Sustainability On A Budget In 2019

Welcome to 2019! If you found yourself daunted by the state of the environment in 2018, then now’s your chance to do something about it.

I could tell you that buying green will help – organic food, biodegradable soaps, electric vehicles, stuff like that – and it might, a little. But let’s face it: a lot of green consumer activism is only available to people who can afford it. What good is ethically sourced chocolate if your budget only has room for conventional beans?

beans in jars on a canvas background

Take that problem one step further. If only a few people can afford to buy solar panels and things like that, then there can be no change until everybody’s financially stable. As nice as that would be, economists have been working on total financial equality for thousands of years and we’re still not there. Since climate change is an immediate issue, the only real ground-level solutions attainable by individual people have to meet some qualifiers:

  1. The solution doesn’t require a huge up-front financial investment
  2. The solution doesn’t exclude any economic or cultural group
  3. The solution doesn’t make anybody rich

Tricky, right? Luckily, there are a few ways that you can effectively decrease your footprint without breaking the budget or excluding people with smaller purses than yours.

Share, donate, thrift, repair, and reuse

clothing hanging on a rack at a thrift store

I recently wrote an article about consumerism and how it relates to climate change. Here’s a summary: you can’t have eternal stuff on a finite planet. In addition to disposable cutlery that’s basically made to be waste, even objects that we consider permanent fixtures in our lives tend to have short lifespans. For example, the electronics industry assumes that you’ll toss your smartphone every two years, partially because it thinks you’re going to want a fancier, flashier, hipper device.

The same goes for furniture. Nothing against Ikea, whose sustainability plan is laudable, but the presence of cheap chairs on the market makes periodic upgrades tempting. Manufacture of that stuff, from the screws that hold it together to the wood that gets logged and processed with diesel-powered equipment, is still generally carbon-heavy. That’s easy to overlook that when the company wants to soothe your concerns about its environmental friendliness.

So don’t buy it! I’m not saying you should abstain from buying everything – you can’t, please don’t try – but by reducing the amount you shop, you’ll reduce your footprint. If you can get a bunch of friends together and pledge to reduce unnecessary spending, you’ll be on your way.

Here’s where things get interesting. The amount of spending that’s really necessary for your life to remain happy and healthy is actually far smaller than you’d think. For example, think of your closet. You have all kinds of stuff in there that you don’t want to wear anymore, not because it’s worn out, but because you’re sick of looking at it. But you’re not sick of looking at your friends’ clothing.

They feel exactly the same way.

Websites like Freecycle and the Buy Nothing Project let you trade stuff you don’t want and get stuff you do. My hometown of Salem even holds regular clothing and book swaps that draw hundreds of people. It also supports a repair cafe where you can bring busted household gadgets. All of these projects are run by regular people who, as far as I know, get zero dollars and zero cents for this work. They do, however, end up with great wardrobes, regular turnover in literature, and some fully functional household gadgets that might otherwise have ended up in the trash. They save money and they save the Earth.

Repair and share operations also benefit low-income people. If you’re affluent and intend to organize an event like this, be sure and reach out to community centers and schools located in places where money is scarce. If you can forge relationships across economic boundaries, then you can start breaking those boundaries down. Together, we’re all more powerful.

When you simply must buy something, check your local thrift store. You’d be amazed at what appears there, and if you can extend the life of that merchandise, you make the manufacture and delivery of a new version a little less necessary.

Speaking of buying…

Buy local when possible

Apples being sold at a farmer's market

Nation-sized commercial operations don’t have a whole lot of incentive to change. They have an enormous base, powerful investors, and a directive to grow a certain amount every year. Converting to green supply chain technology or solar energy is a great idea in principle, but not what a conservative business manager steeped in traditionalist thinking would choose first. You and everyone you know can’t change their minds about that.

As the price of solar falls, companies like Walmart will start to default to renewable power anyway just because it’s cheaper than traditional sources. However, you don’t have time for every mega-retailer in the U.S. to come to Jesus. That’s why you need to buy local.

Local retailers are not necessarily interested in growing by the quarter. They want to be economically viable and sustainable within their communities. They’re thrifty and personally interested in what their customers want. If you and all your friends tell the owner of your corner store that you want that store to run on renewable power, they might just listen. Even if the business itself doesn’t have brick and mortar solar options, there are ways to buy renewable energy from solar and wind farms.

There are other ways of buying local that get even more creative. CSAs, for example, are often very economical – I use Farm Direct Coop and spend less than $500 on food for the entire summer. There are usually aid programs in case you can’t afford the membership price and backup systems if you can’t pick up your food on a certain day. Best of all, the food you get from a CSA is usually locally sourced and seasonal.

