CHAPTER 8. FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Here are some common questions regarding a low-footprint lifestyle.
Q. Why should I reduce my footprint when corporations are the ones producing all the stuff that’s causing the pollution?
A. Who do you think is creating the demand for corporations (or China, or whoever your villain of choice is) to produce all that stuff? Look in the mirror! Corporations (and Chinese industry) are a reflection of the U.S. public’s wants and our lack of self-discipline. Also, more pollution is produced by nonpoint sources (lawns, cars, etc.) than by point sources (industry’s tailpipes).
Q. If humans stopped having kids, would that solve everything?
A. Take a look around you. Even if not one more child were born on earth, the resource-hogs who are currently living on earth are trashing the planet quite successfully. Besides the fact that you’re trying to fight a pretty strong biological urge here, which is bound to be a losing battle, zero population growth won’t solve the problem. In fact, who’s to say that the next child born, or the next, won’t be someone who holds the key to saving the planet?
Q. If the government imposes green standards on industry, would it solve everything?
A. Do you want to be ruled by a totalitarian government? Do you believe that the government is the highest authority on what’s green, and knows what’s best for industry and commerce? Remember how WalMart started carrying organic produce? That had nothing to do with the government. It was WalMart responding to millions of votes from consumer wallets.
Q. Solar panels are getting better and cheaper. Can’t we just switch to solar, and have a sustainable world without cutting back on our consumption?
A. Fossil fuels are an energy-dense resource, what my renewable-energy teacher at EcoVersity, Mark Sardella, told us was equivalent to each person in the United States owning 80 slaves. If we were to try to just switch over to solar panels, we’d have solar panels covering every square inches of available space, quite possibly including all our agricultural land. And instead of mountaintops ravaged and streams polluted by coal mining, we’d have … well, hmmm … it still takes electricity to produce those solar panels and gasoline to transport them, so ….
The point is, if we don’t handle our addiction at the source by radically reducing our own consumption, we’ll chew up more and more land. We’ll also create more pressure for building nuclear power plants.
Q. What about nuclear power? There’s been a lot of development in nuclear technology over the years, but public sentiment is against it because of disasters like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Those were either old or ill-designed systems, and the new systems (for example, thorium reactors) produce minimal waste, or even recycle the waste into something innocuous. Wouldn’t clean nuclear solve the world’s energy problems?
A. This is an excellent question. The new technology for nuclear power does seem to be promising and warrants investigation. We are right to be cautious about nuclear power, and we need to test this new “clean” version in a contained manner such that failure won’t produce catastrophic consequences.
The existence of unlimited “clean” energy won’t solve the fundamental problem of humans crowding out other species, or humans in rich countries taking more than their share, or humans wrecking the forests and wetlands and aquifers. If our default way of doing things continues, the availability of unlimited clean energy will just allow us to build even bigger houses, pave over even more land, replace even more wilderness with buzz-cut squares of turf. Hence, in an “unlimited clean energy” scenario, a low-footprint movement would not only still have value; it might become even more essential!
This question leads to another topic: technophobia. There’s a faction of the eco movement that is anti-technology; however, humans are fundamentally technological, innovative creatures. Living a low-footprint life doesn’t mean going back to the Dark Ages. We need to be discerning about how we use technology, but we do need to keep innovating.
A key example of technology that’s been a godsend to grassroots movements is, of course, the internet and social media. Two of the most beneficial vehicles for instantaneous mass information-sharing are Facebook and NextDoor.com . NextDoor is a service that allows neighbors to connect online. Thanks to NextDoor, I’ve gotten to know many more of my neighbors face to face as well as online, and we’ve greatly strengthened the cohesion of our neighborhood.
Q. How do I maintain an appropriate sense of urgency, without falling into despair and getting burned out?
A. I find that this is a matter of managing my attention, so I stay in the happy medium zone between la-la land and catastrophic thinking. If I find myself getting too complacent, I read a current article about the scariest aspects of climate change—or I look at pictures of the horrific environmental degradation caused by our everyday human activities. If I find myself getting too anxious, I do mind-centering practices and then I go out and engage in actions to help make my community greener and more connected. Sometimes I just go to a movie, treat myself to an ice-cream cone, or more often, read a novel.
