Flushing forests down the toilet (and other single-use problems)

First, I just wanted to open with an article a friend shared recently that really underscores my thoughts in my first blog post about why personal actions to cut our carbon footprints really do matter, build momentum in others to do the same, give us credibility when we say climate change is a dire threat, and catalyze systemic change. Now onto the single-use problem: 

I’m embarrassed to say that until about a year ago, I didn’t really think twice about buying Charmin’s luxuriously soft toilet paper, or going through paper towels at a rapid clip (at the table as napkins, for spills and cleaning…with two little kids you can get through a roll pretty darn quickly). When I started reading more about climate change, Facebook started showing me targeted content about how our addiction to soft toilet paper is destroying Canada’s boreal forest.

When you think about virgin forest going straight down your toilet, you stop caring as much about how soft your toilet paper is. Boreal forests (moist coniferous, or evergreen, forests) are up there with rainforests when it comes to serving as a carbon “sink” (taking in carbon dioxide into the trees and soil, keeping the air clean, and mitigating global warming). That also means we need to be very worried about what happens to all that carbon if it gets released through clear cutting or forest fires.

Andrew and I tried a couple kinds of recycled toilet paper and like seventh generation and 365 (be careful on labels to look for “100% recycled” rather than something about “sustainable forestry,” which often still involves cutting down virgin forest and is not truly sustainable). Or for the more adventurous, you could try a portable bidet to kick the toilet paper habit altogether. We let our four-year-old choose three colors of sturdy cloth napkins that we use in place of paper towels and paper napkins, for meals, spills, and wiping faces and noses. We keep recycled paper towels on hand but don’t use them much since we mostly use the cloth napkins instead. We buy recycled printer paper and print double-sided when possible. We didn’t wrap our Christmas gifts to each other, and we asked Santa not to wrap gifts either (actually, he’s never wrapped gifts for our kids since he’s too tired on Christmas Eve…).

You’ve probably heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch. Single-use plastic is a problem of mind-boggling proportions and has been getting more well-deserved attention lately, both for the immense harm plastic waste does to marine life and the immense amount of energy and emissions that go into these products that we use once and then throw away (or “recycle,” which we can only say for about 9% of single use plastic ever produced). Our family still ends up with an appalling amount of plastic in our recycling bin (mostly from containers that grocery items come in), but we’ve made some steps in the right direction. We’ve long been in the habit of using canvas bags for grocery shopping, but we also bought some mesh produce bags and use those to buy fruits and vegetables, or if it’s a single one of a fruit or vegetable, I just put it in the cart. We’ve tried to cut down on drive-through food and drinks, but we keep our own silicone straws in our diaper bag so that when we do stop, we can opt out of the disposable straws (and napkins if we’ve remembered to have a cloth napkin or two in the car). We bought some reusable sandwich containers for lunches and have gotten in the habit of using tupperware-type containers for leftovers, our older son’s school lunch and my work lunch, etc. so that we rarely use ziplock bags. If we shop somewhere other than the grocery store and don’t have a canvas bag handy, we try not to ask for a bag if it’s just a couple/few things we can carry. We don’t buy plastic water bottles. I keep a reusable water bottle at my office and refill it throughout the day. Even aside from plastic, it’s good to avoid any unnecessary packaging that takes energy to produce and then causes an issue with landfills or overloaded recycling facilities. Andrew is hooked on sparkling flavored water, so we got a soda stream machine to avoid wasting all those aluminum cans, and save money (he loves it).

For women, menstrual products can use a ton of paper, plastic, and/or cotton (a very water intensive crop). I’ll spare the details on my own habits, but there are great reusable options like menstrual cups, “period panties,” and reusable pads, and–bonus!–you don’t have a disgusting bathroom trash can for a week out of the month.

