Ten Things to Do for Earth Day & Every Day.....by Robyn du Pré

Robyn du Pré is executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. Her work experience includes stints as a conservation coordinator for a land trust, program director for a field school, faculty for a traveling college environmental studies program, policy analyst, water quality liaison to local governments, and backcountry guide. She preferred the latter. When she’s not working, Robyn mostly dreams of writing essays, watching her chickens grow up and getting her squash planted.

April 22 is Earth Day. For more than 20 years, I’ve worked in environmental education, conservation or advocacy. Throughout my career, I have seen a lot of different organizations proposing their solutions; mine (RE Sources) is one of them. There are a lot of people lobbying for carbon taxes, green building incentives, tougher water quality standards and the like. Don’t get me wrong, these are really good things for which to work.

But, at the end of the day, I think that the most powerful way to make change is for each individual to choose that which is good for the earth over that which is bad for the earth. I know this is simplistic, but after more than 30 Earth Days and a lot of legislated solutions, I don’t see a whole lot getting better for the planet.

Call me naïve, but I do think that we people have caused our environmental problems and from my seat, I think that we people can fix them. Let’s start with our own lives; making change at home should be the easiest place to start, right? So, in honor of Earth Day, I offer my list of things that, if we all did them, would make a world of difference.

1. Park Your Car

There are so many reasons our community might consider promoting alternatives to the car that this makes the number one spot in this article. Even with today’s more efficient vehicles, cars are still a major source of air pollution, contributing not only carbon, but a host of pollutants, including NOx, particulates, metals, PAHs and more.

In fact, the World Health Organization has recently shown that air pollution from cars causes more deaths than those caused by car accidents! I know this might make some people mad, but I’ll say it anyway: electric cars and biofuels really aren’t the answer. Sure, they help with the air pollution and the carbon, but remember that even here in hydro-heaven, 40 percent of our electricity comes from coal! Cars have other impacts besides those wrought by one’s fuel choice.

Cars drive our development patterns, for one thing. Did you know that there is actually a zoning classification called “auto-commercial?” All those fringe strip developments and malls are there because the car offers us a cheap and easy way to get to them. Add to this the impact of all that pavement that we must have to service our cars — roads, driveways, and those massive parking lots that act as runways for pollutants, very efficiently transporting all that goo to the nearest waterway via storm drains.

And, what about all of the habitat that is lost each year to pavement, the noise pollution caused by cars (who can’t hear the freeway in Bellingham?), the impacts of the oil extraction and refining industry (or coal-fired power plants that make the electricity for those electric cuties), and the sheer amount of raw materials needed to make cars? I have to wonder why we are so darned married to our cars.

The interesting thing about our transportation habits is that 24 percent of all car trips are made within a mile of the home, 40 percent of all trips are made within two miles of the home, and 50 percent of the working population commutes five miles or less to work. These are the very trips that would be fun and easy to make by foot, bike or bus!

Just think of it — by choosing an alternative to your car for trips of two miles or less, you’ll spend less money on gas and maintenance, enjoy your walk or ride to work (or the bus stop), and arrive with a smile on your face. As a bonus, you might find that your jeans hang just a little looser. Plus, you don’t have to worry about parking or that pesky carbon footprint!

2. Buy Less Stuff

I recently saw a magazine with the cover calling out: “Climate — So Hot Right Now. New Styles for a Warming World.” Honestly. Going green should not be used as an excuse to run out to buy organic cotton sheets, appliances shipped from Sweden and clothes made from bamboo. In almost all cases, keeping the stuff you have beats buying new eco-friendly stuff (except in the case of replacing your car with a bike or a bus pass). Want to make a real difference for the earth? Buy less stuff.

Buying less stuff saves at every step of the consumption cycle: fewer raw materials are taken from the earth, pollution is not created manufacturing stuff, it is not shipped across the globe, packaging is not needed, land is not ruined for another store, and you don’t have to dispose of it when you are done with it.

