an e-mail to Bob
things you can do to save the world
Rinehart, the editor of Homemaker's Magazine called me last
year and invited me to write an article on what her readers
could do to make a difference to the earth's deteriorating environment.
It was an intriguing challenge: what is most important? what
is just symbolic? what are people most likely to actually do?
how do you make the argument without harping on things we already
know but just aren't doing? The piece ran in September 2001
and was nominated for a National Magazine Award. Ultimately,
Homemaker's and I had some serious disagreements about the text,
so this version is somewhat different than the one that ran
in the magazine.
world is going to Hell. The ice-cap is melting. The permafrost
is thawing out. Kids in Punta Arenas, Chile are told not to
play soccer outdoors because of the hole in the ozone. Tropical
diseases, such as malaria and West Nile disease, are moving
north. Wilderness, from the ancient rainforest to the local
wetland, continues to disappear.
Closer to home, Scientific American reports, "If truckloads
of dust with the same concentration of toxic chemicals as is
found in most household carpets were deposited outside, these
locations would be considered hazardous-waste dumps."
natural system on the planet is in decline," says Hunter
Lovins, the renowned American environmentalist. Our activities
are so overstressing the earth's natural processes that we are
in danger of severing our own life support. Meanwhile - more
bad news - our political leaders are less disposed to tackle
the matter than they were a decade ago. The more you know, the
more you feel like a passenger on the Titanic: the ship is sinking,
but what can you do about it?
a lot. Though governments dither, they can't
stop the rest of us from getting on with the job. There are
things we can do in our own homes, neighbourhoods and workplaces
that will make a genuine difference. Some are painless and even
money-saving. Others demand more, but strengthen the dike where
it most needs it.
are, of course, some problems that you really cannot do much
about on your own. (For instance, if you are worried about nuclear
waste but you are not about to make it a personal crusade, we
suggest you fire off a donation to Energy Probe, and then go
for a nice walk.) Then there are all those things we should
do, but don't. Well, it turns out that many of them are not,
frankly, all that important. Knowing which is which - that's
here are 10 steps you can take, right now, to save the
world. And lot of us had better - or we are on the Titanic for
A new green car
internal combustion engine was a good idea at the time,
but now there are just plain too many of them - 17 million in
Canadian cars and trucks - and they produce more carbon dioxide
than the earth can recycle. So the leftover gas hangs in the
atmosphere, trapping heat and raising temperatures.
warming is no longer a frightening theory, it is a frightening
fact. Our crops, our weather, the sea level, and all the world's
creatures, from microbes to polar bears, rely on a narrow temperature
range. Last year, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) - 500 scientists comprising the world authority
on the subject - confirmed that the temperature is going up,
sooner and more radically than previously anticipated. But,
the IPCC added, we can reverse the warming trend if we burn
less fossil fuel. For most of us that means, first and foremost,
in our cars.
seriously about which car you buy next," says George Iny,
president of the Automobile Protection Association, Canada's
auto-industry watchdog. "If you are not going on safari,
do you really need an SUV? Why haul around a ton of extra steel
every time you go to the store?"
days, the average new car is less fuel-efficient than the one
it replaces. Nearly 50 per cent of Canada's new-car sales are
gas-guzzling, CO2-spewing vans, small trucks and sports utility
vehicles; and the average SUV emits two to three times as much
greenhouse gas as the average compact car. But even if it takes
a van to transport your family, there are vans and there are
vans: you can drive an efficient four-cylinder model that travels
six kilometres on a litre of gas, or a six-cylinder, four-wheel-drive
behemoth that can only manage two. Which you choose makes a
ton of difference in C02 emissions every year. Literally.
best deal for the planet, and for saving yourself money at the
pump, is to buy one of the new hybrids," Iny say. Hybrid
cars couple a small internal combustion engine with an electric
motor so that you burn gas only part of the time. The rest of
the time, you are running on electricity generated as you go;
a computer switches things back and forth.
are two hybrids currently on the market in Canada, the Honda
Insight which gets a remarkable 28 kilometres to the litre (but
has only two seats) and the 5-seat Toyota Prius which gets 18
kilometres to the litre. Buying a hybrid has a further advantage:
every sale sends a message to the auto industry - and to friends,
neighbours and co-workers. When he is not walking or bicycling,
David Suzuki drives a Prius.
