Depending on how much you are prepared to do, the range of options for greener living can be modest but beneficial or it can be far-ranging and dynamic. A lot also depends on how much you can afford to spend, as some options are expensive and others are difficult to practise if you do not have the means. One way of helping the environment without having to spend too much money is to source as many of your goods locally as you can.
A lot of companies have come to the conclusion that sourcing the materials for their products overseas is a way of cutting costs and increasing profit margins. And while this might be true for a company that is buying in huge stock, an individual consumer can find good deals close to home that will be more beneficial. Locally-grown or bred stock is more environmentally beneficial because it does not have to travel huge distances – making use of air travel and road haulage as it does so – to arrive at the factories or stores that make it available to consumers.
It may be that you have a farm shop close by. The benefit of having something like this is that the transport involved in getting food from a farm directly to a shop is minimal. This costs the farmer less and they are likely to pass the saving on to their customers. As an additional benefit this means that the food is likely to be fresher and taste better. If you do not have a farm shop nearby, you might like to consider starting your own vegetable patch in your garden.
The issue of motoring and the environment is one of the most hotly debated issues on the green agenda. As we know, a majority of the cars on our roads contribute in a greater or lesser measure to the pollution in our environment. People are not going to stop driving, and the issue of transport pollution is not going to slip off the agenda, so surely something has to give. Is there a way that we can keep driving and stop contributing to the pollution of our environment?
One thing that seems certain is that it is not going to become illegal any time soon to drive a car that causes a certain amount of pollution. Even the more gas-guzzling cars are not going to be banned, even if they may be taxed more heavily in some places. A car can be declared unroadworthy if it gives off more than an agreed level of fumes, but at the moment this seems to apply to cars that have a specific fault, and is not going to take the majority of high-pollution cars off the roads any time soon.
The possibility of driving a hybrid car that uses another fuel – hydrogen being one, or electricity another – to augment the power that it gets from less environmentally sound fuels is one that a lot of people are now considering. At the moment, there is a body of opinion that feels the less polluting cars of this nature to be inferior mechanically to pure gas cars. As technology improves, the chances are that this viewpoint will decrease, and at that point we will be on the road to greener driving in our cities.
Most people view recycling as something that involves taking used items to a recycling bank and depositing them to be taken away by a municipal body or a private company to be turned into something else. However, recycling can take place in the home and be beneficial to you without ever having to pass through any other person’s hands. It depends on what you are willing to recycle or what you have the capacity to do for yourself. And the truth is that there are almost no limits to what you can do.
For example, you can recycle containers originally used to contain food simply by washing them out and using them to contain something else. Many people will use an old preserve jar to keep pens or paintbrushes in, for just one example. Others will use a water bottle that has been drained of its original contents to refill from public water fountains, thus saving time, money and resources that might otherwise be used in packaging.
Alternatively, you may find that if you are a gardener, much of your garbage can be used to make compost. Food and certain forms of packaging can be placed in a compost bin or heap and left to biodegrade naturally until it is usable as fertilizer for your lawn or flowerbeds. By doing this, you can have a beneficial effect on the environment, especially if you use compost to fertilize a small vegetable crop which means that you are getting the most beneficial form of locally-grown produce, that which you have grown for yourself.
The human condition is constantly evolving, which may be news to those who believe it to be shallow and self-obsessed. As time goes on, the way we look at things is influenced both by the past and by the needs of the present. So while the 80s were considered to be a cynical time, and the 90s were about activism, the last decade became something in between the two – keen to do right, but terrified of appearing earnest and preachy.
This can be seen in a lot of the awareness movements and even charity telethons of the past decade. Although the issue of doing the right thing is always implicit in such movements, the underlying impression was that participants were keen to give a message of “Yes, I’m being noble, but I don’t want you to think that I am noble myself, so I will gently mock myself while doing so”. We are almost scared of appearing to care about something, so we mock ourselves before anyone else gets the chance.
In environmental terms this is often a matter of people saying “I’m just taking this to the recycling bank – yes, I’m one of those people, I’m sorry.”. Should we really be scared of being seen to care? Perhaps not. However, as the human condition changes with time, it might not be a bad way of going about things. It makes people think “I may be a little cynical about the issue, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything at all to help”. Better a participating cynic than someone who cares but won’t dare appear to.
Doing the right things to protect the environment is something that is not unlike charity. It is often a compromise on our behalf, and something that calls on us to go above and beyond what is naturally required of us. And like charity, environmental concern can sometimes become something that it should never be – competitive. No-one should ever be made to feel guilty because their efforts do not amount to as much actual achievement as someone else’s. The fact that people have gone to the extent of doing something to help the environment is what matters.
The truth is that some people will get more done, even without necessarily putting in more effort. Some people are better connected, or more natural fundraisers, awareness-raisers or leaders than others might be. The important numbers when it comes to environmental help are not how much more someone has done than everyone else, but how much everyone has done when it is all counted up. Yet in some cases there are individuals who miss this point.
It’s not a competition. If someone views the issue of collecting items for recycling as a matter for one-upmanship, then they really are going about it for the wrong reasons. By all means those who do a lot should be congratulated, but the truth of the matter is that it all adds up and making it into a battle is pretty unedifying considering the importance of the work being done. By working together, a lot more can be achieved.
