Why Live Sustainably?

treeI use double the resources I should to keep the Earth sustainable (based on the average from my Global Footprint Network calculator and World Wildlife Fund calculator scores) and am proud of it. This is because the average American uses five times what they should, so I am more than twice as good.

Why do I do it? When my obsession with lowering my environmental footprint began, fifteen years ago, it was because of climate change. Spurred by a job indexing environmental sites, I realized that climate change is real, is human caused, and is only going to get much, much worse. I had to do something!

Now that it looks like, through a combination of human greed and short-sightedness, the planet is in the midst of an almost inescapable crash, I might be tempted to give up. But I’ve been living (relatively) sustainably for so many years that I keep it up for the same reason others run a marathon or climb a mountain—because it’s there, because it can be done, because it gives me a goal and a reason for being.

How do I do it? By living in a small house with super insulation, by giving up red meat and pork, by taking public transit or biking instead of owning a car, by flying only once every decade or so. Every one of these activities, which many deem essential, can be replaced by others equally as worthwhile and enjoyable.

Take beef, for example. Some people feel they need a burger or a nice juicy steak, but they are wrong. There are innumerable options these days, an array of cuisine from around the world. I realized that what I love about Mexican food is the jalapeno and the cilantro, the texture and taste of corn tortillas, the blend of rice and beans. Others may love Italian or traditional American, but still find a way to enjoy them using much less meat.

I do still eat fish and chicken, but limit it to three or four times a week. I feel I have given up nothing and saved the lives of many cows and pigs. Of course, I am a bit of a hypocrite to still consume some animals, but I easily surpass my standard of doing better than the average American.

Or take flying, which I last did nearly five years ago on a trip to Iceland. Yes, I give up access to all kinds of wondrous cultures and sights, but face facts. Flying is a miserable experience these days, with long lines, intrusive inspections, and cramped seats. Plus, my ears pop and my stomach lurches. Instead, my wife and I take trips by train and bus to explore fabulous cities from Charleston to Boston. And we support the arts locally, attending concerts, plays, and museums. On top of that, I get to play tennis and even read a few novels. There’s more to do, even without flying, than one has time for.

It helps that we live in the DC region, with enormous cultural offerings and a fabulous (by American standards) transit system. Otherwise, I admit, we would need to own a car, although it would be a small electric or hybrid one. Still, I get free exercise as I bike around. Bus and Metrorail do take more time, but owning a car is expensive and has many hassles, from gas and repairs to road rage to potential accidents. It’s a trade-off, but one that I’m delighted to make. And, again, it makes me feel far more virtuous than the average American.

Finally, although we live in a detached house (an apartment or condo is better, with shared heat and cooling), everything else about our dwelling is sustainable. Ten years ago, we had an energy audit, which allowed the correct insulation and sealing to cut our monthly energy bill in half (this is truly the low-hanging fruit). We have solar panels. All our appliances are energy efficient. And our house is small—500 square feet per occupant (not counting cats), which allows a nice, cozy lifestyle with minimal waste. (I don’t count the ecological footprints of our cats toward mine, though.)

Of course, we have our blind spots. We go through electronics like nobody’s business, each owning a smart phone, tablet, and computer. And we rarely buy used, preferring to get new items—made cheap overseas—from the ultimate pusher, Amazon. It’s easy to justify these shortcomings given our otherwise sustainable lifestyle. We’re still doing better than the vast majority of Americans.

You might think I’m being a bit smug, and you’d be right. After all, I’m still doing less than the planet needs and I really shouldn’t look down on my fellow citizens. But I have a challenge. Instead of dismissing me, why don’t you take an inventory of your life and see how you can be more sustainable? What do you need, what really makes you happy, and what can you do without, or change?

Perhaps, like ripples in a pond, you will influence those around you when they see you’ve given up that huge SUV or are no longer flying to Europe every summer. And, if local lifestyles begin to change, it makes it that much easier for government to move toward the institutional changes we really need to survive as a species.

You may even help disprove my contention, that it is already too late for humanity on planet Earth.