February 2003 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
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Volume 2, Number 2

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.
 

Walking Softly Upon the Earth
Part Two: Strategies for a New Tomorrow

by Terri Smallwood

Deserts covering Africa, fires raging unchecked across the southern United States, small island countries disappearing under the ocean’s rising waves. Atlanta, New York, Halifax and Vancouver being forced farther and farther inland, at a cost of billions of dollars to the taxpayers living there. A child in Minnesota dying from a malaria infection. Polar bears losing their fight for survival as the once-dependable Artic ice sheets retreat farther and farther north and eventually disappear altogether. Millions of “eco-refugees” fleeing to the urban centres of North America, where they live desperate lives, short of water, fuel and food.

Is this horrible scenario the plot of a futuristic sci-fi movie - the imagined result of a sudden and unpredictable catastrophe? Or is it an accurate snapshot of a future that mankind is slowly but surely painting for itself? The latest reports regarding global warming and climate change would support the latter view. Part One of Walking Softly Upon the Earth looked at the causes of climate change and the scientific evidence that suggests mankind has been quietly poisoning and permanently altering the delicate balance of the environment for decades. Part One is here.).

It’s an insidious thing, climate change. It’s difficult to comprehend that even a 1-degree Centigrade shift in average global temperature can have far-reaching and permanent effects. It’s hard for the average person, watching mainstream media, to make the connections between wildfires in Australia, melting tundra in Nunavut, loss of rainforest in Brazil, an oil slick off the coast of Spain, and the slowly rising global sea levels and temperatures. It’s even more of a stretch to take this type of diverse and almost anecdotal evidence and extrapolate forward to a future as grim as the one described above.

Yet the science is firm and unyielding - if the present rate of global warming continues, the polar ice caps will be totally lost by mid-century. While there is some dispute as to exactly what the world would look like at that point, there is nothing to suggest that such an event could occur without causing catastrophic, and possibly life-ending, changes on our planet.

Fortunately, this apocalyptic view of the future is not cast in stone. Research conducted by international teams of scientists has suggested that if current world levels of fossil fuel emissions were reduced to 1990 levels, that would be enough to stabilize the rising global temperatures and attendant effects before the changes assume the characteristics of a runaway freight train. There have been several attempts at international solutions to facilitate these much-needed reductions. For the most part these conferences have produced few concrete results, and even the much-touted Kyoto Accord has several flaws, first among them its failure to persuade the United States, with all its international influence, to come on board.

Individual countries have had more success with finding environmentally friendly alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels. European counties, and Iceland in particular, have led the way in legislating great reductions in fossil fuel emissions and conservation efforts of all varieties. Iceland generates only 0.05 percent of its electricity using fossil fuels, and a whopping 83.3 percent from the zero-emission source of hydroelectricity. Contrast this to the United States, which produces over 70 percent of its electricity from the burning of fossil fuels and close to 10 percent from nuclear sources. Canada is not any better, because despite producing 60 percent of its electrical energy from clean hydroelectric plants, it still leads the world when it comes to total fossil fuel emissions from all sources, due in large part to the Canadian dependence on the automobile and the rise of transport trucks for shipping due to the deterioration of the national train system.

Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, but so far the type of political solutions that Europe has embraced to combat the war on climate change have remained elusive in North America. Perhaps it’s more than just cultural differences; perhaps the flaw is the emphasis on free-market economies and the way governments in Canada and the United States each have one arm tied behind their backs when it comes to appeasing large corporations, which are traditionally powerful opponents of any type of legislation that would require them to bend to restrictive environmental laws. Large industries and those who head them play a major role in financing the campaigns of most mainstream politicians. Whatever the root cause of the lack of North American political will to legislate its way to a cleaner future, the fact remains that if the government is unwilling to make a decision for change, then the onus lies on the shoulders of the people themselves. If North Americans wait for their governments to legislate their lives into greenness, then the medicine is sure to come too late, and when it does come, change will have to be swift and merciless. While the notion of self-sacrifice is not a popular one in this me-first society, a case could be made that small sacrifices willingly made now are preferable to large-scale deprivation made by the force of circumstances in 20 or 30 years.

But how does one stop being a wasteful consumer, programmed by advertising to want bigger and newer cars, in-ground swimming pools and a standard of living that rivals even the most wealthy and powerful in some of the world’s less-fortunate countries? As Robert Hunter, one of the founding members of Greenpeace, wrote in 2030: Confronting Thermageddon in Our Lifetime:

“It is the banality of the way we destroy the world that stops us in large measure from rising up in rebellion. How do you throw yourself upon your own light-switch finger? How seriously can you take the struggle against the toaster in your kitchen? Is there any romantic image to give emotional resonance to your solitary decision to wait until the dishwasher is full before turning it on? Can you see your thermostat as one of the trigger mechanisms in a doomsday scenario? If you disconnect the electric garage door-opener and resort to using your muscles to pull it up and down, have you really done something like clashing shields against the would-be slayer of your descendents? Well, yes.”

Positive change in the fight to reduce carbon emissions can come in many forms. Looking at the typical North American home, one can find several areas where small changes can be wrought that, taken en masse, can equate to impressive emission reductions. Hunter’s tongue-in-cheek description of the struggle to break the wasteful habits that are part of the average North American lifestyle is a fair appraisal of the often overwhelming task faced by new converts to the green movement as they realize the problems they contribute to and try to make positive changes.

