a tin can. Also, as an added benefit, bulk items usually, but not always, are far cheaper than the canned and packaged versions. Start with something you use a lot of and slowly add items as you get used to it.
- Meat and Dairy – As I’ve argued in several articles, the sustainability of one’s diet is inversely related to the proportion of animals and animal products consumed. For instance, see “Standing in ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’” or “Toward 2050.” This is a big one. The more meat and dairy you eat, the worse it is for the environment. However, the reverse is also the case. The less meat and dairy you eat, the better it is for the environment. It need not be all or nothing. Try reducing a bit here and there. Try some alternatives to meat. If given the option, choose the version with fewer animals and less dairy. There are many great websites with resources to help you make the transition.
I fear that this post will come across as holier than thou. I really hope that isn’t the case. I am very, very far from doing all that I should. Sometimes I fly on trips that I shouldn’t. I should have a vegetable garden. I should put more insulation in the walls. There are a thousand things I’m working on doing a better, more consistent job of. We can always do more and we should strive to do so. But moral perfection isn’t possible. There are no clean hands. Ecologically, to live is to take from and give to others.Through my small choices each day I try to look for ways to reduce my impact on the world; to choose simplicity over extravagance; to buy what I need, not what I want; to spend my time working on making the world a better place for me, my family, and for all the beautiful creatures on the planet. Often I fall short, but each day I try to do better.
“The function of Reason,” Whitehead once wrote, “is to promote the art of life,… to live, to live well, to live better.” Striving always to live better isn’t about just doing less harm, it is about living a more fulfilling life by pursuing intrinsic goods over fleeting, material goods. So, if the mood strikes you, how do you try to “live better?” What small or big ways do you try to be a force for good in these difficult times? Comment below or send me a note if you’d like to write a blog post of your own.