The same goes for farmer’s markets. These are often fairly expensive, but many accept SNAP.

Share a ride

passenger in the front seat of a car

Unless you live in New York City, you probably need a car. What a pain! In addition to being expensive, bulky wallet vampires, they’re contributing to the death of the environment. Luckily, the humble carpool mitigates this. You don’t have to get an expensive Tesla to green your commute, you just have to get some buddies! There are some great ways to find carpools online. Rideshare.org and iCarpool.com are a couple of good ones. However, if you really can’t corner anyone to ride with…

Support public transportation

People complain a lot about public transportation. It’s always late, it’s dirty, it’s slow, it’s not classy, there aren’t enough trains, the service area is limited. Know how to change all of these factors? Mass usage. If everyone rides the train, train service will improve. If residents demand a bus route along the boulevard, then that will happen. These are voteable issues, and if everyone piles onto public transit at the same time as they scream for better service, then the people in charge will have an incentive to make busses and trains more pleasant experiences.

Garden and share

Vegetables in a wooden box

Did you know that you only need a space of about 100 feet by 80 feet to support one vegetarian for a year? That’s less space than most families will consent to live in. In a lot of places, that’s the size of a backyard.

If you live in a city, like me, you’ll have a hard time finding your 800 square feet, but growing is still possible. This year, I myself rented a space of 4 feet by 6 feet for my garden from a community garden. Check out Food Not Lawns for starters on how to turn your available space into something nutritious. If it’s property value you’re worried about, then consider the beauty of the edible landscape.

Combined with our CSA, my wife and I ended up with too much produce, despite the fact that a couple of my agricultural experiments went a little haywire. We ended up giving away a ton of summer squash and we’ve still got more carrots than we know what to do with.

There’s another option too: garden on your neighbors’ lawns. I wish I could find the link that talked about this project, but a few years back, some intrepid gardeners had the bright idea of turning their neighbors’ lawns into food paradises. The neighbors were happy to get some veggies in payment and the gardeners got to grow a ton of produce for charity. If any of my readers can find the news report on these guys, comment!

Growing a Victory Garden can ease the pressure on your wallet and the Earth. A $1.75 packet of 20 tomato plant seeds is absolutely more economical than buying thirty tomatoes that had to be shipped from California. Community gardens often have donation plots that you can use if you can’t pay, and even if you don’t have time to water and weed constantly, there are tasty crops that will essentially take care of themselves until harvest time.

Become an activist

People coming together and supporting each other

Environmental damage and disaster disproportionately affect the poor. When toxic waste is to be dumped, that doesn’t happen in gated communities. When asthma-causing coal-fired power plants are planned, they’re not placed in the heart of the University district. Companies who dump chemicals into the water of poor towns would never dream of doing so in rich areas. In fact, the effects of climate change will broadly affect people who live in cheap, low-lying housing, can’t afford home insurance or emergency relocation costs, and haven’t got the political pull to make towns repair infrastructures like levees and seawalls.

If you’ve got the privilege, then becoming politically active for the environment is a great way to share that with your fellow human beings. I’ve got a post on becoming active here.

Change doesn’t just happen. It takes a collective clamor to start it and sustained, share effort to keep it going. 2019 is a fresh chance to make that change. Let’s make this a green year together.


How To Succeed At Personal Carbon Drawdown

If you’re anything like me, then you occasionally battle a sense of helplessness when faced with climate news. Not only is climate change becoming more urgent, but some world leaders seem incapable of taking swift action. You may feel like a twig in a current, rushing toward a waterfall with no hope of changing course.

There are a couple illusions at work here. The first is that you’re just one lonely person floating along all by yourself. In fact, you’re an active part of a large system. Far from being a twig, you’re a member of a 7.5 billion-strong canoe team! (It’s a really big canoe.)

paddle-948050_1920

Yes, we’re heading toward a waterfall. But if you start paddling for shore, people will notice. They don’t want to go over the waterfall either. They’ll join you. Soon, you can’t help but make headway toward safety, and it doesn’t matter what the boat’s captains are saying or not saying. YOU can change this – you and your seven billion friends.

The second illusion is subtler. It’s that paddling for shore will be nothing but difficult, miserable, and exhausting. That you might as well just give up because changing course would be way too hard.

