5 Difficult Things You Can Do to Save The Planet on Earth Day, and Every Day After

Helping the planet is hard work, if you do it right. | Photo: Bo Eide, some rights reserved

Society pays a token Earth Day tribute to the planet every April 22, as the internet fills with suggestions of quick, painless ways you can do things to make you feel better about your impact on the planet. And don't get us wrong: small steps are important. Putting your glass bottles in the recycling bin is a great habit to get into. Turning the light switch off when you leave the room, or closing the tap while you're brushing your teeth? That's basic environmental hygiene.

But we all know better than to think that's all that's needed. When all of human society is based on increasing consumption of resources on a finite planet, downloading an Earth Day app or turning your avatar green isn't going to do that much to reduce your planetary footprint. It's like the campaigns for "awareness" of one ill or another. At some point, we're all pretty much aware that the planet's living systems are having trouble with our behavior. It's time to move past spreading awareness and on to getting things done.

So here are five difficult things you can do that will actually reduce your negative impact on the planet by a significant amount. None of them are particularly easy. Some of them might not be possible at all without reshaping society. But they're actual, real, meaningful steps you can take to lighten your load on the planet. And they're things you can keep doing after Earth Day is over for the year. In fact, that's the only way they'll help.

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Get offline and read a real book.

We might as well start with this one, seeing as KCET Redefine lives online. It's also arguably the easiest task on our list, if the least directly effective. Surfing the web has a carbon footprint, not just to run your computer and modem but the banks of computers and routers that constitute the Internet. On average, every minute you spend looking at a simple web page puts 1.2 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere. That may not seem like much, but it adds up. One estimate has it that the world's online denizens log 35 billion minutes online each month. That's half a million metric tons of CO2 each year.

Your part of that total is pretty tiny, it's true. But it's still there. If you're online ten hours a day, that's a kilogram of carbon dioxide each couple of weeks. If you're an avid social media user, your presence online actually encourages others to spend more time online, either taking pleasure in what you post or wondering which giant corporation pays you to spout such nonsense. Getting offline reduces others' incentives to spend time online.

And there's the equipment cost. The more processor-intensive websites get, the more we ask of our aging desktops and mobiles — and the more likely we are to add our two-year-old machines to the pile in the closet and upgrade. The resources used to build our newer and newer machines come at a significant cost to our planet, and — in the case of some resources like the ore coltan, to human rights as well.

Anything you can do to reduce your temptation to buy yourself the newest, fastest tech toys is a boon to the planet. Spending less time online isn't easy. (I continue to struggle with it myself.) But benefits to the planet will result. Plus, you'll be able to spend more time outdoors enjoying that very planet.

The Harris Ranch feedlot | Photo: Chris Humphrey, some rights reserved

Give up bacon. 

And, yes, other meat too, especially beef. You knew this one was coming, didn't you? In fact, this is probably one of the reasons you've considered spending less time online: every time you get involved in a discussion about the environment, or politics, or music, that one niece of yours will pipe up with some observation about the benefits of a plant-based diet. Who needs the buzzkill? I mean, bacon, amirite?

The sad truth is that your niece has a point. Even if you're able to dismiss the whole ethical issue of eating animals, the truth is that a heavily meat-based diet like the one we enjoy in North America comes at a steep environmental price. It's partly about what the economists would call "inputs" — the resources it takes to provide you with that burger. It takes water and land and other resources to grow plants. When we feed those plants to animals, we get less nutritional bang for our environmental buck than if we'd just eaten the plants ourselves. It takes 16 times more water to grow a pound of beef than it does a pound of corn, for instance. 

That's the input. There's also the output to consider. While much of the American public still pictures bucolic small farms as the source of their meat, more and more animal flesh these days comes from animals that spend at least part of their miserable lives in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where they're kept in close quarters and fattened up. Where animals are concentrated, so is their waste. A 1998 EPA study estimated that livestock in the United States produce 13 times as much effluent as all the nation's human beings do, and most of that is produced at CAFOs, with predictable results. That effluent doesn't just include the urine and feces you'd expect: it also includes the remains of about a third of America's total antibiotic consumption, and thus a boatload of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

And given the overall aesthetic unpleasantness of CAFOs, they tend to be situated in poorer and more disenfranchised neighborhoods in rural America. (Less-affluent means more effluent, you could say.) It's one thing to think of bacon as a trendy snack. It kinda takes all the fun out of it to think of it as a thing that's produced by the One Percent creating intolerable living conditions for the 99 Percent. In the words of one researcher:

That's not to say there aren't problems with the way we grow plant crops. There are. Palm oil, whose production threatens orangutans in Indonesia, offers a particularly poignant example. But eating animal products ranks high just in terms of sheer environmental wastefulness. I recoil from online sanctimony as much as the next person, at least when I'm not indulging in it. But facts are facts. You benefit the planet when you eat less meat.

Don't buy disposable plastic

We've all been there. We're hungry and tired, and thoughts of takeout dance through our fatigued minds. We make the stop at a to-go place. We order. We eat delicious food. 

And then we have a whole new pile of plastic to add to the pile we've accumulated in our lives so far. A Styrofoam clamshell, a fork and knife, a couple or three or four little containers with salsa in them that the proprietor thoughtfully tossed into the bag, packets of soy sauce or barbecue sauce or ketchup and mustard, a plastic straw and a plastic lid for the plastic-coated cup in which we got our "just water, thanks." Possibly a plastic bag to hold all of it.

Within 20 minutes or so the food is but a faint memory, but the plastic lives on — for a geologic age.

Or you go to the supermarket, determined to be a grownup and avoid takeout. You shop sensibly: produce, perhaps a deli salad, something healthy to drink in a recyclable glass bottle. Organic cereal. Non-fat yogurt. Locally roasted coffee.

And it's the same story when you get home. The yogurt's gone but the tub remains. The coffee leaves behind its bag, likely with a high-tech doohickey to keep oxygen out of the coffee.  You put the plastic bags that held the produce into the plastic bag you store under the sink to store your plastic bags in. That recyclable glass bottle came with a nonrecyclable poly screw-on cap. Glass goes in the recycling bin, cap goes in the garbage. And the salad? It likely wilted by the time you got it out of the shopping bag, but the clear clamshell container you got it in will last until human civilization is a dim memory.

It's not just food, of course: commercial products from clothing to computer memory sticks almost always come with single-use plastic attached, sometimes intended for ludicrously limited use — for hanging in the store racks, for instance — and then useless as soon as the item is purchased.

The result? We now live awash in a sea of plastic. For marine animals, that sea isn't metaphorical: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only the most famous gyre of the accumulated plastic that's penetrated every part of the marine food chain.

Recycling is often touted as a solution to the plastics pollution problem, especially on Earth Day. It isn't. Millions of discarded grocery bags thoughtfully placed in recycling bins in supermarkets now litter the landscape in China, casualties of commodities price cycles. When the bottom falls out of the scrap plastic market, no industry buys the scrap even if it's the right thing to do. And even recycled, plastic still finds its way into the environment. Those virtuous recycled fleece garments made of old soda bottles turn out to shed thousands of pieces of microplastic into the local water supply every time you wash them, for instance. And even durable plastic goods built from recycled plastic — benches and boat bumpers and the like — have a finite life span, and eventually find their way into the environment.

Plastic is permanent. Throw it into a landfill and it will outlast the landfill. In millennia to come, when the landfill that received the waste plastic from the tiny container your replacement SIM card came in erodes away, that plastic will still be there, ready to get washed into the ocean to choke whatever wildlife is still there.

In an ecologically sane society, where products were designed and produced with their cradle-to-grave environmental impacts in mind, we might still have disposable plastics used for things like hypodermic needles and prescription packaging. Despite the deservedly bad rap they've gotten lately, plastic water bottles might still be justifiable for safe, hygienic emergency water distribution in disaster areas. (Coachella doesn't count.) Durable plastics, which can be used and reused, have obvious advantages for products like bicycle helmets.

But we don't live in that ecologically sane society. We live in a society it's been decided that we don't account for the costs of plastics past their initial use. 

There's movement to change that. Plastic bag laws are spreading, and the city of San Francisco is considering a ban on most uses of Styrofoam. But those laws are facing stiff opposition from plastics companies. Which means for the time being, it's up to us to reduce the amount of plastic we buy inadvertently. 

And that's an incredibly annoying prospect. Even just remembering to ask your server not to bring you a straw takes a fair bit of cognitive effort; trying to get a server to let you put your leftovers in the washable bento box you brought along might well provoke an odd conversation. And there's the issue of remembering to bring the box. And schlepping it around everywhere you go, just on the off chance you go get food at some point. A person might have to decide not to ever eat at most restaurants, to buy only very limited items at most supermarkets, and to buy other consumer products almost never.

But hey, we said these were going to be difficult.

Stay at home and if you can't, stay on the ground

Transportation is responsible for about a third of the United States' total greenhouse gas emissions, double the global average. In part, that's due to Americans' relative affluence, and in part it's due to our reliance on the private automobile as the centerpiece of our transport strategy.

Cars have gotten a lot more efficient in recent years, which is great. But there are more of them, and we drive more miles per person than we did a half century ago. (And full-disclosure: I live in the Mojave Desert, and am as reliant on the private automobile as anyone I know even just to get to the corner store, which is five miles away.)

Cars are a big part of the problem, but they're not the only problem. In the last few decades, as the cost of air travel has dropped relative to per capita income, it's become much more common to fly to places we might once have reached by other means. The convenience is undeniable. But the amount of greenhouse gases put out by passenger planes is considerable. For shorter flights — think Los Angeles to San Francisco — the greenhouse gas emissions of flying are something like .24 kilograms of CO2 per passenger mile. That's better than driving the same distance by yourself in a typical car: at 25 miles per gallon, a passenger car puts out about .35 kilograms of CO2 per mile. Put three people in that car and you beat air travel per passenger mile.

Long-distance flights are more efficient, at around .18 kilograms CO2 per passenger mile, but they're utterly outdone by a mode of travel that is likely the least-popular mode of travel in North America: the long-distance bus, which emits something like .08 kilograms per passenger mile, if relatively full.

This isn't a topic of conversation that will earn you friends at international environmental conferences.

In fact, if you're thinking of showing up at a climate change demonstration across the country so you can be a warm body, consider organizing a local event instead — and then riding your bike to get there.

In between you and that seat on the commuter train, 2116 AD | Photo: James Cridland, some rights reserved

Don't have kids

Or if you already have kids, don't have more.

This is a topic that's highly emotionally charged, for obvious reasons. People love their kids. People want kids. People like to think their kids will be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Some of those kids will indeed be part of solutions to any number of environmental and social ills. The vast majority of them will be fine, admirable human beings. Some will cure cancer. Others will fight crime.

And each will add to the total of humanity's sheer numbers. Each will be one more consumer of transport miles and disposable plastics, one more occasional waster of electrical power, one more set of footprints in a world that can little afford more human footprints.

This is one of those issues that may well be harder in the individual case than it is statistically. The decision whether or not to have children can be soul-searing. And on a global scale, as more and more women gain both better access to health care and increasing control over their own lives, more and more women are deciding not to have children, or to have fewer children than they might have 50 years ago.

But that still leaves a lot of kids being born. And despite the fact that our species is consuming more and more of the world's wild habitat each year, a lot of people don't want to talk about population as an environmental issue.

Some of that is because of the kind of people who've talked about population in the past. In the U.S., the population issue has often been a Trojan horse used by xenophobic groups whose real goal is to prevent certain kinds of people from immigrating into the country. That's ironic, given that the most ecologically destructive people tend to be very affluent.

That association with the anti-immigration crowd has left a bad taste in the mouths of many progressive environmentalists, as well it might. But that doesn't mean there aren't humane, justice-oriented ways to keep our numbers below the point where both justice and ecological sustainability become harder to manage. 

The fewer children you bring into the world, the less of an ecological impact you have on the planet. 

At least think about it. And if you can't bring yourself to swear off procreating, you can at the very least work to support groups like Planned Parenthood that help make sure women don't have kids unless they really want them.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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