Many of us want to be better global citizens, but where to start? This article offers ten steps to consider if you’d like to contribute to positive change.
I have cared deeply about the environment for as long as I have understood the concept. However, for much of my life my choices did not reflect my concern. The issues we face are institutionalized and run incredibly deep. It’s difficult to figure out how to live in this world without contributing to hugely problematic systems. Beyond that, it might seem like too big of an issue for any one person’s actions to even matter. However, paradigm shifts happen one person at a time until a tipping point is reached and then large-scale change becomes a reality.
The ideas gathered below should be spread, they can become part of this widespread shift. I invite you to realize this is the avant-garde. I’m ready to join the movement away from our current practices in favor of sustainability.
Please understand, I’m not claiming that all of my life choices support sustainability. I also understand that there are complicated issues of privilege, education, and access. I invite us all to commit to continually improving within our means and to face the world with growing awareness.
1. Get educated.
In fact, never stop educating yourself. Watch films. Read articles and books. Maybe you’ve already seen documentaries like, “Fast Food Nation,” “Queen of the Sun,” and “GMO OMG.” (If you haven’t, you should.) They highlight systems that support profit for some, over sustainability for all. Resources like these are important to disseminate knowledge of the issues that exit and hopefully inspire people to get involved.
However, something that I overlooked when I first started researching environmentalism is that I also needed to educate myself in positive, hands-on ways. Many subjects can provide this balance. Learn about gardening, beekeeping, passive solar designs, tiny homes, green architecture, hiking, veggie oil, biking, or anything else that sparks your interest in sustainable living.
Research indigenous leaders (example: Winona LaDuke) find explanations of forward-thinking civic projects from other countries (example: Brazil or Germany), look for inspiration everywhere you go and trade ideas with those around you. Watch this video about an inspiring LA family that grows 6,000 pounds of food on 1/10 of an acre, all while living off-grid.
2. Opt out.
I grew up in the Silicon Valley in the 1990s, believe me when I say that I’ve come a long way. I used to value pop culture and shopping malls. I had no concept of what the word “need” meant. The dominant cultural paradigm in the United States is not healthy for us, or for the planet. If you haven’t already, decide now that you will not feed into it. Do not allow shallow symbols like fancy cars, branded clothes/food, and huge houses be your touchstones. In general, pay attention to how things are crafted, what resources are utilized, what pollution is created, and how the workers who made the objects were treated.
Our culture needs to leave behind its adolescence, and finally step into taking responsibility.
3. Be aware of exploitation.
If a product is cheap, that probably indicates there’s a problem with the labor involved. Be intentional with what practices you support through your product choices. I know that when you try on an item of clothing that hugs your body in all the right ways it can be unpleasant to think about who made it, and under what conditions. Simply curtail this before you go to the store. Refuse to align yourself with places that carry items which exploit laborers. You might have to find new places to shop, but if you consider how your actions reverberate through the world when you make different choices I hope you will find it is worth the time. Think about this when you buy clothing, diamonds, coffee, chocolate, and really just about anything these days.
Think about what you ingest. If you choose to eat meat or dairy, buy it from someone who either hunted wild game or took decent care of the beast during its life. Hormones and antibiotics get passed on to you. Factory farms are havens for disease. How can eating something diseased be appetizing or healthy?
4. Buy organic. Grow organic.
Buying organic isn’t just about what you are putting in your body. It also supports farming practices that are sustainable. You can support farmers who are making responsible choices.
Watch “How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.” It illustrates quite well how Cuba saved its economy through organic gardening.
No matter how you feel about GMOs, the fact remains that the way they are farmed adds tons and tons of pesticides to our soil and water. This is causing countless problems throughout the world. If you buy conventional produce or processed food that is not labeled organic, you are supporting this practice.
The notion that GMOs are needed to “feed the world” is simply untrue. Organic practices have already fed the world for thousands of years and can produce the same amount of food, even more during times of drought. GMOs have created an unsustainable food system which promotes superweeds, superbugs, and destroys land. The farmers that plant them have lost their right to save seeds. Huge corporations who value profit over all else own our ability to feed ourselves.
If everyone who has access to land committed to planting an organic vegetable garden, the world will be a much better place. Grow food, not lawns is a succinct description of this idea and a great movement to get involved with. It takes much less space than you think. I’ve seen people grow veggies on urban balconies. Actually, I knew someone with urban balcony chickens in San Francisco too.
5. Identify as an environmentalist. Say it with me, “I am an environmentalist.” Repeat it. Own it.
Everyone who is not directly profiting from the pollution and destruction of our world should identify as an environmentalist. Being an environmentalist can be as simple as having an interest in a paradigm shift away from a profit at any cost model, to a vision of a world where sustainability is the goal for all endeavors.
