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Bottoms Up

Writing this blog sometimes makes me feel like a hypocrite. It’s easy to be very critical of others and make a lot of suggestions, but I’ll admit I don’t always heed my own good advice.

In my defense, I feel very strongly that the biggest obstacles to living more sustainably are problems with our society in general, rather than with individuals. Basically, we’re all busy people — and though most of us are willing to make a few small changes here and there to help out the environment or conserve resources, it’s very difficult to make wholesale lifestyle changes when everything around us seems to be set up to encourage wastefulness.

It’s easy to suggest that people drive less, except most neighborhoods are sprawling, with stores and houses separated by vast distances that are dangerous to walk. It’s easy to say “take a bus”, but not so easy to do when it only comes once every 20 minutes and it’s the middle of January. It’s easy to suggest that we eat local foods, except most food in the store does not indicate where it came from, and it’s just not convenient for everyone to run around town shopping at different specialty stores every week. And so on.

This is why I focus a lot on politicians and governments: bottom-up environmentalism is a good start, but I think it will always be too little, done by too few people. Why should I suffer in the middle of summer with my air conditioner off when a box store down the street is using as much energy in a minute as I would in a day? If I sell my car and take public transport, doesn’t that just free up more oil for my next door neighbor to gas up his ugly SUV? This is the tragedy of the commons, I guess, and it is a real problem.

Top-down environmentalism, however, has more power. Only governments have the ability to tweak laws and policies that encourage (or force) corporations, factories, and yes, everyday people to change their behavior in a significant way. This is what we need, and this is why it frustrates me to see our leaders pandering to voters with short term policies that will only damage us in the long run. Ironically, it would be easier for an authoritarian regime like China to implement tough environmental regulations than it would be for a democratic nation. Elected leaders, after all, need to worry about re-election every few years, so short term suffering for long term gain is never a popular option.

Of course, a lack of government action does not get us off the hook as individuals. On that note, here’s a brief list of the small things we do around our household that are positive for the environment; and, to be fair, a list of the bad things I do that I feel guilty about.

The Good

  • We don’t own a car; we walk often, and take transit.
  • We recycle everything we can, including bottles, cans, and paper, and only send the absolute minimum to landfill.
  • We buy non-toxic and environmentally friendly cleaning products whenever possible, even if they cost a bit more and require a bit more elbow grease sometimes.
  • We save up toxic things like batteries and paints and dispose of them at the proper location, or on scheduled neighborhood recycling days.

The Ugly

  • Long, hot showers are a guilty pleasure of mine; and heating water is one of the main wastes of fossil fuel energies.
  • Whether a food product is locally grown is only a minor consideration when buying groceries; price, quality, and how soon I can get the heck out of the store is more important.
  • I hate the heat, so the AC stays on pretty much from May to September in our condo. In my defense, the unit is essentially a concrete box with glass walls, so you could blame the architect for that one.
  • We don’t compost, because frankly, doing it inside our little condo unit would stink.

I’m sure there’s plenty that could be added to both lists — but my little green fingers are tired.

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