Sustainable Living

Only after the last tree has been cut down
Only after the last river has been poisoned
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only then will you find money cannot be eaten
— Cree prophecy

Are we, as a species, creating our own Armageddon, the end of our days? The sad truth is that we are.

We’re destroying the ecosystem that gives us life, and doing so at an alarming rate. Our failure to live in a sustainable way is the single greatest problem facing humanity today, more important by far than crime, illiteracy, or the healthcare crisis.

We’ve been unwilling to address this situation for far too long. We’re now faced with the bitter fact that, at our present rate of consumption, we will have entirely exhausted the Earth’s natural resources by the end of this century.

In short, we will make ourselves extinct, along with most other life on this planet, if we don’t stop the destruction. And it will not surprise me if, in the final years of waning resources, mankind brings upon itself many of the End-of-Days scenarios foretold in virtually every belief system that’s ever existed. War, famine, disease, crime, poverty, despair . . . all of these and more. Our own careless actions will have brought into being our own worst nightmares.

So what’s the answer? Can we still save ourselves? Possibly. At the heart of it, it’s all about what each and every individual does. We can no longer leave it to the other guy to solve the problem. We must each do our part or the solutions won’t come. We all have a responsibility to make better decisions. The first thing we need to do is readjust our mindset, and I know of no better way to do that than to learn from indigenous societies.

“We did not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
Ancient Native American Proverb

The people of indigenous societies around the world take an exceptionally long view when considering their actions. Some Native American cultures have codified the concept in the term “seven generations.” They don’t just consider the effects on their children or grandchildren, but on their great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren — and the children they will have.

We, too, need to think long-term. Seriously long-term. Several centuries long-term. Millennia long-term, and then some. How many fatal decisions might have been made differently if that long view had always been taken in earnest?

If we’d known beforehand that spraying DDT would actually advance the belligerent red ants we intended to stop, perhaps we wouldn’t have sprayed it, killing thousands upon thousands of animals in the process and damaging the health of who knows how many men, women, and children. But we looked only at the short-term goal, and even to that extent our view was clouded.

If we had carefully considered all the problems attached to nuclear power — the extreme poisoning of the land and water for miles and miles around each mine, for starters — perhaps we’d have looked for better ways to fill our energy needs. Instead, millions of acres of land are now unfit to use, and billions of gallons of water unsafe to drink. The time it will take to restore these resources is measured in centuries — lots of them.

Native societies carefully consider the effects of their actions on the rest of nature. Hunting and gathering, farming, building — all these have some impact on nature. The challenge is to produce a minimal impact so as to cause the least amount of harm. Here’s a list of ways that we too can learn to interact with the world in an indigenous manner:

Use it wisely – Before you take anything from nature — and that means anything in your life — consider whether you really need it. Is there something else that can do the job without further depleting our resources?

Waste Nothing – Whenever possible, use it all, and use it for as long as you can. When the Plains Indians killed a buffalo, they used every part of the animal: meat, fat, hide, sinew, bone, hoof, and antler.

Recycle It – When you have no further use for something, don’t just throw it away to sit forever in a landfill. Many are surprised to know that recycling includes far more than putting your bottles, cans, and newspapers at the curb every two weeks. You can also recycle tires, clothing, cardboard, batteries, furniture, appliances, motor oil, many plastics, computers and other electronic devices, and more.

Recycle it again – If we were to apply long-view thinking to the concept of repeated use, it’s entirely possible that in a few decades we could reduce the amount of reintroduced waste to a fraction of current levels. Send nothing to the landfill that can be recycled.

Put nothing into the environment that doesn’t occur naturally – Yes, this one is hard. Many commercial products release toxic elements into the environment during their manufacture, during their use, or at their demise — if not all three. Yet many available technologies minimize this problem. We need to stay informed.

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
Albus Dumbledore

Consumerism is certainly about choices: which product to buy, how to use it, how to dispose of it. Each of our choices has an impact, no matter how small, so we need to begin making better choices. Personally, I take my own mug to the coffee shop. It saves me a dime and uses one less non-biodegradable Styrofoam cup. This may sound insignificant, but by combining this choice with hundreds of others I make each week, I’m beginning to create less of a negative impact on my environment.

Here are some areas in which you can make wiser choices:

Carefully assess the true cost of a purchase beyond its sticker price: the cost to the environment when it was removed, refined, and manufactured, the energy it will consume in its use, the toxins its use will create, and the impact it will have when discarded.

Be energy conscious when purchasing a new appliance or automobile or choosing replacement windows, etc. Appliances vary in the amount of energy they consume, as well as in how long they’ll last. Greener appliances not only protect the environment; they can save you money over the life of the purchase.

Build as green as possible. Emerging technologies make it possible to consume far fewer resources when building, and also allow for drastic reductions in energy consumption. Although currently it can cost a little more to build green, the energy savings will offset these costs and then some. Over the life of a green home, an owner can save thousands of dollars.

Purchase and build to last. Our throwaway society encourages us to buy again rather than repair. Yet each time we buy a new product, we’re affecting the environment. Consider that two cheap refrigerators will cost more to buy and operate than one of better quality that will last twice as long and consume less energy. Not only will the better unit preserve our resources, it will cost less in the long run.

The responsibility doesn’t stop at home. We can encourage our employers, our coworkers, and other organizations in our community to raise their environmental awareness. It won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all unless we do our part to stimulate the conversation. Many companies are beginning to consider sustainability as it relates to new construction, manufacturing processes, and conservation. Help your own company grasp the sense of sustainability and position itself at the forefront of the new thinking.

We also have a responsibility to ensure that our political leaders — local, state, and federal — know our opinions. It takes only a few minutes to send a fax, letter, or e-mail, or to make a phone call. Let your voice be heard. The more we tell our leaders that we want to focus on the issue of sustainability, the more quickly and fully government will address the problems of the environment.

We can’t stay in denial about it any longer. We’re destroying our environment, and we must stop. Each of us needs to share responsibility for protecting the ecosystem that keeps us alive. We don’t have the right to willfully destroy it.

Must we cut down the last tree, poison the last river, and eat the last animal before we finally figure out that our possessions won’t sustain us, that we can’t eat our money? That’s one prophecy I hope never comes to pass. The choice is ours. I hope we choose wisely.

©2001 – Lane Baldwin

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