There’s only one way to tackle the biggest obstacles – a tiny bit at a time. Every small contribution adds up. Here are eight challenges that face us today, and the seemingly small changes to our lifestyles (and so to ourselves) that could make a real difference.
Food, water, shelter – the most basic requirements to sustain human life. Thanks to catastrophic global agflation, one of these is in widespread turmoil. Lack of food is causing terrible suffering. Meanwhile in the developed world, good food is ending up in landfills. The world is out of balance.
WHAT CAN I DO? Buy only the food you use. Keep a shopping list, and aim to process all your fresh food within a week of buying it.
HOW WILL THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE? At least a quarter of American groceries go to waste. In Britain it’s an estimated one in three bags of edible food – some $20 billion of groceries each year. If you buy only the food you use, you save money and someone else gets that food. If you’re sceptical about the food reaching the people who really need it, then look at what you’ve saved in grocery bills at the end of the month, and donate a portion of that money directly to a charity or micro-loan provider.
It clogs our rivers and seas. It suffocates wildlife and lingers in landfills. It’s a modern scourge- and it’s become known as urban tumbleweed.
WHAT CAN I DO? There’s two things to do with plastic supermarket bags – work around them and work against them. The former is as simple as remembering to carry a tote bag when you go shopping. In the latte case, don’t ever use the plastic bags provided by your local supermarket. Drop them a note (perhaps in their suggestion box) asking why they’re still using them when they’ve been banned for over a sixth of the world’s population. There’s no need to be strident: politeness sinks the message deeper.
HOW WILL THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE? Katharine Mieszkowski’s article at Salon covers it nicely.
Getting into the car seems a matter of instinct for much of the modern world, and particularly in the U.S. – in 2001, 90% of Americans were using their car to get to work. The US auto industry relies heavily on subsidies and bailouts when things aren’t going well…and with the state of global oil reserves, things are unlikely to improve. Domestic American ethanol production couldn’t even meet a tenth of the ravenous fuel demands of cars currently on the road. The only way forward is to kick the auto habit – and every little helps.
WHAT CAN I DO? Here’s a good way to start. Whenever it’s practical to do so – walk. (Or cycle). Particularly for short journeys. Factor in an extra ten minutes travel time, and use your legs.
HOW WILL THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE? Last year, How to Live a Low-Carbon Life author Chris Goodall calculated that driving to the shops uses less carbon that walking. This statement is well-argued, logical, and completely useless to anyone but advocates of the automobile industry (it’s a damning statement on food prices, not the eco-friendliness of driving, as Goodall himself notes). Driving very short distances is fuel-inefficient: starting your car is around as much energy as idling it for one minute. Anything that reduces American consumption from a whopping 21 million barrels of oil a day is good for the economy and for the environment. And what about your own health?
When the sun falls below the horizon, modern society fights the dark. In keeping our cities and roads illuminated, we squander our precious energy reserves skywards in a blaze of candlepower we simply can’t afford. Light pollution is bad for the environment in ways we’re only just beginning to understand.
WHAT CAN I DO? At night, dim the lights and rediscover the dark.
HOW WILL THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE? By dimming their lights for Earth Hour 2008, Toronto residents saved an estimated 434 Megawatts (MW) of electricity – for comparison, standard nuclear power stations generate from 500 to 1000 MW.
Going green is about communing with Nature, leaving the modern world behind and harking back to a happier, more eco-friendly era when humans lived in perfect harmony with the landscape – right? Except it’s not that simple. Take the “wild” moors of Britain – many of them result from deliberate deforestation during prehistoric times. We’ve always made our mark on the planet with technology – yet recently it’s reached a scale where our ecosystem can’t adapt itself fast enough. So now it’s up to us to make amends. Should we throw away the best tools we have to do this?
WHAT CAN I DO? Buy a programmable thermostat and save 10% on your heating bills. Buy CFLs for now and LEDs later, and save energy when lighting your house. Upgrade your home, 21st Century style. Spend quality time with a crank or two! Buy and use your gadgets wisely, and keep a constant eye on the technological cutting edge of green.
HOW WILL THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE? Take renewable energy – it’s all about using the best technology science can provide. And look at the results of doing so.
Contrary to what some would have you believe, a sustainable lifestyle is not about vowing to never buy anything “non-essential” ever again. Shopping is green – but only if it’s done right.
WHAT CAN I DO? Eco-artisans and fair-traded products deserve your custom, from the beads of Project Have Hope to the fresh produce of the Milkweed Mercantile. By buying products that have an unambiguously eco-friendly component to them, and by closing your ears to the greenwashers (and their twins, the greenscourers), you can prevent profits triumphing over ethics.
HOW WILL THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE? The Fair Trade movement, for all that it should be called “Fairer Trade”, gives producers a better deal without compromising on social and environmental standards. It’s a success because shoppers often choose to buy Fair Trade over cheaper, more readily available items. It’s a great start.
GIVING POLITICIANS WHAT THEY NEED
Next month, the United States has a new president. He’s already been unprecedentedly vocal about his commitment to the environment – and, like all politicians, it’s his job to listen to what people want. He needs feedback to do his job well.
WHAT CAN I DO? A green lifestyle is a politicized one. You don’t have to march in endless rallies or pore over The Economist every week – but you should have a read around the most pressing issues facing your governments, federal and local. Your voice deserves to be heard – if you’re doing everything possible to live in the real world. Sustainability is pragmatic: there’s no room for unthinking dogma in today’s eco-political climate, and the best way to approach green issues is with open ears, open eyes and an open mind.
HOW WILL IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE? Because, more than ever, Washington listens.
Remember when you were a child? Your optimism and determination knew no bounds (I’ve fallen over? Well, I’ll get up again). Everything was endlessly fascinating, and nothing wasn’t worth learning about. You had more energy than you knew what to do with. Wouldn’t it be great to experience the world like that again?
WHAT CAN I DO? A thriving green lifestyle is: optimism about the effects of your personal choices, determination in the face of contrary commercial pressures, fascination in scientific innovations that will clean up our environmental impact, a willingness to learn new skills and relearn old ones, and applied energy and enthusiasm in adapting to an ever-changing modern world. Sound familiar?
HOW WILL IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE? By giving our children the future they deserve.
Main image: Wrap