Environmentalism isn't something you can dip into, it needs to be a core part of who we are, an aspect of every choice we make.
Of course there's not a lot of money to be made or votes to be gained in telling you that it's not corporations or governments that are the problem, it is you. The way the most of humanity lives, or aspires to live, is what destroys this planet and the corporations and governments (democratic ones at least) just do our bidding.
I know that's not easy for most people to think of making changes, they just couldn't live without everything they buy being wrapped in plastic, the whistle they got in a christmas cracker (which they immediately threw away), leaving their appliances on standby, eating a meatlovers pizza (and throwing much of it away) or not being able to sit in traffic every day spewing pollution into the lungs of the few remaining children who actually walk to school. I mean it's not like the alternative could fill our psychological void, being part of a worldwide community of people choosing compassion and working together to face challenges, no lazy consumption is the mark of a life well lived.
Let's say on the off chance you don't agree with that, and you think "hey actually I want to be a positive part of the processes of life on this earth, instead of an endpoint for it" then her are some changes you can make to absolve yourself from the contempt future generations are going to feel when they look back at ours.
Don't think you can go around calling yourself an environmentalist if you do these things though, you are just removing your footprint here, you aren't fixing stuff. Fixing stuff is called activism, and that is what an environmentalist does, no this stuff here is just to be at peace with your own soul.
Lower your private transport and aeroplane usage
It is almost beyond the comprehension of most people in countries like the US and Australia that mass ownership of automobiles is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. Most find it hard to even conceive of their lives without them, yet if they could kick their addiction to cars, I think we would find a cleaner, healthier, more connected, safer society for us all. Using your own power to get around is not only elegant, it is what everybody did for most of human history.
Look at the type of journey you need to take, for a short journey walking is easiest and the perfect form of exercise, for a medium journey, get on a bike, take public transport or dial a taxi, for longer trips and holidays, a combination of public transport and bike is great, and even when all of that is not possible, you can still hire a car if you really need one.
We can do without private transport, I really think we could just abolish it in our culture, and sure people would grumble, riot and probably destroy our cities, but once the fires and fuss died down we'd realise it wouldn't make that much difference to our lives. I've used public transport, my feet and bicycles to get around for years, and it hasn't hampered my quality of life, certainly going years without being in a traffic jam isn't a bad thing. I save the cost of a car, registration, maintenance, fines, parking, petrol and insurance. The environmental cost of the manufacture of a car is huge, and they are continually replaced, so I save that as well. We can also borrow from/share with friends and family, perhaps working out a payment/maintenance scheme. Then there is car sharing, work it out with your colleagues, a car with four people in it is close to four times as environmentally efficient as with one. With the many less cars we'd need to manufacture, perhaps we could instead make machines to purify water, or medical machines needed in the developing world. Much of our shopping can simply be done via home delivery as well, meaning one longer car trip to service a much larger number of houses, instead of one for every house.
The oil and automobile industries are also some of the largest and most manipulative corporations in the world, lobbying governments and supporting politicians obstructing a global response to climate change and many other environmental changes. People are also pretty deluded about just how dangerous cars are, for healthy people it's probably your biggest chance of being suddenly killed and maimed. Each year car accidents kill almost as many people as war and suicide combined, look up any list of global causes of death if you don't believe me. This is not to factor in the perhaps millions of deaths from pollution, pedestrian deaths and their contribution to obesity and lack of exercise adding perhaps a few more million. Pets and native animals are also killed in their millions. The numbers are quite staggering, if only advertisements informing you about these things were as well funded and common as ads for the latest cars.
Then there is a whole social aspect to the car, they are destroying local shops and economies, instead creating mega malls and minimum wage chain stores, with profits leaving the community and going to a smaller tier of society. They are a blight on our urban landscapes too, a huge proportion of our urban environments are ugly tarmac covered roads and parking lots. In Australia where I live, many shopping centres and even parks don't even have footpaths going into them. What if instead some of this area were parks, community gardens, wildlife corridors, neighbourhood areas or any other better uses of often prime soil than roads for people to rush about to nowhere on.
