The Future Is Green
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Look out your window. What do you see? A paved street and electrical wires? Meadows and birds? A farm full of cows? Whatever surrounds you, that's the environment. And whether it was created by Mother Nature or the municipal works department, humans aren't separate from it. Just as hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes have an effect on our well-being, we have an effect on nature, polluting water via our factories and homes, reducing mountains to piles of coal that we burn for energy, packing landfills with our used-up cars and electronics packaging. Luckily, it turns out we also have the power to clean up after ourselves.
At TreeHugger.com, the website dedicated to modern green living, we believe that cutting-edge ideas, technology, and design-and, more important, people with the right attitude-can help save the environment. This book was conceived to help readers develop an understanding of existing eco dilemmas, and to empower them to help reverse the problems. We don't have all the answers; no one does. But we believe that individuals do have the power to "green" the planet. Your dollars count. Your vote counts. Your actions count. And when millions of people do the right thing, it can have a serious impact.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ENVIRONMENTALISM
In the mid-eighteenth century, the industrial revolution changed life as humans knew it. Local economies that produced and sold goods made primarily from biodegradable parts gave way to economies of mass- produced items that could be shipped all over the world. It was a time of great achievement and hope, but also of great innocence and ignorance-when people could not fathom that natural resources could someday become scarce or even dry up altogether.
By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the need for land conservation became apparent to people such as John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt, the latter of whom set aside more land for national parks and nature preserves-194 million acres by 1909-than all his predecessors combined. It wasn't until the 1960s, however, that the modern environmental movement was born. Utopian idealists dreamed of living off the land and sticking it to the man. Their goals were lofty, but extremists pushed the movement to the fringe. At the same time, environmentalism became fragmented. Various factions debated the value of the natural environment and its relationship to human progress: Does nature exist to serve humankind, or vice versa? Does man have an ethical obligation to protect nature? If so, should he do so for his own benefit, or should he preserve nature for its own sake?
Today these questions have become scientific and economic queries about biodiversity, human health, and natural capital. Because we now know that we are depleting and polluting our most essential raw materials-such as water, forests, petroleum, and clean air- environmentalism has taken on a new personality in the twenty-first century. We've arrived at a point where philosophical and political issues can be put aside. We know scientifically that we must collectively come together to rethink the way things are done. To our credit, we've tackled other eco challenges: When scientists told us that the ozone layer-the part of the atmosphere that protects the Earth from the sun's harmful UV rays-was being depleted, humans stepped up to the plate and developed solutions to the problem. We can do the same for global warming.
Whether you've picked up this book for altruistic, ethical, or scientific reasons almost doesn't matter. You are part of a critical mass that is shaping the new wave of do-it-yourself environmentalism into a grass-roots social movement that has little to do with baggy hemp pants and tofu and everything to do with intelligent modern living. The next industrial revolution-when the interests of technology, ecology, and commerce overlap-has already begun. Welcome to the bright green future.
OUR ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT
You probably already know that everything you do has some kind of impact on the planet. But just how much impact do we have? How often we drive, how much meat we eat, the type of fuel we use to heat our homes, and so on, all contribute to the "footprint" we leave behind. The measure of how our lifestyles affect the Earth and its ability to regenerate resources is known as our Ecological Footprint. It can be calculated for individuals, organizations, cities, countries, or the entire world. Put simply, it is a calculation that works to ascertain planetary limits, like a spreadsheet of environmental checks and balances.
We all know that nonrenewable resources-such as oil, minerals, and ore-are finite and may someday run out. But if we
deplete renewable resources-say fisheries, forests, and groundwater- faster than the planet can regenerate them, we will run out of these, too. Currently, our demand for the planet's renewable resources exceeds what it can supply by more than 20 percent, according to the Global Footprint Network. Put another way, the planet needs about 14 months to regenerate all of the resources we use in one year. Luckily, the problem isn't insurmountable. By assessing where we're using too much and where we can cut back, we can return to a path of sustainability, where humanity's demands on nature are in balance with nature's capacity to meet those demands.
