Environmental Defense Fund: Bothering to Save the Planet, One Step at a Time

bicyclists_sanfrancisco.jpgYou swap out your light bulbs for energy-efficient ones, keep your house as chilled as a meat locker in winter, bicycle to work, eat little meat and drive a hybrid — yet nagging at you is this thought: Do my small actions make a difference? Author Michael Pollan says they do.

In last week’s Sunday New York Times Magazine (4.20.08), Pollan wrote a provocative essay, “Why Bother? Looking for a few good reasons to go green.” In it, he wrestles with those lurking questions about our everyday choices to stave off global warming. Some excerpts:

Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down…, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?

He looks at the reasons we find for not doing anything: “There are so many stories we can tell ourselves to justify doing nothing,” he writes.

And yet, he resoundingly concludes that those little things are worth the bother.

Why? …. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us…

If you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change…. Driving an S.U.V. or eating a 24-ounce steak or illuminating your McMansion like an airport runway at night might come to be regarded as outrages to human conscience.

Yes, you can make a difference. Pollan asks us to start with planting a garden. There are many more ways you can reduce your carbon footprint, of course. One is to choose food thoughtfully. Here are tips that will not only help the health of the planet but make you healthier, too.

Guidelines for choosing foods thoughtfully

We’ve never had such a variety or abundance of food to choose from. And now we hear about our “food print.” Do we buy cherry tomatoes from Mexico or tomatoes grown locally in a hothouse? Do we get the Granny Smiths from the farmers’ market or the supermarket? Is organic produce healthier for us and the planet?

These are very complex issues that require analysis of many criteria, including the energy used in producing and transporting the food, as well as the type of soil and methods of raising the food. Despite the complexities, there are some general guidelines you can follow that are good for you and the planet.

Eat less meat (eat low on the food chain). Your doctor may have advised you to limit your consumption of red meat because of its unhealthy saturated fat content, particularly corn-fed animals. (Milk, meat and eggs from grass-fed animals are both lower in saturated fats and contain higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.)

There are environmental reasons, too. Raising food animals contributes substantially to climate change because a meat-based diet requires more land, energy and water than a plant-based one.

Pollan sums up this principle in his book In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (Read an interview with the author in a New York Times blog.)

Eating less meat and more grains and vegetables helps reduce:

  • the need to convert forests or grasslands to pasturelands,
  • the amount of corn grown for feed (which lessens the amount of fossil fuels used to grow the corn), and
  • greenhouse gas emissions from manure (see Farm Animals and Methane).

Buying local may be, but is not always, climate-friendly. We often hear about the benefits of eating locally grown fruits and vegetables, and there are many. They include:

  • Less transit, less oil (maybe). The average American meal travels 1,500 miles meal travels from field to mouth — so locally grown foods often (but not always) use much less oil in transport than the foods that make up a conventional American meal. For example, if the state of Iowa shifted just 10 percent of fruits and vegetables from conventional to regional or local food systems, it would reduce CO2 emissions by about 7 million pounds, according to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
  • Better tasting than produce shipped from afar. Locally grown fruits and vegetables can be picked at peak ripeness and may be higher in nutrients. Spinach, for example, loses nutrients at certain temperatures and after several days in storage.

So buyer beware: Use common sense and ask lots of questions when purchasing items.

Things to watch for:

  • Energy-intensive local production (such as tomatoes grown in a hothouse that requires energy for heating) may produce more global warming pollution than efficiently producing and shipping foods from farther away.
  • Differences in transportation methods—by ship or plane, for example—can also cause greenhouse gas emissions to differ widely even when a food is transported the same distance (see Food Miles: Is Local Always Better?).

Choose less-processed foods. Heavily processed foods tend to be low in fiber and high in fat and sugar. They often contain lots of dyes, colorings, and preservatives that aren’t great for your health. And all that processing uses a lot of energy.

Getting your food from field to table requires multiple steps, including processing the whole food into a refined product, which then may be used as an ingredient in another food product. Still more energy is needed to package and ship the final product to retailers.

More steps in processing generally means more intensive energy use. Take a bottle of ketchup. Tracking a common brand of ketchup sold in Sweden through the 50-plus steps to produce it revealed steep energy and environmental costs, particularly from the processing and packaging steps.

Avoid heavily packaged foods and buy in bulk. Processing and packaging together take nearly a quarter of the energy used in food production. Choose minimally packaged foods or those in the biggest containers available. Fresh fruits and vegetables, of course, are usually not packaged at all (shun those Styrofoam containers!), and they are healthy choices.

