Monday, April 21, 2008

Make Every Day, Earth Day

Long before Earth Hour managed to grab our attention for an entire 60 minutes, there was Earth Day. While it was originally created in 1970 as a university teach-in, the purpose of Earth Day has evolved over the past four decades. Unlike Earth Hour, which was focused on a single event, the goal is to make every day Earth Day.

After twenty years of trying to do just that, I can honestly say that this is a lot harder than it sounds. It's not that we don't have the right information. The problem is that we have so much information available from so many sources that it has become impossible to take it all in. So we skim the headlines and glean what we can from 60-second sound bites. And therein lies the problem. No one delivers those 60 seconds better than commercial advertisers.

Every time we turn on the television or radio or pick up a newspaper or magazine, we invite the big global marketing machine to invade our personal space and entice us to buy everything from bottled water (which has been parlayed into a $100 billion dollar a year industry) to the latest generation of electronic gadgets (which will be obsolete in six months).

Creating all these consumer goods uses massive amounts of raw materials and energy that's used to mine, produce and ship finished goods to the Big Box store nearest you. In addition, there are mountains of mine tailings, sludge and other wastes generated by the refining of raw materials for the manufacturing process. A study done by the U.S. EPA estimates that for every bag of garbage we put at the curbside, 72 bags of manufacturing wastes are generated. Add to this the gas that we dump in the family van or SUV to get to the store (and back again) and all the related plastics bags and packaging materials.

Curbing our consuming habits isn't just about reducing our staggering impact on the environment. Spending less can dramatically reduce our debt loads and our stress levels.

James Main, a regular reader of this column, has agreed to let me share some of his common sense ideas.

"Who says saving the earth and saving your pocketbook can't go hand-in-hand?" wrote James. "I've received a lot of flak from family and friends over the years about my frugal ways, but I am able to bask in the glory of having my mortgage paid-off."

James says that responsibility and restraint are the flipside of living in a prosperous society. Just because we can buy stuff, doesn't mean we should. The key is learning self-control and then teaching this lesson to our children.

Here are a few of James' suggestions (most of which he and his family have been doing for more than a decade):

* Get rid of your gas-guzzler in favour of a more efficient vehicle. Take public transit whenever possible and walk your kids to school.
* Forego the drive-thru and make your own coffee. Take a thermos to work and save even more.
* Don't buy bottled water.
* Slow down. Reducing your speed from 118 to 80 km/hour improves fuel efficiency by 30 percent. It's safer and you can actually enjoy the scenery.
* Regularly maintaining your vehicles improves fuel efficiency by 10 percent. Proper inflated tires can save another 4 percent.
* Wash in cold water and only wash full loads. Don't forget to use your clothesline.
* Install compact fluorescent bulbs wherever possible, and dimmer switches where you can’t. Use motion sensors in low-traffic areas and outdoors lights.
* Turn down the water heater and install low-flow showerheads and toilets.
* Learn to say no to your kids every time they want you to buy something.
* Get the marketing machine out of your living room. In James' case, he got rid of cable TV in 1999. At a rate of $100 a month, he estimates that he's saved over $10,000 in nine years.

As James explains, while he did most of these things because he is frugal by nature, there is definitely a win-win.

"Let's make frugality cool again. If not in the name of saving the environment, then in the name of avoiding excessive personal debt," wrote James. "Perhaps the green movement should frame their arguments in this context."

Thanks, James. Consider it framed.


Earth Day Canada

The Story of Stuff looks at underside of our production and consumption patterns.

Read Elizabeth Farrelly’s brilliant essay, Fear of Not Having Had, in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion Magazine.


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