A Simple Rule To Make Your Life Environmentally Sustainable and Worry Free

There's a lot of stupid crap out there to worry about. And there's literally an infinity of things to worry about when buying food and consumer goods.

You can worry about everything from the quality of life of your chickens to the quantity of mercury in your fish--and the environmental impact of both. And after worrying about that, you can get even more specific: this kind of fish is overharvested, and that kind of fish is terrible for the environment when farmed. And then you can worry that you're a loser for not knowing the latest about which fish are on or off the "do not eat" list.

You can worry about GMO foods, although it still isn't clear if they are bad for the environment or increasingly necessary to feed a planet with 7 billion people and counting.

You can worry about soy. Or not. You can worry about what chickens, cows and pigs ate for dinner before you eat them for dinner.

You can worry about plastic grocery bag use. Or you can learn that cities and countries with plastic grocery bag bans often see a counterintuitive increase in plastic garbage bag consumption that overwhelms any positive impact of the ban.

Jeez, and then you can worry about that too.

Heck, you can be astoundingly specific about the things you can worry about. For example: do you like asparagus? Well now you have the privilege of worrying that the asparagus you buy might cause severe water shortages in Peru.

I could go on, but I think we can all see the pattern here. We can worry about all of these things, and change our behavior and buying patterns to try to counteract those worries--and then change them back when those worries are proven wrong. The thing is, worry and minor behavior changes might assuage our guilt and make us feel better about ourselves, but they do very little to help our health or the environment. Let's be honest: this is often more about trying to get a sense of control over our lives in what seems like an increasingly uncontrollable world.

Why, then, do so many of us invest so much time and energy doing things that just don't accomplish all that much? Because it gives us the comfortable illusion of having a meaningful impact. Nothing beats feeling better about yourself.

We should be thinking bigger.

In fact, there is an easier way each of us can have a far greater environmental, social and societal impact on the world around us: Get your big-ticket and big footprint decisions right.

In short: buy a lot less big stuff.

A few examples: Don't mindlessly lease a new car every two years, wasting both the money and the enormous carbon footprint of the manufacture of another car. Save money by buying a smaller, fuel-efficient car and driving it for several years. This single action will have a more substantial positive impact on the environment than a lifetime of buying "ethically-grown" asparagus.

Don't rip out your kitchen every five years because you're sick of the decor. Instead, work with what you have and defer the cost and waste of materials. Is it really going to kill you to have that matching olive-green oven and fridge for a few extra years? (A trick question for astute readers: where do you think those old appliances, countertops and cabinets go once you toss 'em?)

Here's another idea: Don't buy a huge house. Especially if it has an olive green oven. And please don't follow in Al Gore's carbon footprints and build a 10,000 square foot mansion with 8 bathrooms and a $30,000 annual energy bill. Again, get the big stuff right.

Here's yet another idea that the vast majority of us can do to great effect with little or no effort: cut your meat intake in half. In half. You'll save money, save calories and have an enormous impact on the carbon footprint of your diet. And you won't miss it.

My father, in one of his most enduringly useful sayings about money, used to tell me (uh, repeatedly) that if you get your big-ticket spending decisions right, you won't have to worry at all about the small-ticket stuff. Another way of thinking about this is if you save $40,000 by skipping the Hummer and opting for small car, or if you save 75 grand by buying a smaller house, that single decision has a greater financial impact than 20+ years of "saving money" by brown-bagging your lunch or skipping your daily latte.

Guess what? The exact same logic holds for decisions about our health, our food and our environment. Get the big stuff right. Spend more time worrying about the major things that you can control, and stop worrying pointlessly about the minor things that you can't.

We can't all be experts about overpriced organic food, fisheries, plastic bags and asparagus. But we can reduce the biggest sources of waste in our lives and actually have a meaningfully positive impact on our world.

Readers, what do you think?

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edj3 said...

Great post, Daniel. I'd far rather consider the big items because you are right, that's where the impact (financial, environmental, what have you) really is.

Eleni said...

