"What Can I Do?"

Being Eco Aware in a Fortune 500 company can be interesting. Some of it is great-everyone wants a test drive in your hybrid, but it can also get weird when they want to feel the texture of your organic hemp shirt. Last week in a lull during a meeting in a peer’s office while he took another call I filled the gap by sketching a rough diagram of The Funnel on his dry erase board and as he finished his call I proceeded to regale him with a 90 second version of my deep concern about the results of our current rampant consumerism and its effect on the population limits of our Earth mixing in various elements of ideas such as ecological footprint, Peak Oil, the effects of the melting of the Himalayan glaciers on water availability in India and China, etc. to such an extent that the overall effect was to stun my peer into silence. The Green Bug rears its head at odd times.

Last Friday one of the other supervisors was in that office and my buddy, who has left the diagram up, threw him under the bus by asking me to explain the “funnel” to him. After the inevitable stunned silence he asked me what that means for us. I explained my belief that if it gets that bad-the 1st world will be somewhat protected by our affluence-i.e. in the Depression there was not rampant starvation, just rampant poverty- but for the 3rd and 4th worlds they would not have such luxuries-water and food shortages could be acute with horrifying results given their population levels. He answered with the only real ethical and logical response: “What can I do?”

I was amazed to find that I couldn’t immediately answer. Being short of words is almost unheard of, but after working myself that deep into the Doom and Gloom, changing a few bulbs to CFL’s didn’t seem even remotely enough to offset water shortages on a continent wide scale. I gave it quick thought that centered on a few macro level changes that called for more of a change in mindset than tweaking how you light your kitchen which is my typical answer when a friend asks for a way to live a little greener.

Buy Less After talking so much about the rampant energy consumption, pollution and water shortages in China and India I feel strongly that exporting our pollution and resource use is an immoral act. It takes a lot of energy and water to make a Mattel Hot Wheel in China while at the same time pushing uncontrolled urbanization that is further eroding that region’s ability to feed itself. We cannot be sustainable until we learn to live more frugally. Cutting consumption impacts everything. It cuts environmental degradation from resource appropriation, cuts energy consumption and industrial pollution from unregulated manufacturing, and frees up household money for more sustainable practices that unfortunately can cost more initially while offering long term savings.

Buy Local If we are to survive post Peak Oil and remain flexible enough to roll with the punches of our new self made climate we need to recreate village/regional economies. There is more patriotism to Buying American than in keeping Harley afloat. Here in Wisconsin it isn’t always easy to find local foods and goods year round, but by purchasing as close to home as possible we drive a local economy that encourages artisan skills that will be essential as we are forced to switch from a resource intensive economy and revert to a more knowledge based one. Factor in the massive resource and pollution savings of cutting several thousand miles of transportation off your goods and it’s a no brainer.

Conserve Energy This is usually where I start my Eco Evangelism. I have even made inroads with some die hard neo cons… energy is expensive and even if you don’t believe in Peak Oil or Climate Change, money is a powerful persuader. I figure we are saving $6-8k annually compared to where we were before going green. On a more sustainable level, due to the massive energy losses in transmission lines for electricity or in shipping oil half way around the globe, cutting energy use at the source pays back immense dividends in resource and pollution savings. Hybrids, CFL’s, programmable thermostats, caulking, etc can have incredible effects. Kick it out another level and factor in the built environment with LEED standards, New Urbanism development, and efficient mass transit and hope becomes a reality. We need that energy to invest in a different production infrastructure and may only have a generation to do it.

Buy Organic I rarely push the health benefits of buying organic. The science can be unconclusive and few want to admit they have been slowing poisoning themselves or their children so it throws up walls for them. Instead I push the undeniable environmental consequences of our current industrial agriculture. We are losing our topsoil to the wind while we poison our groundwater–two resources that we literally cannot live without. Almost more terrifying to me is that with the passing of the current generation of farmers (mean age of over 55) we will be losing untold generations worth of accumulated oral traditions of “organic” farming. Our grandparents learned from their fathers before them how to farm successfully without petroleum. Their children switched to a more industrial model and the majority of young farmers today have never farmed any other way. Anyone who has ever tried to start a garden knows that nature is a firm taskmistress and does not brook mistakes-and even Eliot Coleman can only teach you so much from a book. We need that knowledge to be passed on as it always has-through experience: how to hold a hoe, when to plant in your county, and with those skills to have the seeds that have been painstakingly saved for generations to thrive in that exact farm.

I still firmly believe that coming off too strong will not help give others the impetus to change, but that doesn’t mean that we have the right to shy away from the realities of the logical conclusions of our society’s path. If all you can do is convince your neo con neighbor to buy a CFL then we are several hundred Kwh to the better. But for those that are further along the change curve in accepting reality, giving them real tools to help them reorient their lives is critical if we are to build the amount of grassroots momentum to literally save the world. Hubris got us into this mess, it just might be the only thing to get us out.

Be the change!

4 Responses

  1. Good ideas. That’s an excellent scenario you can be in – when somebody starts asking, “What can I do?” Having answers ready is a good idea.

    Can I add “Buy used” to your list? Even the greenest new products take resources to make. If we can get more life out of the resources that have already been expended, we don’t have to expend more. I’ve become a big fan of thrift stores…

  2. Thanks E4!

    The buy used would be a great collalary to the Buy Less section. “question a purchase before you make them, and if you decide you really need it, then try to buy used. If not then used buy “green”…”

    Part of that was attemting to know my audience. Someone with a household income of well into the 6 figures might be an easier sell on buying less than going to GoodWill. But then again I am prejudging.

  3. Buy used, yes indeed! It’s way good for the environment and saves an amazing amount of money.

    Also, I wanted to put in a plug (ahahahahahaha) for pulling your cell phone charger outta the wall when you’re not using it to charge the phone (or any other charger, for that matter). As long as it’s plugged in, it’s drawing energy … so much of it that the experts call it an energy vampire! Who knew!

  4. Ah, Beo – excellent point on knowing your audience. That is a big key to getting your message across effectively.

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