Two common themes that are sure to come up repeatedly in my posts will be: “Take action NOW,” and “Every action is worth taking.” Some actions by sheer scale alone have larger immediate impacts than others (setting up a community scale wind turbine or solar panel array versus someone switching out the incandescent light bulbs in his or her house for more energy efficient CFL’s, for example) but it is my belief that both large scale projects and small steps taken by individuals are equally important in the fight to get climate change under control.
Last summer, I read the book No Impact Man by Colin Beavan and watched the documentary of the same name. It was a very interesting tale of one New York City dweller’s personal adventure to discover just how much “consumption” could be comfortably cut out of his life. A point that Beavan made several times throughout his book was that each person has his or her own limit of what he or she can and can’t eliminate comfortably. Beavan certainly doesn’t advocate that everyone do what he did (he went for an entire month without electricity in his apartment for goodness sake), but he does advocate that we all do something!
I strongly agree with that message, but Beavan got a LOT of flak from environmentalists for urging individuals to cut down on personal consumption in an attempt to reduce our individual ecological footprints. He even got some hate mail over it. Why? Environmentalists argued (and this is a quick summary of things) that by urging individual people to take responsibility for their ecological footprints and that by suggesting that individual behavior is partly to blame for current environmental pollution problems, rapid depletion of non-renewable resources, and global climate change that Beavan was actually doing more damage than good to the fight against all those problems.
Environmentalists point out, quite correctly, that for every pound of trash individual people set out on the curb in their garbage cans, the industry that made that pound of whatever it is generated approximately 70 pounds of garbage/pollution in the process. That is true. So, rather than place the focus on what individuals are doing in their homes, some environmentalists want the focus and the pressure to fall on changing large scale industrial practices.
Yes, yes, yes! I absolutely agree that cleaning up how we manufacture products and improving energy efficiency on the larger, industrial scale is incredibly important. In fact, if that doesn’t happen soon, climate change might race away from us. People should rally together to pressure manufacturers to get their collective acts together to cut down on waste and improve energy efficiency. But, in the meantime, people should decide that it is important to clean up their own acts at home and in their daily lives. It’s not a one or the other situation! And, perhaps equally important is that people who make that personal decision need to openly share that with others. If you’ve decided that environmental conservation and climate change are important to you and if you’ve taken steps in your own life to walk the walk, let as many other people in your life as you can know. That’s how culture develops--with an idea that spreads from a few to many and becomes the norm. That’s when the big, industrial scale changes so aptly called for by environmentalists start happening. The culture will demand it.
Ghandi said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” I love that quote and believe in it. The movies that we let our children watch are full of moral messages that are equally apt for this conversation. “If you think you can, you will. If you think you can’t, you won’t.” “I’m just one ant, but there are more of us than you and if we work together there’s nothing we can’t do.” You get the idea.
The actions of a lone individual can feel pretty insignificant, I know. Does it really make any difference if I make a point of turning off the night light in my children’s room during the day? It’s just one tiny little incandescent light bulb after all. That’s an incredibly tiny drop in the very big bucket. But a lot of people I’ve talked with have expressed similar sentiments. We see what we do, but we don’t always see anyone else doing anything (not that they aren’t; we just don’t necessarily see their actions with our own eyes.) Instead, people see their tiny drop and they see the enormous bucket and they wonder if there are any other drops falling in other than theirs.
Well, there are definitely other drops and those drops add up pretty quickly. For example, my family has a small vegetable garden. Each time we harvest our own baby spinach, we have brought that veggie dish to our plate with a tiny carbon footprint. If we’d gone to the grocery store and purchased it, most likely it would have been grown in California and trucked 2,000 miles across the country before reaching our plates. According to the carbon calculator available at http://www.carbonify.com/carbon-calculator.htm, the average diesel tractor trailer releases 2.2 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile driven. That means that the collective carbon footprint of let’s say 1,000 bags of spinach at the grocery store is 4,400 pounds!
So, if my family is able to harvest even five meals worth from our garden, we can boast that we reduced our carbon footprint by 22 pounds. Of course, not everyone has the time nor the inclination to grow their own food. However, there certainly are a lot of folks who shop at the local farmer’s market in Salem every Thursday during the summers—reducing their carbon footprint. Assuming that thirty families bring a meal to their plate from a local farm versus from California just five times in a single summer, already those thirty families dropped their collective carbon footprint by 660 pounds.
Here’s another great example of how the drops in the bucket can add up remarkably fast. At the high school where I teach, all the classrooms were re-fitted with energy efficient light bulbs, each bulb using just 25 watts of electricity. In the classrooms of the science wing where I teach, each room has 25 bulbs. My students researched various sources to determine that even with the energy efficient light bulbs installed, for every hour that the lights were on in our classrooms, about 1.3 pounds of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. They posted signs outside each classroom that said keeping the lights off for one hour every day for every school day that year (approximately 180) would keep 234 pounds of carbon dioxide per classroom out of the atmosphere. Since there are six classrooms in the science wing that would save a total of 1404 pounds of carbon dioxide, just by keeping the lights off for a total of one hour each day in just six classrooms. Little drops, but they add up so quickly. It’s nice to imagine and then see us working together. It gets me excited. I can see the bucket starting to fill up!
Do you carpool? Do you walk or ride a bike if your destination is less than a mile away? Did you choose a high efficiency appliance at the store? Did you buy local or grow it yourself? Do you shop at consignment stores? Do you use cloth napkins? Do you use a re-usable travel mug when you hit Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts? Do you drive a hybrid vehicle? Do you make a point of turning the lights off when you leave a room? Drip, drip, drip go the drops in the bucket. Lots and lots of them, and those drops add up to a really big pour! We must absolutely be lobbying industrial manufacturers to modernize their systems and reduce their own, gigantic carbon footprints. It is a critical component in our multi-tiered fight to get climate change under control. But as we do that--a task that is cumbersome and time consuming even when it is does end with success--individuals must embrace their own ability to effect a significant change and then make those personal changes NOW. Let’s rally together, all us little ants, because together we can do anything. Even fill a bucket one drop at a time.
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