When I was 16, I woke up one day, opened my eyes and realized the world was not the place that I thought it was.
I grew up in the Connecticut suburbs, about as isolated as you could get from the happenings of the real world. It was the middle of the 1980s, the world was full of conflict, and it was clear that the human race was bent on annihilation.
I became painfully aware of the fact that my very existence had a negative impact on the world. Just getting up every day—bathing, eating, getting from one place to another—all of these simple activities were contributing to the depletion and destruction of the world’s natural resources. I made radical changes in my life and did my best to encourage others to live humbly and consume moderately.
Today, more than 20 years later, the situation is much worse. We are consuming our resources faster than they can be replenished. We have become a culture of consumers. We have come to believe that we deserve everything that we want, when we want it. We have been conditioned, by marketing, to worry only about our immediate pleasure. We have learned to put me before we. As a result, we are faced with the imminent dilemma of climate change—a complex problem rooted in our excessive consumption. The only way that we can begin to revert this destructive path is by making radical lifestyle decisions.
Here are a few suggestions for placing we before me:
1) Get close to nature: When I do environmental education workshops with students, I always give this advice first. Before we can make drastic lifestyle changes, we must first learn to appreciate the marvels of the natural world. You don’t have to travel around the world to appreciate nature. Study the intricacies of a spider web in your garden. Take time to notice complex cloud formations. Examine the perfect structure of a single leaf.
2) Consume local and natural products: When we buy products that are made locally, with natural ingredients, we not only inject resources into our local economies, but we also minimize the fossil fuels needed to transport things around the world. Supporting local businesses with safe practices is critical to creating a sustainable economic system that values our natural resources.
3) Consume less meat and animal products: Commercial production of meat and dairy is one of the most damaging activities on the planet—responsible for the massive destruction of forests and pollutants that affect the quality of air, land and water. In a world where millions go hungry every day, livestock production consumes the majority of all grains produced in the world. Meat and dairy consumption has also been directly linked to many illnesses, including cancer. Even though we are omnivores by design, a vegetarian diet is the best choice for a healthy body and a healthy planet.
4) Purchase products with less packaging: Because of marketing, most packaging of even the simplest products is excessive. Companies want their products to look bigger, newer, brighter, stronger, faster… so they add packaging. Most packing materials are made from petroleum based products which take decades to break down, and release toxins into air, water and soil, when they do. Look for products with the least amount of packaging, and that use recycled or recyclable materials.
5) Reuse everything: The best way to avoid excessive packaging is to reuse everything. No matter how conscientiously we shop, we always end up with a collection of plastic bags and containers that can be washed and reused. Reused bags and containers are great for shopping at bulk stores, or for storing leftovers, rather than using disposable products. Finding new uses for things also helps to stimulate teh creative thinking process.
6) Avoid all disposable products: Disposable products are made for convenience, not necessity. The average household in “developed” countries produces about five pounds of garbage a day per person! Reject disposable plastic bottles, bags, plates, cups, spoons, knives, tin foil, plastic wrap, paper towels. Some of the greatest conversations in life take place around the kitchen sink. It’s easy to get used to carrying a shopping bag, water bottle and travel mug for hot beverages.
7) Start to compost: Surprisingly, more than 30% of the garbage that we throw out is organic material. Because most organic matter is humid, it creates more smoke when incinerated, affecting the air that we breathe. The simplest way to start a compost at home is to simply dig a hole in the ground and begin to deposit kitchen waste, dry leaves and any cuttings from the garden. Chicken wire, pallets or other recycled materials can also be used to created a standing compost. The material should be turned over periodically with a shovel or rake. Within eight to twelve weeks, we can begin to harvest rich, organic fertilizer.
8) Repair things: We live in a disposable world. If our “things” were really made to last, we wouldn’t need to buy so much, which translates to reduced profits. However, repairing things not only reduces the amount of waste that we generate, it also stimulates creativity. Clothing, shoes, furniture, toys, electronics, appliances—they all break down at some point, but we can prolong their useful lives with some creative repairs. Every time we repair a broken item instead of replacing it with something new, we decrease the demand for natural resources.
9) Start a garden: Even with very limited space, it’s possible to start a small garden at home. With just a few square meters, or in urban settings, a few buckets or other moveable recipients, we can grow at least part of the herbs and vegetables that we consume. Plants such as basil, oregano, cilantro, chives, peppers, tomatoes and carrots don’t require much space to grow, as long as they have at least 10 inches of soil for their roots. Gardening at home means that we can easily produce organic herbs and vegetables, while also helping to purify the air. Living with plants is a perfectly symbiotic relationship.
10) Recycle: Recycling is easy, but it should be the last option, after having reduced, rejected, reused and repaired. Plastics, glass, metals, paper and cardboard are usually abundant in our household garbage and can easily be recycled. In many places around the world today, there are public recycling systems, which simply means separating materials. Setting up a recycling system at home is simple, and only requires us to change a few habits. Boxes or bags can be used to separate different materials and as long as they are clean and dry, they will not attract insects or rodents. Recycling helps to reduce the demand for natural resources by reusing the resources that have already been extracted and processed.
11) Walk or bike: Most of us are car junkies. It’s so easy to hop in the car for even the simplest errands, usually because we’re worried about time. Making time for walking and biking not only reduces carbon monoxide emissions, it’s also a free opportunity to exercise. If we change our schedules a bit, we can make time to walk or bike for simple errands. Slowing life down a bit allows us to experience the small details in our world that usually zip by at 60 miles an hour.
12) Conserve electricity and water: We live in a world with finite resources, though we consume them as if they were infinite. The real cost of consuming water and electricity is not reflected in our monthly bills. Water will soon be one of the most precious and disputed resources in the world. Even though we have the technology and resources to provide most of our energy from renewable resources, most of our energy comes from non-renewable resources, such as natural gas, petroleum, coal or nuclear reactors. The more rationally we use water and electricity, the more there will be for future generations.
These are just a few suggestions for living a healthy and conscientious lifestyle. Climate change is real and it is already affecting the quality and security of our lives. We will soon be at the point of no return. If we start thinking of we before me, we will make decisions, as a culture, to protect our collective interests and thus, our natural resources. Living a conscientious lifestyle is simply a matter of changing habits in order to minimize our impact on the earth. The earth, after all, is our only home.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant archives