I feel pretty confident saying that the world isn’t going to “end” on Friday. And yet, there are a lot of things happening in our world that scare and horrify us, from the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School to hurricane Sandy to depleting polar ice caps, fiscal cliffs, our economy in general, women’s rights around their reproductive system, escalating conflicts in the Middle East.
I’ve written before about the overwhelm that activists sometimes experience. And certainly there are a lot of huge issues in our world right now. Many of these are issues that we can’t take direct action on–but some of them we can. As we move past 12-21-2012 and into Yule, the Returning Light, and the season of New Years Resolutions, I want to encourage each of you reading this to take stock of what changes you have the power to make in your life to begin to heal this beautiful world we live in.
I particularly want to call attention to choices we each can make to improve our environmental sustainability. Climate change is a reality, and it’s going to take all of us to fix the problem. Here are a few things that you can do with some small sacrifice of time and convenience. They may even save you money.
1. Weatherize Your Home.
It may sound silly, but taping up plastic over windows, caulking floorboards and window boards to eliminate drafts, and putting foam strips up to prevent gaps around doors can reduce your energy use. Reducing energy use saves you money, but it also literally reduces how much coal is being burned and stripmined, or how much natural gas is being hydro-fracked. Non-renewable resources not only burn and put more pollution into our atmosphere, but more and more environmentally destructive methods are used to mine these materials as resources grow more scarce.
2. Reduce Home and Work Energy Use
Changing out your incandescent bulbs for fluorescents lowers your electricity bill. I know some folks have concerns about what happens when the fluorescents break, and if this is a huge concern for you, there are also LED lights that are even more energy efficient. Using energy saving power strips, or unplugging appliances when they aren’t in use, turning off lights when you leave the room, are all small ways that add up over time.
You may not know it, but drying your clothes with a dryer is one of the hugest energy-wasters in a household. If you want to reduce energy use and save money, line-drying your clothes will save a lot. If you have to pay for a laundromat, it saves money even more directly. What I typically do to wash my clothes is wash them in the sink or the tub, and I have a spin dryer about the size of a kitchen garbage can. It spins the clothes for about a minute or two, and then most of the water is wrung out of them. Those clothes, when hung up around the apartment, will dry in a few hours even though they aren’t outside in the wind and sun. In Chicago with the prices I was paying for laundromats, I’d estimate that in the course of one winter it paid for itself.
Bonus points for home energy reduction include upgrading your water heater or furnace to more energy-efficient models, though a water heater is far less expensive than replacing a heater. If replacing your water heater isn’t in the budget or you rent, you might purchase insulation to put around the water heater, and insulation tubes for around the hot water pipes. The cost of the insulation should pay for itself in one winter through energy savings. There’s also improving your home’s actual insulation. In some areas, there are grants and refunds available through city programs, or even through your electricity or gas provider, for making significant home improvements that reduce energy usage.
If you’re looking to reduce energy use in your workplace, remember that the best pitch to your bosses is, what are the benefits to the business. The benefits are long-term cost reduction, and the opportunity for the company to be able to talk about how energy efficient their office is in a press release or other materials.
No, really. Recycle. Even if your apartment building or town doesn’t do it. A little searching on the internet and you can find places to drop your recycling in most places. If you don’t have regular recycling pick-ups, it can be a pain, but imagine how much trash you’re putting into the landfills that could be re-used as resources. Products made from recycled materials typically use less energy to create than creating from “virgin” materials as well.
If you do have recycling at home, please actually do recycle. I’ve been to many people’s homes where they have a recycling bin and they still throw things out that are recyclable.
A special note about electronics recycling; many of the materials used to create televisions, computers, and other electronic components are incredibly toxic. There are often electronics recycling days or other special collection points for these and other hazardous materials that shouldn’t go into landfill.
4. Reduce your Use
Across the board, we all need to reduce what we are buying and using. Everything you buy comes from somewhere. Paper plates and napkins and printer paper come from trees, and clearcutting is one consequence of the voracious need for more and more paper. Everything you buy comes in paper and plastic packaging. Styrofoam is a particularly noxious byproduct of oil as its creation causes pollutants and it’s not effectively able to be broken down. Polyester clothes are another oil byproduct.
Here’s also a place where environmental sustainability crosses over into social justice work. Many of the products we buy, the cheap clothes we wear, come from low-wage and nearly slave labor in sweatshops and factories around the world. Purchasing many products not only uses natural resources and causes more waste, it also supports corporations profiting on unsafe working conditions and underpaid workers.
If you, your workplace, or your local Pagan group are using paper or styrofoam plates and plastic cups, consider that these are going into the trash when used or best case into recycling. These are resources that don’t need to be wasted.
Consider the clothes you are buying; do you need them? What workplace conditions are you supporting? Can you buy clothes fair trade instead, or from a thrift store? Consider the furniture you are buying. What is it made out of? Where was it made? What resources were used to make it? Consider the many products you buy like shampoo or juice that come in plastic packaging. Could you buy products that didn’t come in wasteful packaging? Would you be willing to complain to the manufacturer about excessive packaging and ask them to reduce resources?
5. Eat Healthy
This involves not just making healthy eating choices for yourself and your body, but for the planet as well. Try to eat food with less sugar, without aspartame, without high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), without MSG, without toxins and preservatives and additives, and non GMO (Genetically Modified) food.
