There is really only one step from which the path to ecological balance flows. To become conscious of how the things you do affect the earth so that you can to make the effect you have on the world as kind and beautiful as possible and for that to be a core part of the meaning of your life as you grow and change.
That said, we aren’t born with ecological awareness, or if we are it is soon socialised out of us. So we might need a guide to starting somewhere and there are some specific things we need to focus on if we really want a cleaner, kinder world. This is not a list of things that would be popular or make people comfortable. This is a list of significant changes that, were we all as individuals to do them, could start to heal nature and perhaps ourselves.
The possibility of a kinder world rests in moments like the one happening as you read this, possibilities for consequential individual change. However, reading a list about how to save the diversity of life is meaningless unless that possibility becomes a reality.
1. Stop eating animals
It’s hard watching people going to such effort to avoid aligning the way they eat with their principles. They consciously ignore the fact that animal farming is cruel, unjust and one of the most environmentally destructive industries in the world.
The livestock industry is at a scale we seldom consider. If we combine livestock pastures and crops to feed livestock together it accounts for the majority of global farming land. Livestock farming causes land degradation, deforestation, climate change, air pollution, water shortages, water pollution, biodiversity loss, species extinction, the list goes on. The UN said in their Livestock’s Long Shadow report that animal agriculture is among the top causes of almost every environmental problem from local to global. Maybe read that last sentence again, then take a moment to think about what that means to you.
Wanting a kinder, more environmentally sustainable world is not enough, we also have to dramatically reduce our animal product consumption. For me, given the issues with cruelty, that meant going vegan.
2. Switch to cleaner energy and use less
Another of the primary causes of climate change and pollution is the energy we use.
For many people, there is a simple way to reduce your energy footprint, and that is to switch your energy provider to one which provides clean energy. Your energy provider may already have a green energy option and you just need to switch. Either way potentially within minutes you will have dramatically reduced your greenhouse gas emissions. If you can afford a little more for your energy and you don’t do this one, you need to admit you don’t really care.
For people who want to go one step further, you can also install your own renewable energy. Solar panels have never been cheaper or more efficient, and many governments have incentive schemes for people buying them. There are other forms of renewables which might make sense for your situation.
Something everyone can do is reduce their energy consumption. Most people use energy in an incredibly careless way. A large proportion of the energy used in homes is simply wasted, devices left on standby twenty four hours a day, lights and other devices left on needlessly, inefficient devices which seem cheap when you buy them but cost more in the long run, heating and cooling devices used when building, insulating and dressing appropriately could reduce or eliminate the need for them.
Then there are our workplaces. Offices are cooled so that people can wear suits in summer, heated so they don’t have to wear a jumper in winter. I often walked around the floors of my workplaces the day before long holidays and noticed the majority of people had left their computers and other devices on. Walk around any city and night and you will see office buildings lit up on every floor. This shameless wasting of energy and its contribution to pollution and global warming should be criminal.
By taking care of their energy usage at home and work the average person could probably halve their power consumption, dramatically reducing climate emissions, pollution and sending less money to the energy giants.
3. Use cleaner, healthier transport
I should start by saying something which should be obvious but is unthinkable in our car-dominated societies, it is immoral for us to use cars the way the average person currently does. The fact that everyone around you is doing the same thing, does not change that fact.
Getting over our addiction to cars would give us and the other life on earth a cleaner, healthier and safer environment. It is hard to go into all the negative aspects of cars in a short space. It is the primary cause of air pollution and breathing problems in cities. There is pollution from discarded cars and parts, especially tyres. The automobile and oil industries warp our political system and fund think tanks aimed at perpetuating a fossil fuel economy. There is water pollution from road runoff, leaked oil, chemicals and tyre residue. Especially in our cities, it is the primary cause of noise pollution which affects humans and animals more than most people understand. There is the death of many millions of animals each year from collisions. There are regular oil spills which kill ocean life and pollute marine ecosystems. The death and injury of millions of pedestrians and cyclists which discourages other road uses. Roads contribution to the urban heat island effect causing additional cooling to be needed. The separation and sectioning off of wildlife habitat. Deforestation both from clearing to build roads and the access roads give to human encroachment of wilderness areas. War and geopolitical instability. Climate emissions, rounding out the big three for our individual emissions along with diet and energy use.
