Some pragmatic ways you can help save the planet

It is one thing to say you are pro-environmental. It is another to change your life to minimize your impact on the planet. It is especially hard today because modern living tacitly requires you to be anti-environmental.

For example, most of us recognize that the cars we drive are major contributors to the global warming as well as foul the air. As a practical matter, we cannot give up our cars because to do so life becomes incredibly inconvenient. To give up a car you generally need to live in the city where the cost of living is typically higher. Even if you can settle in the city and live carless, lugging your groceries weekly by bus, often from supermarkets far away from where you live, gets tiresome rather quickly.

So of course, we tend toward pragmatism, which often means our environmental actions are half hearted. Nonetheless, short of living on a street corner there are things that you can do that will dramatically reduce your environmental impact. Here are some choices to ponder. I will broadly group these into long term, medium term, and short term.

On the macro level, the two biggest things you can do are to have fewer children and to become a vegetarian. By having fewer children, I mean you should strive to do what they do in China: have one child, not two or three. The planet needs fewer people. The maximum the planet can sustain and live comfortably with nature is about a billion humans. My wife and I made a choice to have just one child. I confess our reasons were only partially environmental. They were also selfish. One child is easier to manage than two. Whereas providing a college education for two children would be challenging, providing it for one is much easier. Family life in general is simpler in smaller families because there are fewer people who need care.

There is no question that vegetarianism is great for the planet. It is also very good for your health and longevity. I confess that I am not a vegetarian, however neither am I a rabid meat eater. I eat red meat rather infrequently and the meat I do consume tends to be 70% or more chicken. My friend Wendy is anxious to induct me into what she refers to as “The Church of Vegetarianism”. I suspect in my case a full conversion would require divorce, which in itself would not necessarily help the environment since two people living together is the more environmentally benign. Nonetheless, in part thanks to Wendy, I am more mindful of the meat that I do eat.

Morningstar Farms, for example, is getting much better at creating vegetarian products for those used to meat. While they do not quite taste like meat, they are an acceptable substitute. Their Grillers imitation hamburgers, for example, are at least 50% of the way toward tasting like meat and have a similar texture. Particularly when I do not want to fuss with dinner and I am eating alone, a veggie burger makes for a reasonably tasty entrée. It takes huge amounts of plant food to fatten any animal so you can consume it. To say the least it is an inefficient process. Most farm animals also generate huge amounts of animal waste. Vegetarians will also rightly point out that there is no humane way to slaughter an animal.

In the medium term, we need to factor the environment into all our choices. Understandably, many people would not choose to live in the city if they have a choice. However, living in cities tends to be a good way for humans to minimally impact the environment. Living in denser communities means that there is less reason to develop new tracts of land. This leaves more open space for the many species that are already threatened by our population growth. If you can live in a city without a car, you are making perhaps the most significant contribution possible toward reducing your impact on the planet in a first world country.

Perhaps the most useful thing we can do as citizens is to relentlessly petition our legislators to vote for the environment. The League of Conservation Voters, for example, allows you to rate your legislators on how “green” they are. Grinning Planet maintains a site with links to organizations that keep environmental scorecards at the state level. If you are having problems determining the true environmentalist candidates from the faux environmentalists, many such organizations provide endorsements. Besides voting and lobbying your representatives to pass greener legislation, if you have extra time and or money these organizations also need your help.

Other things you can do: get permission to work from home one or more days a week. That takes one commuter off the roads and lets you sleep in later. When commuting, take public transportation if possible. If you happen to live close enough to work where driving is optional, do what I do and bike to work when the weather is seasonable. Likely, you need more exercise anyhow.

When choosing jobs, prefer jobs that are easily accessible to public transportation. Often commuting using public transportation is not practical. Consider a carpool or vanpool instead. I spent most of my career working in and around Washington D.C. while commuting from the suburbs. I took the Metro for a number of years. Mostly I commuted by carpool or by vanpool. Not only did I save time and money, but also my employer was generous enough to subsidize my vanpool expenses.

If you own your own home, there are many things that you can do. You can be environmentally friendly and save energy with new energy efficient windows or better insulation while reaping nice tax credits. Last year we replaced our windows and earned a $200 tax credit. Solar energy may seem so seventies, but tax credits are available if you install either solar panels or solar water heating, and it is unlikely your homeowner’s association can prohibit your from doing so. Many of these things are not just good for the environment, but good for your wallet. Another simple way to be kinder to the environment and your wallet is to install a programmable thermostat. Why heat or cool your house when you will not be there? In our house, we are aggressive in our use of ceiling fans. This allows us to keep the thermostat a bit higher in the summer without noticing the higher room temperature. While many people loathe heat pumps, in moderate climates they tend to be the most efficient way to heat or cool your home. A heat pump that extracts heat from your soil is better and more efficient than one that pulls it from the air. Of course, choose natural fertilizers and weed control techniques when possible. If your lawn is not too large, an electric mower is much more environmentally benign than a gas mower.

If you have not tried some short-term strategies, here are a few obvious ones. Replace your incandescent and halogen lamps with compact fluorescent lights. LED (light emitting diode) lights are even more energy efficient, but are just coming on to the market. Whenever you replace an appliance, look for the most energy efficient appliance. For example, front loading washers and dryers are more energy efficient than top loading models.

Consider buying used, even if you can afford new. Thrift stores have an unearned bad reputation. By buying used clothes there, you are being good to the environment. Of course where possible recycle and donate items you no longer use. It is particularly important to keep electronic items out of landfills. If you look for them, you can find places in your community that will recycle these items, often for a fee.

Perhaps the best way to help the planet is just to be environmentally mindful every day. In addition to trying to persuade your legislators to vote green, word of mouth can be often useful too. Make sure your friends and neighbors know about your environmental leanings and encourage (but don’t nag) them toward making better environmental choices.

Americans have been adept at ignoring the interdependent web of life. That time has passed. The effects of our reckless selfishness are now very clear. Like it or not, any action you take has a reaction. I hope you will join me and millions of others by making your actions better for the environment. In doing so, you are truly giving the gift of life.

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