2014 PlushBeds Green Scholarship recipient
Georgia Institute of Technology
The Unique Advantages of Living a Green Lifestyle & the Steps to Get There
Green lifestyles have been around since the dawn of man. The first hunter-gatherers lived at the mercy of their surroundings, and by doing so lived sustainably. For centuries and even to this current day, the Yanomami of South America, the Bushmen of Africa, and the Aborigines of Australia have sculpted and honed unique lifestyles that have allowed them to not only persist longer than any current civilization, but also to live sustainably. I am not necessarily saying we have to completely change and adopt the lifestyles of these indigenous people; modern society might consider some of their practices backwards and ignorant, such as sexual inequality or arranged marriages. As humans have evolved at an incredible speed technologically and culturally, green lifestyles have appeared to become, ironically, unsustainable. In fact, we as Americans come in dead last when it comes to sustainable behavior, and don’t feel all that guilty about it (1).
Contrary to apparent popular belief, however, there are numerous and unique advantages to living a green lifestyle. To explore them, let us first start with its potential advantages to the building block of the community – the individual.
Green lifestyles often include a significant advantage in a physiological context. Food that uses environmentally-friendly processes usually equate to healthier food. Vegetarians, for example, not only enjoy the benefits of longer life expectancies (2) and decreased risk of multiple health indicators (3), but also an overall lower carbon footprint than their meat-eating counterparts (4). One, however, does not necessarily have to adhere to strict herbivore diet. Chicken, while proven to have reduced risk of cancer compared to red meats such as beef, is also much less resource-intensive than beef (5). Alternative means of transportation, such as cycling or walking, not only cut down on carbon emissions, but provide the body practical exercise (6).
Psychological benefits to the individual reveal themselves as well upon the adoption of a green lifestyle. The rise of consumerism has brought with it increased environmental degradation as a result of the increased production, transportation, and sustentation of millions of consumer goods (7). It has also brought the devastating psychological paralysis effects of excessive choices. Adopters of green lifestyles generally are generally limited to a smaller selection of options, sparing them the distractions and allowing them to concentrate on issues that truly matter (8).
A green lifestyle dictates that the adopter adhere to a set of principles that does not benefit him or her alone, but also the community. There is overwhelming evidence that this humble perspective of valuing others has a tremendously positive impact on an individual’s psyche (9). Psychological advantages such as these show that green lifestyles can offer advantages beyond the individual and can extend to the community in which the individual lives in.
To complement these psychological benefits, green lifestyles are often in line with moral ideas. If everyone in the world lived like an American, we would need 4.1 Earths to sustain us (10). In combatting this repulsive disproportion of consumption, most green decisions are rich with concepts of justice and equality. Thus, the green lifestyle can also have the social advantage of giving its adopters the task of accepting the social responsibility of not just improving their life, but everyone else’s lives.
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of all is that green lifestyles don’t just push people to improve the lives of other people, but other living things as well. The ecological advantages of living a green lifestyle arguably has the most powerful impact, but is perhaps the hardest to obtain as they doesn’t start to manifest until the number of people adopting green lifestyles reaches a tipping point.
Even among numerous benefits, the decision to go green still is usually a tough one. Supposedly the biggest deterrent is, expectedly, money. The purchases associated with a green lifestyle are often portrayed as more expensive, as modern products who comply with green standards often have higher production costs (11). At the present it may seem this way, but human ingenuity is catching up. Green technologies are becoming cheaper (12) and the population growth rate is capping off (13). Even in current times, green choices are markedly more frugal, thanks to government subsidies and tax cuts, higher quality green products that last longer, and, indisputably, cheaper bills from using less utilities.
The numerous benefits and advantages I have outlined begin from the individual and extend into the system for a reason; that change must emanate first from the individual and throughout the system. So a question arises: what are the steps an individual must take to get a green lifestyle? A daunting question no doubt, but the wrong one to ask first. First we must ask ourselves, why adopt a green lifestyle in the first place? One can certainly justify this decision because of the advantages enumerated above, or for other reasons. I personally subscribe to an idea first brought forth in the 1920’s by renowned environmentalist Aldo Leopold:
If we hold ourselves to be beings of higher moral capability and standing than all of creation, we are presented with a choice – the choice to make this special privilege of ours manifest itself in a society bound by virtues of stewardship, capable of sustainably inhabiting the earth and sharing it with other species, or as a society so self-absorbed with itself that it wantonly consumes the earth and in the end, will consume itself.
