Helping to stop environmental destruction is a mammoth task, and even though many people are turning to environmentalism and are willing to act upon it, they have no idea where to start, which is understandable. One internet search and there are literally thousands of sites with lists of little things you can do to shrink your carbon footprint, it’s enough to make your head spin.
That’s why I decided to create this short, no nonsense guide to what you can actually do to have the smallest impact possible. For the most environmentally friendly approach I suggest doing all of the things in this guide; even if you just ease yourself into each one, making sure you follow them all will make you a far more sustainable person.
1 – Go Vegan
I can’t stress this point enough, it’s number one for a reason. The environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture far outweighs any other source, so it makes perfect sense for this to be your first step; veganism is the only future for mankind and should be a major focus of environmentalism.
Animal agriculture has a direct impact on the environment; livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,000 million tons of CO2 per year, which is 51% of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions (Goodland & Anhang, 2009). They are also the biggest producers of methane and Nitrous Oxide which have a global warming potential 86 and 296 times that of CO2 respectively (IPPC, 2001b). Animal agriculture is also the leading cause of forest destruction (around 91% of Amazon destruction) to make room for animal paddocks and fields to grow the food to sustain the animals (Margulis, 2004), and is the number one cause of desertification worldwide; 1/3 of the planet’s land is now desert (Oppenlander, 2013).
The amount of livestock excrement produced in the US alone is a staggering 335 million tonnes per year (USDA Agricultural Research Service, 2008), and from this nitrogen flooded dead zones are decimating marine life (Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, 2014); it is estimated we will have fishless oceans by 2048 (Worm et al. 2006). Animal agriculture water consumption uses around 30% of the world’s fresh water, ranging from 34-76 trillion gallons annually (Pimental et al. 2004); it takes around 1000 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk (Mekonnen & Hoekstra, 2012) and an estimated 2,500 gallons of water to make 1lb of beef (Borgstrom, 1981). Because of these reasons animal agriculture is the number one cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, habitat destruction and water pollution. As such I believe that you cannot truly label yourself as an environmentalist if you are not vegan.
People are sometimes unsure whether veganism would have an adverse effect on their health. Unless you are doing it very wrong and aren’t putting any effort in, there shouldn’t be any negative effects. In fact there are many perks such as a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer, lower cholesterol and a healthy happy gut (McCarty, 1999; Craig, 2009). There are arguments that try and label veganism as a dangerous lifestyle such as the claims that since vegan diets lack animal proteins and tend to contain slightly less calcium there is an increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures, however this has been proved false and the discussion has now shifted to whether certain acids within animal proteins actually cause bone loss (Ho-Pham et al., 2009; Ströhle et al., 2011).
It goes without saying that going vegan is a choice that saves hundreds if not thousands of animal lives over your lifetime. Over a billion animals are killed every week in factory farms across the world, and to keep up production they are often neglected, abused and killed in horrendous conditions. For example, the factory standard for culling day old male chicks that hatch instead of egg laying females is to literally pour them live into a grinder “for a quick and painless death”. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated (a fist full of bull semen thrust into their vagina) to keep them constantly pregnant to produce milk, and when the calves are born they are usually taken immediately and sold for veal production. Humane slaughter is a contradiction.
If you really don’t care, then at least consider veganism for its environmental implications.
Now you may be thinking that veganism is extremely hard, but this is a common misconception (I’ve heard people say that you can only be vegan in hot countries… well I have a great, tasty vegan diet and I live in Iceland). It’s actually very easy to become vegan today, and the market is growing fast so there are more choices than ever. When people tell me that they tried going vegan and could only eat toast, I (respectfully of course) point out that there are lots of fruit and vegetables available cheaply that most people tend to buy anyway, that’s sort of, you know… the whole point? (again don’t try and tell me that fruit and veg is too expensive, I’m a student in Iceland).
2 – Don’t Waste
For those of you who know the basics about waste, you’re probably already quite good at it so I’m not going to insult your intelligence by repeating the dull old “re-use old water bottles” feel good phrases (if you don’t know anything about waste then I’ll link to a more in depth guide here so you can catch up). I’m approaching this as my second point with a more holistic perspective in mind. What I’m trying to say is that you should be thinking about your ‘waste trail’ all the time; when you go shopping, what has the least packaging? Can you reuse almost everything you’re about to throw out? Do you really need a whole new set of clothes?
One of the most satisfying things I found when I started thinking seriously about environmentalism was watching the waste pile I produced shrink down to almost nothing. Of course it is extremely difficult, nigh on impossible, to produce absolutely no waste nowadays (I challenge you to prove me wrong, it’ll be a project!) but it’s a goal you should always be aiming towards.
Of course when I talk about waste, I don’t just mean the stuff you throw in the bin (or trash, garbage, whatever), but also water, electricity and food. It’s easy to overlook the wastage of water, heat and electric because it’s somewhat invisible to us, but it’s important to save as much as possible if not for the environment but for your wallet!
I’m not going to drone on about this point too much because you can find great ideas for cutting down waste all over the internet etc. (including here, wink wink). For the purpose of this guide I’m just trying to remind you to think about waste on the whole so it becomes a part of the way think, rather than a million little tips that’ll make your head explode.