We can do without private transport and people would react badly, but once the fires and looting died down we'd realise our lives can be better. We can use public transport, our feet, bicycles, car share schemes and taxi services to get around, improving our health, bank balance and quality of life. Once you have a car the temptation to use it for trivial things is all too easily given into. We could reclaim all that land in our cities for trees, food gardens, and green spaces for play and enjoy.
Touching on flying briefly, it is intensively polluting and it is difficult to see how it could be made significantly more environmentally friendly in the foreseeable future. If you are flying regularly you can’t really live ecologically sustainably regardless of how many light switches you turn off, or cans you recycle for the rest of the year. As with car usage, we need to stop pretending it is a morally neutral action.
4. Embrace minimalism
The primary way most of us affects the world is through our consumption. The things we buy, at every step from their extraction to the air-conditioned shops we buy them from, are polluting and damaging the environment. Above we have talked about energy, animals, transport, but really they are just all various facets of consumption. People would like to think they can just consume in a more conscious way, but the sheer levels of our consumption mean this is probably a delusion to comfort ourselves. What we need to do is embrace a simpler way of living.
Minimalism is a way of living which reduces our possessions and consumption down to what is essential. At the moment the human population is consuming far more than the world can replenish every year. With hundreds of millions of people still living in abject poverty, this means that the wealthier people of the world cannot continue to live as they do. We must make ecological space for the lifting of them out of poverty by changing our lives. We need to create a culture which looks down on profligate consumption. Where having much more than one needs shows a person has probably failed to be a compassionate human being. We should start of course by embodying this ourselves.
5. Consume as power
Much of the degradation of our environment is done for economic purposes. When a product is ridiculously cheap, it's often because it has been produced in a way which pays as little regard to environmental sustainability as possible. One way in which we can vote for a more sustainable world every day is with our purchasing power.
We can make an effort to purchase ethical, well-made, repairable, organic, renewable goods, with long warranties. By doing so we will reward the companies and corporations who try to do the right thing and punish those who don’t. There can be follow on effects. As more ethical companies become more profitable an economy starts to form around them. Flow on effects ripple out into the community, as for example when marketing budgets suddenly have the possibility to push more positive messages.
It is sad that money makes the world go around, but whilst it does we need to think about what sort of world each of us is financing.
6. Refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, redesign
Someone once said recycling as we have it is really just recycling the problem. If we look to nature it recycles in a different way, when there is a waste product, something will evolve to use that waste as food. Waste is a good thing in nature, a tree that pulls nutrients from the sun and air, then drops its leaves into the soil, and infuses the soil with life. We aren’t yet capable of fully integrating our modern technology into this system. Instead, we pollute and degrade the system.
That is why the various Rs have been proposed to help us remember our negative impact.
Refuse is perhaps the most important as so many of the things we consume are made by toxic processes, and their production comes at a significant cost to life itself. Usually, the most ethical form of consumption is not consuming.
Reducing is about creating a smaller footprint on the earth, a big house allows you to thoughtlessly fill it with unnecessary things which are rarely if ever used. Why does every home have many of the same appliances which are rarely used, when sharing them makes so much more sense? Why do we have so many books, clothes and other things that we will probably never use? Donating unused items to charities which will help people who will actually use them has a double ethical effect.
Reusing is partly about the vast array of things in our society that are used once and discarded. A small example is a plastic bag that is bought home from the supermarket, discarded, then the next week an identical plastic bag is bought home from the supermarket and discarded, and this goes on throughout people's lives. This sort of behaviour is a symptom of our ecological unwellness.
Repairing is sometimes difficult on a budget, as perversely fixing things often costs more than buying new ones. If we can afford it we often need to vote against the destruction of nature with our time or money. Repairing things ourselves also teaches us about our things, how to keep them in better working order and how to make better choices when buying them.
Recycling is usually only done when it makes sense from an economic perspective, but it needs to be extended and expanded.
Redesign, the last one is important as we need to create a society where all the above is as easy as possible. That companies make huge profits selling technology which will usually end up in landfill is unconscionable. We need to design the products we use with the earth in mind at every stage, to design systems that make being eco-conscious easy, rather than hard. Ultimately corporations shouldn’t be able to make and sell things that don’t embody the principles above. They need to be held responsible for the effect on the earth of the things they produce.
7. Be political
Some people who are passionate about ecological change question whether taking personal steps matters. They ask “What difference does it make for me as an individual not to do something, when everyone else is doing it?” They believe that instead of personal change our efforts should be put towards making change at the political level. Whilst sympathetic to this point of view, ultimately I think we should be consistent in our ethics and actions, the charge of hypocrisy is often the first and easiest one to level at people trying to take an ethical stance. Still, I think they have a point in just how important it is that we make our voice heard in the corridors of power.