An excellent online tool has been created recently that assists in demystifying the environmental effects of the habits of any household. The Mountain Equipment Co-Op, a Canadian-based consumer cooperative, has added an “Ecological Footprint” calculator to its website. The short test calculates the impact an individual or family has on the environment by analyzing the particular household’s normal eating and driving habits together with housing-related energy usage. The data is converted to what is called an “Ecological Footprint,” a composite of the number of hectares of resources it takes to sustain that lifestyle. More telling, the tool takes that figure and converts it to the total number of planets it would take to sustain the entire population, if each person on the planet had the same lifestyle as the test-taker. Even people already trying to “live green” might be surprised. This author’s lifestyle, which includes vegetarianism, a small home, and a highly fuel-efficient vehicle driven as little as possible, is relatively simple by North American standards. Yet it would take 4.64 Earths to support the entire population at her standard of living. The test takes approximately five minutes to complete and is a highly useful and motivational tool to encourage change in people not yet certain of their personal drain on the planet’s resources. The test is at: (http://www.mec.ca/Apps/ecoCalc/ecoCalc.jsp).

A glance at a typical North American home shows many areas where individuals, once awakened to the need for change, can make simple and effective improvements in how much energy is consumed by the household.

  1. Use compact florescent light bulbs. They’re readily available, save energy and last longer than conventional bulbs.

  2. Forego the convenience of using your dishwasher. If that is not possible, only do full loads and use the economy setting. To save energy, stop the machine after the rinse and open the door to let the dishes air-dry. Remember to check and compare energy ratings before buying any appliance. Energy ratings tell you how many kilowatt-hours of energy the appliance will use per month.

  3. Be aware of which processes are energy intensive and which are not. Up to 90 percent of the energy used for washing clothes goes to heating the water. A warm wash and cold rinse will work just as well as hot water on nearly all clothes. Hanging clothing outside to dry, or inside in a dry, warm room, also saves energy. If that is not possible, clean the dryer’s lint trap after every load to keep the air circulating efficiently.

  4. Conserve heating fuel by turning down the heat at night and when no one is at home - or install a programmable thermostat. In the winter, change furnace air filters once a month. The heater uses more energy when it is full of dust. Make sure your home is well insulated against heat loss and periodically check insulation. (Local building supply stores can be great allies in the search to find new and innovative ways to keep your home well insulated). Keep drapes and shades closed at night in winter and during the day in summer.

  5. Consider replacing your furnace. Newer, high-efficiency gas furnaces can be as much as 40 percent more fuel-efficient than older, oil-burning models. While this option may not be feasible for everyone, it is an option that benefits both the environment and your pocketbook, as a new furnace will dramatically lower the household heating costs.

  6. Avoid using cars if possible. Walk, cycle or use public transit whenever possible. If public transport is not available, try initiating a carpool with neighbors or colleagues, and commit to leaving your car at home a few days a week. Work from home, if the option exists.

  7. Install water-saving devices for taps and showers. Energy-saving showerheads can save up to 20 percent of total household hot water usage. A faucet aerator will reduce the flow without reducing the water pressure.

  8. Buy locally. Not only does fresh, locally grown produce taste better, it has had to travel a much shorter distance to get from the pasture to your plate, using far less fossil fuel than the strawberries imported in December from half a world away.

  9. Reuse. Reusing items is the most energy-efficient method of reducing your household waste. Reuse glass jars for food storage. Buy a reusable coffee mug and insist that your local coffee shop fill it. Use dishcloths instead of paper towels. Take your own bags to the grocery store. Find out if your local daycare centre, primary school, church school or children’s hospital uses the cardboard cores of toilet paper rolls, old magazines, greeting cards, newspapers, etc., for crafts - and make a habit of collecting and donating such reusable items to them. Encourage family and neighbors to add their reusable items to the collection!

  10. When it’s not reusable, find out of it’s recyclable. Communities differ on what items they accept for recycling, but in general facilities for aluminum cans, glass and newspaper are readily available throughout North America. Larger urban centres may offer more services. Households in Toronto, for example, can recycle tetra-packs (e.g., juice boxes and milk cartons), along with plastics like pop bottles and six-pack rings.

Once committed to change, people can find countless resources, both online and in their local communities, to assist them with identifying specific areas of waste in their lives and finding strategies for combating them. Utility companies will often provide information on how to reduce consumption, and most local or state/provincial governments have departments or branches that deal specifically with the environmental challenges specific to the local climate and conditions. Activist groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have volumes of online resources and offer opportunities to participate in awareness-raising campaigns, petition drives for legislation, and sometimes boycotts against polluting companies or products. Most large cities also have local environmental offices, where volunteers are often welcomed.

The process of change is difficult, and yet it can be highly rewarding. Often, there is a direct financial benefit to conserving water, gas and electricity in the home. Certainly there is very little discomfort in putting into action any of the tips given above. It is a persistent and dangerous myth that “going green” has any sort of negative impact on one’s lifestyle. Yes, people need to reshape their lifestyles and rethink their habits of consumption, but this in no way ought to imply a drastic reduction in their standard of living.

On the other hand, the impulse to continually add more consumer goods to one’s treasure trove of personal possessions ought to perhaps be subject to second thought. Around the world, people are coming to the realization that humanity has mismanaged and abused the abundance of Mother Earth. The burning of fossil fuels is the biggest threat to environmental sustainability, but it is by no means the only one. Over-fishing, habitat loss, toxic waste, deforestation - all these things and more result from humanity’s insatiable appetites for more and better consumer goods. If adults today do not take the bull by the horns and begin curbing these unnatural appetites, then nature will ensure these appetites are curbed for them.

What type of world awaits our children and grandchildren? Waiting for a political solution is fence-sitting of the worst kind. Individual action now, accompanied by concerted consumer pressure on government and industry, will go a long way to assuring the sustainability of our future. It is not a hopeless crusade. Individual action, grounded in love and respect and brotherhood, has effected many important changes in our world and will continue to do so. As Robert Kennedy so eloquently said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples of hope build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”