3 – Be an Activist
This is a point that I think many people overlook. When we think about environmentalism, it’s all well and good when we do things individually, but people seriously underestimate the positive influence they can have on others. This holds true today more than ever with the power of worldwide communication sitting in our pockets; the internet, especially social media, can be an invaluable tool for providing others with the education they need to understand their impact on the environment. The point here is that educating others about the issues is just as important taking actions yourself, the more people you influence the better.
You’ve all probably seen how influential the internet can be on the way people think and act (unfortunately though, no matter how many fail videos people watch, we are always going to do stupid things), so it’s a great place to start your career as an activist. There are countless tools that you can utilise and share, such as the ‘WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator‘, which are not only enlightening, but fun and engaging too. Sharing relevant information (such as this article, hint hint) can be a great way to spread the word to friends and family, as well as strangers, that genuinely have no clue what is happening to the environment. Honestly you can have a surprising impact if you find the confidence and time to express your views and when you start to see people benefiting from your advice, it’s a very rewarding feeling.
If you feel that you would like to be even more active in your fight for a sustainable environment (or women’s rights, racial equality, whatever) then you can take your energy outside to the public. There are countless action groups around that you can join to show your support through marches, flyering etc. and if no such group exists in your area, then be the founder of your own group! It can sometimes feel as though you aren’t making a difference, but even if your influence is small, even if you only manage to get a member of your family to give up meat, then you have made a difference, so keep up the hard work.
4 – Be Open Minded and Don’t be Afraid to Change
Like the ‘Don’t Waste’ point, this is really more up to your way of thinking than me giving you little ‘tips and tricks to go green’. I’m not trying to tell you that you’ll reach a state of enlightenment if you meditate every day, I’m just saying that taking a step back from the world and learning to listen is a vital skill for anyone the world of environmentalism (it’s a vital skill for everyone if you ask me). You should be open to new ideas, be patient with people who aren’t thinking the same way as you, and you should always be prepared to change.
Just so I’m not getting too abstract, here’s an example (even if it is a little cliché): One day your colleague suggests you cycle to work instead of driving. The first thing that pops into your head is the fact that your 15 minute drive in the morning would take you 40+ minutes by bicycle. So immediately you think no, that’s just too much. PAUSE. Instead of just putting the idea down and walking away, try and consider the different possibilities that could make this happen. Maybe getting up a little earlier would be good for you, and maybe the exercise would be welcome in your life, and just maybe you could make cycling your new hobby? (I personally have a friend who is now crazy about cycling because he, quite reluctantly, started cycling to work. Now cycling is his hobby and he says he’s so glad he didn’t just dismiss it. I’m not telling you to start cycling, or even taking the bus to work, I know it’s just not practical for some people, but I hope you can see what I’m getting at).
It happens so often that people search the internet for tips and tricks, usually afraid to make commitments (I know, I used to do it too) or do anything that meant a big change in their lifestyle. Being open to change not only helps you become a better environmentalist, but it helps you become a more diverse and experienced person.
5 – Have Fewer/No Children
Until 1800, it had taken all of human history to reach around 1 billion people, now there are currently 7.125 billion people worldwide (you can find counters that track global population at sites like this) and the number is continuously growing. Overpopulation is directly linked to quality of life; the more people there are, the less the planet can support us (Parfit, 2004), making this one of the most urgent issues faced by environmentalists.
As populations grow, there is an increasing strain on resources (especially fresh water) and space, and this inevitably leads to displaced populations. It’s hard to imagine if you live in an affluent country since the issue doesn’t seem to impact our daily lives, but there are many people in the world who struggle to survive because of overpopulation. Areas of India are always a prime example of these effects, as millions of people sleep on streets or in crude huts, trying to live on around 1 dollar a day. This is a direct result of the massive population growth of the country (over 1 billion people) driven by the constant desire to have sons and a lack of education about overpopulation.
One problem we can focus on is the difficulty people have comprehending the magnitude of the numbers, making them increasingly abstract and unrelated to our everyday experiences (Gehrt, 1996). Therefore it is vital for environmentalists to help others to understand why overpopulation is an issue and what can be done to ensure a sustainable future. Education is only half of your responsibility though, you should also practice what you preach, and that means having only one child (or even none).
If you imagine there are 500 men and 500 women that get together, that’s 1000 people, if each couple had only 1 child then the next generation would be 500 people total. This sounds like an infringement on people’s rights, but people need to understand that this reduction in population is a necessary step to take to keep control of our rapidly expanding numbers. If you really love children and hate the thought of having only one child to care for, then consider adoption (I know I definitely am!). There are many, many children that have lost their parents for whatever reason, and what is more meaningful than giving love and care to a child that needs it the most.
Even though this is a major issue worldwide and it exacerbates all other aspects of environmental destruction, I’m putting it last because the target audience. Now if you’re reading this and you already have lots of children then there’s nothing that can be done, but don’t worry it isn’t your fault, this point is aimed more at the next generation of parents (although you can still do your part by educating your children about these issues and raising them to be responsible and environmentally conscious individuals).
So now you have a set of guidelines to start your journey into environmentalism the way it should be. If you do want more advice and ideas on how to live more sustainably then explore the site a little, I’m sure you’ll learn something new!
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Gehrt, S.D. (1996). The human population problem: educating and changing behavior. Conservation Biology 10(3), pp.900-903.
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