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Ten things to try to be more sustainable in 2020

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/07/20 @ 1:00pm

I’m not much for resolutions, so let’s call these ‘things to try’ for the new year. The barrage of negative and worrisome reports on the climate—including the latest that holding to a safe temperature increase (1.5 degrees C) is not be achievable—will not derail my year before it begins!

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Now is not the time to shell up. Let’s try to engage in what we can. While individual action isn’t as effective as community-scale in making an impact on lowering greenhouse gas emissions, individuals offer hope and build a sense of inevitability for the type of system-wide changes that will. And that’s where we’ll start today.

  1. Walk: This simple act—of walking whenever and wherever possible in a neighborhood—is an act of personal freedom and one of life’s simple pleasures. It also happens to be a very effective way of lowering your carbon footprint if you substitute it for a trip in a car. Of course, walking has a way of slowing things down, but that can be beneficial. You start to notice the condition of sidewalks, trees, curbs, ramps, crosswalks, pedestrian signals and how bonkers driving looks (which may produce more empathy for pedestrians the next time you get behind the wheel).
  2. Get involved: It’s so easy to turn away from the toxic environment of politics to the point where issues that could use our help suffer. I have noticed a few at the local level that pique my interest—Cleveland’s tax abatement reform, turning vacant lots into gardens and green space, redesigning public transit—that I’m resolved to get involved.
  3. Eat less meat: I used to scoff at Meatless Mondays, but I am willing to try. I admit that my relationship with meat is a complicated one. I love animals, so, how is it that eating them is okay? From an environmental perspective, vegetarianism is a benefit but how much more can be gained from going completely meat free? From the science, red meat is far worse for the planet because cows produce so much methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Switching from a regular ol’ cheeseburger to a plant-based alternative when possible and the act of making a vegetarian meal on Meatless Mondays are perhaps more realistic and more effective than telling everyone to become a vegetarian overnight. And when I fail, I will practice forgiveness, realizing that the choices are often poor. That said, as an environmentalist, I have to challenge orthodoxy and look to recent studies that compare the carbon footprint of a locally raised on pasture chicken versus tofu, for example. It’s surprising to see how small of an impact being completely vegetarian can be compared to other items that contribute to a carbon footprint, like transportation (the highest sector) or even reducing food waste.
  4. Into the woods: Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, warned of a ‘nature deficit disorder’ that comes from a lack of exposure to nature. Thankfully, it can be countered by frequent visits to the woods or even spending time in a backyard garden. Forest bathing—the act of restoring health with doses of full surround nature—is big in Japan, Korea and Scandinavia. In New Zealand, they have nature pre-K (which is brilliant). I used to sweat the carbon of driving to a Metropark, but I’m over it. I have been taking myself and my son to the North Chagrin Reservation AB Williams Woods. I hope to make it a regular thing, even in winter.
  5. Be a more effective climate communicator: A few years ago, I set up a training for our Museum staff on how museums and science centers are helping the public find common ground in protecting our natural resources. With the expertise of the National Network of Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) and Knowledge Works, we have an opportunity to frame the climate science based on core values that we all share as Americans. I will continue to give speeches to groups who want to know both the extent of the climate emergency and what we can do about it. How we discuss it publicly is foundational to discovering solutions that cross tribal boundaries.
  6. Look for the silver lining: Expanding my capacity for empathy and being grateful for the advantages I enjoy are two areas that I hope to improve after a relatively miserable (for working on climate change) last year. Facebook and Twitter were an Achilles heel, a refuge for highly charged discourse and too often seeking out the opinion of my tribe. Better would be to spend less time on social media, share posts that emphasize climate solutions over climate doom, and recognize the opinions of those who don’t fit with my neatly defined world, especially when they are good, fact-based critiques of positions I hold.
  7. Fly less (or not at all): I have made peace with the fact that I am better off never laying eyes on my bucket list destinations. I am also turning down conferences until they offer a better interactive virtual experience. I didn’t fly at all last year, and will probably turn down the opportunity to do so in 2020. Flight shaming is a powerful tool and should be done in tandem with offering solutions like virtual and augmented reality theatrical experiences.
  8. Insulate: It’s the unsexy work of whole house insulation that I want to make the case for. It does just as much to reduce your carbon footprint as a solar panel at a fraction of the cost. If you’re in a higher income bracket, do both. For the rest of us, get over it. The cool neighbors will be even more impressed when you show them the before and after results of your whole house energy audit. If you own a home, blow-in insulation in a cold-weather climate like Cleveland is in the top three important things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.
  9. Garden (and compost): For an environmentalist, I leave shockingly little time for the pleasure of gardening. I blame HGTV for influencing some of my magical thinking on gardening—the big reveal of the perfect garden plot is totally damaging ;-). They never show the blood sweat and tears of pulling weeds, being eaten by mosquitos and hauling soil not to mention keeping it all together if you garden with your partner. Nonetheless, I may want to be involved for my mental and physical health. There’s something in that soil that handling it improves our health (it stimulates the pituitary glands, for one). Otherwise, I will forfeit the right to criticize any and all gardening decisions. All of it is worth sacrificing a bike ride or two on the weekends.
  10. Check my habits: My attitude during the workday is actually quite selfish (I deserve that daily walk to get a coffee!), but what better way to wrestle with the questions, build empathy for those with less, and be capable of writing about the collective and individual will power it takes to break old ways when society signals that selfishness is okay (hello, prisoner’s dilemma)? I used to think it was bougie to shop a certain way, but I’ve made peace with the fact that certain companies care more as expressed in their choice of how transparent they are willing to be in supporting equitable and sustainable manufacturing principles. So, we look for reusable or truly recyclable packaging, as well as where our coffee is grown (our one bougie purchase is shade grown coffee from the Arbor Day Foundation). We’ll shop in the bulk section, buy 100% recycled toilet paper, nearly package-less and ethically sourced personal products and cleaners. It’s okay to admit that purchasing has power, and act according to principles for the planet.

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