When we find our reason for doing things, we answer the question why? The next question we ask is how? While practical steps to leading a green lifestyle may vary, the general rule is, as 18th Century English writer Sydney Smith said,
The greatest of all mistakes is to do nothing because you can only do so little. Do what you can. Do what you can. Whether you are a millionaire or a janitor, it doesn’t matter as much how you do it so long as why you do it is the same.
The first step in the how process is to recognize the problem. For example, a little research can tell you that human beings annually emit about 34.5 billion tons (GT) of CO2 (14), with about 50% going up into the atmosphere as a major greenhouse gas to potentially alter the Earth’s climate.
Then you can understand the problem and examine your role. The idea of pumping about 17 GT of seemingly weightless gas into the atmosphere would seem colossal to any person, but we have to strive to paint a complete picture: The atmosphere naturally holds about 720 GT due to natural processes like carbon exchange between the oceans and the biosphere, putting human contribution to about 0.02%. Every year, we play a role when we add CO2 to the atmosphere when we consume 11,000 kWh of electricity in our homes (15), drive 15,000 miles, mostly to and from work (16), or contribute to almost 1000 pounds into landfills (17), adding up to an annual CO2 emission of 19.8 tons (18) – meaning an individual American personally contributes to about 1.2E-11% of the CO2 in the atmosphere. The numbers don’t lie when they show that we as individuals play an extremely miniscule role when the problem is viewed through the larger perspective; nonetheless we still play a role.
Once you have done this, you can examine feasible solutions. This could be as simple as reducing electricity consumption by planning to unplug electric appliances when leaving the house for an extended period of time, or buying more energy-efficient appliances. It could be planning on carpooling with a friend, or buying a bicycle. It could be exploring the recycling program in your city or neighborhood, or buying more rechargeable products to reduce battery disposal in landfills. Although it might seem financial constraints limit the number of feasible solutions one is able to do, the feasibility of a solution will mainly vary based on the capacity of the individual to accept a change in lifestyle. The effectiveness of a solution, however, will inevitably correlate with one’s class. The old adage “with great power comes great responsibility” applies here, and we must remember to not only examine what we can do, but what we must do.
Moving forward, the next step is to employ the solution. You can completely recognize and understand the CO2 problem, how you’re contributing to it, and all possible solutions you can implement, but an idea which remains confined in the vast recesses of your mind is useless, unless it is shared or acted upon. Try to avoid one-time solutions; they are usually easy, unfulfilling, stagnating, and futile. Try to incorporate solutions into your daily routine; before you leave the house for work, make sure unnecessary lighting and appliances are turned off. To get to work, drive halfway and bike the rest. When you throw the trash at the end of the day, follow proper disposal protocols and recycle. By repeating positive actions, we reinforce positive behavior, positive habits, and ultimately positive lifestyle.
The purpose of an action can get lost in the dull, monotonous trappings of habit, and so the next step is to continuously improve the solution by reexamining its feasibility and effectiveness repetitively. You might consider purchasing more efficient light bulbs or smarter power strips to complement your habit of turning of unnecessary electrical appliances. You might drive a third of the way to work and bike the rest, or set up a more robust carpooling system. You might find new ways to reuse trash that you would normally properly dispose of. Or you might discover that your solution was founded on bad research and urban myths. Finding and exploring new ways to improve your solutions allows you to continuously eliminate bias and ignorance, push your comfort zone farther and farther, and keep track of your progress as you aspire to become better than the day before.
Finally, we encourage peers to do the same. We are social creatures; by encouraging our peers we begin to establish a system that strives towards the same goals, and we begin to establish the momentum required to make large-scale changes a reality. A single person biking to work will have an invisible impact on the environment, but if 30 million urban and suburban Midwesterners replaced half of their short car trips with cycling during the warmest six months of the year, they could save approximately 2 GT of CO2(6). The number of individuals implementing green lifestyles does not only drastically compound the quantifiable change, but it can accelerate the feasibility and acceptance of large-scale green programs. While it is much harder for a system to adopt a way of living that achieves a zero-carbon footprint than an individual, it can undoubtedly maintain it much easier.