Here are some easy ways to live more gently on the earth. The key word here is “easy.”
The New York Times – Opinion
January 13, 2020
Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
NASHVILLE — My annual resolution to give up sugar — a resolution I keep most of the time and abandon with abandon as soon as pecan pie hits the Thanksgiving sideboard — lasted less than a week this year. It lasts less than a week every year because at our house the holiday season doesn’t end until our oldest son, born on Jan. 7, has blown out the candles on his birthday cake. I have no genetic resistance to my grandmother’s brown-sugar pound cake, the birthday cake my son requests every year; I have to start my resolution all over again on Jan. 8.
The whole trouble with resolutions is that keeping them is hard. Which makes sense: If it were easy to keep a resolution, there would be no need to make one. But in truth, resolutions needn’t be so hard. Instead of resolving to give up sugar, I should just resolve to give up sugar except during times of whole-family celebration. That’s effectively the same thing, but it’s the happy kind of resolution that doesn’t entail self-loathing at the end of every party.
In that spirit, I offer some very doable resolutions for living more lightly on the earth. If 2019 is truly “the year we woke up to climate change,” then 2020 should be the year we start actually doing something about it. Because we are very nearly out of time.
Listen, I know: Dryer balls won’t save the world. Saving the world — and by extension the human race — will take a level of political will the likes of which we have not seen before and which we will categorically never see from this administration. Which makes it all the more crucial to do our part, however small. Think of these suggestions as baby steps on the path toward a growing commitment to change.
Live and let live. Every fall, my neighbors’ lawns are dotted with traps as the neighborhood moles, who have been living in the damp soil deep underground all summer, move their tunnels closer to the surface with the autumn rains. As they tunnel, they push the excavated soil to the surface. The resulting molehills definitely spoil the effect of an emerald green lawn, but so what? The moles are doing good work for you, aerating your soil, eating destructive grubs and slugs, and serving as food for owls and snakes. In time the moles will move deeper again, and the soil will spread out again, and in the meantime the freshly turned earth will be an invitation to ground-foraging birds and serve as fertile ground for wildflower seeds carried on the wind. Other “unwelcome” creatures perform their own useful services: Opossums eat ticks, skunks eat yellow jackets, snakes eat mice, etc. Harry them not.
Reframe your relationship with bugs. Insects are the bread and butter of the natural world, but they are dying out. Think of your yard as ground zero of the entire local food chain. Think of caterpillars not as the enemy of the tomato vine but as food for the mockingbird, whose babies are hungry. Think of mosquitoes not as the bane of the deck party but as food for the bats and the swallows. Plant enough tomatoes for everybody. Use an oscillating fan to keep the bugs away from the porch.
Cultivate a glorious mess. Nature isn’t supposed to be tidy, and its messiness is purposeful. Fallen leaves fertilize the trees they fell from and simultaneously provide habitat for a whole host of insects, amphibians and reptiles. Dead limbs offer homes to cavity-nesting birds like woodpeckers, screech owls and Carolina wrens. Brush piles provide shelter for all manner of small creatures. Kill your leaf blower. Abandon your rake.
Eat better. Agriculture accounts for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through deforestation, the use of petrochemical fertilizers and methane production by livestock. To mitigate its effects, eat less meat and fewer dairy products. Support regenerative farming by buying as much food as possible from local farmers who use heritage farming techniques.
Shop your closet. In addition to its manifold human costs, “fast fashion” — cheap clothing designed to be temporary in the age of Instagram — is a significant cause of environmental degradation. Synthetic fibers are made from fossil fuels and don’t break down in landfills or oceans. Instead of buying a new outfit, wear one that’s already in your closet. No one cares. If you don’t believe no one cares, mix and match items from different outfits, or wear different accessories with the outfits you often wear. If your old clothes need mending or don’t fit well anymore, hire a good seamstress to make them look new again.
Put your money where your values are. Support a fierce environmental nonprofit through automatic monthly drafts. An organization with access to scientific experts, legal teams and full-time advocates can do more good than the same number of individuals acting alone. A monthly draft, no matter how small, gives these organizations the ability to plan ahead and budget accordingly. A rating agency like Charity Navigator or CharityWatch can help you find the most effective ones to support. Be sure to investigate local and regional nonprofits in addition to the marquee national organizations you’ve already heard of.
Pay for your sins. Avoiding air travel is one easy way to lower your carbon footprint significantly, but you can also buy carbon offsets for the flights you can’t avoid. Carbon offsets counteract the greenhouse gas emissions you’re responsible for by supporting organizations that work to limit emissions. They’re amazingly affordable — I offset my entire book tour last year for less than $50 — and they’re not just for corporations. And not just for air travel either.
Lighten up on the plastic. It’s almost impossible to avoid single-use plastics altogether, but a one-time investment in reusable versions of your most frequent purchases can reduce your dependence on them. Add reusable produce bags to your stash of reusable grocery bags, keep a good water bottle in your purse or satchel, bring your own takeout containers to restaurants for leftovers, etc. When you can, purchase biodegradable versions of plastic, like dog-poop bags made from cornstarch, and reuse single-use items that can’t be avoided: If you save the bags that bread comes in, for example, you won’t ever need to buy zip-top bags.
Vote. The climate crisis is the one issue that matters most in this election, and not just because the survival of the human race depends on it. Virtually every other issue on the ballot is one that will be made worse if we don’t act now to limit the damage we’re doing to the planet. Immigration? Check. Race relations? Check. Income inequality? Affordable health care? Global political instability? Check, check, check. Vote for candidates who understand the life-threatening environmental challenges we’re facing, who have pledged to do the hard work of addressing them and, equally important, who have a realistic chance of winning.
Don’t hold yourself to an unrealistic standard of purity. Just as it’s O.K. to eat the birthday cake, it’s O.K. not to be a perfect steward of the earth. A standard of perfection makes it too easy to become overwhelmed. Just do your best. Trust that your best will keep getting better as you wake up to your own responsibilities to the earth.
Take out your earbuds. The best thing you can do to save the earth is to fall in love with your own world. When you love something, you want to nurture and protect it. It’s lovely to think of preserving the earth as a matter of protecting the oceans and the forests and the flood plains and the prairies. But preserving the earth is just as much about protecting the blue jays and the spiders and bats and the garter snakes and the box turtles and the toads. Pay attention to their courtship songs and their territorial cries of fury. Study their stirring in the leaves. Listen for the rush of wings.