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Nonfiction

Every Step We Take

Climate change. Over-fished oceans. Killer hurricanes. Species extinction. Polluted air and water. Not a pretty list, is it? And a hell of a legacy we’re leaving behind for the kids. But these are the harsh realities we’re facing now as the consequences of our decades of planetary abuse finally come a-callin’. So what, if anything, can we do to fix this fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into?

Humanity has always treated nature as a thing to be conquered and controlled, harnessed and harvested. We like being the masters of our domain. But last century, let’s face it, things got completely out of hand, leading to near system failure on a global scale and contributing to the depletion of our natural resources faster than they can be replenished. So is it any wonder that the last few years have seen a real push towards finding more sustainable ways of living?

From car companies to television networks to cleaning products, who isn’t talking “green” these days? But talk is cheap (and talk from corporations a whole lot cheaper) and real progress has to be promoted, and made, on a grassroots level. But what does all this green talk really add up to? What should we be doing to make a difference? What, exactly, does sustainable mean?

Well, just for fun, let’s look at the situation through the lens of the Aesop fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” Remember this one? The ant works laboriously throughout the whole year to put away enough food to live comfortably in winter. The grasshopper, meanwhile, spends all summer singing and dancing without a thought to saving for the future. One guess as to who makes it through December. Moral of the story: prepare today for the needs of tomorrow.

But sustainability isn’t just about saving for the future, and it’s not about sacrificing, either. It’s about living responsibly within our means and meeting our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

The challenge of sustainable living is to preserve one’s quality of life without deprivation or lowering one’s lifestyle. It’s about consuming only the resources we need, leading to improved living conditions via ecological, economical and aesthetic preservation. Living like the Ant ensures progress and survival. Living like the Grasshopper…well, that leads to the problems we’re dealing with now.

The best measure of sustainable achievement is our Ecological Footprint, an estimation of how each of us is personally responsible for energy efficiency in our pursuit of four basic human needs: food, energy, materials and water. Our footprint’s size indicates the impact that our activities and lifestyle choices have on the Earth. In this case, smaller is better.

Footprint increases with the amount of non-renewable energy resources we consume: coal, petroleum, natural gas. It’s the harnessing and combustion of these fossil fuels that releases CO2, amplifying the atmosphere’s natural greenhouse effect, leading to climate change, which can manifest itself as anything from flooding and increasingly destructive storms (Katrina, anyone?) to permanent habitat change.

So, in light of all this cheery information, what are some simple ways we can each achieve a smaller footprint?

One of the biggest and most obvious ways is to switch to renewable energy sources: wind, solar, geothermal, or biomass power. Call your local utility company and find out what Green Energy sources are available to you. More demand means lower costs, which, in turn, leads to even greater demand. Everybody wins.

But if that sort of wholesale change isn’t an option, how about something small like turning down the thermostat? Buy some extra blankets, cuddle more—nobody said energy conservation had to be boring. For your commute, choose public transportation or a bicycle, or how about some old-fashioned walking? (Lord knows we could all use the exercise!)

One of the biggest impacts we can have? Cutting our consumption of fossil fuels in the production and distribution of goods and services. In other words: eat locally.

What’s that about, you say?

Many of us have only a black box understanding of how food gets from farm to fork. There’s the cow…and then there’s the T-bone wrapped in cellophane at the local grocery store. The in-between? We’re all a little fuzzy on that part.

What most people don’t realize is that each step in the manufacture of industrial foods, from processing to packaging to transportation to market makes a considerable ecological impact. Think about it: the water and energy to grow, process and package the food, the burning of fossil fuels to transport it from one end of the country to the other or from one country to another. That’s a lot of energy expended. So one good way to decrease your amount of greenhouse gas emissions (not to mention improve your health) is by eating locally grown, organic produce from farm stands instead of the packaged and processed stuff. Local, organic produce tastes better, and haven’t you heard? Farmer’s markets are the hippest thing since sliced bread—not to mention the hippest place to buy sliced bread.

Growing food in a way that provides human subsistence and safeguards a healthy ecosystem is the heart of sustainable agriculture. Plus, using alternatives to pesticides, eliminating sources of excess nutrients from animal wastes and fertilizers and preserving biodiversity by using seeds that haven’t been genetically modified all lead to healthier living.

There’s been a lot of talk about water being the next lynchpin commodity, a’ la oil. Well, here are some interesting water facts: nearly all the water we use is for agriculture and industrial production of goods and services. The remaining portion is for domestic use and only a small percentage is available for drinking. So to conserve this precious resource, try taking shorter showers, or shower with a friend (there’s that cuddling again!) Fix your leaky plumbing and drink from refillable bottles of tap water instead of buying bottled water. We use an estimated seventeen million barrels of oil per year to make plastic bottles. And did you know it takes three liters of water to produce one one-liter water bottle? Seems a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Then there’s everything we flush down the drain. Chemicals and toxins are affecting not only our tap water, but our beaches and our fish as well. So next time you’re purchasing personal care products or something to beat the grease in your kitchen, think about where all that stuff is going after it exits your home. Think about the rivers and the oceans you’re having a direct impact on. Think about the fish that live in them. Think about them and act. From household cleaners to shampoo to laundry detergent, tons of environmentally gentle products are easily available now. There’s no excuse. And Nemo will thank you.

As individuals and as communities, we all have the capacity to change the nature of our interaction with the Earth. Sustainability isn’t a hippie fad, nor some political buzzword. It’s about preserving our resources as well as our way of life. Just by making small changes to our living habits, we can be the prudent Ant and the partying Grasshopper. And with each step we take, we’ll come closer to achieving sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyles and leaving behind us a legacy that will benefit future generations for centuries to come.

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To find out your ecological footprint, try one of these online calculators:

http://www.footprintnetwork.org

http://www.myfootprint.org

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Amanda Rose Levy

Amanda Rose Levy lives in New York City and is a Water Ecologist and Professor of Urban Environmental Health.