Anything you do that genuinely stems from this place is activism. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s practice. You don’t have to give up everything to live on a farm, although that would be great if you’re up for it.
We don’t profit from these practices. Buying cheap products that break within a year does not give us freedom. The people who reap profits have colonized our minds. Decolonize yourself.
6. Learn to do more things for yourself.
Who doesn’t want to know how to make their own jam? Just think about the new skills you could gain. There is always more to know. Increase your mastery of cooking, sewing, leatherwork, gardening, carving, mushroom cultivation, beekeeping, knitting, canning food, paper making, cheese making, yogurt making, building, shoemaking, brewing, raising chickens, and the list goes on and on. Pick up a book on homesteading.
6. Downsize and reduce consumption.
As a real estate broker, I’m all too aware that most people equate a nicer house with more square footage. This is finally starting to change. There are really exciting things happening with the tiny house movement. More people are getting interested in passive solar and off-grid living. I would very much like to someday trade my Portland foursquare home for a smaller house with more room to farm and garden. But we should all start where we are and maximize the potential of whatever we have. Don’t wait until you finally get to move to your dream homestead.
No one actually needs to replace their wardrobe seasonally or buy an overabundance of Christmas presents. (Of course, no one needs as many shoes as I happen to have, either. I’ve stopped buying them, I’m starting to donate.) Buy quality products, learn to care for them, and keep them until they are no longer repairable. Then reuse them for something else.
Every time you pick up a non-degradable item to purchase, ask yourself if its worth it to have that thing — whatever it is — around for countless generations.
7. Reduce emissions. This is part of the reason why “local” is a buzz word.
Drive less. Walk, run, rollerskate, skateboard, bike, live closer to work and play. Use public transit. Share cars. Figure out veggie oil. Drive a smaller car. Drive an electric car. Look into how biodiesel is produced in your area, that could be a good option.
Buy local goods. With focus only on profit, shipping great distances might seem like a good idea (especially if you can rely on exploiting workers elsewhere.) Buying a cheap product that was produced somewhere far away is not the best option.
Learn to sew. Find a local tailor. Look for fair trade brands. Buy from Farmer’s Markets. Research products made locally and responsibly.
Children and pets share very few similarities. However, in both instances, consider the virtues of adoption. I read a compelling article by a woman who claimed that choosing not to have a [biological] child is one of the greenest decisions that anyone in today’s world can make. It struck me as harsh, but it’s true.
I think most people are quite versed in the dangers of puppy and kitten mills. Rescue animals are incredible additions to your family. I speak from experience, I have a rescue cat and two rescue dogs trying to overtake me with affection as I write this.
9. Raise the bar. Lead by example. Invite people to join you. Be excited.
Have the courage to expect more from yourself and others. Be gentle with people.
Stay positive and meet people where they are, no one likes their choices to be harshly judged. I hope that we are all doing our best, and that we all would like to do better.
10. Join clubs. Volunteer. Organize. Get civically involved.
Get out there and meet other people who are interested in these things. If you don’t have your own land, find a community garden. Join a beekeeper association, a mushroom hunting club, tour local organic orchards, take classes, attend a permaculture conference. I live in Portland, which is an oasis of opportunity on these topics, but I have to believe there are ways to get involved everywhere. If there aren’t, take that as an invitation to start something.
Join your neighborhood association. Sit on a local board. Maybe you can get a project going to plant bee flowers in intersections or empty lots. Perhaps you can convince your neighbors to award grants to those who want to start gardens.
Advanced level. Start an organic farm. Live off the land.
I know it’s not for everyone, but we need to take back our land and stop letting it get drenched in chemicals. There are crops that are known to help return land to a less polluted state. Hemp is a good example. Compost works wonders.
I struggle with wanting to do this myself and worrying that it might be a romantic delusion. But people really do it. I’ve met them, it’s possible. Check out this video about young farmers from the Bioneers conference.
In the meantime, I’m gardening my little urban farm in SE Portland. I’ve got chickens, garden beds, bees coming in the Spring, and I’m learning everything I can.
I’m working to make my backyard a certified backyard habitat for birds, which involves planting native species and ridding my yard of invasive species. I’m signed up to participate in the OSU Master Gardener extension program, which is a combination of classes and volunteering. I belong to the Portland Urban Beekeepers club. I voted for GMO labeling. I attend my neighborhood association meetings and help where I can.
I’ve got my eye on bigger plots of land with smaller houses… we’ll see what the future brings and how brave I am. I would really like to have space to care for milking goats.
And… will someone please help me figure out how to create change on a grander scale? I can take ownership over myself, but I want laws that prioritize sustainability over profit. Companies and individuals should not have the right to make profit while doing harm. How can we get the FDA to protect us from unsafe food? How do we get our politicians to listen to these concerns and take action? How do we fight against corporations with so much money and power?
If you are interested in publishing this article elsewhere, please let me know!