It ain't what you drive, but the way you drive it
quick trips to the store pollute far more, kilometre for kilometre,
than commuting across town. (Cold engines are notorious producers
of noxious emissions, and over a quarter of North American car
trips are so short that our cars scarcely warm up.) There are
dozens of ways to reduce your personal contribution to global
warming by altering how and when you drive:
a circle with a radius of two or three kilometres around
your house - and resolve to walk or bike within it.
the "walking school bus" movement: recruit neighbouring
parents and take turns walking the kids to school. As the
number of kids walking to school has steadily dropped (it
is only 10 per cent in the U.S.), traffic jams and clouds
of carbon monoxide outside schools have become commonplace.
Just walk away.
drive your teens to soccer. That only teaches them that
it is alright to drive when you can walk, bike or take the
bus. What our kids learn to do is more significant than what
we do ourselves, because the kids will be doing it longer.
a grocery home-delivery service. Grocery Gateway's Debbie
Taylor claims that her service replaces approximately 288,000
car trips each year to and from the grocery store.
you do use the car, don't let it idle more than a minute
to warm up except when it is 40 below, in which case
forget about global warming and just hope it starts.
the speed limit. Cars burn more fuel at high speeds.
a tire gauge and use it frequently. Change your oil regularly
and check your brakes often. A well-maintained car burns less
your car longer before buying a (preferably used)
replacement. Manufacturing an automobile takes a big toll
on the planet - in energy consumption, steel, plastic, poisonous
paint and who-knows-what-else.
political. As long as urban planners continue to design
cities on the assumption that we will go from place to place
by car, that is what we will have to do. Add your voice to
those calling for convenient public transit through cities
re-designed for pedestrians, bicycles and well-serviced neighbourhoods.
Start at home
of us have had the experience of going back to the
place we grew up," says Hunter Lovins, "where we used
to play along a steam, or run in the field, or where there was
a wild stretch of forest - and now it's all house lots. This
is happening everywhere on the planet."
our cars, our homes are our biggest contribution to planetary
stress. New houses are a major source of habitat loss. (Old
houses, on the other hand, use energy like, well, like there
was no tomorrow.) For most of us, our home is the largest
purchase we ever make. So it offers the biggest opportunity
to clean up our act. When buying a new home:
Think small. Like our cars, our houses have been ballooning
in size. All that extra space needs to be heated and lit -
mostly by burning fossil fuels - and all that extra material
needs to be extracted from the earth, then milled, manufactured
and transported. When you buy your next home (and we move
more often than you would think) ask yourself whether you
really need a big, new tract house with a lawn that that demands
water, pesticides and a fuel-hungry power-mower.
realtors are right, the three most important factors in home
buying are location, location, location. If you live near
work, school, shopping and public transportation, you will save
yourself thousands of hours of commuting, thousands of litres
of fuel and thousands of pounds of carbon emissions.
Meanwhile there is lots we can do in the homes we have. According
to the Rocky Mountain Institute, the average house has so many
holes, it is like leaving the door open 24 hours a day. Plugging
the leaks, literally and metaphorically, is one of the best
things you can do for your planet and your pocketbook.
Have your house checked by a home-performance contractor.
The right insulation, furnace, windows, and heat-recovery
ventilation can reduce your energy use by as much as 75%.
Natural Resources Canada can provide a wealth of information,
and your local utility can direct you to contractors and local
resources. The savings on your fuel and hydro bills will far
exceed the expense of up-grading.
your appliances, when replacement time comes, with energy-efficient
models, particularly your refrigerator, freezer, and hot water
tank. They cost more to buy, but will save you 50% on your
to compact florescent light bulbs. They fit most of the same
fixtures as regular bulbs, they are four times more efficient
and, though they cost more per bulb, they last 10 times longer.
a clothesline and a drying rack. Of all your appliances, only
your refrigerator uses more electricity than your dryer.
a ceiling fan.
on a sweater and turn the thermostat down. Better yet, install
a timed automatic thermostat.
