I can’t quite remember the moment when I became radicalized about protecting the environment and the planet, but it happened last year. That’s late in life, I know. At 49 years old, it is very possible and even likely that I have more years behind me than in front of me, but that is when it happened.
Before that, I didn’t do more than was required by law.
I have lived in New York City since 1994. Mandatory recycling was phased in citywide by 1997. So, I recycled what was required.
Five years ago, when my last two children went away to college, I got rid of my car, but not for environmental reasons. I just didn’t need it anymore, and it was expensive to maintain.
But something happened to me last year.
Maybe it was Greta Thunberg’s advocacy, and hearing her impassioned United Nations speech in which she blasted world leaders, saying:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying; entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Maybe it was watching Bill Nye the Science Guy set a globe ablaze during an F-word-laced tirade in which he yelled in exasperation for people to grow up because the planet is on fire.
Maybe it was the unending drumbeat of warning from scientists that climate change is accelerating at a rate faster than they expected and we are nearing a point of no return.
Maybe it was the fact that my last two kids graduated from college last year, and for the first time I saw all my children as independent adults going out into the world, and I wanted to become a better custodian of the planet for their sakes.
The thing that I remember most, though, was neither of these specifically, although they may well have been background factors. The fact that stuck with me came from Googling how long it takes for plastic bags to decompose. The answer is that we don’t know. Some estimate it could take 500 years, others say a thousand.
There is an easy-to-understand obsceneness for me in using a bag for 10 minutes, from a store to my home, and the possibility that it will remain on the planet for a thousand years. I immediately bought reusable shopping bags, stopped buying plastic storage bags, bought biodegradable garbage bags, and found places that would recycle the few plastic bags I had.
But the whole thing made me think about how heavy my carbon footprint and environmental impact are now, and how different that was from the way I grew up.
As a child, my family had a tiny environmental impact, in part because we were poor.
Most of our food came from our own property: no shipment emission, no packaging, no pesticides.
The yard was full of fruit and nut trees: a few pecan trees, a few crab apple trees, a fig tree, a peach tree and blackberries growing near the fence line.
My mother planted two truck patch gardens where we grew corn, leafy greens, potatoes, tomatoes, okra and melons.
We raised our own food animals for protein, each year buying a couple of hogs and a cow.
We had almost no food waste. We ate most of what my mother made, and as a home economics teacher, she was a genius at turning leftovers into new meals. What could not be eaten was separated into two groups: What the dogs could safely eat and what would go to slop the hogs.
What we did buy from stores was not so heavily packaged as much food is today. We bought eggs and sweet potatoes mostly wholesale, in cases or crates. On the few occasions that we bought eggs in plastic foam containers, my mother saved them, bound them together with yarn, and made trash cans out of them. Furthermore, if something she bought came in a plastic container, it became storage, a form of poor people’s Tupperware.
Poor people were the original recyclers before recycling was the norm. Waste was for the wealthy. For that reason we had little trash. When I thought about that in the context of the outrageous amount of trash my family and I now produce, I felt ashamed.
So I decided to not only reduce my trash production, but also to dramatically reduce my first use of even things that can be recycled. Not only does the production of those products in the first instance consume energy, recycling them also uses energy. Beyond that, you cannot be assured that what you put on the curb to be recycled actually will be.
As The New York Times reported in May 2018:
“In recent months, in fact, thousands of tons of material left curbside for recycling in dozens of American cities and towns — including several in Oregon — have gone to landfills.”
I have tried to take more steps to reduce my carbon footprint. I ride mass transportation more often. I stopped consuming red meat. (The carbon footprint for beef and pork are obscene.) I buy more fruit and vegetables at the local farmers’ market. I compost.
I’ve changed all lighting in my house to LEDs and lowered my thermostat.
One thing that I haven’t figured out how to avoid is air travel, mostly because I’m active on the speaking circuit. But I am looking into buying carbon offsets for that travel.
None of this is to position myself as a perfect example of an environmentalist, but rather to demonstrate to people like me who read this column that it is never too late to start trying, that every small effort matters, and that you can do it in communities of late-reformers like me.
I know there are probably many more things I can do to help the environment, (I hope you all will share some in the comments of this column for all to see), and I will continue my research to find more of them.
It seems to me that environmentalism involves not only the changes we personally make, but also proselytizing, getting more people to join us.
My journey to radical environmentalism is not complete. To the contrary, it’s just beginning. I think that the only way to prevent the radical alteration of our planet is to commit to a radical alteration of our own behavior.
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