What can I do, from the big changes on down to the minutae, to make a difference?
June 13, 2007 4:24 PM   Subscribe

What can I do, from the big changes on down to the minutae, to make a difference? I want a more environmentally conscious lifestyle!

I just recently watched the LA Times online documentary, Altered Oceans and was really inspired to make some changes in my lifestyle to help reverse the damage we've done to our oceans, earth and wildlife. What are some things I can do and small changes I can make for a positive global impact? I am looking for unconvential ideas as well as obvious ones. I am already a member of Environment California, Surfrider, and various other groups. I don't want to just throw money at the problem. I want to make adjustments to my behaviors and habits so that I am going about my life with conscious reasoning that I can be proud of.

Here are some examples of the types of ideas/changes I am hoping to hear about:
• Reuse a single plastic water bottle (instead of continually buying water and throwing out the bottles). Chop down any extra bottles, fill with dirt, grow stuff.
• Only eat self-caught seafood
• Walk to a farmers market and buy groceries there instead of driving to a grocery store and blindly filling cart with product.
• Pay all bills online and cancel all mailed statements, thereby reducing trash.

Bonus points for ideas that make life easier and/or increase productivity/efficiency.

I would also love to hear about some good resources, links, etc. Or ways that items that can be reused, instead of thrown away—if only I knew how to reuse them!

Thanks in advance!

I apologize if linking to the documentary was inappropriate. I think it's a helpful point of reference in describing the bigger problem I am trying to do my part to solve. I have no intention of making this a question with an agenda, or a chatfilter. I just want suggestions!
posted by iamkimiam to Science & Nature (33 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Switch all your light bulbs to energy saving light bulbs.
posted by pwally at 4:26 PM on June 13, 2007

Stopping buying bottled water sure won't hurt, but is a really small impact compared to the much larger resource consumption involved in your transportation and living arrangements. Minimizing your driving, and downsizing to a very modest house/apartment have much bigger impacts than smaller decisions. Similarly, your choices regarding your thermostat are not unimportant.

But what is also important to remember is that all of us are living within societies that collectively consume too many resources, and one person choosing to reuse their ecological water bottle won't change that. So the really big impact you could make is political or societal, rather than personal.
posted by Forktine at 4:41 PM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer:
  1. Insulate your home better if you have any significant heating or cooling costs.
  2. Switch to energy efficient lighting.
  3. Move to a more efficient means of heating water, like a solar system coupled with an on-demand heater
  4. Drive less and/or switch to a more efficient vehicle
  5. Eat less meat
  6. Eat more local organic produce

posted by Good Brain at 4:47 PM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ditto forktine. Consume less. Find ways to make it feasible and practical for others to do the same.
posted by lalochezia at 4:48 PM on June 13, 2007

Ride a bike. Everywhere. Outfit your bike so that you can do all of your shopping and moving around town with it. Do not drive.

Don't fly. Commercial flight is responsible for emitting a tremendous about of CO2.

Do what you can on a grassroots level to make your community friendly to alternative modes of transportation.
posted by hollisimo at 5:26 PM on June 13, 2007

Live at the highest possible density (lotsa roommates) in the most efficient housing available (usually a modern apartment). If it's some kind of collective working for a carbon tax, all the better.
posted by backupjesus at 5:28 PM on June 13, 2007

The coordinates in your profile say you're in the Oakland/Emeryville/Berkeley area, one of the most densely-populated areas of the country, and that you live a few blocks away from Macarthur BART station.

Would it be feasible to sell your car since you live in such a dense area? The money you save on car insurance, gas, payments, and maintenance wouldn't just be free to spend on other forms of transit, but would also be available to subsidize the cost of making your house more environmentally friendly.

Some environmentally-sound choices, like reducing the amount of fuel and food you use, are only as good as the number of people you can get to make those choices with you, which is difficult in most societies where people can choose how much they consume.

What you do politically, then, will be crucial, and luckily you've got a really progressive representative in Washington, Barbara Lee, representing you and the other members of the California Ninth District. Her office probably has lots of ways you can get involved and help lobby for the environment.
posted by mdonley at 5:30 PM on June 13, 2007

Response by poster: I live less than one block from the Macarthur BART station. However, it would be absolutely not feasable to sell my car and take BART from there, due to the unbelievable amount of crime in that neighborhood and the lack of police enforcement. I am currently looking to move however! Hopefully closer to work, so I can walk.

I really like all the suggestions so far! And I realize that I won't be able to make a visible impact unless I can rally some troops with me, but I still want to find all those little changes and do 'em anyway (as well as the bigger, political stuff)!
posted by iamkimiam at 5:39 PM on June 13, 2007

Stop driving a car. Really, that is one of the best things you can do. If you can take mass transit for most of your travel you are saving the planet. Even electric cars pollute plenty.

