Here at Green Action Centre, we consider ourselves to be environmentalists. In fact, if you’re reading this, you’d probably include yourself as well. We like to think that we’re pretty aware of our footprint on the planet and that we try to minimize it. However, as we go about our efforts to encourage people to take green action in their lives there are a number of common environmental pitfalls. We have been guilty of all of these at one time or another, often without realizing it:
1. Green consumerism
Green consumerism is the idea that consumers making ethical choices to purchase eco-friendly products help by increasing the market and demand for greener alternatives. The problem is that green consumerism is an oxymoron because it is still consumerism – where we continually buy new and better things based on wants and fashions, discarding the old. However, it fails to address the underlying problem of ever-increasing consumption. Simply using materials such as bamboo or organic cotton doesn’t mean that buying new products from big box stores is sustainable, especially if they need to be replaced after a couple of years.
Nor is something green just because it can be recycled. The manufacturing process consumes energy and raw materials for production, transportation, and packaging. While it is important to make greener choices when we do buy things, it is far more important to buy and consume less.
2. Always buying our own
Another pitfall of living in a consumerist society is that we assume that we need to always have our own place to live, complete with our own yard and a vast array of belongings. This is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, with multi-generational families remaining the norm in many parts of the world. The trend in Canada, however, has been for smaller and smaller households to live in larger and larger residences. This results in many places sprawling outwards faster than the rate of population growth, and a lot of that space is taken up by roads and lawns.
Tight-knit families where university students live with their parents or a grandparent lives with their children’s family can save a lot of money and resources. A large home will require about the same amount of energy and maintenance whether there are two or four people living there. It’s much more efficient to live as a single household rather than two, not to mention the extra hands available to share household tasks! Most importantly, sharing resources within a household or with your neighbours is one of the easiest ways to reduce your environmental footprint without significantly altering your lifestyle. This could include sharing tools, lawnmowers, or even cars. Organizations that offer a formal structure for sharing, such as Peg City Car Co-op, are becoming increasingly popular.
Of course everyone needs their own space, and more efficient living arrangements need not sacrifice privacy. Secondary suites such as granny flats or laneway housing are means of densifying single-family neighbourhoods that are becoming increasingly popular in cities such as Vancouver with soaring real-estate prices. Winnipeg may not face the same degree of external pressures but there are still significant financial and environmental benefits for those who find ways to share rather than own their own. Housing co-ops provide rental housing where there the residents are the landlord, keeping rents more affordable and reinvested in the building as a result.
3. Appealing to an audience with facts and figures
I just read a news article that proclaimed “The north pole saw temperatures two to five degrees warmer than average this year” Hmm, that doesn’t seem like much, especially in a Manitoba climate that swings from -40 to +40 every year and sees both warmer winters (like 2012) and colder winters (like 2013). So what does this numerical change actually mean? Well, for a week in July, the buoy that marks the North Pole itself was floating in a lake of meltwater. That’s right, the North Pole WAS A LAKE! Now that is a message that really means something to most people, especially when you see this picture:
This picture conveys the message more effectively than any technical description. It shows how the changing climate is changing the landscape more quickly and more drastically than we would have thought possible. And of course the darker water surface is going to absorb far more heat than ice or snow, producing a vicious feedback cycle. “A picture is worth a thousand words” and certainly helps send this message home.
4. Doomsday messaging
Did it shock you to see the lake at the North Pole? I was certainly shocked, but at the same time I felt powerless to do anything about it. I thought, “If the North Pole is melting, then there’s no hope of ever keeping climate change under control!” And if that really is the case, I can’t do anything about it so I may as well not even try…
Well first of all, the presence of meltwater on the Arctic sea ice is not a new phenomenon. This one just got a lot more publicity. The point, though, is that if nobody tries to improve our environmental problems then of course they’ll never get any better! That’s why doomsday messaging like this can be downright counter-productive. It’s important to explain to people what action they can take and to celebrate progress, like the rebound in the ozone layer since the Montreal Protocol banned CFCs in the 1980s. Widespread and sustained action can indeed make a difference. A problem that took decades to create won’t be cleaned up overnight.
5. Only drastic action is worth taking
Here at Green Action Centre, we’re proud of our colleagues who meet all of their transportation needs by cycling and public transit. But telling people who live in suburban Winnipeg to just completely give up all of their cars isn’t going to get us very far. If the goal is to reduce the amount of trips made by car, a better approach is to show people how much more enjoyable it is to use active transportation for short trips and to take transit to get downtown or to Bomber games.
If everyone was a little more multi-modal in their transport habits and cut down on their car dependency, it would go a long way towards improving congestion in the city without anyone feeling marginalized. Empowering people to have convenient transportation options to choose from not only reduces their dependency on their car but also makes people subconsciously more aware of their transportation habits. People don’t like drastic change, but can adapt gradually over time to more carpooling, more linked trips, and more cycling especially if they are the ones choosing to do so and they realize the financial and health benefits of their choices. Eventually, an enlightened traveller may realize that the considerable expense of owning a second (or third) car is unnecessary and will choose to get rid of a car themselves, without anyone explicitly telling them to do so. Small actions are always worth taking, and often add up to drastic changes over the long run!
6. Focusing on behavioural change only instead of structural problems
Just because someone drives a car everywhere doesn’t mean that they hate exercise and love to pollute. Instead, it may result from the fact that we have generally built our communities in a form that makes it time-consuming and onerous to travel by any other means. If it were more convenient to use transit and active transportation, a lot more people would naturally gravitate to these modes. That’s what happens in places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Biking is just so easy there that almost everyone does it.
While it is certainly important to encourage people to reconsider their behaviour, it is even more important to work on reversing decades of development policies that both encourage and effectively subsidize cars. Even in pro-bicycle Denmark, every kilometre biked represents a net benefit to society of 23 cents, while every kilometre driven in a car has a net cost of 16 cents. If anything, the discrepancy is even greater in Canada. Introducing measures such as a carbon tax would put a price on pollution that is currently emitted for free, yet is paid for through health and other costs. Higher taxes on surface parking lots and new suburban sprawl that reflects their true cost would help tackle soaring infrastructure deficits. The revenues from these measures can be used to improve transit and active transportation infrastructure that will be less costly over the long term. Tackling these structural problems requires political fortitude, but short term pain will lead to long term gain.
7. Losing sight of the big picture
Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are all the rage for drastically reducing electricity consumption for lighting. But as with everything, there are pros and cons to this technology. CFLs contain mercury and should be properly disposed of but most people just throw them in the trash.
While CFLs certainly emit less heat than incandescent bulbs, a little extra heat in the house isn’t a big deal during a Manitoba winter. In our province, that missing heat will likely be replaced by a natural gas furnace instead of hydroelectricity.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t use CFLs, just that there is very rarely a ‘silver bullet’ that completely solves a problem without bringing other factors into play. Different situations require different solutions. As you undertake green actions always think of the big picture!