Q. How do I know when I’ve reduced my footprint enough?
A. Unfortunately, you won’t know for sure. None of us do, not even the scientists. However, there are some people whose opinions I respect greatly, and they’ve made some pretty educated calculations based on scientific observation. I’m choosing to follow their numbers for now. It could be that we will have to revise our targets later, but in any case, for now, you can’t possibly go wrong by aiming for 10% of the average U.S. footprint.
Q. What if that answer is not good enough? I need to find solid ground – I need the 100% reliable bedrock truth!
A. I hear you, I really do. Unfortunately, the bedrock solid truth of which you speak is not part of the deal that is human life on planet earth. My suggestions: Find community and take pleasure in simple things. Reach out and help others. In the course of serving, you’ll lose your need for bedrock. Actually, if you help others, you’ll be a form of bedrock.
Q. How do I persuade people to accept the facts about climate change?
A. You don’t! If someone doesn’t believe as you do about climate (or the footprint of factory-farmed beef, or anything else for that matter), don’t try to persuade them. No amount of what you consider to be facts will persuade a person to stop believing what they already believe. If anything, by bombarding a person with your facts you run the risk of prompting them to dig in their heels even more. This is a well-documented phenomenon of human behavior. And no matter how reputable the source of your facts, a person who believes differently than you do will always be able to come up with a different set of facts, from a source they consider credible, to support that belief.
Rather, for maximum effectiveness, conversations with “non-believers” could go something like this:
Non-green neighbor: Your skin always looks so amazing – What do you use?
NGN: Rainwater? Is that the new skin-care line the ladies on the Today Show were talking about the other day?
You: No. I mean actual rainwater, from the rainbarrel. I collect it off my roof. That’s the only skin product I need anymore, except maybe a touch of coconut oil once in a while, like in winter when the air is dry. And boy am I saving a lot of money! I used to spend about $20 per month on skin products, and I’ve got other friends who spend $50. Now I spend pretty much zero, and my skin looks better than ever.
NGN: Hmm … rainwater … [walks away with thoughtful look on her face].
(Note the utter lack of mention of the eco-footprint of makeup and skin products and all the bottles they come in! Those things will take care of themselves.)
Non-green neighbor: [Pushes lawnmower out onto his lawn, glances over the fence at you with a pained look]: Gonna be a hot one today! I’m not looking forward to this!
You: Yeah, I know what you mean! That’s why I phased out my lawn and switched over to natives and succulents. I went from spending $100 a month on water, fertilizer, and maintenance, to maybe $5 or $10 a month. I also went from ten hours of work to less than two, leaving me a lot more time for fishing! Speaking of which, I’ve gotta go pick up my grandson, we’re headed for the creek today. Nice chatting with you, try to stay cool in this hot weather! I hope you can come fishing with us sometime.
(Note the complete lack of mention of the greenhouse gases emitted by lawnmowers; the fact that lawns have an incredibly wasteful footprint accounting for 40 percent of total US agricultural land; the fact that you personally would prefer he plant wildflowers for the bees and butterflies.)
Non-green neighbor: Did you survive the storm OK? Looks like our water is cut off along with the gas!
You: Oh, do you need some water for cooking or washing? Here, I’ve got extra. It’s rainwater, the freshest water around. And if you need to cook something, you’re welcome to use my solar oven; looks like the sun is coming back out. Better yet, you’re welcome to share some of this fish and veggies I’m about to cook.
The above were examples of how to talk with people who seem to have no interest in reducing their footprint. But if someone comes to you and says something like, “Wow, I just got my electric bill. It’s $300! I wish I could cut back, but I’m not sure where to start, and I’m not sure how I could live without any of what I’m using.”
That person is receptive to new information about how to reduce his or her footprint. You could say, “Well, here’s how we did it …” Or “You’re in luck, have I got a website for you …”
Q. The Riot is a great concept, but what do we do with the 90% who’d rather be planning their next trip to Disneyland than thinking about their carbon emissions? Ignore them? Just move forward without them?
A. Yes. Just go about our business and continue to radiate excitement and enthusiasm. People will notice. Create a beneficial contagion! Also, the Disney parks are pretty committed to environmental stewardship and education; those families are bound to learn something green on their vacation trips!
Q. How do I avoid being drawn into arguments with people who believe differently?
A. Just do your best to stay calm and listen to their concerns. Remember, we all want the same things deep down. Remind yourself how ineffective it would be if you try to persuade them to your way of thinking. If someone seems to be trying to goad you into an argument, change the subject or walk away.