If you must have a car, don't become dependent on it, share it and buy a fuel efficient one. As for holidays, train journeys are amazing, I have good memories of my trips around Europe and Australia on the train. I've set myself a ration of one return plane flight a year, until I work out if even that is sustainable, what that means is when I take a holiday I take a long one, and check out places in between where I am and where I am travelling to. You can take buses to all sorts of places and meet new people. Bike holidays can be great too, actually see places rather than hurtling past them. Finally if you need to fly or drive somewhere, set aside a small amount to offset the carbon emissions with one of the many schemes out there which buy forests and plant trees, make it a cost to yourself reflective of its environmental footprint, so perhaps you'll think about it more.
Use less energy
Much of the energy we use in our homes is wasted, doing nothing for anybody, except costing you money and contributing to environmental destruction. Devices on standby, left on needlessly, inefficient devices, etc, and that's just what you use, the energy which goes into producing goods for your home is as significant as what you use. Planned obselence, endless gadgets we can do without, useless features that are sold as must haves to lure you into upgrading, all this is completely unnecessary and not only is not making you happier, is meaning you will need to work longer in your life than you really have to, to pay for it all.
Instead of turning on the heater, put on a jumper. Theres a chinese proverb that says "Cut your wood yourself and it will warm you twice". Whenever buying household appliances, look for the various energy ratings, buy a good product now with excellent energy ratings and you will have less expenditures in the years to come. Turn off the lights, buy energy efficient light bulbs and get skylights installed. Insulate your home, make it reasonably airtight, and close off unused sections of the house, so that if you do need heating or cooling it is as efficient as possible. If you own your own home consider alternative forms of energy, but anyone can subscribe to one of the greenpower schemes now being offered, for a small amount each month it can be the equivalent to taking a car off the road.
There are plenty of guides online to the many things you can do to make your home more energy efficient, and often free or low cost government programmes so get searching. Always remember though that a huge amount of energy is embedded in the manufacture of the products we buy, consuming less is still probably the best way to reduce your energy footprint.
Perhaps the over arching environmental message for us personally, is getting people to reject the fact that they are defined by what they consume, that the more they consume, the more successful they are.
Everything which is produced uses resources and energy, produces pollution, and there is of course the human energy that would be better spent elsewhere making it. Perhaps the primary way in which we directly effect the world is our consumption, and if we are not thinking carefully about that, chances are we are part of destroying the world. It is interesting that peoples ecological footprints are more defined by their wealth than by their attitudes, think about that.
Consuming less is easy, and it actually means you'll save more money and have more time. For holidays and special occasions buy your friends experiences or virtual gifts, donate some money to their favourite charity, or probably the best of all - make them something. Then there is buying second hand, hiring instead of purchasing, buying well made things that last longer, mending things instead of replacing them, and also don't hoard things, if you aren't going to use something again give it to someone who will via a charity shop for instance.
Plastics are amazing substances, but they are also one of main things we consume and discard thoughtlessly. They are often are made using petroleum, and have all sorts of negative effects in their production well before they become or are wrapped around your products and then disposed after a single use. There are huge floating islands of plastic in the oceans, and the effects of plastic on animals that get caught in or ingest them are well known. The burning of plastics can cause cancerous substances to be released into the atmosphere, and over time plastics have been implicated in infertility in animals, the deplection of the ozone layer, developmental problems in children and many other issues. Most also don't break down in the environment, and will be around for hundreds or even thousands of years after we thoughtlessly discard them.
Natural reusable items are usually of better quality. String/resuable bags are superior for carrying your shopping anyway and people like me will admire you when they see you in the supermarket. I have seen people buying a bag, and then asking for a bag to put it in. At fast food chains, I've seen people purchase one item, have it put into a plastic bag by the attendant, and then taken to a table a few steps away and discarded. These are not uncommon occurences, as people are just in the habit of using plastic bags mindlessly, which is not only stupidity, it is destroying pieces of our world. Just stop throwing away plastic as much as you can, I think you'll find it almost impossible until society changes to support it, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try and be one of the leaders of that change. If you find yourself using plastic cups at work, buy a mug, if you get plastic cutlery to have your lunch with everyday keep a fork in your bag. I often eat in at restaurants to avoid being given packaging, and if you own a shop or restaurant, give people a small discount or an extra small item if they bring their own packaging. It's not only the materials and energy used in manufacture, even once they are put into your garbage fossil fuels are used to transport them to landfill.
