Save the world? Who, me? While big-name corporations and start-ups alike are working toward creating environmental technologies that can greatly reduce harmful emissions, there are plenty of steps individuals can take to shrink their carbon footprint.
And that doesn't mean swapping your car for a bamboo bicycle -- though, that's not such a bad idea. Adopting any, or all, of the following practices could add up to very positive change. Here are five steps to save the environment.
Rethink your commute
Transportation accounts for about 27% of greenhouse gas emmissions in the U.S., according to EPA estimates. Fossil fuel-powered transportation, such as cars and airplanes, account for more than 13% of global emissions.
No one option is right for everybody, but until you can build a solar-powered electric car (and charge it at a solar charging station), there are plenty of low-tech ways to cut your commute's carbon footprint, including carpooling, public transportation, cycling, telecommuting and walking.
Living in the San Francisco area a few years ago, I loved using the "casual car pool" system that sprang up. I would walk three blocks from my apartment to a gas station and wait in line, briefly, to get a free trip across the Bay Bridge. In doing so, I met my neighbors, the driver got to use the toll-free car pool lanes and we zipped by all the many single-occupant cars stalled in traffic. Later, I moved further away and took BART trains, which also zipped past all the single-occupant vehicles clogging the freeways (and the air with their tailpipe emissions).
What you get: Almost any mode of transport is cheaper than driving your car solo to work. And parking charges? Forget it!
What we get: Potentially huge reductions in smog and greenhouse gas emissions -- and less road rage.
Repurpose food waste.
Why throw away food when it can be turned into compost, a great addition to any garden? Vegetable trimmings and leftovers, peels, fruit cores, used paper napkins, egg shells -- practically everything but fat and bones (which in our case go to the dogs and the stock pot, respectively) can be composted to return fertility to the soil.
If you live in an apartment, talk to your landlord about setting up a compost system for the building; the landscaper can spread the rich results around for healthier shrubs and flowers. Save your scraps to give to someone with a garden nearby. San Francisco has had great success with requiring residential composting. Now if they would just pick up and compost all that dog poop.
What you get: Less trash that your taxes are paying to haul away and free fertilizer for your garden.
What we get: Less food rotting in landfills, reduced carbon and methane emissions, waste turned into marketable products and a replacement for petroleum-based fertilizer.
Recycle and buy recycled
Why make stuff from new materials when we have tons of old materials around that would otherwise go to the landfill? This was common sense for earlier generations, until artificially cheap oil and various policy decisions after World War II fueled a mindset among consumers that acquiring things was good.
According to ecocycle.org, about 80% of what we throw away is recyclable, yet just 28% actually gets recycled. Participate in your city's recycling program and dispose of bottles, cans, paper and trash responsibly. It's easy to do, you just have to make it a habit -- like carrying your re-usable shopping bags to the store.
To make recycling really work, however, you need to buy recycled. I've found good quality toilet paper, for example -- cushy, soft, two-ply stuff -- from the Natural Value brand. Increasingly, national chains such as CVS drugstores and Safeway have their own lines of recycled paper products at good prices. Preserve makes a line of stylish kitchen goods and other products from 100% recycled plastic and 100% recycled paper.
What you get: Lower trash bills, energy savings and the chance to buy recycled goods.
What we get: More trees (recycling newspapers alone saves 26 million trees a year), water, barrels of oil, landfill space; less air and water pollution. Plus, recycling creates more jobs than land-filling does.
Choose pastured beef and chicken
You may have heard eating meat causes climate change. That's not exactly right. It has more to do with industrial agriculture and production methods than cows themselves. Consider this: Ruminants (cows, buffaloes, etc.) evolved to eat primarily grasses, and while they love grain, it's not good for them in large quantities. It upsets the pH of their stomachs, making them prone to illness, which feedlot operators combat with plenty of antibiotics. Pastured cattle, on the other hand, typically emit less methane gas than their grain-fed counterparts. Their manure (and carbon) is absorbed into the soil instead of outgassing, and the resulting healthy soil microbes destroy methane.
Demand for pastured animals makes carbon farming viable. Carbon farming sequesters carbon in the soil using such methods as no-till agriculture and planting more trees. Grazing animals are fed on grasslands -- rather than feedlots -- which cover more of the earth's surface than forests and grow faster as well. Lots of land that isn't really suitable for crops is good for pastures, and they can support several different species at once.
"There is more carbon stored in the soil than in the atmosphere," Chuck Rice, a Soil Science Professor of Kansas State University and member of the IPCC panel, told the folks at WorldChanging.com. "If we can make a small change in managing that carbon in the soil, it would make a big difference in the atmosphere."
Peter Bane, the publisher of Permaculture Activist magazine, says that if the more than 100 million agricultural acres in the U.S. that are planted with corn and soybeans were returned to permanent grass-based prairies, it would sequester 2.2 billion tons of carbon a year, according to Bane's calculations.
Done badly (overstocking pastures), cattle ranching can be disastrous. Done right (intensively managed rotational grazing), grass farming is incredibly productive while actually improving the soil. And with sufficient demand for meat that hasn't been run through the feedlot system, we could start converting the Midwest's monoculture deserts back into rich and productive prairie and pastures.
What you get: more healthful meat (higher in CLA and Omega 3 fatty acids than feedlot beef with less exposure to antibiotics).
What we get: Carbon sequestration in the soil without costly heroic measures. Plus, a reduction in the tremendous fuel costs (and carbon output) of industrial agriculture and preservation of wildlife habitats.
Know where your food is coming from
Real Food advocates say to "know your farmer" for quality assurance. Even better, be your own farmer: Grow an edible garden or keep a goat or chickens. Growing even a little bit of your food saves transportation costs and emissions and gives you greater appreciation for good food and the work of farmers. Replacing your lawn with a garden will probably save water as well as food costs.
We recently adopted pet goats to help keep brush under control (no diesel engines!). We're contemplating raising meat goats for, you know, meat. We're getting a small flock of chickens that, in exchange for some chicken chow, a safe perch at night and all the bugs they can eat, will provide us with fresh, incredibly nourishing eggs that you just can't buy at the supermarket.
No room or aptitude for animal husbandry? Check out cow or goat shares for getting fresh milk, beef shares for meat (a half or quarter of a steer costs less per pound), find a local CSA or buying co-op so you can get quality meats (and produce) direct from the farm.
What you get: Better food for less money, possible savings on medical care from improved diet, self-sufficiency.
What we get: Stronger local economies, family farms that can stay in business, lower greenhouse gas emissions.
The vast bulk of energy use, water use, land use and pollution emissions are in the hands of corporations. If the market is truly responsive to consumers, we must give it the right message. We don't have the moral authority to demand change unless we ourselves change. Vote with your dollars and lifestyle choices to let corporations know what you want -- and don't want -- in our world.
Earth Day 2010: Five Steps You Can Take to Save the Environment