We Should All Be Environmentalists

Before I really begin this post, I want to start off by saying that this is a post I’ve been wanting to write for ages now. Since today, April 16th, we are kicking off Earth Week, I decided to finally share these thoughts. If they inspire just one person to take action, I will be happy and proud. Happy Earth Week, y’all.

 

Representing my local Surfrider chapter at the Climate March in April 2017

There seems to be a negative connotation surrounding the word “environmentalist” nowadays. Call yourself an environmentalist and many people will assume you’re a “tree huggin’ liberal.”

Living in Texas and working for an environmental nonprofit, I almost have to brace myself when a stranger asks what I do for a living. I never know the reaction people will have. I’ve heard everything from Wow! Thanks so much for all you do! to Oh, you’re one of those. to Damn libs. as the man walked away muttering under his breath (sadly I’m not making this up).

I felt called to this field of work starting in high school and went on to earn a B.S. in Environmental Biology and my M.S. in Sustainability. After graduating, I started working in the nonprofit field. Currently, I do marketing and outreach for several programs that aim to reduce bacteria pollution and improve water quality. This cause is what I was born for. But being in this field, it’s easy to become hyperaware of the many ways we are royally screwing over our planet.

I take pride in calling myself an environmentalist. Even if it does earn me some judgmental looks here and there.

Nowadays environmentalism is so politicized. For some reason, in American political culture, the words “environment” and “environmentalist” are associated with liberal elitism, economic stagnation, and an overreaching government. And don’t even get me started on the climate change thing…

Our politicians and a certain portion of the media have created this narrative that the EPA is killing jobs with its regulations. Because hey, who needs the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or the Safe Drinking Water Act, right? Politically, we are polarized beyond belief, but the truth of the matter is…

Protecting the environment should not be a political stance.
We should all be environmentalists.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an environmentalist is “a person who is concerned about protecting the environment.” Therefore, to be anything other than an environmentalist is to be a person who lacks concern for protecting and preserving the environment. To lack this concern equates with being indifferent to the fact that a healthy environment is necessary for our survival. Every single person in this world should be concerned with the state of our environment. No matter what you believe or how you vote, you need clean water. You need clean air. You don’t want a toxic waste dump in your background.

Without clean air, water, and soil, humans can not live healthy lives.

For some reason, the mascot of the environmental struggle and global climate change has become the drowning polar bear. Not the billions of people who will suffer from the effects of climate change.

Environmentalism is more than saving the trees and saving the polar bears, it’s about saving people by protecting public health, safety, and wellbeing.

I want to let you in on a quick secret. Coastal conservation organizations like mine don’t do what they do simply because these areas are pretty. Coastal wetlands provide nurseries for fish and feeding grounds for migratory birds. Protecting them means protecting local economies and tourism. Coastal wetlands also provide a first line of defense against storm surges and floodwaters, and act as natural filtration systems that boost water quality and recharge aquifers. They can store five times as much carbon as tropical forests over the long term, mostly in deep wetland soils. Our coastal wetlands face a myriad of threats, but it’s vital to human safety and wellbeing to preserve and protect them.

There are so many benefits to protecting our natural resources and areas beyond the fact that they are aesthetically pleasing.

Manhattan skyline enveloped in heavy smog, May 1973. Photo: Chester Higgins/NARA

With the attempted repeal of many environmental rules and regulations, our (the Americans’) administration is waging war on our natural resources. And if you don’t think this affects you, I’m sorry to be so blunt, but you are wrong.

This war against the EPA will have dangerous impacts on the amount of toxic pollution emitted into the air and dumped in our waters. The regulations we have in place are working. Since 1970, the EPA has implemented the Clean Air Act to successfully cut emissions of six dangerous air pollutants by an average of 70%, and in that time the economy more than tripled. So don’t let anyone tell you that environmental regulations harm the economy. These air pollution reductions prevent 22 million lost school and work days due to illness annually, as well as 2.4 million asthma attacks and 230,000 annual deaths, by 2020. And by implementing the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act, EPA has helped provide safer drinking water to families in thousands of communities around the nation.