Install solar panels, insulate your home, recycle everything (if your garbage output is larger than your recycling output you are failing), don't buy things in bulky packaging, well, don't buy things, eat vegetables rather than meat, avoid polymer materials like plastic containers and clothes, compost, don't waste water, go to bed at dusk and arise at dawn so you don't burn lights at night, .....
posted by caddis at 5:40 PM on June 13, 2007

Stop flying
Calculate your carbon footprint
posted by caddis at 5:42 PM on June 13, 2007

@iamkimiam: Ah, I didn't know about the crime. Where do you work? That might help any Bay Area Mefites give you suggestions on, I dunno, eco-communes or something.
posted by mdonley at 5:42 PM on June 13, 2007

Best answer: Buy products that use minimal packaging.

Bring your own produce and tote bags to the grocery store/farmers' market.

Join a local native-plants restoration group, and/or participate in open space/park area cleanups (you'll get to meet cool people, too!).
posted by rtha at 6:07 PM on June 13, 2007

Best answer: Don't underestimate throwing money at the problem. It does help. I haven't been up through north California and the Pacific Northwest in a few years but on my last trip there were charities trying to preserve old growth forests. I don't imagine that issue has gone anywhere. Private property gets respect.

If you own a car don't sell it, it's a good thing to own for a variety of reasons, e.g. emergencies, ride sharing, and convenience - no need to be a martyr. Do reduce your usage. Reduce your overall energy consumption. Changing light bulbs is pretty huge. Look into rechargeable batteries, there's one kind that's particularly bad for landfills. If you look around you'll come across the information. Be aware of ghost voltages in appliances and unplug them when you aren't using them. Take a look at the cool tools section of Kevin Kelly's (former Whole Earth Catalog editor) site. Not all of it will fit into how you live but there are a number of useful ideas and products there. For instance, they link to a battery recharger that can recharge disposables. They may give you some ideas about gardening as well. Even if you have limited space you can garden and grow some vegetables. A window sill can be productive, let alone a roof. Google up earthboxes and take a look. If that's something you could do, you don't need to buy it from the manufacturer. There are DIY guides that will show you how to make one easy and cheap. When you buy a house, build and renovate as little as possible. Especially avoid using contractors and imported materials. Pay attention to the insulation and correct any leaks. If you will be buying appliances sometime in the next few years look at energy saver models. There are some versions of refrigerators and washer/dryers that use far less energy at a slight cost in efficiency. These tend to either be European models or ones developed for living off grid where someone may just have a couple of solar panels and propane for their energy needs. They won't be sold in department stores, you'll have to look for them in catalogs that cater to the cabin in the wood folk. A composting toilet is another step along these lines, but the mainstream is far from being accepting there. If your circle includes some fairly conventional folk it could become a stigma.
posted by BigSky at 6:18 PM on June 13, 2007

I'd like to 2nd the money-throwing. That documentary you just watched opened your mind. It takes money to make these kinds of movies. Find out who made the one you like and see if they have a foundation or other fund, and whether you can help. If not, there are plenty of other awareness groups out there; pick your favorite and commence throwing. This shouldn't be seen as some halfassed thing that yuppies do because they don't want to make lifestyle changes that are inconvenient. It should be seen as an important, perhaps integral part of your inconvenient lifestyle changes.

The real problem here is that for every person like you who wants to change his/her lifestyle there are way more people who don't. What America needs right now is to convince a critical mass of citizens that for one reason or another they need to live greener. Until that happens, your environment-saving measures will be a drop in a relatively small bucket.
posted by crinklebat at 6:38 PM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'd like to emphasize minimizing packaging. If you don't like your tap water (and I loved mine when I lived in the east bay), buy big and refillable water jugs rather than individual bottles.
posted by janell at 7:05 PM on June 13, 2007

Reduce your food miles - buy local whenever physically and economically possible. Shop your farmers market and/or join a Community Supported Agriculture program. You can find these near you on Local Harvest. You should have lots of options in your area.

Do a little research on the organic certification process (scroll down to "Certification Issues"). Know what you're buying into when you see those labels and what the terminology means. Here is a great intro from Consumer Reports on when it makes sense to purchase organic produce and products. Local + organic really is the ideal, but if you have to choose between organic apples from New Zealand, and conventional local apples - I'd personally go for the local.

Boycott bottled water (your idea to use a reusable sports bottle is great!)

Be a vegetarian (LOTS of support for this with just a liitle searching)

If you do choose to eat meat, make the best choices you can for sustainabilty and low environmental impact. See the Monterey Bay Aquarium's really great Seafood Watch guide for help with fish.

More on sustainable diet and eating habits at Sustainable Table and in the new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Make an honest, concerted effort to remember the first R is REDUCE in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Reduce your consumption, reduce the trash you generate, reduce your impact (keep reusing and recycling too though!)