When you do buy, go used. In the United States, we buy so much stuff that we have a huge market for used stuff — especially clothes. We have so many used clothes, that we ship huge volumes of them overseas where they are sold for people to wear or to shred for fiber to make more stuff.

And don’t get me started on storage lockers. Some things are hard to find used. When that is the case, buy one high quality item (rather than three cheap ones in a variety of colors) and then wear it out. When you buy less stuff, you’ll have more money in the bank. That might mean that you can save for the future, send your kids to college, or maybe even work less so that you can enjoy life doing things other than buying more stuff.

3. Learn to Share

Going along with buying less stuff is learning to share the stuff that you have. What if every six households shared items that are not used daily? Imagine if your neighborhood could share that lawnmower, chain saw, those shop tools, and maybe even the pickup truck that one needs to haul large items on occasion? And what about shared garden space — does your neighbor live in a shady spot when you have an abundance of sun?

My neighbors and I are gearing up to share a flock of chickens — we all want the eggs, and we are happy to host those happy hens, while neighbors pitch in with feed and occasional chicken sitting. How about those fancy and expensive dresses that your teenage daughter wants for the prom? A group of girls could organize a dress swap — having fun trying on each other’s clothes is popular with teens anyway; why not make it green, too?

While you’re at it, how about you share your wealth with someone who is less fortunate — take some food (or cash) to the food bank, host a victory garden to grow food for the hungry, offer a ride share, or write a check to one of the many good organizations that serve the needy? We cannot be a sustainable society unless we bring everyone along. Sharing reduces consumption and builds community. Hmmm, maybe Mom was right; this sharing stuff is cool.

4. Build Small

There is a lot of hoopla about green building these days. Green building practices make a lot of sense. But some green building choices can be expensive up front, relegating these excellent practices to large institutions and the homes of the wealthy. Many of the homes that I have seen featured as “green” seem to integrate every known green building practice except the one that would make the most difference: these houses are still very, very big.

Thinking about building a 3,000 square foot “green” house is a bit of an oxymoron. Sure, it’s better than building the same house without green practices, but a small, well-insulated house with no other green features is greener by far than some of these “green” palaces that I am seeing featured these days.

Small houses are by their very nature, green. They require less land, and due to their small footprints, encourage greater density in an urban setting, saving farmland for other uses, like farming. That small footprint also means less impervious surface, leading to less stormwater to manage. Far fewer raw materials are required to build a small house than a large one. And small buildings, when well insulated, are easy to heat, saving energy. Finally, if you own a small house, you can only have so much stuff, leading to a trickle-down effect of less consumption.

5. Eat Lower on the Food Chain (and as Local as Possible)

You gotta love modern life: eating local is the hot new trend — we now have a term for it, “locavore.” Gosh, you’d think we invented the concept! Of course, up until a generation ago, we were all primarily locavores. Sure, humans have traded for spices, tea and coffee for a long time. Even the Indians of the north coast traded dried salmon to inland tribes.

But it really hasn’t been until the advent of industrial agriculture that we started to ship most of our food great distances. In the U.S., the average grocery store’s produce travels nearly 1,500 miles between the farm where it was grown and your refrigerator. And, even though broccoli is likely grown within 20 miles of the average American’s house, most supermarket broccoli has traveled 1,800 miles!

And what about that old argument that meat eating is hard on the environment? Well, it’s still true. According to a 2006 U.N. report, the meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than all the SUVs, cars, trucks, planes and ships in the world combined. What, eating meat increases your carbon footprint? Environmental Defense tells us: “ if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than a half-million cars off U.S. roads.”

Researchers at the University of Chicago report that going vegan is 50 percent more effective than switching to a hybrid car in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And, of course, the meat industry emits a lot more than just carbon dioxide. Animal agriculture is also responsible for huge amounts of methane and NOx, other leading global warming gases.

Then there is the impact of animal wastes from factory farms and feedlots on our waterways, with high volumes of manure and slaughterhouse offal finding its way into our waterways each year. But many people enjoy eating meats, both for their flavors and the health benefits of that concentrated protein. So perhaps the middle way is to east less meat, and when you do, buy it from a local farm that raises few animals per acre and has responsible waste management practices.