The Cuyahoga River was so polluted it literally caught fire in 1969, spurring the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Photo: Cleveland State University Library

It’s obvious how our lives and our health have benefitted in so many ways thanks to these regulations. Why would we want to get rid of them?

And the job is by no means done when it comes to the regulations we do have. Even today, up to ten million homes still get their drinking water through lead pipes. Half of all Americans live in counties with unhealthy air quality. The solution to this problem is to reduce pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes. The oil lobby and other special interests, however, are hoping that a weaker standard will be issued for smog-forming ozone, declaring unhealthy air “clean” by lowering the bar and putting the bottom line of oil companies ahead of science and children’s health.

This is unacceptable.

Some of you may be going Yeah, alright Katy, that’s the government and industry’s fault. What does this have to do with me? I’m not doing anything like that to harm our environment. Well all of us have ecological footprints. Everything we do affects the earth and our environment, from our water usage to our consumer choices.

It’s time to sit up and take notice of what we’re doing to our common home, Earth. And it’s time we all start advocating for the environment. No matter which side of the political spectrum you identify with, where you’re from, or how old you are, start caring. We all have a responsibility to take care of the precious natural resources and planet that we have been given.

Here are some impactful ways, big and small, you can make a difference.
10 ways to live every day like it’s Earth Day!

1. Live with less. Focus on reducing, not recycling.

Recycling has really given our society a false sense of security in their rampant resource use. It has led people to believe that it’s ok to use disposable items such as plastic (which I’ll go into more detail with the next point), because *it all gets recycled* right? The truth is, recycling is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s an expensive and very inefficient process. I won’t go into a rant about the complexities of recycling right here, but I will say this: We need to focus more on reducing than on recycling.

Reduce the waste you are creating. As Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home says, free yourself from the fictitious needs that marketers say you need.

2. Say no to single-use (disposable) plastics and go reusable.

A few of my must-have reusables that help me phase single-use plastic out of my life.

It’s as easy as making it a habit to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store, opting for a reusable water bottle, or asking for no straw in your drink at restaurants. Here are a few quick stats to put our society’s plastic problem in perspective:

  • Over the last 10 years, we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.
  • 50 percent of the plastic we use, we use just once and throw away.
  • Globally, humans use one million single-use plastic water bottles per minute.
  • We currently only recover (recycle) 5% of the plastics we produce.
  • Plastics account for approximately 10% of the waste we generate.
  • Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated).
  • Americans use more than 380 billion plastic bags and wraps each year. It takes 12 million barrels of oil to produce this many bags. And since plastic bags are petroleum based, they do not biodegrade. On average, the plastic grocery bag has a usefulness of 7 minutes, but an eternal lifespan.
  • More than 500 million straws are thrown away each day in the U.S. That’s enough to circle the Earth 2.5 times.

I won’t go into the details of the health risks single-use plastics pose to humans, but if you are interested here is a good overview.

Waylon, of the Elephant Journal, made a great video talking about how easy and meaningful making the swap to reusables can be.

I challenge you to swap one single-use plastic product in your life for a reusable one. Check out my post on the beginning steps to living plastic-free for a few ideas.

 3. Plant a tree.

“The best time to plant a tree is yesterday, the second best time is now.”

According to Earth Day Network, deforestation contributes to species extinction, poverty and is responsible for up to 15% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. One mature tree can absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and can provide enough oxygen for two people. Trees planted near buildings can also reduce the need for air conditioning by 30% and the need for heating by 20-50%.

Planting or donating a tree can make a huge difference.

4. Shop local.

Not only does this support local farmers and merchants, but it means you’re eating food grown in your area, which means it is dramatically reducing emissions in your area because produce and goods not being imported or shipped in.

