Only someone with his or her head in the sand could imagine at this point that the problems the planet (and all of us earthlings) face are going to be solved from the top down. There is no political solution (although there are certainly things that governments need to be doing, and as citizens we must demand that they do them), but politics being what they are, it’s up to us to make the changes that must be made, from the bottom up, from the grassroots, as it were. Only then will the political will exist for the legislative actions that must happen.
People ask me frequently, when discussing climate change and ecological collapse, what they can do. They’re already turning off the lights when they leave the room and not letting the water run when they brush their teeth. So I’ve been cogitating on it, and I think the following things are what will make the biggest difference, and are doable for just about everyone. Of course we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, walk and bike as much as possible, encourage our leaders to develop wind and solar power, etc. But here’s what else needs to happen:
1. Become a locavore. A huge amount of land and an obscene amount of fossil fuel are used by industrial agriculture, which uses land inefficiently with monocultures, and sprays it with chemicals made from petroleum, killing the soil and wildlife, and works it with huge, gas-guzzling machines. Then the food has to be shipped around the globe (more fossil fuel!). So eating local, as much as possible, is probably the number one thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint and help foster a life-supporting economy. You needn’t be a purist. But start, and you’ll be amazed at how much of your diet can come from small farms in your own region. It’s also a real pleasure to discover the joys of eating seasonal foods in season, as our ancestors did. Strawberries become an emblem of summer, asparagus an ambassador of spring, as it was for Proust. And food grown from seed saved because it came from something scrumptious instead of something that survived being shipped and stored on shelves simply tastes better. (It’s also better for you.) And food that’s coming straight from the folks who grew or raised it arrives in your kitchen fresher than you can imagine. If you don’t know how to cook with whole foods, learn. It’s not rocket science, and nothing will give you a greater sense of accomplishment (what could be more important?). When I cook, I feel a connection to humanity stretching back into the mists of time. Cooking is really what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (thumbs and language and even tool use are shared by other species, but bread making is not).
2. Stop Buying Bottled Water; Filter Tap Water, Instead. This is a no-brainer. With a good filter, you end up with a cleaner product than what comes in plastic, and you remove the plastic AND the shipping from your consumer stream.
3. Skip the Paper AND the Plastic. Invest a few bucks in tote bags for your groceries and other purchases, and get in the habit of bringing them with you. I have two compact rip-stop nylon ones I keep in my purse for spontaneous shopping trips, and some vinyl ones that hang near the door for big trips to the grocery. It’s just a matter of establishing new routines. A neighbor simply keeps them in her car. Want a stylish option? They’re out there. Instead of seeing it as a chore, understand it as another avenue for self-expression!
4. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Old hat, I know. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already recycling. But recycling comes last in this mantra for a reason. It still takes lots of energy and water. Reduce packaging by buying in bulk, by limiting take-out and delivered food, by making your own. And reuse whatever you can, before recycling it.
5. Compost. Any food scraps and yard waste that can be composted, should be composted. Even without so much as a balcony you can do this, either with a homemade worm-bin or with some of the fancy indoor composters now available. Food waste sent to the landfill turns into methane, a greenhouse gas. Composted, it turns into rich soil that your garden or houseplants will love.
6. Grow Something Besides a Lawn. A lawn takes a lot of water and gives almost nothing back. It has to be mowed, often with carbon-spewing, unregulated machines. Plant food trees, flowers for pollinators, bushes to host butterfly larvae, a vegetable garden (it doesn’t get more local than your own yard!). Even houseplants sequester carbon and clean the air.
Biodiversity is beautiful and invites wildlife to visit. Keep just enough grass to give you a space to sit out in the middle of all that rustling, buzzing, humming life. Enjoy your own private Eden.
7. Harvest the Rain. Get a rain barrel and hook it up to your downspout. Or a trug on your porch or balcony to gather the run off. If you’re really ambitious, dig swales and store the rain underground. Climate change means that rain is coming less frequently (but falls harder, when it does come), so it’s more important than ever that we save some for the dry spells. We’ll be getting a rain barrel this spring from our local store, Home Green Home.
8. Reject Consumerism. No more retail therapy. No more conspicuous consumption. Don’t let Madison Avenue convince you that their products offer happiness. No one has ever been made actually happy by buying, even if they do get a temporary lift from it. You end up with debt and guilt and an oppressive amount of stuff. When you do shop, buy from local businesses, local craftspeople and artists. You’ll make friends and discover the presence that handmade things provide. Establish your sense of self in your relationships, your art, your integrity. Not in what you own. Only a fool lets his sense of self reside in something that could be lost in a fire or a flood.
9. Share. One of the ways we’ve gone wrong is by thinking every household has to have one (or more) of everything. We’re surviving as a one-car family because my neighbors let me borrow their cars in a pinch. Snowblowers, mowers, and other tools that aren’t used too often can also be shared. It’s a good way to establish and nurture community, which has been shown to be good for both our physical and mental health (which, of course, are hardly unrelated). When a natural disaster strikes, how much better we’ll be able to respond to it if we’ve already got good relations with the people around us.
10. Rediscover Immanent Divinity. This one may seem less obvious, and present an obstacle to those who’ve been scared off of ideas of the divine by asshats like the Westboro Baptists or the low-IQ America-Is-A-Christian-Nation politicians and pundits poisoning the airwaves (I’m an agnostic about the afterlife, but I’m close to certain that if there is a hell, there’s a special place in it for people who turn others off of spirituality with their cruelty and judgment). But Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” If you learn to see divinity in the world around you, how could you possibly debase it? This is the direction we need to move in, this is the way the rift between our species and our non-human kin will be healed: when we learn to feel the touch of eternity in the breeze, when we understand birdsong as a blessing, when we recognize that with our every breath we confirm our unity with all that is.