If you really want to talk BIG choices in your life - don't reproduce. There are too damn many of us and that overpopulation seriously exacerbates, or is the prime source, of each and every one of our environmental woes. Opt to adopt should you desire children, or at least only make enough to replace you and your partner (i.e. TWO). There are so very many children already, and who all need a loving supportive home so they can grow up to be good environmental stewards like you!

Those are just my first thoughts, great question and kudos to you!
posted by nelleish at 7:29 PM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are a lot of previous threads on this. Look under the "environment" or "green" tags. Here is one short list I put together of some previous threads.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:34 PM on June 13, 2007

Response by poster: Awesome awesome AWESOME! I wasn't so fruitful when checking for previous threads. Thanks. This is great, and exactly what I am looking for!
posted by iamkimiam at 9:43 PM on June 13, 2007

Volunteer -- find an organization you care about, and offer your time. It feels much better than giving money and, more than likely, will add up to a much greater value for the non-profit.
posted by one_bean at 10:47 PM on June 13, 2007

At the end of An Inconvenient Truth, there a bunch of suggestions that are shown before the closing credits. Here is the companion website.
posted by HotPatatta at 12:54 AM on June 14, 2007

In addition to the individual things you are already starting to do, and the political things you will someday do, I would suggest finding ways to become part of a community who cares about these issues. I don't mean moving to some ecological city (there is no such place on this planet) but rather beginning to read magazines and blogs that care about ecology, going to ecologically-focused events, and shopping at stores patronized by consumers like yourself. Alone, it is you against the world, and the negative feedback can really get you down, and you have to reinvent things (reusing water bottles, for example) that were old news forty years ago. Connecting to other people is good for your morale, will give you lots of ideas about things you can be doing, and will lay the groundwork for when you eventually want to take a step towards advocacy or organizing.
posted by Forktine at 6:48 AM on June 14, 2007

Stop buying stuff. Ignore fads and fashions. Don't be a herd animal. This applies particularly to gadgets and clothes, but it runs right through most western lives.
  • If you have stuff that isn't worn out or broken, continue to use it until it is worn out or broken and irreparable, not just until a newer model is released.
  • No matter how in they are now (according to fashion magazines or the twits on the street), don't buy clothes that would have looked weird five years ago (and probably will look weird in another couple of years). When something wears out, buy a similar replacement that you can wear in combination with what you already have.
  • Don't see the latest movies -- most of them are bad and the rest can be rented eventually if you decide two or three years later that Spiderman 3 actually is a classic work of art that every human being must see.
  • Don't buy magazines -- buy a professional journal or two if you need it to keep up in a particular field, but stop paying attention to the diarrhea of standard magazines.
  • Turn off your television because most of it is also watery shit and the rest is ignorable.
  • Don't buy books -- go to the library or borrow books from friends.
  • Don't buy CDs -- record it from the radio, borrow it from friends, or download it.
  • Don't fly to that place everyone's flying to this year -- take a short ride to a nice place within the state, or stay home and relax.
  • Don't buy with credit cards if you can buy with cash; think twice about buying anything if you don't have the immediate cash for it.
  • Don't travel to save a few cents on crap packaged food. Walk to the corner grocer. Get one of those little two-wheeled grocery cart things if you need it.
  • Don't buy processed foods. Go home and cook something from raw materials.
Every penny you waste on crap has an environmental effect -- mining, oil drilling, materials transportation, pesticides, manufacturing, storage, shipping, storage again, purchase, waste pickup, and eternal landfill storage -- and it is your money (your hard work, your irreplaceable time) wasted. But not doing stupid things, not buying crap, is easy and is money in your bank account.
posted by pracowity at 7:48 AM on June 14, 2007

The Union of Concerned Scientists published a short book answering your question called The Consumers' Guide To Effective Environmental Choices. The central point of the book is to concentrate on the few choices that have a large impact on the environment, and stop worrying about the choices that are a toss-up. For example, it doesn't really matter whether you use washable or disposable diapers, because one isn't clearly better than the other. But it definitely does matter how big your house is and where it is located. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on the less important choices, because they are less disruptive. There is also a section on "what you can ask politicians to do". I highly recommend this book.
posted by blue grama at 8:10 AM on June 14, 2007

If you smoke, don't put your cigs out on the ground, but if you do, pick up the spent butt and throw it in the trash.
posted by wafaa at 12:48 PM on June 14, 2007

Riot for austerity.
posted by niloticus at 2:27 PM on June 14, 2007

Spend (and earn) less money. No matter how green the products you pay for, it's not much use if the stockholders who receive your money and the government that gets your taxes and the employer who sells your labor use it for deep-fried whale fetuses.