Q. Is it possible that there will be no civilization-ending crisis at all and that we are all worried for nothing?
A. Yes, that is possible, but I’m a great believer in the precautionary principle—the old “do it just in case” approach. If the “just in case” actions involve only self-deprivation, it’s harder to get on board (and get others on board), but in a case like this, where the “just in case” track includes immediate PERSONAL benefits, it becomes not only prudent, but also a no-brainer!
And then too, there’s the very compelling argument that footprint reduction is something we should be doing in any case, regardless of climate change or Peak Oil, or whatever. We should be reducing our footprint in order to stop chewing up the rainforest. We should be reducing our footprint to improve our health; to stop squeezing out other species; to make more resources available (including our own time, talent, and energy) to people less well-off than us. Sharon Astyk’s article explaining her friend’s “Theory of Anyway” is a lovely expression of this line of thinking.(9)
Q. I want to grow food and native plants, but my homeowners’ association won’t allow me to have anything except turf-grass or ornamentals.
A. First, check your state laws. nowadays, many states have laws forbidding HOA’s from disallowing waterwise or native vegetation. Second, it’s pretty easy to plant veggies and herbs in such a manner that they blend right in with the ornamental vegetation. Third, if the HOA is really oppressive, you might seriously want to consider moving! (Either than or try to get on the board yourself.)
Q. Speaking of lawns, I like my lawn! Why should I get rid of it?
A. You don’t have to. If you find beauty in a nice, soft, tidy, cool, green patch of turf, you are not alone. Just try to keep it at a size and breed that doesn’t require constant infusions of chemicals and a burdensome, fossil-powered maintenance program. Mow less often, leave the grass clippings on the lawn, and if leaves fall onto your lawn, rake them into the mulched areas around the shrubbery rather than blowing them away or otherwise treating them as trash. Life is precious; don’t waste your life on slave labor for a status symbol!
Q. It’s easy for you to do this—you’re a single person who lives alone. But I’ve got kids.
A. Actually, that’s all the more reason for you to do this. No one ever said raising kids was a cushy gig, right? Imparting morals and values is part of your responsibility as a parent. Fortunately, you don’t have to take it all on your shoulders and feel like a bad parent for not buying your kid every single toy their friends have, or choosing not to have a big fancy house. You tell them WHY you are doing this: because humans have an obligation to protect the plants and animals. Because it’s wrong to use more than our share. Because when we consume more than our share, kids in other parts of the world, kids just like them, suffer.
Adjust your responses to incorporate whatever your family’s religious background is, or your favorite family pastimes, or family circumstances. (“We need to conserve resources so we can save the national parks for camping!” “We do without a lot of new stuff so we can have more time and money for those family trips to the beach that you love!” “We need to walk more instead of using the car because Dad’s doctor told him he needs to get more exercise.”)
What’s another advantage of having kids? Many hands make light work! Make work activities part of your togetherness as a family. The happiest kids I’ve ever met were the children of my friends Erin and Skip, the farmers of Green Gate Farm in Austin. When they weren’t in school, those kids stayed busy feeding chickens, exercising horses, and cleaning the barn. Their contribution was essential to the family economy and they knew it from a young age. I know some storekeepers’ kids who radiate that same sense of pleasure in responsibility.
Kids need boundaries and limits. The Riot, and concern for the earth, provides you with a good way to set those boundaries and limits. Oh, and by the way, Riot founders Sharon Astyk and Miranda Edel are both Moms!
Q. How do we know this will work?
A. Frankly, we don’t. Life can be tough. Sometimes the only choice is between something that might not work, and something that DEFINITELY will not work. The same holds true with the low-footprint lifestyle. It might not work. It might not be enough to save humanity even if all of us were to get on board right now. I tell you what definitely won’t work: Keeping on as we’ve been going. And I can tell you what definitely will work: Pursuing this lifestyle for your own immediate personal benefit. Use it to save money. Free up your time and energy. Declutter your mental space. Improve your sense of security and well-being. Become a better friend, family member, and citizen. And regardless, at the end of the day, if our civilization dies out, then you’ll have the satisfaction of being able to say (from your spot somewhere out in the etheric stardust realms), “I loved my planet. I lived my life to the fullest. And I gave it my unreserved best shot.”
Deep-green troops, mobilize!