Wherefore art thou, sustainability?

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We have heard of dire predictions for our planet if we, collectively, allow global warming to continue past 2030. The main thrust to prevent climate disaster is greenhouse gas reduction - methane, carbon dioxide, refrigerants. This generally turns into energy use reduction, specifically, cessation of the use of fossil fuels, methane being the worst of all and energy conservation in its many forms - buildings with lower energy requirements and the electrification of transportation, both powered by renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.

Much of what needs to be accomplished needs to be done via policy, funding and action at the international, state and corporate level.

However, we are a global civilization made up of individuals and the decisions we make in our personal lives affect our sum outcome. So, what is the individual to do in what often seems like the face overwhelming odds?

I am a firm believer in the butterfly effect - the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. We can each be the “butterfly” and influence the vast systems of politics, economy and environment that appear to lay beyond us as individuals.

So, what is the individual to do? Striving to live a sustainable lifestyle and to participate in the efforts to prevent climate chaos is something we can all do, each in our own way.

Most importantly is our participation in local government. The City of Ithaca Common Council and our mayor have been supportive of the Green New Deal. Our county government is also supportive of many efforts to combat climate change. Write or call your city or county representative and let them know that you are concerned about climate change issues. Attend public meetings and speak out about issues of concern to you. Our local governmental representatives listen to our concerns. You as an individual have more influence than you might think!

Look at your energy consumption and your carbon footprint. If you are a home owner or a small landlord, you can make changes to your energy consumption that might cost you a significant amount upfront but will reduce your fossil fuel and energy consumption and save you money in the long term.

There are many state and federal incentives to do so as well. Look at electrically powered heat pumps for heating and cooling. In my own house, for example, I have switched from an ancient gas furnace from the 1950s to an ultra-high-efficiency hot water heater/boiler, a wood furnace and solar panels on the roof and have had air sealing/super dense foam insulation installed. My home is now much more comfortable and much less expensive to operate, and my carbon footprint has been greatly reduced.

Consider purchasing an electric or hybrid vehicle, especially if you have your own solar panels.

Many smaller, less extensive lifestyle changes can make a significant difference in your energy consumption and your carbon footprint. Using less water saves energy. Replace older plumbing equipment with higher efficiency units - low flow toilets and water saving shower heads, for example. Save rainwater with rain barrels to water plantings. Make a rain garden to capture and use rainwater and to prevent runoff from your property.

Grow some of your own food. Gardening saves a ton of energy and provides nutrients and the pleasure of being partially self-sufficient. Compost your food scraps and lawn debris. Composting is one of the most sustainable actions the individual can undertake. If you can’t compost at home, take your food scraps to your local recycling center or drop-off spot.

Eat less red meat and dairy products, especially factory-farmed meat and dairy. Conventional agriculture uses huge amounts of energy and generates huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Eat only organic foods when possible, as organic agriculture is much less energy intensive than conventional agriculture.

Buy as many locally produced food stuffs as possible. Support Fair Trade conventions for products not available locally. Try canning and preserving your own food at home. This can also save energy and provide high quality food for your household.

Hang up your laundry outside instead of using the dryer. Try raising a few chickens for eggs, now legal in many municipalities. Grow native plants and encourage pollinators in your gardens.

It is possible to avoid using other types of fossil carbon as well. Most plastic is made from fossil carbon, and much fossil fuel is used in their manufacture. Avoid buying and using plastic items when possible. Use reusable shopping bags, not single-use plastic bags. Avoid plastic takeout food packaging - bring your own glass containers for leftovers, etc. Buy foods in bulk using reusable bags whenever possible and use reusable bags for fresh produce.

Most of the “butterfly effect” changes we can make as individuals and households don’t cost much or any money. They take learning new habits, unlearning old habits, making commitments to a new lifestyle and putting new energy into the here and now instead of the perceived convenience of the consumer lifestyle to which many of us are accustomed.

There are many volunteer opportunities to participate in all of the efforts mentioned above. The reward is participating in the preservation of the only planet we have. Good sources for leaning about much of the above topics are http://ccetompkins.org/environment and https://sustainabletompkins.org.

Tom Shelley is the chair of the Board of Directors of Sustainable Tompkins and a volunteer at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

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