I know the original expression is “Think globally, act locally,” which dates back to 1915 and is attributed to Scottish conservationist Patrick Geddes. Still, I think it is time to revisit this refrain. The philosophy behind this famous quotation is to care about the entire planet but to take action at a community, town, or city level. This idea is still solid and relevant; however, since so much has occurred over the past 105 years, it seems as though it is too late to take measures just one community and/or city at a time. Rather, it is time to take ambitious steps to address our environmental issues and problems worldwide; for example, the current pandemic has been a wake-up call for the whole world. The pandemic started in what was, for many of us was an obscure part of China, but now every person in every corner of the world has felt its effects by now.
Recent studies published in both “Nature” and “Science” describe the dire situation we are in as a planet. Without going into details, the message is that we are depleting our global resources at an unsustainable rate for more than a couple of decades, yet the story was not headline news. Does it mean that the problem is not real or as scary as we think? My opinion is that since we do not see this issue at our front doorstep yet, plus there are other more pressing crises we are currently experiencing. That said, exhausting our resources is a major concern and needs to be aggressively addressed as soon as possible.
Here in San Francisco, we are fortunate to have progressive eco-friendly measures that make a difference; plus, it is relatively easier for most of us to take “planet-saving” actions at the local level since we are encouraged to do so. However, there is always more we can do and need to do at this stage. We cannot and should not wait until our politicians roll out new eco-friendly regulations. Some actions we can take at a local and global level are:
- Be vigilant so that our politicians draft stricter policies and regulations that protect the environment as effectively and efficiently as possible. Sometimes, after negotiating with industry leaders, eco-friendly policies are often watered down by the time they are passed and turned into laws.
- Network and share success stories and lessons learned worldwide on addressing environmental issues, such as energy savings. When I lived in Berlin, I was impressed by how the escalators leading to the subway platforms run on motion detectors and the entryway and stair lights in my apartment building. In some U.S. states, such an option is not legal, but we need to question the reasoning and learn from others.
- Live within our “ecological” means. It is a well-known fact that richer countries, such as the U.S., use more global resources than most other countries. A recent University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems study titled (U.S. Environmental Footprint) states that although the U.S. has only 5% of the world population and 15% of world GDP, we consume 15% of the world’s energy. In fact, according to this study, it would take five Earths for the entire world to live by U.S. standards.
- Ensure that there are equity and equality for all people everywhere. The recent U.S. events have shown us what a powder keg penned up frustration over racism and bigotry can be. Simultaneously, consistent conflicts worldwide, which can lead to famine and war, affect the whole world. A conflict in a country, country, or region on the other side of the world can affect the global economy, destabilize governments, and increase already tense religious and socio-political turmoil. We can alleviate these situations by the way we vote, getting involved, and being conscious of where we invest and/or where we buy products.
Now, on a local level, we can continue to follow up on the bullet points listed above, but there are other things we should be doing daily at home and within our communities:
- Walk or bike as much as possible. According to the SFMTA, over the last decade or so, the City’s population has increased by approximately 80,000 people, plus 175,000 new jobs have been added within city limits. Of course, this translates into greater vehicular traffic. Also, more people ride sharing as it has become more affordable and convenient than hailing a cab. Additionally, bicycle riding peaked in 2017 and then started to decrease. Empirical observations tell us that more people are riding their bikes this year and walking, but it took the pandemic to turn the numbers around, which is great, but we need to keep increasing the number of trips we take on foot or a bicycle.
- Consume less. The pandemic has also shown many of us how we can cut back on consumables and live with fewer “things.” In other words, for some of us, having less income over the last 9 months has taught us to prioritize our spending, which is a great advantage for the environment. For example, using our mobile phones longer than we normally would mean less waste (throwing out the old phones) and less mining and use of the resources needed to make the new ones. And do we really need the latest version of that particular and fashionable mobile phone? Also, to save on expenses, many people have been buying refurbished used electronics, such as laptops and mobile phones, at a fraction of the original cost. These products are just as efficient and diminish the number of electronics ending up in landfills.
- Although recycling is an essential part of helping our environment, it would be best to reuse the waste we generate, such as take the produce bags back to the store and use them to buy fresh produce once again. We can also use unwanted plastic bottles for children’s art projects, planters, and even vases. Our first reaction should be to find at least one secondary use out of everything we buy before tossing them into the garbage and/or recycling bins.
- Use less or eliminate toilet paper. Not only does used toilet paper require more energy and processing as it runs through the sewage treatment plants, but it is also made from a resource we take away from the planet. In addition, its manufacturing releases greenhouse gases into the environment. The use of chlorine used to bleach and soften the paper often (in many countries) pollutes the neighboring water supplies. One alternative to using toilet paper is bidets, which are very common in southern European countries, Japan, and the Middle East. Of course, it is not always feasible for everyone to install one into our existing bathrooms. However, you can retrofit a typical toilet with a bidet seat. Their prices range from $150 to $2,500 and more, depending on the brand and features.
- Buy less packaged food. Although this is not always an option, there are certain food items that you can purchase that are not prepackaged, such as meats and cold cuts. If your local market or neighborhood has a butcher shop, you can buy ham, turkey, etc., by weight and have it packaged for you in butcher paper or, in some cases, in your own containers. More and more stores, for example, sell grains, dried fruits, etc., in bulk, which you can place into your own containers. Though these may seem like small steps moving us towards our goals at a glacial pace, the reality is that we build momentum with these actions, which can inspire others to do the same, as well as make vendors notice and make necessary changes. We have seen time and time again how companies, both large and medium-sized, showcase their transition to more ecologically conscious products and or activities. They present these actions as their idea, but they only got to that point through legislation and/or consumer demand.
The previous bullet points are just a start. We can do more things to help the environment, which I encourage you to find and decide for yourselves if you can exercise. And there are costlier (at least initially) actions we can take to be “green,” such as installing solar energy panels, building a green roof on your house, rainwater harvesting for irrigation and toilet use, etc. However, in this article, I wanted to start with some relatively simple activities to adopt. That said, whatever you do does help, but we are living in a time in history where we can no longer afford to do the minimum. We need to challenge ourselves to do more. If we don’t, our children will have an even bigger mess on their hands.