We considered cloth diapering, but when our older son was a baby and we briefly tried it, we didn’t love how the big diaper kind of pushed his legs out to the sides and how the diaper felt wetter against his skin than disposables (we put a high premium on the whole family being able to sleep through a baby peeing). We could have pushed through those setbacks, though, and applaud anyone who does use cloth diapers. One easy thing we did to reduce waste during the diapering years was cloth wipes. We had a cup of water (“poop water” was an early word for both our boys) to dip a clean wipe, use it, and toss it in a separate diaper pail. Once that diaper pail was getting full, we would spray them all with a nozzle attached to our toilet, then wash and reuse them. 

Despite the steps we’ve taken, I’m still dismayed at the amount of single use paper and plastic we use. Amazon packaging is a big one for us. We can definitely do more to try to limit our orders, although for things that we do want or need to buy, online shopping may be more eco-friendly than at a brick and mortar store.

I did recently get a tip from a friend to chat with a customer service rep on the Amazon site to request that all future orders on my account come in plastic-free packaging with minimal packages. The rep said they have gotten a ton of feedback asking for an option on the app to adjust your settings for maximally green packaging and that their app developers are working on it. We can feel guilty that our lives are still so far from ideal when it comes to packaging and single-use waste, but when we make the changes we can along with pressuring corporations, it does make a difference. Grocery products also often come in plastic packaging, but encouragingly, many stores are responding to pressure to reduce waste. Municipalities and even states and continents are taking action to ban or reduce single-use plastic. Which is amazing…but before we celebrate, we have to think about what’s replacing the single-use plastic. Many stores and restaurants, when they reduce their plastic use, change to compostable packaging, which may be better than plastic, but comes with its own problems in terms of creating more waste and not necessarily actually being composted at a high rate. It’s debatable whether disposable replacements for single-use plastic are truly better for climate, and in some cases may increase carbon emissions, although they are better for marine life. There’s a reason for the order of the words in the old adage “reduce, reuse, recycle.” We need to stop producing, using, and buying so much stuff, especially when it can’t be easily reused or recycled. 

Recycling, when possible, is better than sending things straight to the landfill, but it comes with its own set of problems, and most of us are really confused about what to put in the recycling bin and end up putting stuff there that doesn’t belong, which can sometimes cause whole truckloads of recycling to get sent to the dump due to contamination. Most municipalities require recyclables to be loose in the bin rather than bagged up (but often require trash to be bagged up); check with your local service to confirm the rules for your area. This article helps some, and general rules of thumb include looking for the recyclable symbol and making sure your recyclables are clean, dry, and not broken before tossing them in the bin. We’ve gotten in the habit, when we go to a fast food restaurant or outdoor festival, of taking home and washing recyclable food and drink containers.Since recycling varies so much by geographic location, it’s a good idea to take the old-fashioned step of picking up the phone to find out exactly what can be recycled where you live. We are lucky to have a great local recycling center that recycles quite a few things that you can’t leave curbside. I’ve made several calls to the recycling center as well as the curbside pickup company to clarify what can be recycled, and we gather items that can be recycled at the recycling center but not curbside and make occasional trips there to drop off things like filmy plastic bags, paint, and old fluorescent light bulbs (those are just a small sample of what they accept). 

The amount of paper, plastic, and other disposable waste we generate in America and worldwide is quite daunting, but there is a good bit of “low-hanging fruit” in terms of easy changes we can make that can also save us money. 

Action step: 

Commit to only buying recycled paper products. Invest in some basic reusables like cloth napkins, tupperware, water bottles, straws, canvas grocery bags, and mesh produce bags (and then remember to use them!). Give specific feedback to at least one corporation, store or restaurant that you patronize, and/or your workplace, on how they can reduce their use of disposables.  

Food

Who doesn’t love to eat? Andrew and I certainly do (although our kids would rather be doing pretty much anything else). Cooking, trying new restaurants or hitting old favorites—eating is one of the great joys of life. It’s also (the way we Americans have grown accustomed to eating) a huge problem for the planet. According to Drawdown (an awesome and ultimately optimistic book by Paul Hawkens on solutions to global warming), raising livestock accounts for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, especially ruminants like cows. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the third largest emitter of GHGs in the world. Out of 80 solutions to stop global warming, Drawdown ranks reducing food waste #3 and changing to a plant-based diet #4. This is a big deal. What are we to do?

