5 things to do TODAY if you actually care about the planet
You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.
– Dr. Jane Goodall
Earth Day. The only holiday I really want to celebrate anymore.
Unfortunately, my celebration is pretty overshadowed by the fact that, due to global warming, mass extinctions, pollution, and other factors, Earth will probably never be like she once was. And, to put it mildly, she's also in dire need of some TLC.
Acknowledging the effects of climate change obviously require us to look at the "big offenders": coal and oil companies, energy companies, manufacturers, dirty politicians, etc. Yes, the world could be changed overnight if the right people decided to give billions to the planet instead of to a building that's already insured. However, that doesn't mean that each one of us can't have an influence, or that we should just sit by and wait for others to do something.
So, if you care about the planet at all, in my not-so-humble opinion, I suggest you consider the actions I list out below and respect your Mother (Earth).
#5. REDUCE and REUSE first. THEN recycle.
Ah, the forgotten first words of the triple-R phrase!
This goes for everything: clothes, food, electronics, personal care items, and basically any other purchases you make. Don't get me wrong: recycling is great...when we're actually successful with it. According to NBC Washington, the EPA says that "of the 258 million tons of waste that Americans generated in 2014 more than 89 million tons were recycled and composted for a recycling rate of 34.6 percent." That's kind of pathetic, if you ask me.
The fact is, we wouldn’t need to recycle as much if we just reduce our production and consumption in the first place.
Do you really need that Party City Halloween costume you’ll only wear once? Do you know how long that plastic and polyester fabric will be sitting in a landfill?
Do you really need new towels, or do they just not feel quite as soft? Where are they going after you discard them?
One good way to satisfy the REUSE part is to thrift. Shopping first at Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and local resale shops are a great way to maintain your wardrobe without contributing as much to fast fashion or overproduction. The less we buy directly from harmful fashion companies, the less is eventually produced. That, and companies start to catch on to consumer wants: sustainable, fair-trade, eco-friendly products good for both people and the environment.
The concept of reducing and reusing also can be said for anything we do that consumes resources. For example, fewer laundry loads, using cold water, air-drying, high-efficiency appliances, driving when we could walk, always printing double-sided and eco-mode at work, and anything else that consumes electricity, water, or fossil fuels. Embrace the #minimalism trend and reduce, people.
#4. Invest in reusable products, and cut off single-use plastics.
As you can guess, this one is tightly tied to reducing and reusing.
What's stopping many of us from ditching our plastic baggies and toothbrushes are two things: convenience and affordability. Well, consider this: life isn't going to be convenient or affordable when you lose your house to floods, or when climate change smacks you in the face in another major way.
That might sound overly dramatic, but I'm trying to make the point that climate change will be dramatic. Just because you can't see it happening when you look out your window every day, doesn't mean that catastrophes big and small aren't brewing every moment. You might have to do a little more work--like actually research sustainable brands--and you might have to invest a little more money in cloth bags and glass containers. But the right thing is hardly ever the easiest.
Actually, it's so much easier now to find minimal or zero-waste alternatives than ever before (remember to try and buy locally as much as possible to reduce transportation/shipping costs). From shampoo and conditioner bars, to beeswax wrap, to washable produce sacks, you can find everything you need to cut the plastic out of your life.
#3. Buy organic whenever possible.
Like the single-use plastic argument, the organic conversations can sometimes be hard for people--like college students or the elderly—that have very limited funds to begin with. I always say that the most important thing is that you are FED. The next important thing is that you are fed WELL--with healthy foods that improve your well-being. And then you can look to purchase the RIGHT products, products that will both improve your nutrition and also not take away from it or the health of the environment. Sadly, the toxic pesticides and herbicides companies use to improve their yields have terrible costs. By utilizing the power of your dollars, you can choose what you support. Learn more about why you should choose organic here.
You should also think about other organic products besides food—organic cotton clothing, organic beauty products, organic cleaners. Having harsh chemicals come in contact with any part of your body is not good for you, and producing items with those chemicals is terrible for our ecosystems.
Again, if it’s a choice between not having any clothing or buying organic clothing, I’m not going to be the bad guy. The goal is that once you get in a position in life where you can comfortably sustain yourself, every positive swap or change in habit makes a difference.
#2. Get informed, and get involved.
Research topics you're unsure about. Learn about climate change with free online courses.
Advocate for issues you care about, like Line 5. Volunteer with a local nonprofit to help your community.
Vote for your representatives that support climate action. Call your reps that don’t.
Share climate news and research on social media. Encourage your friends to change their habits with you.
Do whatever you can, just don’t sit and wait for someone else to take a stand. All of us have parts to play. Many of our social problems have been brought to the forefront because of the actions of a single individual or group. You have more power than you realize.
And #1. Stop eating meat.