It’s understandable that people would think this way. After all, carbon-fueled electricity has revolutionized the way civilization runs. If you stop using it, goes the logic, you won’t just be giving up luxuries like your electric juicer. You’ll be tossing your CPAP machine and refrigerator and heading off to eat bugs in a cave for the rest of your life.

Allow me to assure you that you are not going to have to eat bugs. Unless they’re gourmet, obviously.

Delicious-looking insects served on a gourmet plate

From Luxe

There’s a process to changing course. Its first step is to take a great, big, deep breath. Join me in breathing. In…Out. Now repeat after me:

Don’t panic.

Contemplate that mantra. Panic is an evolutionary reaction that is useful for two things: making you freeze or making you run. In this case, neither of those reactions is helpful, and nor are their advanced human equivalents, catastrophizing and despairing. We’re going to have to do away with the panic for now. It’s not useful to us, and more importantly, it’s not providing us with a good representation of our circumstances.

Feel better?

Now that we’ve calmed down, it’s easier to look at our problem logically. Whether massive numbers of individuals opt to make changes in their carbon usage, the market pulls entire populations into new behavioral patterns, or governments legislate and enforce change, there will need to be a large shift in lifestyle in the near future. Any psychiatrist will tell you that the larger the change, the more gradually it has to happen. That’s why so many people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. They’re literally trying to make an overnight change. Human beings don’t work that way.

Instead, we’ve got to apply our changes incrementally, giving ourselves time to get used to the new status quo. Research suggests that the average person adjusts to a new routine after about two weeks. That tells us how to successfully make changes in our carbon footprints. You can do it in just four easy steps.

1. Plan, plan plan

Woman planning using a computer and a pad of paper

Do you really know how much carbon you’re using? Figure it out! There are carbon footprint calculators here, here, and here. Determine where in your lifestyle there is room to trim your energy budget. Make a list of everything you’d have to do to get yourself to a sustainable level of carbon use.

This may take some research. Give yourself the gift of a nice, thorough fact-finding session. Don’t settle for Internet polemics and blogs that shame you. Look for constructive ideas and lifestyle examples.

Then, decide what you can do. Start with small, immediate steps and plan to implement larger changes when possible. Do you want solar on your house? Set up a year-long savings plan for the down payment on an array. Are you driving too far to work? Give yourself options: a carpool for now, a closer job for later.

Be conservative. Be realistic. You can try fancy green lifestyle tricks later, after you’ve accomplished the goal you’ve set out for yourself and are comfortable with your new routine. For example, if you’re currently a dedicated carnivore, don’t go vegan overnight. Instead, cut down your meat intake. Then see where you can go from there.

2. Use a calendar

A calendar with a red circle around a date

It can be digital or it can go on the wall. The main thing about this calendar is that it tells you when you’ll start implementing your changes. Here’s an example:

     January 1: Change all the lights to high-efficiency bulbs.
     February 1: Cut meat consumption down to weekends.
     March 1: Order seeds and plan a backyard or community garden.
     April 1: Run one weekly chore by bicycle.
     May 1: Start composting.

Follow the calendar to the best of your ability and assess your progress every month. If you have a family, get them involved. Any change is best tackled as a group.

3. Find your people

people-2569234_1920

Your friends might be reluctant to embark upon your green journey with you. If nothing else, they may worry about how it’ll impact your existing relationship. Don’t worry about trying to draw them into your quest. Evangelism will entrench and threaten them. Instead, go out and find support in existing communities.

Meetup.com is a good place to find like-minded people. There are Facebook groups for zero-waste lifestyles, bicycling, and home gardening that are good resources and good fun. Remember, cutting carbon isn’t a lonely experience – you’re in a canoe with seven billion other people! Find others who are committed to paddling for shore.

When you’re secure in your actions and living well in a green avenue, you’ll naturally attract your friends and family because they’ll be curious about your changes. There’s still no guarantee that they’ll convert to sustainability, but it’ll at least get them thinking.

4. Reward yourself

two people toasting their success at sunset

At the end of a year, you’ve successfully made nine of your twelve changes. That’s huge! Celebrate. Treat yourself. Treat your family, if they’re on this journey with you. Head back to the footprint calculators and bask in how far you’ve come.

Notice, in particular, the things you feel best about. Many people who go green report a higher level of satisfaction with their life afterward. It’s not clear why this is, but I think it may have to do with finding a community. Gardening and exercise, including walking and bicycling, are also mood boosters.

Once you’ve assessed, bolstered by how effective you’ve been, continue upon your journey. There’s a long way to go, but you’re not alone on this trek. Together, we can start turning this canoe.