Category Archives: Living Sustainably

How Thoreau screwed over environmentalism

Originally published in the Collegian on January 28, 2009

I have a dirty secret that I’m now announcing to the world: I want to live in the country. Preferably in a small house with a garden, a field enormous enough to keep a horse and a big dog, and an orchard.

I say it’s a dirty secret because it is, literally, dirty — a half-ton of carbon emissions annually (not to mention sulfur, ozone, and particulates), to be precise. The sad fact is that living the simple rural life extolled by so many tree huggers is one of the worst things I could possibly inflict on the environment. And this is the root of the problem with environmentalism today. There’s a war between hippies and science.

Let’s get a few facts straight: nuclear power is probably a net plus for the environment, not some force destined to turn us into Hulks and fish creatures. Moving to the city is not only healthier for the earth, it’s healthier for you (city dwellers live longer on average), and, with the advent of social networking and urban renewal, unlikely to damage your psyche. Farms are a big part of the problem of global warming. Forests are healthiest when managed by undergrowth removal. And, quite frankly, wilderness does a lot better when people leave it alone than when they commune with it in the form of Walden-esque cabins.

Climate change, deforestation, pollution and everything else we inflict on the environment are not, as Al Gore likes to claim, spiritual crises. They are fundamentally economic and scientific crises. It is not that a willingness to destroy the environment has replaced an ancestral tie to the earth (a tie I suspect never existed as imagined by today’s environmental romantics); it is that our capacity to destroy has outpaced our capacity to restore. We are no longer stewards of ancient forests like the Iroquois were. Not because we lack their nobility, but because they lacked our backhoes and chainsaws.

Who is to blame for this? Some would blame the environmental romantics like Thoreau and Grey Owl or those who would derive a moral responsibility to protect the earth from scripture. They deserve blame, yes, for giving birth to such ridiculous notions. But I am more prone to look at my community, the community of scientists, when assigning responsibility. Otherwise sober tracts on deforestation by respectable botanists talk of spiritual connections to forests. Accounts of the urgent need to protect biodiversity speak of a moral duty to protect a species of bird or beetle.

Forgive me, but I see no need to appeal to spirituality or moral duty to call for an end to environmental destruction. (Moreover, how can there be a moral duty to protect a particular species when extinction is a normal ecological event?) It doesn’t seem to work, for one thing: despite pleas from the likes of Alice Walker to return to an ancestral earth worship, we still pollute at record levels and destroy more acres of rainforest every year than ever before. Only when everyday life has been affected do we see change, as in the case of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The truth is that only a rational argument seems to convince anyone that society must change. Try this one on: despite all our efforts to the contrary, life will survive. It’s survived eruptions, ice ages, and meteors. On the other hand, we never have. There are animals and plants who will thrive in a world we’ve destroyed, who will give rise to new species to replace those we’ve killed. But we won’t. We’re a fragile species, not well suited to drought after drought. Forget about saving the whales. Worry about saving the humans.


Sustainability tips for a greener lifestyle

Originally published in the Collegian on September 17, 2008

Since I work for the Center for Sustainable Communities, editing our weekly newsletter, my friends often ask me about the best ways to make their lives more environmentally friendly. Alas, omniscience does not come with the job and I often can’t come up with a ready answer. I can, however, give this list of general suggestions (in no particular order) that you may not have heard before for improving the sustainability of anyone’s life.

Beware of “greenwashing.” This insidious marketing practice makes products seem more environmentally friendly than they really are. One study performed last December found that 99% of 1,018 randomly selected products were guilty of this practice. For example, many companies that offer “carbon offsets” merely plant forests of invasive trees, which is not ecologically sound by any standard. Likewise, any company promoting a non-food product as “organic” should be questioned, since there are no standards for the label.

Don’t use a tray at Goudy. Believe it or not, the Willamette Valley is facing a water shortage. Trays require an enormous amount of water to wash, water that would be better used for agriculture or left in the ground to feed springs.

Remember that the three R’s are not all equal. The mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” has been drilled into our brains for so long that I once asked my mom why Oscar the Grouch lived in a garbage can rather than a recycling bin. However, recycling is not like a medieval indulgence, a license to consume without thought. Recycling takes energy—energy to transport, to sort, and to process. It is far better to invest in reusable containers like metal water bottles.

Use a laptop. The energy demands of a desktop are extraordinarily high compared to laptops. Even a very powerful laptop can use as little as 20% of a desktop’s energy consumption. Also remember to put computers into sleep mode or turn them off when you’re done.

Eat less meat. Meat requires a much larger area of land to produce the same number of calories than vegetables; beef, for example requires more than 50 times the land than vegetables. Pork and poultry require less, but still far more than vegetables. This increases the amount of wild land lost to agriculture, raises global food prices and puts pressure on farmers in underdeveloped countries to push into sensitive habitats, and raising livestock, especially cattle, produces far more greenhouse gas emissions than growing plants.

Wear a condom—every time. No, you have not stepped into sex ed. Believe it or not, using birth control is the single biggest thing you can do to reduce your impact on the environment. Many of us will, in the next decade of our lives, decide whether or not to have a child. As the world’s population continues to rise, demands for food, travel, and consumer products rise as well. By not having biological children—choosing instead to adopt—you not only improve the life of an already-living child, you reduce your long-term impact on the environment.

Finally, if you’re interested in keeping up to date on sustainability news on campus and around the world and receiving more tips for sustainable living, sign up for Willamette University’s Sustainability Newsletter through JASON or by e-mailing me.