Prior to our wakeup on the imminence of the threat of climate change, Andrew and I tried to be somewhat conscious/ethical eaters. We only bought meat that was certified humane and tried to mix in some vegetarian and vegan meals. I didn’t feel like we were consuming a ton of animal products. But once I decided to pretty much give them up (not completely—I’m more flexible as a guest at someone else’s house or if there aren’t vegan choices at a restaurant, and I steal some of my kids’ goldfish), I realized how much they’d been a big part of my diet. The first few weeks of going mostly vegan, I felt a little queasy and headachy and didn’t know if I could do it. I felt embarrassed that my body was reminding me how much I’d depended on eating animal products (dairy was tougher than meat—I’d gone without meat for a couple several-year spurts in the past). My good friend Kat who’s been a vegan for years gave me some good advice and encouragement, and Andrew and I started to enjoy the challenge of thinking of vegan recipes we’d be excited to try. There was also a good bit of trial and error with finding vegan foods and meat/dairy substitutes that were tasty and satisfying. I’ll share some recipes and food items we like (and don’t like) in case you’re considering making a similar change or at least cutting back on meat and dairy.

Pretty much since we’ve had kids, we’ve been in the habit of making a big pot of something over the weekend to reheat for dinner for most of the week. We just don’t have the time or energy to make something new every night, and we don’t mind having the same thing several days in a row if we know we’ll be switching to something new the next week. We’ve found some vegan recipes we love (as well as plenty of non-vegan recipes that we just modify to veganize) that have worked well to keep up this habit, and it’s a lot less daunting than trying to make something new every evening. These also work well to package up and take to a neighbor or friend. Some that we’ve enjoyed have been: sweet potato chipotle soup, chili (this recipe is obviously not vegan but we just cut out the meat and beef bouillon and add some chopped carrots and black beans, and top with fritos), butternut squash soup (we love an old recipe of Emeril’s that’s not online anymore, but there are plenty of good recipes out there and just substitute earth balance sticks for butter and Nutpods unsweetened dairy-free creamer for the cream), marsala pasta with mushrooms and artichokes (substituting Nutpods for cream and using vegan parmesan shreds—our local Publix has lots of options for many varieties of dairy-free cheese and I’m glad they’re becoming more mainstream at many grocery stores), black bean potato enchiladas (we used green sauce instead of red), and cauliflower tikka masala (it was great but a little labor intensive—I‘ll never understand where the “prep time” estimate comes from in recipes because I am always way slower). We love farro as a quick, easy, healthy grain base, and have a couple of go-to meals: a summery one (we skip the feta, and just for our preference usually skip the peas and scallions too), and a fall one (we skipped the green onions and parsley and used butternut squash for pumpkin). We also like to do a southwest medley of roasted sweet potatoes or butternut squash, sautéed onions and bell peppers, mushrooms, black beans, and top with lime juice, avocado, and jalapeños (tortillas optional). A southwest green salad with black beans, avocados, any sautéed (or raw) veggies you like, and this dressing is great too. For an easy, healthy, and delicious side, we like to roast veggies with just a small drizzle of olive oil at 425 degrees for 20 minutes: broccoli, asparagus, or brussels sprouts with lemon (boil the sprouts for 3 min first), sliced carrots, or cauliflower with grape tomatoes. Giant portabellos with vegan pesto or olive oil and balsamic vinegar roasted for 10-12 minutes can be a tasty, healthy main dish.

For fancier occasions, here’s what we made for Thanksgiving: mashed potatoes, this delicious and festive salad (we used a store bought apple cider vinaigrette from a place called Circle A farms that delivers amazingly fresh salad greens and homemade dressing—check it out if you’re in the north Atlanta suburbs—and we always cook brussels sprouts by boiling for 3 minutes then roasting for 30), sweet potato casserole, stuffing, and Andrew’s signature dark chocolate bourbon pecan pie (substitute earth balance sticks for butter and flax meal mixed with water for eggs). For Christmas, we went a little lighter but still delicious with this mushroom bourguignon. For Super Bowl Sunday, we are going to try this dip (I will definitely be focusing on it more than the football).