Don't buy new things. Clothes, tech, furniture - you can find all of that stuff a lot cheaper second hand, assuming you'll learn to live with not immediately finding what you've discovered a need for.
posted by Anything at 5:23 PM on June 14, 2007

Not to say that cheaper is automatically better, because, of course, that price is often cut down along with environmental and labor standards.
posted by Anything at 5:39 PM on June 14, 2007

Anything, I think your logic is a little off -- you would want to earn as much money as possible, spend as little as possible, and burn the rest. Earning less money involves either (a) reducing your productivity, which means you're doing less to help humanity or (b) accepting lower wages than your productivity justifies, which means someone else (presumably less enlightened) is getting the financial benefit of your work.

Before someone argues that reduced production is a good thing, if we assume that markets are, on the whole, reasonably efficient, people choosing to reduce their production will just open up room for a less-efficient producers who use more resources (natural and otherwise).
posted by backupjesus at 5:45 AM on June 15, 2007

I just read this book: The Rough Guide To Shopping With A Conscience. You might find it a good resource.
posted by Melinika at 6:12 AM on June 15, 2007

This sounds counterproductive at first, but hear me out: don't recycle. Anything except metal is more environmentally friendly to toss out and make new.

When you recycle paper, toxic chemicals are used en masse to remove the ink, and you might want to find out yourself where they go.

Plastics used to package food or drink can't be made of recycled material because the process of melting down plastic to be recycled causes it to give off noxious fumes.

The city has to have additional trucks moving through every neighborhood every week giving off slow moving truck levels of pollution in order to sustain recycling.

Landfills, after being filled, are covered over by massive amounts of dirt and concrete, with trees planted over them. Recycling centers emit pollution.

For a better introduction to this concept, watch the episode of Penn & Teller's Bullshit about recycling.
(Warning: strong language, random occasional nudity)
You should be able to find it online somewhere.

You might also want to work on legalizing hemp, as hemp paper is better for the environment then wood pulp-based paper.
essay that says it better then I can
And the brits call it a miracle drug.
posted by sandswipe at 10:49 AM on June 15, 2007

Penn and Teller are funny, but be sure to take what they say with a grain of salt. Their show is meant to be entertaining and "shocking"; they're not always giving the most balanced picture. (I don't know whether they're right about recycling. I just mean in general, "Penn and Teller said it" is not a conclusive reason to believe something unless it's about sleight of hand.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:56 AM on June 15, 2007

I realize that a lot of what they say is exaggeration, but several of the points raised in the episode (extra trucks, most cities let people mix all recyclable materials in a single container, plastics being extremely hard to recycle safely) are things I'd heard about separately and have wondered about independently. I merely use the episode because it's a unified and entertaining argument with some interesting facts, holes and all, and the first piece I could think of.
Even they admit that aluminum should be recycled, so there is no absolute answer. I'm just trying to spread the word that there is valid debate about forced recycling programs.

I do believe, however, that recycling as practiced in America today is doing less good then many people think (but still some good), mostly as a result of plastic being unbelievably bad for the environment in almost every conceivable way.

If you really want to help the environment, you should research both sides of a lot of these measures, and look for the true overall impact.
posted by sandswipe at 1:54 PM on June 15, 2007

Best answer: This question got me to join MeFi! I'm so happy you've asked it and that there are so many replies.

First, if by "environment," you mean the climate--and I think that's a justifiable approximation for now--then focus on your CO2 impact. The CO2 calculators are here essential.

Off the top of my head, your largest impact will be in exactly those life-altering areas that many people don't like to talk about:
  1. Move close to your work and other people. Do not live in the suburbs.
  2. Make sure you live at a latitude requiring less heating and cooling.
  3. Find "green" energy in your area and buy it.
  4. Have fewer children.
  5. Eat a lot less meat and other animal products.
  6. Budget for carbon offsets.
  7. Donate other money to worthy organizations. As other members have pointed out, this is NOT trivial.
After all this, consider recycling, hemp, etc. Also question the adages of classical environmentalism. Buying local can use more CO2 than produce shipped from other continents. Big grocery stores are often more efficient, depending on how far you drive to them. (For a pseudoanalysis, see The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.) From a conservation perspective, I'd write off most seafood entirely--but you can make thoughtful choices with these tips from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Though I'm vegetarian, I like to bug nice restaurants about bad fish they have on the menu (and also when I have to eat mushroom ravioli the nth time in a row because it's their only vegetarian option!).

What distresses me about "environmentalism" as practiced now is that it can be so incredibly unscientific and lack any genuine sense of priority. It's also VERY hard that we have to do so much research to make proper choices--if carbon were valued properly, the market could do most of the work.

To qualify my response: I'm working on my Ph.D. in ecology & evolutionary biology and minored in environmental studies in college, and I've done both fundamental scientific research and policy work in the U.S. government and in a developing country in SE Asia.

Good luck. Beautiful question.
posted by civicDuty at 7:40 AM on June 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

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