Our "carbon footprint"-the measure of how much carbon dioxide we emit- makes up about half of the world's overall Ecological Footprint. Carbon dioxide-the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming- is released any time we combust fossil fuels or make changes in the way we use land; an example would be clearing parts of the Amazonian rain forest and converting them into agricultural plots. The other main anthropogenic greenhouse gases are methane and nitrous oxide, which are released primarily as a result of agriculture and things rotting in landfills.
Quantities of greenhouse gas emissions are often discussed in terms of carbon dioxide for the sake of making easy comparisons. When we say that eating an omnivorous diet creates emissions of 3,000-plus pounds of CO2 per person per year, for example, that figure includes the equivalent amount of methane produced by such a diet.
GLOBAL WARMING: A PRIMER
While many ecological issues-loss of biodiversity, availability of clean water, endangered wildlife, for example-deserve urgent attention, global warming has emerged as the most pressing problem of the day. As such, it warrants some explanation.
Global warming is the increase in the Earth's average temperature due to the buildup in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It's true that the atmosphere has always had a natural supply of greenhouse gases that capture heat, which is a good thing, since this is what makes our planet warm enough to inhabit, and not some barren, iced-over wasteland. But too many of these gases present a problem.
Before the industrial revolution, the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by humans and nature was roughly in balance with what the Earth could reasonably store, or "sink." For example, a tree absorbs CO2 during its lifetime, but releases it back into the air when it dies and decays. But when humans began burning tremendous amounts of fossil fuels, we created an imbalance of greenhouse gases, which become trapped in the atmosphere, acting like a blanket and heating up the surface of the planet.
Today, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is more than 30 percent higher than preindustrial levels. This is almost certainly due to human actions, mainly agriculture, burning fossil fuels, and changes in land use such as deforestation. Today, there's more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any time in the last 650,000 years. Geological history shows that changes in these levels-even small changes-are usually accompanied by significant shifts in global temperature.
Over the past century, the globe has heated up by about 1 degree Fahrenheit-a rate we haven't seen for more than a thousand years-with the most dramatic shift occurring over the past two decades. Day to day, one degree wouldn't even affect how you chose to dress in the morning. But that's the difference between weather and climate: Over the long haul, one degree is a really big deal. The last time we saw the polar regions heat up like this-about 125,000 years ago-sea levels rose between thirteen and nineteen feet.1 That's enough to put New York, London, and Sydney underwater.2
While warming in some areas may appear advantageous in the short term- say, promoting longer growing seasons in various regions of the Northern Hemisphere-the overall negative effects will far outweigh these localized "benefits." Some countries in Africa, for example, may see a significant reduction in crop levels as soon as 2020. Sure, in the short term, most developed countries will be able to cope. But if current levels of greenhouse gas emissions are left unabated, by the end of this century we're likely to see more intense storms, pronounced droughts, rising sea levels, and widespread disease. More than one third of all species could face
It's true that specific weather-related events such as the Northwest's drastically cold 2006/2007 winter season or Hurricane Katrina can't prove or dispel global warming. In the short run, these can be viewed only as anomalies. But emerging patterns-such as the increasing intensity of tropical storms-indicate that serious change is already occurring. And in a study of nearly one thousand articles published on climate change in scientific journals, none questioned its validity.3
Some people believe that governmental policy addressing global warming will hurt our current carbon-based economy. This has supplied some big businesses and politicians with an excuse for not taking action. But creating well-designed cap-and-trade emissions programs, for example, could reduce compliance costs. Mandatory caps would spur technologies bound to jump-start the economy, not drag it down. Plus, the longer we wait, the higher the cost of cleanup will be. Wait too long and our economy-not to mention life as we know it-could collapse. It's not just about saving the planet-Earth itself pull through-it's about keeping human beings off the endangered species list.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
Environmentalism isn't just about how humans affect nature; it's also about how the environment affects us. We are part of the ecosystems in which we live-not separate from them. Quality of life is a give- and-take. Our primary objective is to get you to think like a TreeHugger, and to provide a practical guide for living a healthier, more sustainable life.