We’re not purists. Our kids are extremely picky. I’m in awe of families who get their kids to eat the “family meal” from the time they start solids. We offer our food to our kids, and they literally spit it out–although last week our two-year-old called this comforting pasta recipe (substituting veggie broth for chicken broth, Nutpods unsweetened creamer for cream, and artichoke hearts for lobster, then topped with vegan parm) “yummy” over and over and it was a minor miracle. With our four-year-old at less than the 1st percentile BMI, we’re not going to do the old-school “eat what we offer you or go hungry” tactic. So we give them what they’ll eat, which means our grocery cart often contains bacon, cow’s milk, cheez-its, goldfish, and/or parmesan. We make sure they eat a fruit or veggie with each meal and tell them the reasons we make the choices we do, and then move on. (And we’re happy the weeks that the obsession happens to be sourdough peanut butter sandwiches with cauliflower on the side rather than bacon.) Progress, not perfection. We’ve still majorly cut our diet-related carbon footprint, especially since we grownups are consuming the vast majority of calories in our house. This doesn’t have to be an all or nothing endeavor. Of course, the bigger of a change you make in your diet, the more of a difference it will make for your carbon footprint, but small changes made by a lot of people can help a ton: if every American just substituted beans for beef without making any other changes, that would cover more than half of the emissions reduction needed to make our 2020 goals pledged by Obama in 2009. Meatless Mondays is popular (but unless that’s really all you can do, try to be a little more ambitious!), and VB6 (eat vegan before 6pm) is catching on as well. Many people call themselves “reducetarians” and aim to reduce meat and dairy–the more you reduce, the better for the planet. As with any goal, make it SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based; that will make you more likely to succeed than just a general effort to cut back. Another thing to keep in mind is that reducing meat while increasing dairy isn’t nearly as helpful as reducing (or eliminating) both. It’s encouraging that more restaurants and fast food chains are adding vegan options, but they are still fairly hard to come by. It’s good to try to plan ahead and bring food with you to work and have food on hand at home to avoid take out for dinner, but if you need to (or want to) eat out, try to at least avoid beef and minimize other meat/dairy–often restaurants that don’t have purely vegan options have some “almost vegan” options.

I’m encouraged that many people are jumping on the plant-based diet bandwagon for health reasons. A couple years ago, it seemed like all my patients were going on the keto diet (don’t do it, please!). Now it is much more common to hear people say they are shifting more plant-based. Documentaries like Forks Over Knives and The Game Changers tout the health benefits of plant-based diets. Going vegan or close to it, as long as you’re choosing a healthy variety of foods including plenty of vegetables and fruits, can lower your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illness. You don’t need to worry about a varied vegan diet being unhealthy; most Americans get too much protein, and plant sources of protein are generally healthier than animal sources. There is some risk of vitamin B12 deficiency with a vegan diet, so I take a daily (well, when I remember) multivitamin to avoid that. 

Of course, going vegan is wonderful for the animals too! For years we’d been buying “certified humanely treated” meat (and dairy when possible), but we’ve known that livestock usually don’t have very pleasant lives even outside of factory farms. Again, we’re not purists, but just avoiding it for the most part leaves us with a clearer conscience in terms of animal suffering too. 