5. De-tox begins at home
15-year study in Eugene, Oregon by Dr. William Morton of Oregon
Health Science University compared the incidence of fatal cancer
among women who went to work and housewives who stayed home.
The risk turned out to be significantly higher for housewives.
Dr. David A Sterling of the University of St. Louis School of
Public Health came to the same conclusion based on 10 years
of the US National Health Interview surveys. What could explain
this? Scientific American offered an answer in a February 1998
article on indoor exposure to toxic pollution: "Could everyday
items with which people happily share their homes be more of
a threat to their health than industrial pollution?
short, the answer is yes."
Toxic substances in and around the home present the scariest
and most slippery area of environmental and health concern.
More and more studies ring alarms about more and more chemicals
in common house and yard products. In the 1990s, the scientific
literature added a whole new fear: hormone disrupters, substances
that, in minute quantities far below carcinogenic levels, can
disrupt the body's hormonal messaging system, affecting the
ability to reproduce, the ability to resist disease and even
the ability to think. One such chemical is nonylphenol ethoxylate,
a common ingredient in North American detergents. (It is a controlled
substance - effectively banned - in Denmark, Belgium, Sweden
and Finland, and is currently under assessment by Environment
Canada as a priority pollutant.)
Alas, there is no simple solution to the problem of everyday
exposure to toxic substances. There are just too many potentially
hazardous chemicals and chemical combinations. (Some are benign
on their own but toxic in combination.) Gestation periods for
illness or environmental degradation are long and the factors
many and complex. Since the modern petro-chemical industry is,
itself, less than 80 years old, we just do not know the long-term
effects of the thousands of chemicals in common use. The upshot
is, we are all subjects in an enormous chemistry experiment.
If there was ever a case for the cautionary principle - don't
do it until you are sure it is safe - this is it. Some countries,
notably Sweden, are making the cautionary principle the law.
Not Canada. But you and I can exercise caution in our own homes,
and we would be fools to do otherwise.
for the maple leaf. There is no simple way to assess how toxic
most household products are, since they do not list their
ingredients. Canadian law does not require them to do so.
On the other hand, there is a simple way to know what is safe:
look for the federal government's maple-leaf, "environmental
choice" logo. The chemical analysis and other tests products
undergo to satisfy Environment Canada are reassuringly rigorous.
For every household item of unknown hazard, from
paint to shampoo, there is a safe alternative. Prior to the
petro-chemical revolution, people cleaned with safe, easily
bio-degradable vegetable and mineral substances: baking soda,
lemon juice, vinegar and so on. You can still clean that way,
or you can buy a certified, eco-choice, manufactured version.
Canada's Nature Clean, provides a full range of safe cleaning
products, as does Seventh Generation, a US company
We all use more cleaning products (and more hot water) than
we need. A big wash-load after a camping trip may call for
the full treatment, but lightly-soiled clothes will often
come clean in plain cold water. Experiment.
Anything containing chlorine, ammonia, corrosives or
solvents is dangerous. Substitute eco-labelled alternatives
wherever possible. When you absolutely need the big guns,
use them sparingly and store them carefully.
use of pesticides and herbicides rival farm and industrial use
in their overall impact on the environment. They also threaten
health, particularly in pets and children, who are more likely
than their parents to roll around on chemically-treated lawns.
If it is a "'cide", it is designed to kill things
and probably cuts a wider swath than you intend. "Integrated
pest management" is the banner under which can be found
a wide variety of alternatives to home-front chemical warfare.
When you clean out the cupboard in the basement
or under the sink, check with your local recycler or hazardous
waste agency before putting out the garbage. Hazardous waste
may be what you have.
