I watched An Inconvenient Truth for the first time last night. When it came out a few years ago, I wasn’t as much of an environmentalist as I am now. Since then, and especially since joining Twitter, I have been bombarded with daily updates about How We Are All Screwed Why We Need to Act Now. The film didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know. At the same time, it was a sobering reminder of just how much work it will take to clean up our act and preserve not only us but also the species we share the Earth with.
If An Inconvenient Truth has a flaw, it is surely that it doesn’t directly empower people to act. Al Gore talks a lot about the need to lower our gigantic CO2 output, but doesn’t 1) make the problem seem small enough that an individual’s actions can positively affect it; or 2) give individuals ideas on how to combat their own lifestyles.
Now, I realize that that wasn’t the point of the film, which was to serve as a wake up call, but perhaps it would have been a good aspect to address. Individuals have to believe that they can make a difference in the problem before they’ll act. Therein lies the problem: our actions, individually, are pretty minute and difficult to measure. However, en masse, they can make a tremendous difference. (Or at least I kept telling myself, as I cut short my morning shower on a chilly autumn morning.) At the same time, most people don’t want to change any really fundamental aspects of the comfortable lives they lead.
So I offer this list as a compromise. They are all extremely easy and practical to do, and require singularly little effort. They might even save you money. They won’t make as significant an impact as, say, going vegetarian or giving up your car, but they’re a minimal-effort way to start making a difference
- Quit the plastic water bottle habit once and for all. Plastic, for all intents and purposes, does not biodegrade. According to The World Without Us, every bit of plastic we’ve produced in the past 50 years, with the exception of the small percentage that has been incinerated, is still around in one form or another (much of it in the ocean). We simply don’t know enough right now about the longterm effects of plastic on the environment. Switch to a stainless steel or aluminum water bottle instead, which can be used for years and fully recycled at the end of it.
- For the same reason, go for a reusable shopping bag instead of taking plastic ones at the store. You probably have a couple already stashed in your closet that were given to you free by various companies. Use them!
- Swap paper napkins with cloth ones. There’s no need for virgin forest to end up as a disposable napkin. (Much less as toilet paper. Rather than use cloth for that function, however, you can opt for recycled toilet paper.)
- Shop less. Every item you buy has a carbon footprint and uses resources. Unless you truly need it or truly love it, consider using what you already have or doing without. Consumerism is a big part of our use of land and resources and, inevitably, of pollution and waste.
- Take shorter showers. The world is likely to face severe fresh water shortages within the next fity years. Your water footprint is no less important than your carbon footprint to sustainability.
- Go meatless for one day a week. Industrial agriculture is a major cause of carbon emissions, to say nothing of obesity. Do yourself and the planet a favor by cutting it out once a week. If everyone were vegetarian one day a week, we could prevent 1.2 million tons of CO2, 3 million tons of soil erosion, and 4.5 tons of animal waste. It would also be equivalent to taking half of all American cars off the road.
- Walk one of your errands each week. Even a Prius can’t compete with the near-zero carbon footprint of walking. Do yourself a favor, too!
- Join Freecycle, a group committed to keeping things out of the landfill. You can keep your unwanted items out of the landfill and get ones you do need.
- Turn off the lights when you’re not using them. (Better yet, unplug appliances or turn them off from the strip.) Unless you’ve gone solar, your electricity is still largely generated by coal burning and non-renewable energy sources.
- Reuse before you recycle. This may come as a surprise: recycling isn’t actually that green. It still takes up energy and resources. Reduce waste by buying less and avoiding packaging and creatively reusing things you already have before you recycle.
The rules are overall pretty simple. Choose reusable products over single or limited use products. Shop smarter (and less). And think before you consume resources. Don’t let anyone persuade you that you can buy yourself green — while you can and should replace necessary products with greener equivalents, buying new products, even if organic, sustainably produced, and recyclable, is never going to be as green as reusing what you already have.