I’ll share here some of our favorite vegan products and meat/dairy substitutes. We have an espresso machine we love, so I tried pretty much all the dairy-free milks to make lattes and settled on soy. Andrew’s favorite is Oatly barista grade oat milk. Earth balance sticks are a good substitute for butter. The same brand’s imitation cheez-its are mediocre; sadly they were rejected by our kids, and I decided to bring plain sunchips with my work lunches instead. Flax meal (available at Trader Joe’s among other places, or you can grind your own flax seeds) mixed with water substitutes really well for eggs in baking and has a similar texture. My favorite yogurt substitute is Sodelicious strawberry. Kite hill has some good products like vegan cream cheese and unsweetened almond milk yogurt that can sub for sour cream (although I’d probably rather just put avocado on a Mexican dish instead). There are some amazing vegan junk foods too, like vegan queso, Bitchin’ sauce (seriously addictive!), and all kinds of options for ice cream (I really like the ones made from almond milk, although some made from coconut cream like Jeni’s are amazing and available at Publix). One thing I’ve noticed about some of the meat and dairy substitutes is that they do better paired with other flavors rather than making them the star of the show. I tried a slice of cheddar nutcheese on toast and it just was not like the real thing (so I now put avocado or peanut butter on toast instead). But shredded vegan cheddar is great in breakfast casserole or on enchiladas or veggie chili. Morningstar meats as well as all the new plant-based meats like Impossible and Beyond are quite good, and Andrew likes Evolve vegan breakfast shakes. He also makes a tofu “egg salad” he loves–I’ve always thought egg salad was gross but more power to him!

Do I miss meat and dairy? Well, firstly, since as I’ve said I haven’t 100% given them up, that’s not a totally honest question. But Andrew and I have given them up in terms of groceries that we buy and prepare for ourselves at home, which is the vast majority of what we eat, and I can honestly say I really don’t miss them. That’s not to say that vegan substitutes taste indistinguishable from the original version. Our homemade chocolate chip cookies with earth balance sticks don’t taste as indulgent and gooey as they used to with butter (although cowboy cookies are amazing–throw in a few ingredients beyond regular chocolate chip cookies and you really can’t tell they’re vegan). But I’m convinced that the planet needs a major overhaul of our eating habits, and can we have a joyful and abundant life, and great pleasure in eating, with a plant-based diet? Absolutely. When I was pregnant, every now and then I missed alcohol (and I did have a drink maybe once a month), but it wasn’t a temptation because of the bigger purpose of the baby I was growing. Making a “sacrifice” like this for a bigger purpose just doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice, especially after the initial adjustment period, and especially with so many great options out there these days. In case food budget or weight is your main consideration: this shift has not changed either for us. And it is definitely possible to eat a healthy plant-based diet on a budget (some of the stuff we’ve mentioned is a splurge, but there are plenty of good inexpensive options) and to tweak the calories to suit your needs. Something like keto may get you quicker weight loss results but that’s not really helpful to your health in the long term, and people eating very high protein/low carb diets on a large scale is just terribly unsustainable. There is definitely not a medical need to do so. Endocrinologists I’ve worked with suggest that even diabetics need to get about 55% of their calories from carbs; carbs are not the enemy (and they’re delicious). 

You might be wondering why I spent so much time on eating plant-based if food waste is an even bigger issue. It’s mostly because a lot of the problem with food waste happens further up the supply chain, so as individuals/families, shifting to plant-based has the biggest impact. But avoiding/limiting food waste as much as we can is very important too. Some good habits are: have a plan for each thing you buy (stick to list, try to avoid impulse purchases–we’re not always great at this), limit eating out and bring home leftovers (preferably in your own container), try to have some weeks where you use what’s in your freezer or pantry for most meals, don’t pick the very freshest stuff at the grocery if you can use it soon (remember expiration dates are just suggestions, not a date where you have to throw away perfectly good food if it still looks and smells okay), and compost food scraps (more about this later–we are still in the learning stage and haven’t started composting yet). Further up the supply chain, support zero waste efforts like this amazing company and misfits (delivery service of “ugly” but still good quality produce that would otherwise be thrown away). Kroger’s zero hunger/zero waste commitment is encouraging and an example for other grocery chains to follow. 