Ha ha, I loved this post! I was having this debate very recently with regards to my car: it's my first car, I've only had it since March, and it's 17 years old, but hey, it works. I could have saved up for a bit longer or maybe got a finance deal on a newer, more eco-friendly vehicle, but then that would have meant that my car, which is in (I won't say "perfect" but close enough) working order would have ended up on the scrap-heap - I know this because I bought it from a friend and she was having real trouble selling it, because it's old and unfashionable. The only offers she was getting were from scrap merchants.

Also (I know you're a food blog, but...) don't forget the massive environmental impact of the fashion/textile industry. I'm sorry, but buying a whole new wardrobe every season from an ethical/eco-friendly fashion retailer is surely more wasteful than just wearing what you've already got?! Funny how so many ways to save the environment also end up saving money, too...

"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!"

Julia said...

Excellent!! I absolutely agree that we've become too much of a consumerist society.

Another interesting addition - living in the city is more environmentally friendly than the suburbs. People can walk more, drive less, or take public transportation. People live in less square footage.... Less lawn maintenance.

I also like what Eleni quoted: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!"

Anonymous said...

Well said Daniel. I live just as you prescribe and I wish more people would think about what happens to their "stuff" when they get rid of it.

Mel V. said...

Well said! 'Sustainable' wisdom tends to be very penny wise and dollar foolish right now.

Janet C said...

Amen, brother!

chacha1 said...

Right on, Daniel!

As you say - the "big stuff" is key both nutritionally and environmentally.

Reducing meat intake overall, rather than just switching to organic or grass-fed; switching from starches to vegetables; and, I'd argue, giving up (or severely limiting) beverages that come in cans or plastic bottles.

Disclaimer: I don't really milk as a beverage - it's high calorie and high nutrition, so to me it's a food. So I'm talking teas, sodas, fruit drinks, enhanced "waters."

I'll bet cutting out that stuff would make a significant difference in the average household's nutrition, budget, and waste generation.

Katie Mack said...

I'm not a minimalist by a long shot, but I agree with the argument of buying less stuff. It's something I try to prescribe to in my own life. I could get caught up in an ethical debate over every action in my life (is my hybrid SUV really saving the earth? Doubt it!) but I just tell myself, "Do the best you can". Great post!

Jessi said...

Great point...you forgot to mention the tremendous carbon impact (or lack thereof) of choosing not to procreate. Too controversial? ;-)

Lauren said...

@Jessi, adoption (internationally at least) has a huge carbon footprint too, but I can't believe how many people would rather make new people than keep the ones we have from the equivalent of a human scrapyard.
How's THAT for controversial!?

Daniel said...

Great comments so far. A few reactions:

Eleni: to me, cars are the proverbial low-hanging fruit here. We also drive our cars 9-10 years minimum. Conveniently, we can also laugh all the way to the bank while doing so.

And yes, clothing is yet another good example, as is (following Julia's point) making an active choice to take up less space in where you live.


Daniel said...

Jessi and Lauren: you both raise excellent (and, yes, highly controversial) points. It's clear that the earth can accommodate a finite number of humans. And then again, humans can also create value--sometimes enormous amounts of value. The person who invented the catalytic converter for example, or the various people who invented birth control... well, those people added a lot more value to the world than they used up. We should probably all try to do the same.

Thinking this way--essentially asking "how can I add value to the world?"--sure does frame up activities like watching TV or getting your hands on the next new tech gadget in a new perspective, doesn't it?


Jill the Pill said...

I love this post, but it doesn't go far enough. You need to do one more thing: Advocate!

Environmentally, the biggest "big stuff" is not under our individual control, but rather is done by business and government, supposedly on our behalf.

For example, our family doesn't use our air conditioning at all. That effort -- a pretty big one for us -- is the proverbial drop in the bucket when you remember that industrial pig farms air condition their barns to 72 degrees all summer, and the US spent $20 billion a year to air condition military camps in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All of your individual recycling won't ever compensate for the paper wasted by a law firm or college. Conserving water at home won't get golf courses to conserve it.