For a start vote for the environment. Register a vote of dissent to the cult of economic growth above all else that most parties espouse. Political parties often get funding, influence and media coverage proportionate to the percentage of votes they receive. Even though they may not always gain power, environmental parties can still be very influential on many levels. The mainstream parties will and have changed their platforms to be, or at least appear to be, greener in an effort to nullify the rising environmental consciousness of the electorate, expressed by voters like you.
Be political in your life. Make apathy something people around you have to work a little harder at. Wear a t-shirt, put a sticker on your bike, say something kind to that person putting their shopping into a string bag, pick up some rubbish, there are almost limitless ways you can model pro-environmental behaviours. All of us have the power to positively or negatively affect the people around us, make your own influence irresistibly positive.
Join with others. Indignant individuals on their own are good, but they don’t change the world. Movements change the world, and for you, that might mean compromise and getting along with people you’d rather not. You might have to step out of your comfort zone, it just comes down to how serious you are about change.
The best way to lower your carbon footprint after all is to influence lots of other people to reduce theirs.
8. Give wisely
In a capitalist world, the money is usually in destroying the planet, not healing it. The resources corporations have to influence politics, the media, and therefore society, are only limited by the profits they make. Taxes are good, but political parties don’t always focus on the issues we would like, especially if our concerns transcend national boundaries. Without structural change, the only way really to counter this is charitable giving by the population.
I often look at my religious friends in this respect, who happily give ten per cent of their income not to mention lots of their time to their churches. Friends who say that protecting the environment, alleviating poverty and helping animals are core values to them often give little or no time or money. It costs us nothing to be indignant or look down on others for not caring, but if we are really serious about a better world, we would understand that the economics of change can’t be ignored.
There is also considering who and what you give to. Not all charities are the same, not all dollars go as far. Giving money to the charity that markets itself well, or happens to have something on at your work is not always the best place to be putting your money or time. Indeed this forces charities to spend large amounts of time and money on marketing and gimmicks instead of their core work. We should think carefully and deeply about the change we want to see in the world, and select a charity only once we’ve done that work. The effective altruism movement is an excellent guide in this respect.
Whether it is time or money, figure out what you can give in your circumstances, but we all need to be giving something.
Almost everyone has a bank account. A large number of people have reasonable amounts of money in those bank accounts. In Australia where we have a compulsory retirement savings account, it is usual for these accounts to contain hundreds of thousands of dollars. Together we have billions in these accounts and this money is often used to fund things we would find ethically objectionable.
Not all banks are the same. Usually, with a limited amount of searching, you can find ratings of banks on various ethical policies. With compulsory retirement savings or superannuation, there are a number of ethical providers, as well as many institutions having an ethical option. For me it was as simple as ticking a box to make the change.
Then there are shares. This is an area where a little more research needs to be done on individual companies, but you can circumvent that by letting someone else do the work for you. Ethical fund managers and exchange-traded funds are available. The fewer options fossil fuel and other destructive companies have for buying their shares and financing their projects, the higher the costs to them should be.
10. Do your own thing
Each of us has their own strengths and weaknesses in life. Not everything here will be as easy for some people as others. That is not a pass though, instead of focusing on what is difficult you need to focus on what you can do.
Also in influencing other people, or making change, each of us has unique interests, skills or insights. You might have ideas which resonate with people in your communities that other people wouldn't. Because of your age, gender, race or many other things, you might be able to get through to people that others aren't.
There are so many ways the environment and ourselves need to be healed, you just need to find your own space where you feel you have the skills and motivation to make a change.
Environmental charities often don’t want to be overly political, they don’t want to criticise their funding base, whether that is the politicians, the corporations, wealthy individuals, or their members. Really though the time has come for change, significant change. That’s what this list is about.
Shorter showers, electric cars, home-grown tomatoes, they are all good but aren't at the scale of change we need. We need to stop telling ourselves convenient fairytales that we want to believe about small changes making a big difference. It’s all about our consumption, which is at crisis levels and we each have to deal with it, we have to become self-limiting.
We have to stop telling ourselves we are good people and do the hard and difficult work of actually being good people. You’ll know you are on the right track when you are out of your comfort zone and giving up things you don’t want to give up.
We may lose a lot of our habitual consumption but we have the beauty of the world to win.