While preparing for a Geography lesson on globalisation, I stumbled upon a ‘Calculate your own carbon footprint‘ website by the WWF. I laughed, self-righteously, thinking that it would be a good thing for the students to do but, of course, I would not need to dramatically reduce my carbon footprint: I am vegetarian 99% of the time; I do not buy many consumer products; I often grow my own food; I try to avoid foods with high air miles; I have researched into and eaten edible insects; I use public transport; I have 5 minute showers and never baths (phobia, you know…); I studied Geography and I know about environmental issues. So, I’m fine right?
Wrong. My carbon footprint was 160%, far higher than the planetary ideal. Why? I flew 5 times last year. One return flight to my old hometown Denmark is 0.3 tonnes of carbon, so 4 flights are 1.2 tonnes, plus another 2.33 tonnes for London to New York. That’s 3.5 tonnes of carbon.
What is more scary, however, is that researchers have calculated that one hamburger is the emissions-equivalent of a single flight from London to New York. If you cut your meat consumption from 100g to 50g a day, then you can slash 1 tonne off your carbon footprint per year. If you went completely vegan, you could save 1.5 tonnes per year.
But then, even if I was vegan, if I flew to, say, Greece, I would counteract it all in a 4 hour flight.
Now I’m overwhelmed. How am I meant to get ethical joy from growing tomatoes?! Do any of my individual actions actually make a difference?!
I have found myself in a situation that I think many people are in: Caring about the environment, but feeling paralysed by the enormity of the task at hand, and how ‘little’ they feel in comparison.
The more news you see about the state of deforestation, famine, sea level rise…the more overwhelmed yet apathetic you become. One researcher, Moeller, calls this ‘compassion fatigue’. The premise of compassion fatigue is that, as your mind and senses are more and more saturated with repetitive news and global challenges, the more you switch off and turn to apathy.
I think what we need is a mindset shift, which will then lead to an action shift. Here are my simple suggestions:
Remember that, unless you are the next Gandhi, you alone cannot change the entire world.
One of my favourite quotes is “do not let your inability to do everything stop your determination to do something”. If I gave up on all my environmental actions simply because I feel guilty about not doing enough, then nothing would ever change for the better. Remember, you can do something great and meaningful, especially in communities you are familiar with. How do you get determination? First, think about why you care about the environment (or why you should care…), then think about what you want to change.
Doubt is good.
I doubt the fact that I am the ethical citizen I want to be. Yet, doubt is not a bad thing. Doubt allows for curiosity and learning – if you had no doubt in your mind about your lifestyle, you would never be open to improving it or listening to others. You can become a leader, suggesting new ideas or practices.
In the past six months, I have learned how to grow food, make posters, and started an environmental leadership programme; three things that came to me simply because I researched and allowed for opportunities to present themselves.
Decide if you want to build on a skill you have, or develop a skill you lack.
This does not need to be something drastic – every day skills will probably do far greater environmental good in the long term. Think of your basic needs: food, shelter, water, community, transport…Here are are a few I thought of below:
- Food growing – volunteer at an urban farm
- Vegetarian cooking – ask someone to teach you
- How to make your home more sustainable – turn your apartment into a garden!
- Recycling schemes in your area – contact your Council, support Hubbub’s new coffee cup campaign
- Air pollution – plant more trees, sign a campaign every week
- Wildlife conservation – vertical farming, or identifying bird songs to help conservation
- Improving public transport and biking – write a letter to your government rep.
- Young people and education – learn how to teach or host workshops at school
This poster below shows how you can use the acronym GROW to help think about the best option – e.g. if your goal (your why factor) is to go vegetarian, think about your reality (i.e. do you know how to cook nutritious veggie food?), what are your options (cost, time etc), and then commit!
Join with other like-minded people.
I have just joined a fantastic fellowship called Uprising UK, which brings together young people who are passionate about environmental and social good. Applications open every year, and I highly recommend it. Another network is Transition Network, a movement that attempts to transform cities into sustainable, collective hubs. If you work in an office or go to school/University, join or start an environmental team or food co-op. The list is endless.
Stick with it one day at a time
I think this is my most important point. I have been researching into sustainable food for several years now, and I am disappointed in how many repeated statements and short-term ‘clean eating’ fads seem to saturate the scene.
Being environmentally active does not always mean radically altering your life or acting absolutist. For example, if you choose to act on aeroplane emissions, that does not mean you should never fly ever, ever again. As the great David Attenborough says, if you do have to fly by aeroplane, ensure it is for a purpose – education, conservation, research – which will contribute to society.
Or, if you want to tackle your diet, it means instilling something manageable, like becoming a weekday vegetarian, into your daily routine. Being a ‘sustainable eater’ does not mean cutting out carbs, it just means being more aware of the people and environments behind your food, choosing accordingly and wasting less.
Habits supposedly form after 21 days…and your new mindset is formed too. Not only do you have a daily reminder that you are doing something active in society, but there is far less chance of compassion fatigue getting you down.
Off the back of this blog, I am going to dedicate several hours a week to a new skill of mine – informative environmental/ethical posters – to educate people about several topics I am passionate about: food and mental health; herb planting and indoor food growing; edible insects. Will be sure to post them on here!
Until next time… x