If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you. I won’t really get into questions here of whether it matters for the climate if food is grass fed (if you’re consuming meat or dairy), local, or organic. The short answer is: not nearly as much as it matters to choose plant-based foods (impact of local food vs. food choice is discussed nicely here).  Agricultural methods do matter a lot, and Drawdown describes climate friendly agriculture methods in detail (it gets a good bit more complicated than the adjectives I mentioned above). But for most of us who want the biggest bang for our buck in terms of carbon reduction per effort spent, and who don’t necessarily have time to research the agricultural methods of every brand, by far the best, simplest, and most effective move (and Drawdown’s author would agree) is shifting to a vegan or mostly vegan diet. 

Action step: set a SMART goal about your animal product intake and make your next week’s grocery list accordingly. If you’re not sure you’re ready for a long term goal, save a few recipes above (or find your own to suit your taste) and try one or two a month. And/or share your favorite plant-based recipe (I seriously had to restrain myself to *just* share the ones above–happy to share more great ones with anyone interested!).

Why?

I’m a little embarrassed to be writing a blog about journeying towards net zero carbon emissions. I’m not anywhere close. According to one estimate, just by living in the US and using public/government services, I emit more carbon dioxide than the average person in the world, before even getting started with my personal choices (that study is from 2008, but things haven’t changed nearly enough since). And in terms of personal choices, I haven’t exactly left the grid or made any big personal sacrifices. My family lives in a 3000 square foot house. We order (more than) our share of Amazon packages. We keep bacon on hand for our picky kids. I have trouble making myself get out of the shower in less than ten or fifteen minutes. I’m not really the poster child for sustainable choices. But the scientists say (and with a 97% consensus among climate scientists, I’m inclined to believe them) that we have a worldwide climate emergency. They say we need to get off of fossil fuels and leave coal, oil, and natural gas in the ground. They say we need to leave forests intact, focus on righting inequalities more than on economic growth, and eat a plant-based diet while changing many things about our agricultural methods. Yikes. That’s a tall order. Our whole economy and “American dream” have been built on fossil fuels. From 1850-2011, our country was responsible for 27% of worldwide carbon emissions, even though we make up less than 5% of the world’s population (something to keep in mind if you’re thinking that India and China, with–spoiler alert–way lower emissions per capita than us, are the main problem here and that our country is doing “enough” to lower emissions). We’ve rapidly burned coal, oil, and gas, and rapidly became the wealthiest country in the world, and we’re addicted. Many say that we have made a suicide pact with fossil fuels. The UN projects roughly 200 million climate migrants by 2050 and that we face a future of “climate apartheid” with 120 million more people in poverty by 2030 and undoing 50 years of progress on global health, development, and poverty reduction. The rate of increase we’re already seeing, and will face more in the future if we continue with “business as usual,” in climate-related ecological disasters, sea level rise, biodiversity loss, food and water insecurity, and climate-related conflict and instability, are anything but sustainable if we want life and civilization as we know them to be stable and viable in the future. The US’s emissions actually went up by 3.4% from 2017 to 2018, and I’m a little encouraged that they went down by 2.1% from 2018 to 2019, but the whole world needs to be decreasing by 7.6% yearly to meet Paris targets and avoid catastrophe.