6. Think globally, eat locally
as we have known it, and many of the crops it has produced,
are under siege. Global warming, pollution, industrial farming
and the monopolization of food production are threatening to
wipe out plant species and degrade arable land. Then there are
the unknown risks from chemically-treated or genetically-modified
foods. Some agricultural critics predict that we are on the
road to famine.
over the world, traditional methods of farming are being replaced
by monoculture, [reliance on a single cash-crop]," says
Cathleen Kneen, editor of The Ram's Horn, the journal of food
systems analysis. "No-one knows how many varieties we're
losing. The new engineered crops are efficient alright, but
what happens when the next Irish-potato-blight bug comes along
and we go to the cupboard for seeds from another variety of
potato that the bug doesn't like - and they aren't there?
need to stop all this helter-skelter, blind mucking about with
the foods that sustain us." So:
"Plant a tomato," says Kneen. "Buy some seeds
at your local seed swap, plant them, then next year go back
with your own seeds. You can help preserve heritage varieties
and enjoy luscious home-grown tomatoes at the same time."
According to David Cadman, president of Vancouver's Society
Promoting Environmental Conservation, the average morsel of
food has travelled 2000 kilometres to get to your plate. Instead,
buy it fresh from the local farmers' market. Or buy "certified
organic", which means the soil that grew the carrot has
been tested for a variety of things you would rather not be
eating. In either case you are encouraging old-fashioned,
human-scale agriculture (and you are discouraging cash-crop
monoculture, probably in a third-world country). "We
have a family doctor," says Cathleen Kneen, "we
have a family dentist, why not a family farmer? You go to
the farm on Saturday, the kids see where food comes from,
and you can say to your friend the farmer, 'What are you spraying
for, man? We don't mind a few spots on the apples.'"
Some fish and sea-food stocks, like sword-fish, abalone, orange
roughy and black cod are seriously depleted and risk extinction.
Fortunately, other fisheries, notably halibut, crab and Albacore
tuna are well-managed and well-stocked. (Albacore tuna are
caught individually by trolling, so dolphins are not killed
in the process. Other tuna fisheries, like Yellow Fin or Blue
Fin, are less discriminate.) Shop accordingly - and tell your
fish-monger and restaurant owner why. The relative health
of different fish stocks changes from year to year.
The Canadian marine watch-dog, the Living Oceans Society publishes
annual updates on it's web-site, www.livingoceans.org.
The Audobon Society keeps watch on world-wide food-fish populations
on its web-site (magazine.audobon.org/seafood).
Put your money where your heart is.
to your favourite environmental cause. Virtually all environment
groups are hand-to-mouth operations skilled at squeezing every
penny's worth out of a dollar. Ironically, though, many who
give to Greenpeace or the Western Canada Wilderness Committee
contribute significantly more to the very companies the activists
decry. Once we tuck our money away in the bank or a mutual fund,
how many of us know where it goes?
200,000 Canadians now do. In the last ten years, the socially
responsible investment (SRI) industry has taken off like wild-fire.
Along the way it has proven the nay-sayers dead wrong: socially
screened portfolios have done as well as their unscreened equivalents.
Frequently they have done better.
now have 60 different SRI funds to choose from, in a rainbow
of hues. Some, like the Investors Group's Summa fund screen
out companies that pollute or log unsustainably. Others, like
Accuity's Clean Environment fund, look for companies that specialize
in environmental innovation. It just takes a phone call to put
your money where your heart is, or a mouse click at www.socialinvestment.ca,
the site of Canada's socially responsible investment umbrella
organization. But do the big corporations care? "Absolutely",
says Robert Walker, vice-president for policy and research at
Ethical Funds Inc. EFI is in the forefront of institutional
shareholders who use their influence to sway companies' policies.
"For years activists pressured Home Depot to stop carrying
products made from old-growth forests. Then some of the institutional
investors, including EFI, joined them. Within a few months,
Home Depot gave in. Investors have real clout. Public campaigns
wax and wane, but companies know that we will still be here."
Forget the tax-cuts
protection costs money. It takes long-term
research and painstakingly-drafted laws. Then it takes inspectors,
auditors and enforcement officers to make the rules stick. In
British Columbia, a 1999 survey by the BC Government Employees
Union (BCGEU) reported that pollution regulations were broken
routinely; after down-sizing, the Ministry of Environment no
longer had the personnel to enforce the rules. "If you
don't pay the taxes now," says Cliff Stainsby, research
officer for the BCGEU, "you'll pay the consequences eventually."
