The Best Way to “Go Green” According to Science
By Alex Erlenbach
I have been interested in the environmental movement since 7th grade, when my siblings came home for Thanksgiving during their freshman year of college to tell the family about Global Warming. I was fascinated and alarmed. That conversation eventually led me to push my high school to adopt a more comprehensive recycling program, winning me the “Keep Brevard Beautiful Youth Recycling Award” and to create an anaerobic bioreactor in college, turning food waste into energy.
After graduation, I started working for Broward County as an Environmental Engineer. I am the government red tape making sure solid waste facilities are adhering to the regulations instead of dumping all their trash into the rivers. When not at work, I travel to schools teaching students about environmentalism and climate change. This article is a shortened version of that presentation, without all of the fun diagrams and cool PowerPoint slide transitions.
The science is clear. Greenhouse gasses (Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, etc) are being pumped into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, & oil). These greenhouse gas emissions are increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the air, which is normally regulated through soil, vegetation, and the ocean via the carbon cycle. At the time of this writing, we have reached 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the industrial revolution, it was around 260 ppm. The planet has not experienced this level of carbon dioxide for millions of years.
But we all knew that already. We’re here for solutions! A large amount of what we’re taught to believe is “eco-friendly” does practically nothing except making us feel good and, in some instances, is actually counter-productive. Remember CFL’s? Full of toxic mercury. Bringing reusable bags to the store? You’d have to use them hundreds of times to break even. Recycling? Oh don’t get me started.
There are two driving philosophies in the environmental movement: One asserts that if we all do our part as individuals to make the changes we need, those individual efforts add up to make a difference. The other philosophy calls for systematic change and asserts that the first philosophy was concocted by those in power who are actually causing the impending climate catastrophe in order to shift blame from themselves to the people. This article includes suggestions from both camps.
And counting down from least to most effective…
5: Invest in renewable energy for your home. Many local, state, & federal programs exist to make going solar more economically feasible. If that’s not possible for you, many power companies allow you to buy “green energy” credits that help them invest in more sustainable energy sources.
4: Go vegan! And if you can’t do that, go vegetarian! And if you can’t do that, cut back on beef! Beef has the largest carbon footprint of any food we consume. But no matter what you eat, don’t waste it. Food waste is a huge contributor to our carbon footprint and easily preventable.
3: Avoid flying and driving whenever possible. Bike, walk, take mass transit, and carpool as much as you can. Invest in a quality commuter bike or electric scooter. For work meetings, telepresence and high-speed rail are your best sustainable alternatives. Need a car? Look into electric vehicles. The infrastructure in major cities and along highways makes “charge anxiety” a thing of the past.
2: Have 1 fewer child. I am not telling you what to do. I am merely telling you what the science says. This is the most effective way a person in the developed world can reduce their individual carbon footprint. Our lifestyle as Americans has lead us to have the largest carbon footprint per capita (per person) of any country on earth. Education and access to contraceptives are both key to our fight for a more environmentally sustainable future.
And the MOST important thing you can do to make the world a better place is…
1: VOTE! Vote every election, every time, for every position, for candidates who actually accept the science of climate change and have real plans to solve it! Abolishing subsidies for fossil fuel companies and mandating solar panels on all new buildings would be a great start. The Green New Deal is very ambitious and is endorsed by many environmental organizations of note. Carbon Fee & Dividend is another policy to push us in the right direction.
Items 2-5 come from drawdown.org and from the scientific journal article “‘The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government RecommendationsMiss The Most Effective IndividualActions,’ Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas 2017 Environ. Res. Lett. 12 074024”.
- Clean up your portfolio! Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions. Make sure you’re not investing in those companies or any other companies that are actively harming the environment.
- Start a compost heap. Very easy to get going, just dig a wide, shallow hole outside away from windows, or get a 5 gallon bucket and drill some holes in it, and put all of your plant-based food scraps and yard trimmings in. The waste will biodegrade and the carbon will be absorbed by the soil rather than released into the air in a landfill. There are endless resources available online to make it a success.
- Grow your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs! You can grow your own potatoes with a 5 gallon bucket and some dirt. A small pot with some basil or rosemary can add more flavor to your cooking and help you be more self-sufficient. Research what grows best in your local climate.
- Buy second-hand, thrift shop, buy used and use up what you have before buying more. Our consumerist lifestyle has led us to “need” everything brand new, newest fashion, newest gadgets, newest stuff to add to our hoard of stuff. But almost everything we buy can be bought cheaper second-hand, saving us money and preventing the need to make more new stuff.
- Save energy when you can: wash your clothes in cold water. Turn your thermostat up or your heater down when you’re not home. Buy LED lightbulbs (not CFL’s). Weatherize your home to make it more energy efficient.
Overcoming human-caused climate change will not be easy, but it’s not impossible. We aren’t lacking in futuristic technology to solve the issue. We’re lacking in enough political momentum to push our society into a healthier, more sustainable future. It can be done with what we have, we just have to DO it!
Alex Erlenbach is an environmental engineer working for Broward County Government. This article is a representation of the author’s own opinions and recommendations, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of Broward County.