2013: Wasting Too Many Chances to Be More Sustainable

Each year as the calendar winds down and we prepare to "turn the page" to a fresh, clean new one, people reflect on the year just ended and make themselves -- and others -- promises to address their perceived weaknesses, lose weight, be more financially responsible, quit bad habits, etc.

One of the major strengths of the sustainability mindset is the recognition that many of the issues we face today as individuals, countries, a planet and a species are in fact closely inter-related, and the piecemeal approach, while effective at addressing specific problems, does not fix the systemic weaknesses that are at the root. So, for example, as we seek to preserve one particular species of fish that has been over-fished, it can lead to other species being threatened. Or, as we encourage the increased use of bio-fuels to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, subsidizing farmer to produce for this purpose drives up the cost of food.

In 2013 "Earth Overshoot Day" -- the theoretical day at which we cross the amount that the Earth can naturally replenish the resources we are consuming -- came two days sooner, 852 million people (the majority in developing countries) do not have enough food to eat and air pollution has become the fifth leading cause of death in India demonstrating that as economies develop and seek to provide sustenance for people, the 'trade-off' can -- and too often does -- come in environmental degradation.

Advocates argue for their causes and deniers (a group that includes skeptics who disagree with intellectual purity as well as those who have a vested interest) continue to battle back and forth, leaving the majority of people to wonder what to do and often deciding to do nothing.

But let us be clear -- we can live within our social, environmental and economic means. And we must stop arguing and find our common ground to address the issues. The late Nelson Mandela found a way to collaborate with those who had oppressed him and his people, recognizing that they were also victims of the system (even as they had defended it). He understood that we all have a shared fate and that we all lose something precious when we allow ourselves to let anger (even righteous anger), greed, hatred or even non-caring about our fellow human beings to rule the day.

The blame game gets us nowhere. People should not be asked to make the choice between providing for themselves and their families and preserving the environment. Nor should they be made to feel guilty for doing so. And we cannot justify their suffering by indulging ourselves in the illusion of moral superiority because we do not understand and respect their circumstances. Maslow's hierarchy of needs offers a good basis for understanding that those people you shake your heads at for their sputtering, polluting car may be parents who are desperately saving to send their children to higher education. Overweight people are not foolish, stupid or immoral, they are doing their best to get by; forced by their budgets to buy less healthy but filling foods that prevent their babies from crying from hunger pangs at night. And, as this article explained, many, having resigned themselves to their circumstances, are making short term (unsustainable) choices.

The Earth today produces enough food for every man, woman and child on the planet every year. But one third of the food that is produced is never eaten. It spoils in transportation. It is thrown away during the preparation of meals by sloppy cutting, etc. It goes bad while sitting forgotten in the back of refrigerators. The European Union has made efforts to increase public awareness to reduce food waste. Especially during this holiday season of indulgence, we should think about how much food we're putting on our plates (and then not eating). Save it for the next person -- whether they are sitting at your table, or on the other side of the world.

Stop arguing and instead reduce air pollution -- Whether or not you believe it is leading to climate change -- air pollution is a bad thing. Reducing emissions of all kinds will have health benefits. Carbon dioxide, while essential for life, in too much concentration is not a good thing (it is possible to overdose on water and oxygen too!) Other by products that come out of our tailpipes and smokestacks are known carcinogens, have been linked to respiratory diseases, etc.

We reduce the raw materials consumed when we recycle. For example, the plastic bottles and packaging materials we use during the holidays can be made into a myriad of useful items, including clothing and sportswear. That high-tech gadget you're thrilled to open this year may include components made from metal that was in the soda can you threw away last year.

Vote with our wallets Each time we make a purchase we are voting for the kind of world we want. We have the power in our hands -- but we often do not use it -- to change business for the better simply by rewarding those that fit our values by giving them our money.

If we could do these things, 2014 will be a far better year for the planet and everyone on it. Otherwise, we're just wasting time.