Walkerton, Ontario, the consequences were tragice. The inquiry
into the E-coli outbreak in Walkerton's water supply concluded
that the Ontario government's efforts to economize - by cutting
back, privatizing and devolving responsibility to local governments
without sufficient resources to do the job - set the stage for
Take it to work.
is worth doing at home is doubly worth doing at work, school
or church. You may well find unexpected allies. You may also
find that many institutions are surprisingly open to reforming
their energy and environmental practices.
At Interface Corporation, for example, some employees of the
Fortune 500 carpet manufacturer asked CEO Ray Anderson to give
a talk about the company's environmental policies - at which
point Anderson realized they didn't have any. So he asked his
staff for suggestions and was directed to The Ecology of Commerce
by Paul Hawken. While reading the book, Anderson had a revelation:
he and his company were the "bad guys." The company's
efforts to set things right eventually led to Interface inventing
recyclable carpet tiles. Interface has become one of the world's
greenest companies - and has saved millions of dollars in the
10. Share what you care about
the planet is, ultimately, a political task - but you have more
power than you might think. Behind every significant piece of
environmental progress - the removal of ozone-depleting chemicals
from cosmetic products, the efforts of Canadian towns to ban
unnecessary herbicides and pesticides, the national concern
over the Sidney tar-ponds - there were, in the beginning, a
few concerned citizens. Ironically, as the marketplace has taken
over more of the public arena, we have more clout than ever
- because the marketplace is accessible to everyone and, these
days, highly vulnerable. To get rid of a politician, you have
to win over a plurality of voters; to get rid of a CEO, you
only need to move profit margin a per cent or two. In a time
when brand recognition is paramount, and when consumers can,
via the internet, mobilize as never before, companies have to
so do politicians. The ancient forest of B.C.'s Clayoquot Sound
was saved not because of the pale green tint of the provincial
NDP government of the day, but because of pressure in the marketplace,
the resourcefulness of citizen's groups, the protests of ordinary
people. And because citizens - environmentalists, natives and
forest company executives - eventually came together to forge
a solution the politicians could not find.
you have convinced me," Franklin Roosevelt is said to have
once told a delegation to the oval office, "now go out
and make me do it." We can make them do it. Not so long
ago, smoking in elevators (and everywhere else) was perfectly
legal. The law didn't change people's attitudes; people's attitudes
changed the law.
Don't sweat the small stuff
is important to keep perspective. Whether or not we buy a second
car makes a difference; washing out plastic grocery bags does
The Union of Concerned Scientists has a handy rule-of-
thumb: ask yourself, "How big is it?" Buying an energy-efficient
fridge matters a lot more than removing the light-bulb inside
Recycling a stack of newspapers is a must; making sure every
grocery bill hits the blue box is not.
Another good test is to ask, "With this purchase, am I
supporting a worthy venture?" Driving a fuel-efficient
car, buying organic produce or choosing recycled, non-chlorine-bleached
toilet paper is a vote that will be tallied by the manufacturer,
the distributor, the retailer and the market.
On the other hand, here are some things not to worry about:
Running the water while you brush your teeth. We shouldn't,
it is true, but the loss is inconsequential compared to the
gallons of water we waste by watering the lawn inefficiently.
versus disposable diapers. The debate once raged, but the
results are in - and it is a tie. Disposables do build up
in the landfill, but their cloth rivals are washed again and
again with hot water, detergent and even chlorine bleach.
Use the diapers that work for you. (And avoid chlorine like
the toxic chemical it is.)
sprays and styrofoam containers. The ozone-depleting substances
have long been removed - although some people are now worried
about the chemicals that have replaced them.
vs. plastic grocery bags. The planet isn't going to notice.
Use what is convenient.
makes a lousy taskmaster. You don't have to be miserable to
save the world. If you love your SUV or your cheery but inefficient
fireplace, enjoy it. But do something else. You can save the
planet by how you garden or shop or study.
anthropologist Margaret Mead noted years ago, "Never doubt
that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change
the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has."