Thinking like a TreeHugger is about making changes, not sacrifices. We believe that less is often more. That doesn't mean giving up the good life, but rather redefining it. We prefer quality to quantity and efficiency to waste. Modern environmentalism is about working smarter, not harder.
To that end, we have provided two lists of action items for each week. One, "Save the Planet in Thirty Minutes or Less," provides the simplest, most effective ways you can make a difference. Once you've mastered these basics, we hope you'll attempt some of the next steps on the other list, "So You Want to Do More," which shows how you can make your life even greener. A "Carbon Ticker" shows how many pounds of CO2 you can save annually by performing certain actions.
We encourage you to take on as many tasks as possible, but we also know that each suggestion won't fit everyone's personal lifestyle. So think of these activities as items in a toolbox: You've got a wide array of tools at your disposal. You decide which ones work best to get the job done. After all, the easiest way to start making greener choices is to evaluate your unique situation. Ultimately, that's what sustainability is all about: creating scenarios that continue to work over time.
Thinking Like a TreeHugger:
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Green your mind and the rest will follow.
Fifty years ago, most of what we consumed was produced near the places we lived. Today we buy even simple things such as drinking water from halfway around the world-and that adds up to a lot of trash as well as transportation emissions. The average U.S. citizen produces about 4.5 pounds of garbage every day, making us the industrialized world's leader in generating municipal solid waste. Germany and Sweden, by contrast, generate less than 2 pounds per capita each day. Think your household is small potatoes? Residential waste makes up 55 to 65 percent of the municipal solid waste stream.1
The good news is that this means that consumers and households can make a significant contribution when it comes to actualizing the TreeHugger mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle." As a nation, we've increased our rate of recycling fivefold in the past half century-a good start. But the sheer amount of stuff we toss has gone through the roof: In 1960, we generated 88 million tons of garbage. In 2005, that figure was up to more than 245 million-indicating that our reducing and reusing could use a little boost.2 Our landfills are becoming heavy on the "fill" and neglectful of the "land." And running out of space isn't the only problem.
A THROWAWAY CULTURE
Things don't disappear when we throw them "away." Though the landfill may be out of sight, it shouldn't be out of mind. When everyday items such as plastic CD cases, grass clippings, and last night's leftovers end up in the dump, they either decompose, releasing methane-a greenhouse gas about twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide-or are incinerated, releasing CO2. In fact, landfills are the number one source of anthropogenic methane emissions, comprising about 25 percent of the total, according to the U.S. EPA.
Degradation occurs slowly: Since sunlight can't penetrate most of what's stuck in the trash heap, things can't break down. Even readily biodegradable items such as cabbages, carrots, and newspapers have been found in landfills after more than thirty years.3 The trucks hauling off our unwanted refuse produce a significant amount of CO2 themselves. And getting rid of all this stuff indicates that we're replacing it with new products, which, of course, require materials and fuel to create. When we begin to understand that there is no such place as "away," we begin to realize why reducing, reusing, and recycling-in that order-are so important.
PAPER, PLASTICS, AND YARD WASTE
Even in the digital age, the most common thing found in garbage dumps is paper, accounting for an average of 35 percent of landfill contents overall. Yard waste comes in at a distant second, at 13 percent, followed by food scraps and plastics, both hovering around 11 percent. The remainder is a conglomerate of metals, leather, rubber, textiles, wood, glass, and a smattering of other materials.4
Of all the types of stuff we toss out, containers and packaging make up the biggest chunk, at about a third.5 According to some accounts, more than 90 percent of materials extracted to make durable goods in the United States shockingly become waste almost immediately.6 Think about it: Whether it is a candy bar, a CD, or a telephone you've just bought, you undoubtedly toss a wrapper or container into the trash even before taking a bite or making a call.