Recycle everything you can
If we have to use plastics and such the least we can do is try to buy recyclable and biodegradable products and dispose of them appropriately. Start by putting a cardboard box in your kitchen or office to put your recyclables in. Recycling saves a lot of energy and also natural resources that don't have to be redrawn from the environment for no reason. There's also the landfill they save.
As well you should purchase products made from recycled materials to help create a market for all that stuff we thoughtfully put in the bins. Do all your paper products have to be lily white? Our local supermarket has paper towels, writing pads and toilet paper, if yours doesn't why not shop around a bit. If you work in an office, try suggesting that they implement recycled paper, there are pristine white brands around now days so there's no reason not to, you can fill a separate printer with the new partially recycled papers for special printing jobs.
Get creative with recycling too, find your own ways to recycle the things you use. In the end though always remember that maintaining our levels of consumption mean we are just recycling the problem.
Reduce your output of toxins
There are many chemicals found in the human body that weren't there a century ago, perhaps hundreds. We don't know what the effect of each of these is in isolation, much less in combinations with each other, and what contributions they may be having to increases in hitherto rare diseases in the modern world. Actually we know some of them, and hence some have gradually been banned, but often only after long struggles with corporate interests who spent large sums trying to create uncertainty and doubt about the science.
There is also the effect these are having on the rest of our environment. Reducing your personal contribution to toxic chemicals in our environment is an important step. Use environmentally responsible chemicals around your house, and really I like a clean house but I don't think it needs to be chemically purified. Most of our water waste is just pumped straight into the sea, where it pollutes our marine environment, with evaporation meaning it ends up all through our ecological system. When you are spraying pesticides on some bug, ask yourself if you and your family are more at risk of the bugs or the pesticide you are spraying on it. Use biodegradable cleaning products. If you use a biodegradable washing detergent you can get a shallow square bucket for your dishes and throw the water on your plants or the lawn afterwards instead of wasting water by hosing it later. Also be careful about what is in many of the products you buy, many chemicals are there for colour, odour, shelf life, so things don't settle and there is no real reason to take any risks that they may be harmful as they add little real value to the products. We can do without all of these at little cost. Also buy or even better grow your own organic goods where you can, what could be more natural than that.
The advances in chemistry have been amazing and can contribute greatly to our world, but they can also do terrible damage, so we need to use them only where their effects are well understood or the need is great. Let us all stop contributing to this experiment on a global scale with our bodies and our ecosystem and reduce toxic chemicals where we can.
Use your consuming as a tool for change
Almost all the degradation of our environment is done for economic purposes. When a product seems ridiculously cheap to you, it's probably because it has been produced in a way which pays as little regard to quality and environmental sustainability as possible. Remember, cheap often means unethical.
The way in which we can vote for a more sustainable world with our purchasing power, is to make an effort to purchase ethical, renewable goods where possible. If that's not possible at least buy well made things, use them as long as you can. Repair things, even though the system isn't designed for this to make economic sense, but instead of thinking of it as losing more money, think of it as gaining more of a vote on the sort of world you want to live in.
For companies which just don't care about the environment, hit them where it hurts, in their hip pocket, use the system to make your statement to people who might not understand any other appeals. They will understand when their competitors who are doing the right thing start taking their market share, or when you let them know why you aren't buying their products. Companies who do try to make environmental changes, often find their are big wins to be made at little cost to themselves, help prompt them to start looking for those opportunities.
Use less animal products
People seem oblivious to the fact that animal farming is one of the top contributors to most of the major environmental problems we face. Land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution and the loss of biodiversity. Indeed it is difficult to see how a high level of animal product consumption is compatible with the idea of being an environmentalist.
Livestock such as cattle contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined. The major cause of deforestation in places like the Amazon is cattle pasture, and much of the remaining is soy to feed cattle. For every kilo of meat a number of kilos of dung are produced which pollute water tables. The average meat eaters daily water footprint is much higher than that of a vegan, regardless of how many showers they take.