There’s a reason I picked this as #1: it's because this step is so often avoided when we talk about "going green" and "saving the Earth," and yet it is arguably the biggest factor in its destruction. The evidence is out there screaming at us and has been for years, but most of us just don’t want to admit we should change our eating habits (because bacon, right?).
Let me just breeze through the facts real quick.
Jane Goodall is probably one of the most famous environmentalists to date, and she has an outstanding reputation for her efforts in conservation and environmental education. This lovely lady stopped eating meat 50 years ago for ethical and compassionate reasons, but she also is a strong advocate for reducing meat consumption for environmental reasons.
In an interview with Democracy Now!:
“[I]n order to feed the billions and billions of cows and pigs and chickens, even if you don’t care about the cruelty, even if you refuse to admit that these are individuals with feelings, who feel pain and have emotions, even if you don’t admit that, you have to admit huge areas of forest are cut down to grow grain to feed them. Intensive cattle grazing is turning forests to woodland, to scrubland. And food in one end, gas out both ends, that’s methane. And that’s an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. It’s about 36 percent of all methane emissions come from this intensive farming.”
She's right. According to New York Times, Mighty Earth, World Bank, and other sources, animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction. That is simply horrific. Her website, the Jane Goodall Institute, started a hashtag #IEatMeatLess, and further explains.
“Beyond direct emissions, the meat production industry cuts down huge areas of forest to grow the grain to feed the billions of animals we eat each year, or to provide grazing (Mongabay) It also removes habitat from innumerable endangered species, like the chimpanzee. Over-fishing is also causing cascading extinction and ecosystem collapse in our oceans and lakes, with about 58% of the world’s fish stocks collapsed or overexploited (from Washington Post). For the planet, and the species (including humans) already and soon to be affected by climate change, choosing a more plant-based diet is a potentially simple change that can help reverse some of the damage we’ve done to our planet.”
Don't believe Jane? Maybe you'll believe The United Nations.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN have concluded that animal agriculture (aka the industry that provides your steaks, pork, eggs, and cheese) is responsible for at least 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions--more than the combined exhaust from all transportation (FAO of the UN, 2006). To put things in perspective, that means your vegetarian coworker has a smaller carbon footprint than you even if you bike to work every day.
Need more evidence?
Beef is one of the most inefficient sources of calories and protein. (World Resources Institute, 2016).
Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day (International Business Times, 2013), and methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame. (Science, 2009).
5% of water consumed in the US is by private homes. 55% of water consumed in the US is for animal agriculture. (Center for Science and the Public Interest, 2006).
2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef. (Dr. George Borgstrom, MSU).
Nearly half of the contiguous US is devoted to animal agriculture. (Center for Biological Diversity, 2015).
A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people. (Environmental
Protection Agency, 2014).
Here are more resources if you’re still not convinced. I can do this all day.
Animal agriculture impact on climate change: https://climatenexus.org/climate-issues/food/animal-agricultures-impact-on-climate-change/
Meat-eaters guide to heath and climate change: http://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/methodology_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf
Cowspiracy Facts (a plethora of diverse statistics, including much of what I listed previously): http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/
I’m tired of the many excuses I hear from everyone (friends, family, colleagues, and Facebook trolls) about why they can’t cut meat out of their diet. Yes, plants have protein. No, you won't die of an iron deficiency. And sorry, grass-fed beef actually consumes more resources than other kinds, so that is also off the table.
I’m not asking for the world, here--or, maybe I am, since this is about the future of it. Just reducing your consumption of meat down to once or twice a week will make a huge difference in your carbon and water footprint (see the food calculator at www.eatlowcarbon.org/food-scores/). By reducing the amount of money spent on meat products, the overall demand for meat goes down. When the demand goes down, industries lose money and won't produce as much product--which means fewer animals will be killed, fewer will be raised, fewer will be bred, and fewer emissions will be produced.
Before you point fingers at me: no, I am not a saint. My lifestyle is far from perfect, but I am actively working to improve its sustainability and my daily habits. I don't buy 100% of my products organic yet, but I'm getting close. I'm not zero-waste, but I compost and recycle 70-80% of everything in my house. And (newsflash) I'm vegan.
At this point, I want to give a shout-out to a brilliant pioneer in sustainability and environmental education: Hannah Mico (that's her in the very first photo of this post). The depth of her knowledge and passion for environmental issues is incredibly admirable, and she's inspired me both to hold myself more accountable to my own actions and to get involved with these causes on a deeper level. Whenever I have any complex questions about reducing my footprint, I go to her. You should check out her website and blog when you get the chance: www.hannahmico.com.
I'll repeat this until I'm blue in the face: every positive change makes a difference, even if it seems nominal. So remember that the next time someone asks if you want to go shopping at the mall, or if you want cheese or pepperoni on your pizza.
Images: personal photos; Wix Free stock images; National Archives at College Park [Public domain]; Last image by Alisdare Hickson from Canterbury, United Kingdom [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]