5. Support ethical companies when/where you spend money.

In grad school I worked for a professor in the fashion department at my university. She worked specifically on fair trade and ethical consumerism. Working for her really opened my eyes to issues of fast fashion. I’ll never forget the time she told me that you can predict the season’s “it” color by looking at the rivers in China. In fact, in China, it is estimated that 70% of the waterways are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by their textile industry. You can read more about that issue here. Along with this, she was very concerned with the aspects of a company’s social responsibility, meaning that they provide equitable opportunities and wages to the employees, ensures basic needs are met, fosters a good quality of life, etc.

When you shop, give a little thought to what your money is supporting. Recently I have started to only shop from companies I know are committed to environmental and social sustainability (such as Patagonia and Prana), or who give back in a meaningful capacity (like the Yosemite edition Chacos I purchased, which support the National Parks Foundation).

If you have the time, I highly recommend giving this video a watch. It does a great job in highlighting why choosing Fair Trade Certified clothing is an important first step toward changing the garment industry.

 6. Eat less meat.

According to Earth Day Network, the meat industry generates nearly 1/5 of manmade greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. By reducing your meat intake, you can help decrease greenhouse gas emissions. You can also help to conserve water. A single pound of beef uses 1,800 pounds of water to make, primarily due to the tremendous amount of water needed to grow the grass, forage, and feed that a beef steer eats over its lifetime, plus water for drinking, cleaning, and processing.

You don’t need to cut meat out altogether unless you feel so inclined, but start participating in Meatless Monday. Here are some amazing vegetarian recipes you can try out.

 7. Donate to environmental nonprofits, help to fund the good work they are doing.

Organizations like mine wouldn’t be able to do the work we’re doing without the support of people like you. If you’re passionate about this cause and in the position to be able to give, even if it’s just $5, I strongly encourage you to do so. With your help, we can help implement programs that will work to preserve, conserve, and protect for future generations. A few of my favorite organizations are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Surfrider Foundation, Oceana, the National Parks Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and the Ocean Conservancy. These are nationally recognized organizations who do truly amazing work. And if you’re looking to make more of a local impact, just try googling “environmental nonprofits in ____________” to find organizations in your area. You’ll be surprised at how many there are!

8. Pick up litter when you see it.

Some of the most infuriating pieces of litter I found during a shoreline clean-up at work last week.

Doing something as small as picking up that stray plastic water bottle rolling down the street can have a big impact. When I walk my dog around the neighborhood I always bring a trash bag with me for the litter I pick up. I do the same on the beach. By picking up litter, you’re keeping it out of our waterways and out of the bellies of fish and wildlife.

 9. Help to dispel the negative connotation of being an environmentalist.

Change the narrative. Wear the label proudly. Prove to people it’s not about politics. It’s about clean water, clean air, safe communities, and improving public health. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to have that conversation.

10. Encourage others to be good environmental stewards.

The most amazing things that have come out of this blog have been the people who have told me that I helped them move towards a more sustainable lifestyle by sharing my story with them. I’ve had friends message me on Facebook asking for recommendations for everything from reusable bamboo utensils to reusable produce bags to Diva cups. I never want to be preachy about this stuff, I simply aim to encourage because these issues and habits are not common knowledge for many. If you learn something from this post, share that tidbit with a friend. Encourage others to make small sustainable changes, because they sure do add up.

Change doesn’t have to be big, but it can start with you and your voice.

And when the time comes, VOTE.

Use your vote to elect politicians who will prioritize the environment, public health, and the people, instead of their profit and corporations.

Speak up for Mother Earth, she’s worth protecting.

2 Comments

  • Nomads4Life

    I love the specific tips, and they are all doable- I’m doing my best to eat less meat too, although that’s more of a struggle!

    April 18, 2018 at 4:49 pm Reply
  • my10kday

    Love your work.
    Climate skeptics or deniers need to catch a wakeup. The concerted effort to discredit the scientific consensus over man-made global warming has been continuing for two decades in the United States, and shows no sign of weakening. It is very often described as an attempt on the part of corporate America, most notably the fossil fuel industries, to hinder governmental regulations on their activities.

    April 19, 2018 at 4:12 am Reply
  • Leave a Reply

    %d bloggers like this: