After Earth Day - What Next? What Can I Do?

winding road through the Cornwall countryside in the south of England

   So long as the proposition of sustainability is “what can someone else do for me,” we’re not going to get there. In other words, the questions “who can make me a better car?” or “which is the most efficient light bulb I can buy?” are not nearly as effective as asking “what can I change in my life so that I live more sustainably? These are the top ten things you can do After Earth Day... not as a special one-day event, but part of your everyday sustainable life.

   I should warn you that, as you get closer to Item #1, it’s going to sound harder and harder, because these are the things that make a serious difference... but the serious difference they will make in your life will be worth it in many ways. For example, I made a major change in my life almost 6 years ago that took me to a highly walkable place. I expected to spend a lot less on gas... and I do. But there were side-effects I didn’t expect. For example, I also lost 60 pounds because of all the walking, transforming me from a tired old man at 43 to a far more healthy and energetic person today. So here are the top ten... if they begin to sound impossibly hard as you approach #1, then just remember that they just might be impossibly good instead:

Do All of the Stuff Everyone Else is Talking About

the number 10 superimposed over picture of a compact fluorescent light bulb

   Change your light bulbs. Change the filter in your furnace. Install a programmable thermostat. Buy Energy Star appliances. Insulate your water heater. Air-dry your clothes instead of putting them in an electric dryer. Turn off things you’re not using. Buy fresh food instead of frozen food. Avoid heavily packaged products. Tune up your car. And by all means, recycle!

   These are all good things to do... no doubt about it. But they don’t solve the problem of living sustainably today. Instead, they make our extremely wasteful modern lifestyles just a little bit less wasteful. So remember... these things are good, but they’re not the game-changers. Do them, but don’t stop with them and think you’re living sustainably... living truly sustainably requires bigger changes.

Don’t Succumb to the Myth of No Maintenance

the number 9 superimposed over a picture of a balcony with flowerpots on an ancient stucco building in Pienza, Italy

   The Myth of No Maintenance is devouring huge swaths of America with the promise that if you just install the salesman’s product, you’ll never have to maintain it again. Maybe it’s vinyl siding, or aluminum soffits. It doesn’t really matter, because here’s what actually happens: When it fails, and it doesn’t matter how it fails... maybe someone got the grill too close and melted the vinyl, or maybe the puppy gnawed on it... but when it fails, then you can’t patch it and paint it, because it doesn’t match. So you’ve gotta tear it all of and cart it off to the landfill, and then you must replace it all. So when so-called no-maintenance materials fail, they fail catastrophically. The sustainable thing is to build with materials that are Durable, but that can be repaired by hand. Look at the image above... they pay people tons of money to make stuff look like this in Las Vegas, but this building has been there for centuries because it can be repaired by hand.

Choose It for Longer Than You’ll Use It

the number 8 superimposed over a picture of a window in a stone wall in Bourton-On-The-Water in the Cotswolds of England

   We’re a nation of consumers... we’ve been told this almost since birth. Consumers use things for awhile, and then throw them away. If something lasts long enough, then they sell them to someone else when they’re done. “I won’t own this house for more than 7-10 years,” the standard story goes, “... so why should I care what it’s like in 50 or 100 years?”

   This incredibly short-term attitude has burdened us with a world where every generation must buy a new house, because the ones we built 40 years ago (or less) are falling apart. This load we’ve been saddled with is responsible in many ways for the current economic crisis, and is the very definition of unsustainability. It’s time to Unburden America. Living sustainably requires things that endure. These things can be passed down as things of value to another generation.

Choose for Double Duty

the number 7 superimposed over a picture of a table, chairs, and antique household implements in the basement of Castle Pedro St. James in Grand Cayman

   Americans have taken single-duty to an ugly extreme. Our ancestors built Flexible Buildings, such as homes with Keeping Rooms where most of the housekeeping was done, including eating. Today, we must have a Dining Room, an Eat-In Kitchen, a Breakfast Nook, and on it goes... just for eating! After WWII, American homes averaged about 1,100 square feet and housed about 4-1/2 people. Today, they’ve bloated to over twice that size, but contain families only half as large. That means there’s nearly four times as much conditioned space per person! And even so, we have so much stuff that won’t fit in our bloated houses that we’ve made the mini-storage industry a $17 billion/year business... bigger than the movie industry! Having rooms and choosing things that can do more than just one thing won’t completely solve our problems, but it’ll certainly be a start in the right direction.

Live Where Friends Can Visit Unannounced

the number 6 superimposed over an aerial picture of Charleston south of Broad Street

   Gated “communities” are a huge sustainability problem. They aren’t really communities, of course, because they don’t contain all the parts of a real community, like all the necessities of life on Main Street, schools, and offices. They just contain houses... and maybe a few recreational “amenities.” As a result, residents of gated subdivisions must drive everywhere. So even if the houses have a low carbon footprint, the environmental costs of living there are high.

   Gated subdivisions also fail in their stated objective of building secure places because by segregating society, life gets more dangerous outside the gates than it would have been otherwise... and you can’t stay inside forever. 

   The safest places have always been real communities with large, medium, and small houses all in the same neighborhood. These are places where you might live a block away from the firefighters and police that protect you, the person who serves your lunch, or the person who makes your espresso. And the new person around the corner on the rear lane just might be your kid who just graduated from college. New Urbanists have been learning these lessons for years... maybe it’s about time for us to listen.

Operate Naturally

the number 5 superimposed over a window with open shutters and a lace curtain in Corniglia of the Cinque Terre in Italy

   We’ve come to depend upon machines for almost everything, but there’s often a better way. Think of the most memorable moments in your life... how many of those times etched most indelibly in your mind came as a result of something you were doing with a machine? 

   Now think about how many of the memories included a scent on a breeze or the angle of the early morning sunlight. Delight is often a side-effect of buildings that operate naturally for most of the year. The most noticeable effect of conditioning entirely with machines is a big utility bill. So build a Frugal home instead.

Raise a Victory Garden

the number 4 superimposed over a picture of a multi-layered garden in Ravello on the Sorrentine Peninsula of Italy

   Shockingly, most of the food we eat today needs a passport to get to our plates. Feeding ourselves with fruits and vegetables grown in other nations has many hidden costs beyond the cost of transportation, which is obvious. For example, in order to endure the trip to your plate without looking wilted or mushy, many of the varieties grown industrially today have been genetically engineered. Unfortunately, this often results in them being less nourishing and not tasting nearly so good. Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver have written eloquently on this, but all you really need is a grocery store tomato sitting side-by-side on your plate with a local heritage tomato. Taste for yourself.

   You can avoid all of the problems and dangers of industrially grown food simply by raising a victory garden in your own yard. Not only will you know exactly what has gone into your food, but you won’t burn a drop of gas transporting the food to your table! You’ll be surprised at how much of your food you can raise at home, and will be doing your part to help create a Nourishable Place.

Build Garden Rooms in Your Yard

the number 3 superimposed over a picture of a courtyard in the French Quarter of New Orleans

   A grass lawn must be mowed every week, burning gas. And it’s tempting to clean them in the meantime with a leaf blower, but leaf blowers generate stunning amounts of greenhouse gases. But those are minor reasons, compared to what garden rooms will do to you.

   Build a Dinner Garden, a Breakfast Terrace, a Hearth Garden, and a Kitchen Garden. Make sure that you furnish them, so you can actually live in them. You likely won’t believe this until you actually try it, but when you spend more time outdoors, then you actually get acclimated to your local climate at all but the most extreme times of year. When you do, then you’ll need less full-body refrigeration (or heating) when you return indoors... so for much of the year, you might be able to just open the windows rather than hitting the thermostat. And because much of your living space is outdoors, you’ll need less conditioned space indoors... which you’re conditioning less. No single thing goes further in creating a Frugal Building.

Live Where You Can Walk to the Grocery

the number 2 superimposed over a picture of a woman carrying groceries home in two bags in the Boston's Back Bay

   If you can walk to the grocery, then rather than needing a big SUV to stock up on two weeks’ rations at the super-center, you can simply decide what you’d like for dinner this evening, and then carry it home. You’ll get some exercise on a pleasant walk, and your food will be much fresher.

   But this is much more important than just groceries.If you can walk for groceries, then you likely live in a Serviceable Place where you can walk to many other necessities of life, too. This means that you likely can drive a lot less than the 10 car trips per day that most Americans average. This only works when your neighborhood is also an Accessible Place, which gives you a choice of ways to get around, especially including the self-propelled ones of walking and biking.

Make a Living Where You’re Living

the number 1 superimposed over a picture of the harbor of the Isle of Capri, off the coast of Italy

   The most important thing to do is what all our ancestors once did... make a living where you’re living. If you were a fisherman, for example, then you lived in a fishing village. Unfortunately, it has been illegal to live where you work for much of the last century. 20th century zoning separated everything into pods, and you were forced to drive everywhere.

   Fortunately, the New Urbanists have been working for thirty years to change all that. New codes are now replacing antiquated zoning laws that segregated everything. The internet is also making it possible to work from home, or to work out of a branch office in your neighborhood center rather than commuting to the city center. So while this sounds at first like a tough thing to do, you may find that it’s not only possible, but it you may also find it to be one of the most liberating things you’ve ever done. Think about it. Yes, it’s likely a big change... but it may be one of the best changes you’ve ever made.

~ Steve Mouzon


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020