Because of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, we are inundated with talk about living sustainably. But what does this mean, in real life? Julienne du Toit looks at 40 ways to live lightly on Earth.
We now know that one billion people on Earth are hogging 80% of the world’s resources, eating way too much, travelling by car (usually alone) and aeroplane, generating an outsize amount of problematic waste and greenhouse gases, and dying of obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart problems.
Another billion people, give or take a few million, live in misery. They are painfully thin, have no means of transport except by their own feet or sometimes a donkey or bus, and they have too little food to sustain them. In urban situations, they are exposed to all sorts of pollutants. They die from preventable diseases, Aids, hunger. And their chances of getting out of this situation are as thin as they are.
But somewhere in between are the people that Worldwatch Institute researcher Alan Durning once identified as living a sustainable life. How do they live?
Well, their transport consists mostly of bicycles (still the cheapest, most energy-efficient and most planet-friendly way of getting around), and sometimes bus or rail. They mostly eat grains and vegetables with no more than 20% fat, and so are mostly healthy. They drink water, not cooldrinks or beverages.
They share scarce or hi-tech resources like fax machines, phones and internet.
Actually, we could all probably live a little better than that, if the comparatively well-off embrace voluntary simplicity. A study by Princeton University in 1990 concluded that the entire world population could probably live sustainably in modest but comfortable homes, using refrigeration for food, readily accessible public transport and limited car use.
What the planet cannot afford, the study hinted, are the hugely consumptive lifestyles of the West, the big houses, electrical gadgets and car-based transport systems. And yet this is held up as the model to which we are all meant to strive.
Up until the 1960s, we still had room to manoeuvre, because we were only using 70% of the world’s resources. As of 2002, we are using up natural resources 120% faster than the Earth can restore them. The Washington-based National Academy of Sciences says it now takes the planet 1,2 years to regenerate what people remove every year.
Every truly wise and holy person on the Earth, including Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed, preached voluntary simplicity and self-restraint.
Here are a few practical tips to ease back on consumption and to live in a way that is kinder to yourself, other people and the planet:
1. Eat simple food. The more complicated and ready-made the food is, the heavier it is on the planet. Potato chips are four times more energy-intensive than home-cooked potatoes. Micro-wave-ready food has 10 times the resource requirements of normal food.
2. Eat food grown or produced close to home. The typical mouthful of food now travels at least 2 000km to your mouth, with all the energy (processing, refrigeration, transport) that takes up.
3. Eat organic, free-range, country-reared – anything that is an alternative to factory-farmed, which is generally environment-hostile.
4. Eating fish can be problematic. Tuna and a lot of hake is caught on long lines that trap and drown birds like albatrosses. Many linefish are going extinct because there are too many seafood restaurants. Rather go for sardines (caught in nets, and South Africa has a glut) and calamari (mostly caught just after they’ve spawned and will die anyway). Snoek and kingklip also seem safe.
5. Restrict your red meat. The protein we get from beef requires 25 times more energy than a comparable amount of protein from grain, and it requires 500 times as much land to produce a kilo of beef as a kilo of vegetables. Tofu is a great protein. 6 In fact, eat as little factory-farmed meat as possible. About 38% of the world’s food crops and fish catches are fed to animals before they’re fed to us.
7. If you like meat, eat venison. Hunted buck die relatively quickly after having lived light on the land. Ostrich farming does have environmental impacts but is probably healthier than beef.
8. Cook with gas if you can – much more environmentally sound than electricity, or wood.
9. Avoid all plastics, but especially PVC, which generates enormous amounts of toxins at practically every stage of production. 10 Reject goods that have a lot of packaging.
11. Resist the urge to consume mindlessly. Do you really need it? Everything you buy has an impact on the world around you. Also, manufacturers and retailers are quick to respond to trends, so if shoppers choose organic, for example, retailers will seek it out. And don’t forget the power of one.
12. Buy honey that is certified as being honey badger-friendly (many honey farmers kill honey badgers).
13. Avoid sugar – it’s a very destructive monoculture.
14. Avoid jewellery with an environmental price tag. Ivory and coral are out. Diamonds are problematic, unless they come with a conflict-free certificate. Gold generates huge amounts of toxic waste – cyanide is one of them.
15. Refuse plastic bags unless you really need them.
16. Conserve water. Showering uses much less water and energy than bathing. Washing dishes by hand uses much less water than a dishwasher. Wash hands in cold water, not hot.
17. South Africa has great tap water, the third best in the world. Drink it. Bottled water is usually of equal quality, is packaged in single-use containers and its transportation has an impact on the environment.
18. Use sunlight and wind, not a tumbledrier, for your wet clothes.
19. If you can afford anything solar-powered, especially a geyser, get one. Southern Africa has plenty of sunlight. 20 Use a car sparingly. Rather walk, use a bicycle or public transport if you can, or at least cut down on trips by grouping errands, or car-pooling.
21. Use unleaded fuel. Lead bio-accumulates and can seriously damage the mental development of children.
22. Don’t keep up with fashion. It will create lack in your life. Rather buy good-quality classics that will last for years.
23. Choose hemp, wool and silk over nylon and cotton. Cotton is extraordinarily destructive in terms of pesticide use and sheer depletion of soil. Artificial fabrics are mostly petrochemical (and alarmingly flammable).
24. Instead of an electric blanket, use a hot water bottle – just as effective.
25. In a balanced ecosystem (and you can create one in your garden within two years), there is little need for pesticides. Rather work on attracting birds, which happily wolf down worms and even aphids. A plant attacked by a pest is often weak anyway.
26. Use indigenous plants, adapted to your region.
27. Try grouping plants with similar water needs so that you don’t have to water the entire garden all the time. 28 For gifts, consider an indigenous tree.
29. Seek out toiletry products that specify they aren’t tested on animals. The Body Shop is always a good choice, plus they take back their packaging.
30. Baking soda and vinegar make good toilet cleaners, better than the chemically dodgy commercial brands.
31. Hi-tech, alas, is pretty toxic. According to the international Basel Action Network, cellular phones, televisions and computers contain lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium and brominated flame-retardants. Most manufacturers have refused to eliminate hazardous materials, or even to devise a way of re-using them. So use them as long as possible, resist upgrades, write to the manufacturers or bombard them with e-mails.
32. Look to the future when it comes to your career. Studies indicate that it is more sustainable to sell services rather than goods to meet people’s needs. Trends are echoing this. When Xerox stopped selling photocopying machines and started leasing them out, it gave them a strong incentive to re-use parts rather than throw them away.
33. Cellphones, playstations, laptops and pagers depend on a product called Coltan (columbite-tantalite). Massive demand for this has helped to fund the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before buying or upgrading, call the manufacturer and ask where their Coltan comes from (there are legitimate operations in Australia, Canada and Brazil).
34. Use both sides of paper, or at least recycle. Preferably both.
35. Pass on magazines to schools, community projects, vet’s and doctor’s rooms. Magazines are fairly heavy on the environment, but can dispense entertainment and useful information for a long time.
36. Glass is the most environmentally friendly packaging (it can be endlessly recycled, and comes from sand – a limitless resource).
Look to the future
37. Invest in women. International studies show that a rand (or peso, or rupee) in the hands of a woman is more likely to be used for family needs, nutrition and health, which makes income-generating opportunities for women especially valuable. 38 Inform yourself, and adapt your techniques for living light to your circumstances. In other words, think global, act local.
39. Reduce, re-use and recycle.
40. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it all at once (otherwise the author would be black and blue, too). We got to where we are now a step at a time – and that’s how we’ll reverse the damage.