Spring 2015 PlushBeds Green Scholarship recipient:
Bard Center for Environmental Policy, Bard College
The Unique Advantages of Living a Green Lifestyle & the Steps to Get There
Just as no shade of green is better than another, there is no best hue to a green lifestyle.Some may consider it greener to live in a rural area that affords the opportunity to grow and raise the necessities for life; others may contend that living in a walkable city preserves undeveloped land and allows for resource sharing like public transit. Some may tout the benefits of solar energy while others might be critical of the mining practices through which many of the panel components are obtained. The common thread in all of these viewpoints is an understanding that, whichever type of environment one chooses to inhabit, there is no getting out of our shared environment. It is in the city just as in the country, and people are equally dependent upon ecosystem services and natural resources in both places. If we use less of these natural resources, buy fewer products made with them, and support companies with good environmental stewardship, we can move toward a greener lifestyle no matter where we are.
Modern society is highly consumptive of these natural resources, especially energy from carbon sources such as coal and oil. Seemingly simple, everyday actions such as turning on a light, heating water for a shower, and getting to and from work require carbon inputs and therefore lead to carbon emissions. The increase in carbon emissions in recent history has already started changing our climate system, as stores of carbon are being removed from the ground and released into the atmosphere at a much higher rate than would ever naturally occur.
It is important to note that carbon emissions are not a purely modern phenomenon. Even in a completely unindustrialized scenario —in which everyone draws water from a well by hand, rides a horse, and uses candles made of tallow—burning firewood would release carbon into the atmosphere. Because all living things are made of carbon, they will release carbon when they die and decompose; that carbon is recycled through the ecosystem as more living things grow. More important than trying to zero our emissions, therefore, is trying to balance our lifestyles with the resources available and the natural cycles for replenishing them.
Keeping track of one’s carbon footprint is a way to ensure that, on the net, one is capturing as much carbon as one is emitting. To move closer to a net zero carbon footprint, there are many ways to decrease carbon emissions, from driving an electric car to using a metal water bottle. The other half of the carbon footprint equation involves activities to offset one’s inevitable emissions, perhaps by planting trees, growing a garden, or purchasing a certificate from a capand trade system such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast.
Given our inescapable dependence on the environment, a small carbon footprint and greener lifestyle have obvious long-term environmental benefits. Taking less water out of rivers and lakes now means less fresh water will be dirtied and pumped out into oceans, where it becomes unusable for future generations. Driving less now means averting some climate change impacts in the future. Buying organic now means less pesticides traveling through and accumulating in the environment throughout one’s lifetime.
These benefits, though important, are not always a good fit for the American culture of instant gratification. Not only do we not immediately see an environmental response (if a response can be visually characterized at all), many consider individual actions too minuscule to make a difference in global-scale problems. When the long-term, small-scale benefits of individual action do not give people enough impetus to change, the personal economic and health benefits of living a greener lifestyle might be more persuasive.
If natural resource consumption causes environmental degradation and also costs money, then using less will result in the win-win situation of improving the environment and saving money. Keeping temperatures down in the home means less use of coal-fired utilities and less money spent on utility bills. Carpooling or taking mass transit will not only mean reduced carbon emissions but will also lead to less money spent on gasoline and car maintenance. Whether or not natural resources are priced to reflect their true value, the incentive of saving money by using less of them is still a persuasive argument for a green lifestyle. The health benefits of less consumption go hand-in-hand with the economic benefits discussed above. If you walk to the bus stop, you burn the type of caloric energy that can sustainably be replaced on a human time scale.
These examples have thus far pertained to the purchase and use of natural resources such as coal, oil, and water. The issue is less straightforward when it comes to manufactured goods. Because of the market factors driving the ideal of planned obsolescence, it is easy to spend less money on a product that is not of high quality and was not made with care for the environment. One step in the solution, then, is to simply avoid buying “stuff.” Buying less is better for the environment and one’s pocket book.
If individuals save money by using fewer resources and buying fewer unnecessary manufactured goods, they have more financial flexibility in buying necessity items of higher quality. Since environmentally-conscious manufacturers tend to take on the true costs of their products, green may indeed be more expensive on the surface. However, these products have a list of farther ranging benefits, from being longer-lasting to avoiding health impacts associated with certain chemicals to helping shift the global economy out of its carbon dependency. Taking the time to research a company’s environmental policy means that consumers can rest assured that they are getting benefits that more than make up for the cost difference between green and conventional goods.
The above advice can be distilled into three simple steps for leading a sustainable lifestyle: use less, buy less, and do your research when buying something you need. Of course, this is often easier said than done. I recently recruited my classmates to take the 13 Gallon Challenge to use only 13 gallons of water in one day. Even though we are all environmental policy master’s students, it was extremely difficult. Still, it was a good reminder that being cognizant of resource use is the best place to start. Once you have figured out how to use only as much as you need, it should be easier to buy less stuff. The key is then to focus on quality over quantity. When purchasing items of necessity, the internet makes it easier than ever to research companies’ environmental policies.
The best way to encourage others to make the change is to share what you learn. Tell your friends, family, and coworkers. Make suggestions without being judgemental. Those little things add up, and often have ripple effects that encourage others to also take action in their social circles. We each have countless chances every day to make choices that will lead us to our own shade of green lifestyle.