The book that really woke me up to the threat we’re facing was The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells, which I highly recommend, especially if you’re looking for a reason to not be able to sleep for a couple of weeks while reading it. After I caught my breath after reading it when it came out in early 2019, the only option other than despair was action. The main action I take is advocacy for systemic/policy changes, through a wonderful organization called Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Let me be clear: habit changes on the individual and family level are not enough to avert this crisis. The main focus of this blog is how to, within our flawed system and in the midst of our economy that is built on a dependence on fossil fuels, lower our carbon footprints as families and individuals. BUT, the last thing I want to do is give the impression that this is the key to solving the crisis. The author of this article makes a very strong case that the climate crisis will not be solved by personal sacrifice, when just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. I absolutely agree with her that our main goals should be to vote in climate-friendly leaders, change policies, and hold companies accountable. So, why am I even writing a blog about individual and family-sized carbon footprints? One reason is just that my husband Andrew and I have done a lot of research and legwork in our efforts to lower our energy and fossil fuel use, and it seemed like a natural, practical next step to share what we’ve learned in hopes of making it a little easier and less confusing for others to work towards similar goals. Also, I believe that systemic change and personal change work together synergistically, maybe at around a 75%/25% ratio. When we think about policies that will do the most to mitigate climate change, like carbon fee and dividend, ending subsidies for fossil fuels, and tax incentives for wind, solar, and other renewable energy, these policies work by influencing the actions of companies as well as those of individuals and families. Hard won policies like the federal solar tax credit (and tax credits for energy audits, installing geothermal HVAC systems, electric vehicles, etc.) only work if people use them. When petitions circulate urging powerful corporations to offer vegan options at their fast food franchises, those vegan options better sell. When a friend and I met with our city’s deputy administrator (who coordinates sustainability efforts), he said that the Solarize Roswell campaign has attracted a total of FIVE customers. And you better believe that when you’re advocating for systemic change, for better or worse, fairly or unfairly, people in positions of power are very interested to know about your personal carbon footprint choices. It absolutely affects our credibility, and while there’s a limit to the importance of personal carbon footprints and we should not feel ashamed for still using fossil fuels in the economy we live in, it’s a matter of personal integrity to take some action to lower our personal emissions. If you ever do P90X3 workouts, you can probably hear Tony Horton in your head saying, “Do your best, and forget the rest.” If enough of us do what we can (and momentum is growing as more people become aware of how dire the situation is), we can significantly slow the avalanche of climate catastrophe and give us more time to get our act together for the bigger changes we need to make in overhauling our infrastructure and economies on national and international scales.

In medicine we are taught, “First, do no harm.” I know that fossil fuels are harmful, so as powerless as I might feel against this astronomical problem, one of my primary responsibilities is to do what I can to stop the harm I’m personally causing. There are limits to what any person or family can do. While Andrew and I have gotten a lot of excitement and enjoyment out of the changes we’ve made, and while most of them are cost beneficial or at least cost neutral in the long term, most of them take some up front investment of time and/or money. This blog is not intended to make you feel guilty or judged for using fossil fuels as you live your life and take care of your family in our fossil fuel-based economy. It’s also not meant to make any of us feel smug at the changes we’ve made, as though they are the silver bullet to this problem. Someday we’ll have policy changes in place to make the green choice the easiest and cheapest choice, and eventually (hopefully) the only choice. Until then, we each need to do what we can, imperfectly. As Anne Marie Bonneau, zero-waste chef, says, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Same goes for attempting to lower or eliminate our carbon footprints. Andrew and I have made some major changes, but we are still living in the world as it is, not as it should be, we’re only human, and we’d like to keep our jobs, our friends, and our sanity. We are not off of fossil fuels. We know that as a world, we all need to be off fossil fuels by around 2050 to stay under 2 degrees Celsius of warming and avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. We will have to change our worldwide economy and infrastructure at a completely unprecedented pace if we want to have a chance. It’s scary to look the problem in the face. It’s also scary to look in the mirror and know I’m a part of it. But if we have any chance of solving this, acknowledging the problem is the first step. In the weeks and months to come, I’ll be posting on topics like: food, transportation/travel, heating and cooling, solar energy, socially responsible investing, packaging, and more. My aim will be about two posts per month. I hope that reading about our journey will inspire and challenge you in your own and also encourage you to become part of the bigger systemic movement fighting climate change. No matter how much or how little you feel you’re able to do, none of us are powerless and we all have an important role to play. I welcome suggestions, feedback, and guest posts as I know many of you have more expertise in these areas than I do. Hope you will join me on this journey!  

Action item: learn more about climate change and why it’s so urgent for us to take drastic action. Some of my recommendations are: The Uninhabitable Earth, Losing Earth, or this Washington Post article. If you’re already convinced that it’s a huge problem and just want to skip straight to solutions, I’d recommend Drawdown or checking out Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has a bipartisan bill in Congress.  

Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy with a large population of people who believe that things can never get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience. And what’s really radical is being willing to look directly at the magnitude and difficulty of problems that we face, and still insist that we can solve those problems. — Alex Steffen