Buying organic has benefits, too. Whether growing organic food versus conventionally grown food produces less global warming pollution overall is hotly debated, and the jury is still out. How much the soil is tilled, how much greenhouse gas the soil retains or releases, what type of food is raised (fruits and vegetables, grains, milk or chickens) — these are some factors that must be considered. Still, there are clear pluses for your health and for the environment.

The health benefits of going organic include:

  • Organic foods are grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers so you reduce your exposure to hazardous chemicals.
  • Organic produce is often richer in nutrients and antioxidants, evidence suggests.

The ecological upsides of growing food organically include:

  • Less pollution. Fertilizer and pesticide runoff pollutes rivers and streams and washes into bays and ocean, causing oxygen-starved dead zones where fish can’t live.
  • Less energy consumed to produce chemicals. A hefty chunk of energy goes into producing agricultural pesticides and fertilizers, by some estimates as much as 40 percent of the energy used in the food system.
  • More biodiversity. Using natural methods to enrich the soil and control pests promotes more variety of organisms.

You also help spur demand for organic foods by buying them. This in turn prods farmers to grow food without harsh chemicals. All your food choices together can have a profound effect on your carbon footprint, as much as the type of car you drive.

More things you can do

  1. Jackie

    As far as “More biodiversity” I tend to do it with my heating oil. I use a B5 blend as opposed to just the regular stuff. Saves me more money, reduces my carbon footprint, produces no greenhouse gases. What more can I as for. I don’t even have to replace my existing furnace. Now all I have to do is bookmark your page so I can always have a list of how I can go greener. Working at NORA that’s all I do, find greener ways to live. Check out this cool link I found while researching greener alternatives. http://www.oilheatamerica.com/index.mv?screen=bioheat

  2. joe

    Seems to me that saying such things is total nonsense in the face of a global changed climate future. The changes needed in lifestyle are not insignificant, yet very few are prepared to make them – so those that do would have to make even bigger changes to make a real difference.

    The hard truth is that we’re not going to do it.

  3. Philip Proefrock

    Keeping your house “as chilled as a meat locker in winter” may be a way to save on energy use, but that certainly is not the effect that radiant heating has. Radiant heating is both extremely comfortable and very efficient.

    The article you link to begins: “Radiant heating is an efficient and comfortable method for heating.” I’m not sure how you got to a meat locker analogy from that.

  4. MattKelly

    This was an awesome post, thanks! One way I’m trying to reduce my footprint is I’m moving closer to work. I rent so it’s easier than say someone who one’s though. My employer will also let me telecommute-work from home too. And I love my local farmer’s market!

  5. Uncle B

    I’m just a cheapskate, and I find my frugal, or more than frugal ways serve the environment as well! Almost everything that comes into my household is re-used. I even cook with my bacon drippings. We compost. We home-brew (great for the environment and gives good compost and good, cheap, beer if you work at it). My flower pots have cherry tomatoes and carrots in them. I grind newspapers and cardboard for mulch. I even grow my own seeds. When we buy meat, each piece has to have at least two uses, for example, bacon, makes bacon bits from fatty part, bacon from what’s left after trimming, and bacon drippings to flavor many other dishes. I bought a pressure canner, so I don’t have many tin cans or single use bottles to throw away. If we buy peanut butter its in the re-usable pail containers. Rags get stuffed into cracks before the expensive sealer goes in. I eat a lot of oatmeal, as porridge, in cookies and in meatloaf, because it is cheap and nutritious. I apply my pis to the flower garden, as fertilizer it is supreme, but is best diluted. I sold my cars and bought a bike. I sold my 35 mm camera and bought a digital one. When I retired, my company stopped paying for my software, so I switched to Ubuntu, the free one from the net, and use Gimp, that comes with the free Ubuntu package for processing my .jpgs. It took a bit of time but now I am very happy with this system. My wife sews everything that we can’t get second hand for clothing. I use left-over paint from the eco-collection sites, and blend it to colors I like. We grow most of what we eat, and gave bushels of tomatoes away to the food bank last year (bumper crop in backyard). I sometimes feel guilty when I go to the bank and put money in, then I think of the screwing I took, all my working life believing the ads, and I chuckle and smile smugly.

  6. Joe

    This is all bs, late 60’s, late 70’s, late 80’s, etc, etc, etc…..’

    until the guys on top feel the pain, all the effort of the little guy ain’t worth shit.

    The green in the us is just bs, nothing more, nothing less.

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