If there are foods you enjoy that have MSG, HFCS, aspartame, or other substances in them that you don’t feel promotes healthy eating, consider sending a letter of feedback to the company, or voting with your dollars and not buying from that brand. Over time, as more people do this, it does have an impact. Consider the Hostess brand; while mismanagement is one of the reasons the company went bankrupt, another key factor noted by financial analysts is that moms started making healthier choices for their kids and were buying less hostess products, which impacted their bottom line. I may be one of the few people not despondent at the loss of Twinkies.
Actually, I think Hostess going out of business is one of the signs that there may be hope for humanity after all–if people made the choice to not eat foods that were completely terrible for them, even if they taste good–then we can make some of the other hard choices out there to live more healthy and more sustainably.
Eating food from local farmers by buying from a farmer’s market or from a CSA (community supported agriculture) or even growing your own food ensures that you know what’s actually in the meat and vegetables you are eating. Eating locally-grown food reduces the amount of gasoline needed to get the food from the field to your table.
Consider eating meat that is not hormonally treated, and that was raised ethically. Consider also reducing the amount of meat, particularly red meat, that you eat. Cattle and the methane they produce have a negative impact on the atmosphere; methane is far worse than carbon.
6. Use Less Toxic Chemicals
It’s amazing what kind of crap you can find on the back of food labels and cleaning supplies, even shampoo. Do any of us even know what toxins we’re exposing ourselves to? The production of many of these materials pollutes our rivers, our land. Some of these toxins are eventually found to be carcinogenic or to cause other illnesses in the people exposed to them.
If you look online, there are recipes that are easy to create using primarily vinegar and baking soda, some involve lemon juice and borax, for making your own cleaning supplies. Some also include biodegradable dish soap.
I am about to switch over from commercially created shampoo to using baking soda and apple cider vinegar. This reduces my use of plastic and other materials. Soon I’ll switch over to making my own toothpaste. I’ll report back on how these experiments go.
7. Water Bottles: Just Stop
I respect your need or filtered water that tastes good. We all need to drink more water and less soda, less sugary drinks, less aspartame. But water bottles create an incredible amount of plastic waste, and most of them don’t get recycled. I’ve been drinking tap water in my aluminum water bottle for the past few years and I’ve reduced usage of dozens, if not hundreds, of water bottles. Now that there are the new Brita water bottles with a filter, I’m thinking of getting one of those, though you can also use a Brita water filter in a pitcher and fill from that, or from one of the more expensive, but more convenient tap water filters direct on your faucet.
8. Reduce Water Use
It’s also important to look at other places that you use water. I admit, I’m a long hot shower culprit. To moderate my water use, I use a low-flow showerhead. You can also put low-flow taps on your faucets. In general, keep in mind how much water you are using. Do you turn your water off when you brush your teeth? Do you leave water randomly running as you are washing dishes?
Watering your lawn is actually one of the hugest water wasters in a household. Installing rain barrels can collect water that you can use for your lawn and garden, but it also keeps water from rainstorms going directly into the sewer system. In a place like Chicago, rain goes into the sewer along with all the water waste from a home, including what comes out of showers, sinks, and toilets. So when that sewer water backs up during a rain storm, it causes many messy problems in people’s basements.
Why should you care about how much water we use? If you live in an area where there are common summer droughts and limitations on water usage, you’re used to water rationing. Or maybe this past summer there were limits placed on water use because of the drought, like in Wisconsin and Illinois. The fact is, we take fresh water for granted. Lake Michigan is at an all time low. Cities around the lake use the water from the lake. In Chicago, the waste water then goes into the Chicago River, which flows to the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico. Fresh water is not an infinite resource, and in drought and as resources diminish, it is the poorest people who will suffer the most as prices for water begin to rise.
9. Drive less
Pretty self explanatory, but if you drive less–carpooling, taking the train, biking, walking–you’re using less gas. Even turning your car off instead of idling reduces how much gas you’re using. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to drive a hybrid car you can further reduce your use of gas. Keeping your oil changed and your tires in good shape improves your mileage too.
Will any of these save the world?
Well, probably not. Not even if you did them all. Not even if all of us did them all. But it’s a start. Reducing our energy usage doesn’t directly reduce violence in schools or solve the conflicts in the Middle East. However, think about the long term; in our self-absorbed consumerist, locust-like culture, we are all about stuff, acquiring stuff, throwing away stuff, wasting resources. It’s a very self-centered model where those with the money are on the top of the heap. When we shift our values around stuff, around resources; when we are willing to sacrifice convenience for what is right for our long-term sustainability, or what will help those less fortunate than ourselves.
For me, it’s all a part of a process of changing our culture. If we can transform from the people who use resources without caring, who put our own needs in front of everyone else’s, into the people who are willing to make a difference, the people who can work together to make the world a better place…that’s the world I want to live in. If we can begin to reduce the burden we place upon our resources, we can reduce some of the conflicts that arise over those resources.
Living more sustainably means reducing resources, and it also means partnering with others in your neighborhood or community. It means returning to a community structure where we actually care about each other, where we notice if someone in our community is hurting and needs help.
I challenge each of you to reduce your environmental impact in the coming year. What are your resolutions this year, whether environmental, social justice, or otherwise?
Shauna Aura Knight is an author, artist, ritualist, community builder, activist, and spiritual seeker. She travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and spiritual growth. She’s the published author of books and articles on leadership, ritual facilitation, and personal transformation, as well as an author of fantasy fiction. Her mythic artwork is used for magazines, book covers, and personal shrines. Check out her blog on Pagan leadership and community building or her web site for more information on upcoming classes, rituals, books, and articles.