When we are asked what we, ourselves, do to protect the environment, it is easy to become embarrassed under questioning and feel that what we are actually doing is nothing much. Compared to the size of the problems we can come to the conclusion that our contribution is either to small to really be worthwhile and quit altogether, or potentially that we are being lazy and should be ashamed of our pitiful contribution. It is usually not true that either of these is the case, but we can often find more to do.
Something simple, which is often forgotten by people who are conditioned to feel that green living is all about recycling and leaving the car at home, is the important issue of saving energy. When you have lights or extraneous appliances running all day, the effect is a greater demand on the nearest energy supply. This in turn causes a greater demand on the resources which go into providing this energy, and leaves us with a deficit of natural resources. So you can help by doing something as simple as turning off the TV rather than leaving it on standby.
Something else we can all do is avoid turning the heating on when it does not need to be. If the weather outside is freezing, or close to being so, then of course we need to heat our homes. But if it is slightly chilly, wearing a sweater will be enough to keep most of us warm without needing to place a further demand on the energy supply, and as a nice side benefit it saves us money on our bills.
Many supporters of environmentalist causes will have winced when the extent of the global economic crisis of recent years was revealed. Just as environmental causes were gaining the attention and the purpose of the people in control of the levers of power, something came along that presented a very real problem – where environmental causes needed investment, could they hope to compete for a decreasing pot of money with other issues, the life-or-death matters like health and security?
As time has gone on there have been numerous individuals and organizations who have made the case that economic belt-tightening and environmental protection need not be mutually exclusive. Some expensive projects may have needed to be shelved in order to protect the financial balance of countries that risked sliding into depression and crisis, but sustainable living is a way of saving money and saving the planet. This crisis, which is still having an effect today, need not be the death-knell of the environmental cause.
One thing that is clear, though, is that governments have needed to make moves that are seen to be protecting the economy first, to put aside the risk that the world will be too deep in financial turmoil to do anything substantial. In cases where this has affected funding of local projects, this puts more pressure on the individual to do what they can – something which is worth doing for the good of the planet. It may be a bit tougher, but it is not beyond people who are willing to work together.
There is a clear and obvious difference of opinion in society with regard to the importance of the issues facing our environment, and in some cases there is a difference of opinion as to the existence of some of these issues. It is only natural that – as questioning, naturally curious beings – we might start to wonder whether the skeptical people are the ones who have got it right. Have we been working on environmental issues for nothing? Are we the fools for believing propaganda?
It is easy to look to the people questioning the importance, indeed the mere existence, of man-made climate change and call them “climate change deniers”. This language may echo the term “Holocaust denier” and inadvertently or deliberately place skeptics on the same moral level as those who deny the Holocaust, but is it something that environmentalists should apologise for? Does it make green-friendly people look like the cranks?
Those of us who believe strongly in the importance of looking after the environment have plenty of ammunition on our side. It is not beneficial to our argument to throw around accusations that make us look vindictive or wild-eyed. The facts point to the existence and the potential consequences of man-made climate change. Though some scientists disagree they are in the minority. So instead we should be unafraid to state our case strongly, and leave accusations to those who have no stronger argument to offer. People with a strong case have nothing to fear from debate.
As time goes on, we see more examples of environmental issues being raised in the classroom, and younger children being exposed to environmental subjects. Most schools now will have a policy of getting children involved in environmental projects, and this has led to accusations of brainwashing from some sources. While brainwashing is something that we have come to associate with totalitarian states, is it something we should be prepared to accept when it is for a cause we believe in?
Arguably, it can be said that education is a way of preparing children for the world that they will move into when they have outgrown their schooling. As this world comes to grips with environmental matters, the fact is that it is not a subject that will go away tomorrow. Therefore we might say that getting children involved in environmental projects is something that will prepare them for a world that is going to see the environment as an ever bigger issue the longer it is in question.
What children should not be burdened with is the guilt of choices they may make without realising their implications. A child who throws litter away without knowing the damage it causes is not some kind of thug. They should not be given a harsh lesson in the consequences of their actions. Instead, if the subject is raised, it should be in a way that lets them see how their actions can be positive. By encouraging them to dispose of litter cleanly, we can reward positive behavior.
When we see celebrities getting behind a cause, there are many of us – maybe even most of us – who will have the identical thought. “It must be good for publicity, their agent must have told them to do it”. And in many cases this may well be true – a celebrity who warns us in song or through film about the damage that we do to our environment, and then drives away from the studio in a gas-guzzling sports car certainly needs to look at their principles. However, many other celebrities are in this for real.
We often make the mistake of judging any group of people by the worst examples of their kind. Most prejudices arise this way, with entire racial or religious groupings becoming the subjects of witch-hunts because their number includes one or two who have done something terrible. And while racism and bigotry are a step or two worse than being skeptical about a celebrity’s motives, the fact is that the latter can also be negative for everyone. When we reach a certain level of skepticism it infects everything.
Just because we hear of one celebrity who has sold out their ethical principles for the purpose of some easy publicity, it does not mean that everyone who fronts a campaign is going to be the same. The truth is that celebrity participation can really boost an organisation’s pulling power, and if the celebrity involved really believes in the cause then so much the better. Let’s not be cynical because we have been suckered once.