So You Wanna Live Sustainably? Here’s How

It’s easy to pay lip service to living green, but eating at farm-to-table restaurants, driving a hybrid, and buying carbon offsets every time you book a flight are expensive habits to build. And the inexpensive habits—eliminating food waste, going vegetarian, riding your bike—can be tough transitions to make when a busy life seems to always get in the way. The bottom line, though, is that little is going the environmentalist’s way right now. Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, denies carbon dioxide’s role in global warming (which is disturbingly not his worst offense), mainstream news organizations cover environmental issues only minimally because it doesn’t garner clicks like Trump tweets do, humans are causing a mass extinction in the animal kingdom, and that’s just the beginning of it.

But I didn’t bring you here to bring you down. When the news is so bad you get queasy just reading it, it’s time to take matters into your own hands. From tweaking your own habits to engaging with local politics, there’s a lot you can do to make this world a friendlier place for plants and animals (including humans.) Here are a few ideas.

Start small

When it comes to making changes like riding your bike and eating sustainably sourced food, you have to be patient with yourself. Like flossing your teeth, the most talked-about ways to change your life for the greener might sound simple but evade you when you try to build them into your daily routine. Take biking to work, for example. Going cold-turkey on your cushy morning commute might sound noble, but try asking your groggy, 6:30 AM self to trade a podcast and coffee for a cold, drizzly bike ride. We’re creatures of habit and of comfort, so start with riding your bike only on sunny days, or Fridays, or when you can’t find a carpool. Eat vegetarian two or three days a week, instead of ditching bacon and burgers for good. Commit to only eating chicken from an ethical, local supplier, but give yourself a little wiggle room when it comes to blueberries in the winter. Start composting, recycle diligently, and wash your clothes only when they need it, but maybe put off switching your tot to re-usable diapers. Taking things one-at-a-time is a key strategy for habit formation, too. So don’t try to revolutionize your diet, transportation, living space, and recycling and composting habits all at once. You’re only human. Make the first small change a habit, then start working on another.

Be discerning when deciding what lifestyle changes you might want to make.

There are hundreds of ways to minimize your carbon footprint, and some are more impactful than others. For instance, a typical passenger vehicle emits 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. You can minimize this impact by carpooling, driving for better gas mileage (meaning accelerating slowly, braking gradually, avoiding stop-and-go whenever you can), and, of course, replacing your vehicle with a hybrid or all-electric vehicle. But, as a Seattle native living on the East Coast, I produce 4.89 metric tons of carbon dioxide flying home just three times (which easily happens in a year.) Air travel is possibly the most carbon intensive activity on the planet, and taking just one or two fewer flights a year can dramatically reduce your personal carbon footprint with less effort than adjusting your entire daily transportation routine.

Even if you’re not air-travel-happy like me, a typical home produces 9.47 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year just from energy use (so, natural gas, electricity, liquid petroleum gas, and fuel oil combined). If you can elect to switch your home over to sustainable energy sources (and, bonus points, make efficiency updates like installing a smart thermostat, plugging leaks in your home’s insulation, and using efficient lightbulbs), you can dramatically shrink your carbon footprint without too much changing in your day-to-day life. Instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to making lifestyle changes and checking off the boxes on a list of ways to live green, learn which of your habits has the greatest impact on our planet and start there.

Change your perspective on the spaces that need protecting

Don’t just focus your environmental passion toward spaces like Bears Ears, where decisions about sustainability and conservation seem clear-cut and the possibility of preserving “untouched” nature feeds your romantic side. Our habitat as humans includes urban spaces, sprawling strip malls and parking lots, fast food restaurants, motels and gas stations. It also includes vast, flat farmland, oil fields, working forests, mines, and man-made lakes and rivers. Adjust your perspective on conservation to include all land, not just the “wild” places. When we focus our energies only on the beautiful spaces—our national parks, vibrant coral reefs, unmolested old-growth—we risk ignoring the fate of the less aesthetic parts of our planet, letting those lands fall out of the scope of our attention and our concern. Take an unsparing view of the planet, pay attention to more than the vistas that feed your soul, and engage with what’s going on everywhere, including the working land where many of the largest environmental threats are introduced.

Plug in to your community to have the biggest social impact

If the current political climate has made one thing clear, it’s that we all need to be activists. And it might be hard for you to rally the entire nation around, say, wind energy—after all, you’re one in 318 million—but your odds are a lot better at home, in your town or neighborhood’s community meetings, than they are on the national stage. Educate yourself on your town’s waste disposal, the HVAC system in your city’s buildings, where your drinking water comes from, how your public transit system impacts the environment. Learn about your local economy: is logging happening nearby? Commercial fishing? Drilling? Farming? How are these endeavors regulated? How can we transform these systems to be examples of good stewardship? Hone in on local politics and grassroots change. Head to a town hall or community board meeting, ask questions, take notes. Crusade for changes in the systems in which you participate and on which you depend. A friend of mine recently decided she wanted to start a grassroots program encouraging and campaigning for an efficient composting program in Salt Lake City and was surprised to discover such a system was fully in place when she went to research it—most people in the city just didn’t know.

Photo by Ian Keating

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