6. Rip Up Your Lawn

Rip up your lawn and grow food for yourself, your neighbors and for wildlife. Lawns are the largest crop grown in the United States. That’s right, we grow more turf than food. And all that grass needs to be mowed, which means spending time and resources cutting grass that only grows back again.

While many people enjoy a spot of grass on which to play, lawns are a bit of an ecological desert. Not many animals will stop by your lawn — there is not much to eat nor anywhere to hide. But, if you replace your lawn (or most of it) with native plants and a few brush piles, suddenly you have a wildlife haven.

And, out back, why not plant some food for people? Not only will it greatly reduce the carbon footprint of your food, it’s fun to learn to grow food. Food gardening will help you with several of the items on my list: you’ll eat local, buy less stuff (no time to shop — gotta weed!), you’ll have a great way to take a kid outside, and you’ll build community (but be careful here — secretly leaving zucchinis on your neighbor’s porch may not build brotherly love and could lead to a neighborhood equivalent of nuclear brinkmanship).

And, best of all, there is no better way to really appreciate nature’s bounty than biting into a sun-warmed, fresh tomato in the summertime.

7. Build Community

Sure, we all live in a community, but sometimes one has to be intentional about being a real part of that community. By building community, we feel less isolated as individuals and find value in things that don’t cost money and don’t harm the earth, like sharing a laugh with neighbors, waving to a friend on the trail or winning the day in front of city council.

You can go the extra mile by building community in a manner that serves the earth by planting trees with NSEA (Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association), helping the new Center for Local Self Reliance build teaching gardens, teaching or taking a workshop at RE Sources’ new Sustainable Living Center, or just marshalling some neighbors to do a litter pickup. When times get hard, I want to be a part of a strong and supportive community that shares skills and resources. How about you?

8. Take a Kid Outside

Here is another troubling sign of our times: we now have a syndrome called “Nature Deficit Disorder.” American children spend most of their time indoors, either in a classroom or at home with television or computer. If they do go outside, it is often for programmed activities such as soccer practice.

This means, of course, that they spend little unstructured time outdoors, exploring, learning, being alone, playing with others, climbing trees, looking under logs, finding frogs, marveling at those enormous yellow big-leaf maple leaves you find in the fall, and just plain getting dirty. This leads to some disturbing trends, such as childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression.

It also leads to kids who do not know how to entertain themselves without “programmed” activities or video, and adults who are not connected to nature and are not willing to work to save it. Yikes! I better call my grandson and invite him over for some serious tree time.

9. Get Involved in an Environmental Issue

Get involved in at least one environmental issue that you care about. Learn about the topic, understand the science and the policy (at least a bit), go to meetings, tell your friends. Do more than write a letter with talking points that someone else sent you. Learn in depth, show up, say your piece, hold elected officials accountable. Getting involved locally also helps build community.

10. Declare an Advertising Amnesty Day

From childhood on, most Americans are exposed to countless advertising messages. If you’re an average American, you were exposed to more than 3,000 advertising messages today. You saw most of these ads on television or on Web sites. Let’s face it, television, and increasingly, the Internet, are the prime movers behind consumer culture. How can we possibly hope to make real change if we are defined by what we buy and what we watch?

Okay, okay, I know you probably won’t turn off your TV or computer completely. But, maybe you could explore having an advertising amnesty day once a week. Can you spend one day a week intentionally trying not to be exposed to advertising messages? Make it a little game — turn away from the TV that’s on in the bar, try not to look at the billboard, don’t pick up that ad-laden magazine in the coffee shop — can you do it?

Wow! There is so much to do, but this is all attainable, and even fun. Turns out, saving the earth might not mean wearing hair shirts and living in a hut. Maybe we could all just dial it back a bit and live a bit more like our grandparents (but with the benefits of modern nutrition and medicine). Sounds pretty good. Care to join me in giving it a try?


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