(The Full Text are from when EOV’s in-person workshops were developed.)
“What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” —Henry David Thoreau
“We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.” – Chief Seattle
The environment, put quite simply, is our home on a large scale. We live in it, and are at the same time, an inextricable part of it. Until the industrial age, most societies viewed our environment and the natural world with awe and reverence. Some of the earliest forms of religion are nature worship traditions. And even as religions and mythology became more complex, the natural world remained at the centre of it. The Greeks worshipped Gaia, the earth mother, the Incas revered Pachamama (world mother) and ancient Sanskrit texts sing praise to Pritvi Maa , the mother goddess of the earth. But as humans came to think of themselves as ‘masters’ of the world, the equation shifted. The natural world became something to tame, as a resource. So much so, that the hand of humans is evident in almost every part of our environment and we are at a defining moment in history.
Scientists and environmentalists have been warning us for some years now that climate change will threaten food production and cause rising sea levels. It is clear that we as a species need to take collective action. Throughout this course, we have been taking a deep look at the health of each human as an individual. We thought it was important to end by thinking about how we can contribute to the wellness of the planet, and in turn, ourselves. If the COVID-19 crisis has illuminated one thing, it is that the earth is capable of regeneration if we change the nature of human activity. In the few weeks that many countries have been in lockdown, some of the world’s most polluted cities have clean air again, water bodies that were once toxic are seeing the return of aquatic life. If we caused the damage, it may also be possible for us to reverse it.
Of course, to think of contributing to wellbeing on a planetary scale can be overwhelming, and this often stops us from acting. But to quote the scholar Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” While the solution to the environmental crisis we face will require action on a global scale, there are choices you can make in your daily life that can reduce your personal impact on the environment.
The way that personal environmental impact is measured is through your ‘carbon footprint’. A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the production, use and end-of-life of a product or service. It includes carbon dioxide (the gas we most commonly emit) as well as methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and cause global warming. As individuals, the biggest percentage of our footprints come from transportation, housing and food. People living in the United States tend to have the highest annual carbon footprint of about 16 tons, and the world average is closer to 4 tons. Here are a few things that can help you reduce your carbon footprint.
- Travel responsibly. One of the biggest ways of lowering your carbon footprint is by travelling responsibly. This means walk or cycle when you can, carpool or take public transit for longer distances, and fly as little as possible. A return transcontinental flight can give you the same carbon footprint as some people have in a year.
- Eat Sustainably. What we eat contributes to a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for almost 60% of the world’s biodiversity loss, including wildlife extinction. This is largely because raising animals for meat and dairy on the scale that we consume it, requires large amounts of space, water and animal feed. Forests are cleared to make way for agricultural land producing animal feed and the amount of resources needed to raise a single animal for meat as against the number of people that animal will feed is huge. This is not to say that nobody should eat meat, but as we’ve seen when we discussed our personal nutrition, we evolved from a largely plant based diet, with occasional meat consumption, and not the other way around. Moving towards a largely plant-based diet can be better for your own health, and that of the planet.
- Buy less, consume consciously. We can all be more aware of what we buy, and where we buy. This links back to our chapter on money. We are conditioned to connect our emotions with our purchases rather than our needs. By just buying less, you improve your environmental footprint. Part of this process is simply being aware of how we are often forced to consume more than we need. You can’t just buy one straw, for example, you have to buy a pack of a hundred. The size of ovens in the United States are determined by the size of the Thanksgiving Turkey – they are much too big the rest of the year, leading to longer heating times and energy bills. It takes some effort to go against the grain, but it can often lead to a better situation -for yourself, and for the planet. It is also good to be aware that what you have is purchasing power. Where you put your money matters, and the choices you make support the businesses and products you buy. So saying no to plastics, and saying yes to local, sustainable farmers has an effect not only on you, but on the business you support, and in turn, their effect on the environment.
- Don’t Waste. Given that we live on a planet with finite resources, it’s a good idea to cut waste out of all aspects of our lives. Fixing broken things rather than replacing them, or recycling material is a great way to keep the value of old things. Every product that is made uses resources that have often been thousands, if not millions of years in the making. Fossil fuels for example, began their life 300 million years ago. And on the other end of that timeline is how long things take to decompose once they’re discarded. A plastic bottle takes around 450 years to decompose in a landfill. In the United States alone, 60 million plastic bottles are thrown away every day, after being used just once. It goes without saying that avoiding bottled water would go a long way.
- Plant a Tree. One of the best chances we have at limiting global warming is by increasing the number of trees in the world. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and other gases like sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. You’ll only do good by planting trees, or supporting organizations that do.
- ) Support good work. Which brings us nicely to the next point. You don’t always have the time, ability or knowledge to contribute towards planetary wellbeing but there are a lot of committed organizations that dedicate themselves to this task. Do your research well, and support them if you can- whether it is by volunteering your time, skills or donating money.
- Use your voice. We are the first generation to have the awareness that we need to work on planetary wellbeing. Speaking up is one way in which you can have a positive impact, whether it is communicating with local politicians about civic decisions that impact the environment, or writing to brands that you buy from about how they source their products, you as a citizen or a consumer, have a voice. Social media also offers us an easy and direct way to speak about the changes we’d like to see in the world.
It seems the key to planetary wellness (or your own wellness, for that matter), is to value things more. Perhaps we could look to indigenous cultures around the world, many of whom have not lost sight of older and more interconnected ways of doing things. Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh people whose territories are now part of the city of Vancouver had this to say: “I was born a thousand years ago, born in the culture of bows and arrows… born in an age when people loved the things of nature and spoke to it as though it had a soul.”
This demands a very different way of interacting with nature than the industrialized world has been doing for the past couple of centuries. A great example can be seen from the process of canoe making amongst Indigenous people of the Pacific coast. The level of their craft and the quality of artistry is striking, and they often work for months to hone and shape the perfect canoe. But something even more beautiful happens before they begin carving. Once the perfect tree is found in the forest and felled, a ceremony is held for the fallen tree, to ask for the tree’s blessing to be carved into a canoe. There is a solemn and respectful recognition that the tree has been growing for hundreds of years, witness to seasons and storms, human comings and goings, centuries of sunlight. So when such a venerable tree is cut, the canoe carvers want the tree to know that the respect the life it has lived, and hope that they can do it justice in their work, create something lasting that is of beauty and value.
It is that kind of valuing of our planet that can guide us towards the right kind of stewardship. For those of us who are used to looking for evidence of human ingenuity in monuments or technology, it can be humbling to realize that the greatest civilizations may be the ones that tread lightly on the ground, leaving little trace.