The following piece was written by Donella Meadows and published December 29, 1988. Twenty-four years later, her simple, practical suggestions for what we as individuals can do to contribute to the health of our planet still ring true. The year 2012 was marked as a year of unprecedented environmental disasters, but we can all work to make 2013 the year we turned those disasters around.
“What can I do?” It’s been twenty years since I’ve been asked that question so insistently. A new generation is discovering the environmental problems of our troubled planet, and I’m hearing from students, from readers, from people everywhere. “I’m really scared about acid rain, the ozone hole, the greenhouse effect. What can I DO?”
There may be some grand, sacrificial, heroic answer, but the best answers I know are almost trivial. Environmental problems are caused by billions of small, unthinking actions. They’ll be cured by billions of small, sensible actions, simple substitutions of environmentally conscious habits for thoughtless and wasteful ones.
For example, here’s a list of New Year’s resolutions that anyone can follow — and each of them produces at least three guaranteed environmental benefits.
1. Recycle your bottles and cans and paper and plastic and everything else you can. Twenty years ago recycling was a difficult and socially wierd practice. Now, because of the landfill shortage, it’s easy. There is almost certain to be a recycling center near you. If not, start one. Hundreds of towns have done it and can tell you how. Your town can even hire consultants to set the whole thing up.
Why bother? First, because the real cost of dumping is beginning to be assessed, and your community will save money. Second, because recycling brings multiple blessings. Recycled aluminum saves 95 percent of the energy it took to purify the metal, 95 percent of the water pollution and 97 percent of the air pollution. Every ton of recycled paper saves 35 percent of the energy, 74 percent of the air pollution, 35 percent of the water pollution it takes to make new paper. If you recycle plastics, you’ll save not only dump space, but fossil fuel, and the production of some of the most hazardous wastes in all industry.
Take it from an old-timer; when it becomes a habit, recycling is no more bothersome than brushing your teeth, and it’s just as socially necessary.
2. Drive the most gas-efficient car you can find. The average mileage of this country’s car fleet is a piggish 18 mpg. It’s easy to find a car (even an American-made one) that gets 30-40 mpg. If we all did that, we would still get to all the places we have to go, we would save billions of dollars, become independent of Middle Eastern oil, make huge cuts in acid rain and greenhouse emissions, and even get our cities to meet Clean Air Act standards. We would also demonstrate enough interest in energy efficiency to convince the manufacturers to produce the 5-passenger 70-100 mpg cars they already have in prototype.
3. Tighten up your house. Amory Lovins says there’s the equivalent of a Saudi Arabian oilfield leaking out of our attics and windows. Again, that’s not only money lost, it’s unnecessary greenhouse and acid rain emissions, air pollution, oil spills, and refinery wastes. The cure is to insulate, caulk, and weatherstrip. Keep your furnace tuned up. Put in double-glazed or heat-mirror windows.
Rocky Mountain Institute suggests a $70 investment that will cut home energy bills by up to $140 in just one year. It includes a low-flow showerhead (it delivers not a wimpy drip, but an invigorating shower with half the water); faucet aerators to save hot water in bathroom and kitchen sinks; and screw-in compact fluorescent light bulbs.
Each bulb uses 18 watts to give the same illumination as a 75-watt bulb and lasts 10 times longer. Over its lifetime one bulb (costing $15-18) will save one ton of carbon dioxide emissions, 20 pounds of sulfur dioxide emissions, $20 worth of bulb replacements, $20 of electrical generation costs, and $200-300 worth of new electrical generating capacity.
4. Make a compost pile. If your kitchen and yard wastes get mixed in with your trash, they make the paper unrecyclable. If they are sent to a landfill, they turn into methane, a greenhouse gas. If they go to an incinerator, they become carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas. If they’re made into compost, they put carbon and plant nutrients back into the soil where they belong. They reduce the need for fertilizers, which brings down energy use and several kinds of pollution.
There’s a mystique about making compost piles — ask five neighbors and you’ll get five different sets of instructions. All that’s really necessary is to mix organic matter with air and water and a little soil to provide the bugs who do all the work. I just make a pile at one corner of the garden and shovel out the good black stuff at the bottom whenever I need it.
City-dwellers can start a neighborhood composting effort. In Witzenhausen, West Germany, a university professor began a composting center on the edge of town that now serves 60,000 people and pays for itself by selling compost to landscapers.
Recycling and energy-saving may not sound like much of a big deal. In fact they are so crucial to the environment that if we don’t do them voluntarily, a government wiser than we are may require them some day. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather do virtuous things on my own than be forced to do them. So we might as well get started, while we can still feel righteous, and while there’s still time to make a real difference to the planet.
Image credit: bayasaa via Flickr