Menu Join now Search

Thinking About Sustainability

At the beginning of Al’s Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, I sat slumped in my chair thinking “Oh, come on, Al! You standing at the lectern is sooo boring!” But as I continued watching, I found the story compelling. And it made me think more deeply about my personal role in this planet and the impact that I have on it.


We’re bombarded with headlines about global warming, oil shortages, and drought. I try to stay on top of current issues. But can one individual really make much of a difference? I set off to find out.


I started with sustainability. I thought it was a term used solely by architects. Adaptive reuse. Solar living. All that stuff. But the term is broader than that. It’s about using a resource so that it does not become depleted or permanently damaged. Everyone has his or her own way of thinking about sustainability. Unbeknownst to me, I was applying sustainability practices to my life already.



I happen to live in an old carriage house, which by its very nature is sustainable. By not building a new home, I’m not using up any of the Earth’s resources or energy. I already have a programmable thermostat that shuts off when I’m not there. Lately, I’ve been lowering my thermostat by a few degrees and wearing a sweater. I’m going to review my next electric bill. In some states you can now choose your energy supplier. The Natural Resources Defense Council suggests choosing a supplier that generates at least half its power from wind, solar energy, and other clean sources.



I’m saying good-bye to bottled water. My tiny boutiquelike bottle is the coolest accessory since the iPod, but lately it’s losing its appeal. I use the same heavy-duty plastic bottle and refill it. Why? Many people (actually 1 billion) do not have access to clean drinking water at all, while I suck down eight ounces for $2.50. And the resources expended for that chic little bottle are even more costly. By the time a bottle is made (plastic is made from petroleum) and trucked to my store, the bottle costs more than a gallon of gas! And like most everyone else, I’m not home when I discard the plastic bottle, so it ends up in the landfill, not the recycling bin.


Use less water. Turn it off when brushing your teeth. Try to use low-flow faucets, toilets, and shower heads. Better yet, shower together! I’m sure Mr. Crapper, alleged inventor of the toilet, would have been appalled at how much water we all use. Since the mid-1990s, it’s easier to find a low-flow 1.6 gallon toilet.



Start a compost pile in your backyard. No yard? Join your local community garden; they probably already have one. You’ll cut your garbage by nearly half.


Buy locally. Most food is shipped thousands of miles before it reaches the supermarket, resulting in added fossil fuels. Nearby farms do not have to ship food as far. Many small local farms also do not use herbicides and insecticides (possible carcinogens), unlike industrial, high-tech farms. If you’re not sure of your local farm’s practices, you can always ask. Even buying some food locally makes a difference.



When your bulb goes out (it’s probably a conventional incandescent), replace it with a compact fluorescent bulb instead. These bulbs last longer, saving you replacement costs and lowering your energy bills. Long-term benefit? Every time you choose a compact fluorescent, power plants produce less carbon dioxide and SO2—slowing climate change, improving the quality of the air you breathe, and reducing acid rain. Even one compact fluorescent bulb helps. According to Energy Star, if every American household used just one, we’d save enough energy to light 2.5 million homes in a year and prevent green house gases amounting to 800,000 car emissions.


Turn off the lights. Why not turn off the kitchen lights when in the bedroom? In fact, turn them all off—for added fun! Turn off your computer and other electronics when not using them. Although that green blinking light on my printer is comforting, it’s still using lots of juice while I sleep. Also, look for products that have the Energy Star-rating.



Recycle your newspaper so it doesn’t end up in a landfill. Methane gas is just one harmful byproduct of landfills, harming the atmosphere—and contributing to global warming. Oh, and you save trees, too—and by association, wildlife habitats.


Never mind oil. According to, if Americans recycled 60 percent of their solid waste, we’d save the equivalent of 315 million barrels of oil per year. Speaking of oil, drive less. Carpool. Take buses or subways. Ride your bike or scooter. Walk.


Go to your local library. Library books are free. You save money and trees—and avoid more household clutter. I am personally forgetful when it comes to returning them, but even if I spend $5 in late fees, I’m still ahead of the game. The average book costs more than that.


Get the junk mail off your counter once and for all! Save time opening it, prevent identity theft, and save some trees while you’re at it. Some Web sites, such as, will actually do it all for you.


These are a just a few ways I’ve started to think about my role in the environment. Yesterday the word sustainability was barely on my radar, but today I actually find myself seeking out articles. Every topic I read about is connected to another. And there is always something I’ve never thought about.


Making this world greener, cleaner, safer, and more habitable for our next generation is not as easy as I’ve made it look here. But rethinking our relationship to the environment is a start—and worth striving for. None of these planet-saving ideas cost you much or take too much of your time. And, as I discovered, you don’t have to be an expert—or stand at a lectern—to care deeply about the world you live in.