The Good Life With IQ

Eight easy ways in which you can be more environment-friendly

If you’ve been reading or watching the news, you’ve probably been seeing some unsettling things of late. Whether through nuclear war, over-exploitation of natural resources or just sheer negligence, we humans seem hell-bent on pushing our planet over the edge. And the most depressing thing is that we’re all part of the problem.

This post actually started out as a note to myself while I was feeling particularly down one morning, convinced that all we can do is just brace ourselves for the inevitable. But to paraphrase Al Gore in his eye-opening 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, there’s no point going straight from denial to despair without doing anything about it. I’m not sure about nuclear war, but we can definitely do small but significant things to help protect the environment on which we—no matter how much we deny it—depend. After all, if we’re all part of the problem, we can also all be part of the solution.

Most of us have probably encountered people who’ve said, “What’s the point in doing anything? What difference does one person make, anyway?”. We’ve probably even thought that ourselves. But, to counter a question with another one, “If I don’t do it, who will?”. If all of us do our own little bit, then it adds up. And every little bit—every little bit—helps.

So here are eight easy ways in which each of us can make a difference.

#1. Turn off a few lights

When you’re at home, save electricity by turning off a few lights here and there, especially in those empty rooms.

Most of the electricity across the world today is produced by large-scale thermal power plants that burn fossil fuels and pour countless tons of carbon-dioxide (CO2) into the air. And while the debate on man-made climate change still rages (though the number of climate scientists arguing against mankind’s role in global warming is tiny), the fact is that the correlation between rising CO2 levels in the air and rising average global temperatures is pretty solid.

I’ll be the first one to admit, though, that reducing electricity consumption doesn’t necessarily have a direct impact on how much is produced (thermal power plants produce a set amount of electricity depending on average demand, regardless of how much is consumed). But reduce the average demand, and the amount of electricity produced can be lowered, saving thousands of tons of CO2.

So turn off a few lights at home, help bring down your area’s average demand for electricity, and you can eventually reduce the amount of CO2 going into the air.

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A stand lamp gives a warm, cozy light

 #2. Drive a little less

Whenever you can, share a ride, use public transport, travel by bike instead of by car, and walk if it’s close enough.

Vehicles are one of the top man-made sources of CO2, and a major contributor to global warming. The millions of cars crawling along our cities’ roads each day dump thousands of tons of CO2—along with lots of hazardous gases and particles—into the air. So, if even four people carpool on their way to work, that means keeping three cars off the road—and their emissions out of the air. And if we all walked a few kilometres each day instead of driving, not only would we not cause any vehicle emissions at all during that time, but we would be healthier. Everybody wins!

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Driving past windmills in Germany

#3. Use a little less plastic

Try and drink regular purified water instead of bottled water, buy food and drinks in glass or paper containers, and take your own bags to the corner shop.

The good thing about plastic is that it’s cheap, durable and extremely versatile. The bad thing about plastic is that it’s cheap, durable and extremely versatile. Because it’s so versatile, we see plastic pretty much everywhere we look. Because it’s so cheap, we can make pretty much as much as we want. And because it’s so durable, it just doesn’t go away.

A recent report says that we produce the total weight of the human population in plastic products every year, most of which isn’t recycled but just thrown away. Another report says that we have produced around nine billion tons of plastic since 1950. That means that plastic weighing the same as tens of billions of human beings is just sitting around in dump yards and landfills, and finding its way into the deep oceans, dense jungles and towering mountains of the world. From there, it is finding its way into the stomachs of fish, animals and birds, and—finally—into ours. Plastic and its accompanying toxins are invading every corner of our world, and causing levels of damage that we haven’t even begun to understand.

So avoid those disposable plastic bottles and takeaway containers, and carry your own grocery bag.

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Plastic rubbish on remote Thinnakara island, 400 kilometers off the Indian coast

#4. Use a little less paper

Whenever you can, take fewer printouts (or print on both sides), use ceramic mugs instead of paper cups, and take notes on your phone instead of using a notebook.

