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10 things you can do to save the world

Diane 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.

The 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."

"Every 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?

Fortunately, 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.

There 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 the trick.

So 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 sure.

1. A new green car
The 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.

Global 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.

"Think 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?"

These 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.

"The 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.

There 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.

2. It ain't what you drive, but the way you drive it
Those 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:

  • Imagine a circle with a radius of two or three kilometres around your house - and resolve to walk or bike within it.
  • Join 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.
  • Don't 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.
  • Use 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.
  • When 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.
  • Drive the speed limit. Cars burn more fuel at high speeds.
  • Buy a tire gauge and use it frequently. Change your oil regularly and check your brakes often. A well-maintained car burns less gas.
  • Drive 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.
  • Get 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.

3. Start at home
"Most 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."

  • After 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.

The 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.
  • Replace 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 electricity bill.
  • Switch 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.
  • Use a clothesline and a drying rack. Of all your appliances, only your refrigerator uses more electricity than your dryer.
  • Install a ceiling fan.
  • Put on a sweater and turn the thermostat down. Better yet, install a timed automatic thermostat.

5. De-tox begins at home

A 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? …In 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.

  • Look 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.
  • Household 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

Agriculture 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.

"All 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?

"We 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, The Audobon Society keeps watch on world-wide food-fish populations on its web-site (

7. Put your money where your heart is.
Give 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?

Some 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.

Canadians 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, 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."

8. Forget the tax-cuts
Environmental 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."

In 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 the tragedy.

9. Take it to work.
Whatever 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 process.

10. Share what you care about

Saving 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 listen.

Ultimately, 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.

"Gentlemen, 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.

10. Don't sweat the small stuff
It is important to keep perspective. Whether or not we buy a second car makes a difference; washing out plastic grocery bags does not.
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 it.
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.
  • Cloth 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.)
  • Aerosol 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.
  • Paper vs. plastic grocery bags. The planet isn't going to notice. Use what is convenient.

Guilt 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.

As 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."

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