When my partner and I recently made a quick stop at Costco (yes, such a thing is possible if you arrive right when the doors open in the morning and stick to your grocery list), we were struck, not for the first time, by the number of people trundling towards the check-out with carts heavily laden with cases of personal-sized bottles of water.
As I waited to have our paltry purchase rung through, my partner approached one woman to suggest that she should perhaps consider other options. Her response was not positive.
First, she assured him that she needed to buy bottles of water “to take to the gym.” When he proposed possible alternatives, she responded that perhaps he could keep his opinions to himself. He commented that the seriousness of the climate crisis was such that he could not do this, whereupon she assured him that she did more for the environment “than anyone else.”
While my partner had hoped for an aha moment as a result of his attempted conversation with this woman, he also understood why it didn’t happen. She was surrounded by dozens of other shoppers whose carts were also loaded down with cases of bottled water. Governments and corporations are evading their responsibilities with, apparently, no consequences at all. Why, then, should any of us bother to take personal responsibility? Anything we might do seems inconsequential when compared to the systemic failure to act.
What to do
Take what we eat, for instance. Increasingly, we hear that eating meat is one of the most serious contributors to the size of our carbon footprint. A recent study published by Sweden’s Lund University lists moving to a plant-based diet as one of the four most important things individuals can do to address the climate crisis (the other three are reducing air-travel, living car-free and having smaller families).
Should we all take up a vegan diet? Surely there is a difference between a diet of plastic-wrapped industrially produced meat or lamb shipped from New Zealand and one based on small-scale locally-produced meat. What about the environmental impact of shipping the ingredients for a plant-based diet from where they are grown to the parts of the world where they can’t be grown, at least for many months of the year?
Step by step
Regardless of what governments and corporations do or don’t do, we can all do more in our personal lives to reduce the impact we have on the planet. Here are some thoughts for the new year.
We may not be able to go car-free, but we can cut down on how much we let our cars idle. According to Natural Resources Canada, if most of us limited our idling to three minutes a day, over one year, we would see a 1.4 million tonne reduction in CO2 emissions. Sixty-seven Canadian cities have implemented anti-idling bylaws, although their enforcement seems to be somewhat spotty.
Reducing idling means no more trips to the drive-thru. It’s time to park the car and walk for our java or fast-food fix. Twenty-six municipalities in Canada have banned the construction of new drive-thrus, so perhaps 2020 is a good time to find out what’s happening where we live and begin to lobby our municipal politicians to implement a ban where one does not already exist.
Many of our electronic devices use almost as much energy when they are on standby as when they are in active use. It’s fine to leave a laptop or phone plugged in overnight when they need to charge, but otherwise they should be unplugged when we are not using them. The same is true for our television sets, toasters and music systems.
While clothes dryers are convenient, most of us can manage without one, by stringing up an inside line to air dry laundry in those months when we can’t hang it outside.
Paper napkins are one of my pet peeves. Admittedly, I have an excessively large collection of cloth napkins, but it is not expensive to make or buy a basic supply. If everyone in the household has their own napkin, there is no need to wash them frequently. I now travel with a cloth napkin in my workbag so I don’t have to take the paper products that are offered on trains and airplanes. (When I stayed at a small eco-lodge a few months ago, it occurred to me that guests could be provided with a cloth napkin to use for the duration of their stay, which would have eliminated the need for paper napkins.)
The point of this little list is not to try to include everything that each of us could be doing, but rather to encourage all of us – including me, by writing it – to consider the many small things we do each day that perhaps we could do differently to reduce their negative impact on the planet.
At the end of the day, though, those small actions will mean little if we don’t also become involved in fighting for systemic change. Whether that is advocating for your community to install public water fountains or to ban construction of new drive-thrus, joining the Climate Strike wherever you are on Fridays or lobbying provincial and federal governments to become true campaigners to end the climate crisis, doesn’t matter.
What matters is that we care enough to act, even when it might make our lives a little inconvenient.