Happy Earth Day! So you want to make more sustainable choices for yourself, your family, and your home? That’s awesome! The beginning can be daunting, as once you begin to see the places where you could introduce some improvement, you might see an overwhelming number of opportunities everywhere. I’m not going to start this series with a list of things to buy, or swap, or reuse. While I have plenty of suggestions, and it’s a well-covered territory, that’s going to come later. The difficult part, as always, is unseen and inside. So let’s begin with the 5 most challenging steps to take for a more sustainable home life.
Let’s start by rejecting the idea that anything of value can be accomplished easily.
Let’s start by recognizing that having the mental, emotional, physical, and financial bandwidth to address concepts of sustainability comes with an inherent layer of privilege, and should therefore be approached with humility and gratefulness.
Let’s start by examining where we can address the intersections of racism, environmental policy, and community health.
Let’s start with accountability for government and industry. With voting for officials that prioritize the environment, and holding them accountable for their policies. With the understanding that legislation can turn into an innovation.
Let’s start with grace – for ourselves, and for others, as we take our imperfect selves on an imperfect journey.
Step One: Address Apathy
Certainly, if you’ve made it this far, you are already shedding apathy. We know that an individual’s actions are minute in the scheme of the global trends and the march of time, that a single person is not even a drop in the bucket compared with the impact of industrial activities. Yet we also know that individuals’ attitudes, choices, and examples can have a long-lasting impact on others, including friends, family members, and communities at large. Certainly, a reusable coffee cup is not going to prevent all deforestation of the rainforest. It may, however, encourage someone else to carry one, change their thinking, and their vote, creating a ripple effect of change.
Step Two: Embrace Patience
The impulse is of course to go out and buy everything that will make your life “look” like one that embraces sustainability – but that is of course in direct opposition to the concept itself. Recognize that your individual journey will look like no one else’s. Start thinking about the impact of your choices rather than what they look like in terms of optics. The brand of “influencer environmentalism” that is mostly white, female, cisgender, and able-bodied – the folks who seem to subsist on smoothies alone and live in white yoga pants – that’s not what this process will look like for most of us. More realistically, the budgets, abilities, and access that most of us will have won’t be “instagrammable” and will involve really tiny, incremental efforts – most of which won’t involve any products at all. And let’s not forget that something like a global pandemic can derail efforts too – at least where I live, many folks are only begining to once again accept a reusable cup to fill, reusable bags, or other options that I’d relied upon in the past.
Step Three: Set Up Your Initial Effort
Begin small, with something visual. Replace buying bottled water with a filter pitcher and a reusable bottle. Replace one meal a day with a vegetarian or vegan option. Bring one reusable bag to the grocery store. Learn consistency with “low-hanging fruit.”
Step Four: Find Persistence
In my own personal journey, I have had times in my life where I was able to adhere to a really low waste regimen. I was living alone, vegan, and had time and money to spend. I was sleeping through the night and had the patience and time to spend researching and taking longer steps towards having the life I envisioned as the most “light” on the earth – like shopping in all reusable containers and buying bulk or package-free.
Since that time, I’ve added a partner and a child. Had a really thriving, busy career and then lost that. Dealt with some health issues that only fully cleared up when I started eating animals again. This is all to say that life is rarely a straight line, and the path you will take on this journey won’t be linear either.
When the intent is there, it does not matter how many times you deviate from the course, as long as you find your way back again. You can find the best that you can do, in the circumstances that you are in. The impulse to throw in the reusable towel, as soon as you start relying on paper towels, is very real. Hang in there, and when you fall short of your expectations, skip the negative self-talk, and just get started again.
Step Five: Prepare for the Opinions of Others
It’s nearly guaranteed that once any change you make becomes visible to others, that there will be people in your life that for some reason or another, have disparaging remarks about the steps you’re taking.
I’ve heard them all – “That won’t make any difference,” and “It’s just once.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve even been offered a disposable bottle of water while I am actively holding a refillable bottle of my own filtered water. How much you choose to engage with people who want to deprecate your efforts is up to you. Speaking from experience, I find that if someone is actively going out of their way to deprecate my choices, it’s rare that they are coming from a place that has anything to do with me. For example, climate change is real, and I won’t argue with anyone who refuses to ignore the overwhelming evidence. I personally prefer to refocus on supporting people who are curious about new steps they can take, and making better choices myself.
This Earth Day, I invite you to join me, and many other imperfect-Environmentalists. The Earth doesn’t need you to be a single picture-perfect zero-waste angel, it needs you, and all the rest of us, to do it imperfectly but consistently and in community. Let’s all find one new additional thing that we can bring into our routine, and collectively help move the needle, quickly, towards progress.