We’ve probably all heard about how we should save trees by saving paper, but most of us don’t really understand why. Almost 20% of the trees that are cut down to make paper come from virgin forests, instead of from plantations. These virgin forests absorb CO2, promote rainfall and provide a habitat for millions of birds, animals and insects, and are being cut down to feed the world’s increasing need for paper. Forests also tend to hold the fertile topsoil in place and keep it from being washed away. To put it simply, less forest means more global warming, less rainfall, the faster extinction of species, and more barren land.

Besides, the paper production industry is notoriously polluting, releasing toxic chemicals into the air, water and land. Transporting the trees and turning them into paper also uses a lot of energy, pumping more CO2 into the air and contributing to global warming. And lastly, paper isn’t as biodegradable as we might think. During a study by the University of Arizona, newspapers dating from nearly 50 years ago were found in a landfill, still completely legible.

So think twice before you print something out or before you use a paper cup for your morning coffee.

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Misty pine forests on the slopes of the Jenner mountain in Bavaria, Germany

#5. Use a little less water

Try and make your shower a few minutes shorter, turn off the tap when brushing your teeth, and fill your bathtub a little less.

Aside from the parts of the world that have an acute scarcity of it, most of us take water for granted. What we don’t realize is that it takes enormous amounts of energy to transport the water from its source to where we are, and to purify it along the way. All that energy means—you guessed it— CO2 going into the atmosphere, which means more global warming.

So take quicker showers, turn off the water whenever you can, and fix that leaky tap.

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A leaky tap near the tombs of the Paigah nobles of Hyderabad, India

#6. Eat a little less meat

If you can manage, skip the steak in favour of the potatoes, and the Sunday roast altogether.

There is a growing realization that the meat industry is a major contributor to global warming, not just because of the clearing of forests to create pastures for the animals, but also because of the methane produced by the animals during digestion—and methane seems to be a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. That means even a small amount of methane can have a much more significant global warming effect than a much larger amount of CO2. So, any reduction in the large-scale production of meat—especially beef—promises to have a much more immediate effect in reducing global warming.

Aside: A large percentage of the land currently under cultivation is used to grow food for livestock. Imagine if that land were used to grow food for people instead!

So see if you can eat meat one less meal a day, and one less day a week.

Also read: Ten tips on giving up meat, from a former carnivore; and Simple and satisfying: Broccoli and crispy potato with honey-mustard vinaigrette

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An elaborate South Indian vegetarian thali meal

#7. Reuse a few clothes

Think about turning old clothes into something else, giving them away, or just using them as dusters.

Like everything else, manufacturing clothes takes energy (and water—see PDF) and produces climate-changing CO2, so the fewer we use, the less CO2 is dumped into the air. I’m not suggesting we try and do without, just that, by thinking of ways to reuse them, we reduce the overall need to produce more.

A strange new concept seems to be becoming popular: that of disposable fashion, where people buy clothes that are specifically made to be worn only a few times before being thrown away. Not only is this a wasteful use of the resources that went into making the clothes, it creates demand for new ones, and puts even more pressure on how the resulting waste is managed.

So before you throw away those old clothes you’re tired of, think about giving them to someone who needs them, reuse them around the house, or just cut them into dusters.

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An armchair upholstered using an old hand-embroidered skirt

#8. Use a little less, waste a little less

Our way of life today involves a whole lot of environmental and ethical trade-offs. For example, you can save paper by taking notes on your smartphone instead of a paper note pad, but what about the electricity it uses? Or you can install solar panels on your roof to save electricity, but what about the energy that went into manufacturing them?

We will always be faced with these conflicts until we, as a species, can figure out a way to live that doesn’t cannibalize the earth that we depend on. But until then, the best each of us can do is do what we can, when we can; be mindful of the choices we make and their consequences; and use a little less—and waste a little less—of everything.

If we do this, and set an example, we might just be able to get more people to do a little for the environment. And then we might just be able to save the world!

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Doggies relax in a garbage dump in the remote Himalayan nation of Bhutan
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