To reduce the amount of animal products you eat, start with learning how to make a really good veggie meal, such as a lasagne, burritos or a stir fry, there are plenty of great blogs and websites out there to help. The best choice you can make is obviously to go vegan, but it's often easier for people to concentrate on individual changes one at a time. There are many different ways you could approach it, give up red meat or milk, try an animal free day once a week, commit to eating animal products at only one meal each day, really once a week is as much as the planet can sustain, and much more than that is unhealthy.
If you want any support will find many organisations unhappy with the plight of farm animals offering all the free resources you need to help you do that.
Some people question whether taking personal steps matters, why should I not fly, when everyone else is doing it, it won't save the world and I just miss out. They believe instead that all our efforts should be put towards political ends. Whilst sympathetic to this point of view, ultimately I think we should be consistent in our ethics and actions, the charge of hyprocrisy is often the first one to be levelled at anyone trying to take an ethical stance. Still I think it is clear just how important it is, that we make our voice heard in the corridors of power.
For a start vote green. At the moment few green parties are in a position where they look likely to take over the government of any country, but the purpose is to register a vote of dissent to the mantra of economic growth above all else that most parties espouse. Political parties often get some funds related to the percentage of votes they get, which means it is like donating to the environmental cause to use your vote this way. Even though they may not gain power, we have seen green parties be very influential by participating in coalition governments. Finally the mainstream parties will and have changed their platforms to be, or at least appear, more green in an effort to nullify the rising environmental consciousness of the electorate, expressed by your vote for a green political party.
Keep an eye out for ongoing environmental issues in both your community and wider, to lend your support. Politicians and corporations will always want to instigate big environmentally damaging projects to try to immortalise themselves, like dams and mines. We need flexible community support to pay attention to ongoing issues as they arise. When you become aware of issues that you find distressing, do something, indignation isn't enough!
So what can you do? Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper and to your local member of parliament, PM or anyone involved in the issue, you can bet the corporation making money out of destroying some piece of our natural heritage will be mobilising to do similar things. Encourage others, friend, family, workmates, by engaging them in a rational discussion of the issues. You don't have to badger people who aren't environmentally aware, just remind them of the ethical choice they don't want to think about.
Make apathy something they have to work at just as hard as caring. Wear a t-shirt, put a sticker on your bike, say something kind to that person putting their shopping into a string bag, there are so many negative consumerist images around (thousands each day according to studies) we need to fill as much of the mental environment with positive messages as we can. Every action potentially has a environmental and therefore a political dimension, so become conscious of that, and be the change you want to see in the world.
Grow your own
Start a compost heap or even grow a few organic herbs or vegies in the garden or in a pot on the windowsill, we don't need more landfill especially when it represents nutrients being leeched from soils in the countryside to end up as landfill in the cities. We don't need the packaging they represent, we don't need the fossil fuels burnt to bring you fruits in the middle of winter, we don't need the chemicals and genetic engineering to ensure they are presentable to you and we don't need water wasted on useless plants when you could plant something you will get many things from including aestethic pleasure. It has also been shown that growing food organically uses less greenhouse gas emissions due to those produced in the production of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and if it's local there's less transport involved. It's part of being human to grow your own food, it should be taught in schools in place of nationalism, we should turn most parking lots into community gardens.
Support environmental groups
Join a society, there are great societies doing positive things but they need the support of people like you and me. Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Planet Ark, the World Wildlife Fund and Wilderness Societies around the world just to name a few (I have links to all of these). We need mass action to affect things like government legislation (most pollution and environmental damage is cause by corporations) and one of the best ways of doing this is to add support to organizations who are already in the front line. Although it may not seem much to you to pay a few dollars each month, at the very least you are one more person they can say they represent when they go into discussions with governments and corporations about environmental issues. Even better if you have time and inclination is to get involved yourself.
OK, so if you are someone who wants to be more environmentally conscious, but hasn't yet made any changes in their lifestyle, then the above list may seem daunting. So make your own list, pick a couple of things to start with and make it "just how you do things", recycling is a nice easy starting point, as is looking for ways you can cut down your consumption, or calling up your energy provider to enquire about green energy and the usually small cost involved (five minutes!). Ultimately the important thing is to add consideration for the environment to your thinking about your actions in life.
Hopefully one day, this will be natural for everybody, and we will have a healthier, more beautiful world as a result. Hopefully people can change and the day is not too distant when people can feel good about the world around and can look towards a positive future.