The Sustainability Spectrum

Nine years ago, I bought a Prius. At that time, I dumped food in the garbage without batting an eyelid; purchased bottled water by the gallon (or half) and threw the bottle in the trash if unable to find a recycle bin; purchased wrapped single-serving foods; ordered more than I could eat and left the food behind; took thirty minute showers; washed with a face wash containing plastic microbeads; and did numerous other things, that I felt were required to upkeep a modern lifestyle. But since I drove a fuel-efficient hybrid, I could feel smug about my contribution to the environment.

I lived with a roommate I like to lovingly call "The Enforcer" because she kept the house at 50 degrees during Kentucky winters (waking up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night was torture, other than that, it was OK.) When asked why she conserved water and/or energy, even though she didn't live in a state with a scarcity, she replied that what we don't see is all the coal being burned to generate the power and clean up water- which means, less energy used, less coal burnt. This opened my eye to the underlying connections that exist between our everyday, fairly nominal behavior and the unintended effects on the environment. 

This also motivated me to take a step beyond the belief that my debts to the environment were paid just because I drove a Prius. It was also my first step on to the Sustainability Spectrum. 

Imagine a wide stadium staircase, the lowest step of which is in the dumps, literally and the highest step is leading to a blue sky with clean air and great weather. We have to get to the top in time before we sink into the muck of our unsustainable practices. There are already people ahead, but there are also people behind and there is room for everybody at the top. The goal is to reach the top, one step at a time. 

Many of us practice certain behaviors that can be termed sustainable- from planting trees to riding bikes to carrying a water bottle to using our non-disposable bags at grocery stores. If you do all of these or none of these,  there is still room for improvement. What I mean is that, while each of us should adopt at least one behavior that would lead to a greener/cleaner earth, there is always another one we can adopt, once we have mastered the first one. 

My friend Justin and his wife live the ultimate charmed life when it comes to sustainability. They live in a house powered by solar cells, ride around town in their bikes, do not fly anywhere if they can help it (they take trains instead), collect rainwater, don't use plastics, and grow their food, remains of which they turn into soil by composting.  They are the role models that inspire me, yet I am not able to incorporate everything. I still drive quite a bit for work and can't collect rainwater in my apartment. However, I continue to incorporate new sustainable behaviors as I am able to. I stopped buying plastic wrap; reuse all my ziptop bags, compost all my food waste, always bike/walk when I can, and carry a travel coffee mug and water bottle during all of my travels.  Last month, a friend told me she was inspired by my commitment to composting and started composting herself. Six months ago, she believed composting would be impossible in her tiny apartment. 

Thus, I was inspired by my ex-roommate to adopt more sustainable practices, and over time, doing so ended up inspiring somebody else to do the same. Perhaps, this person will go on to inspire others, continuing the chain reaction. This way, slowly but surely, we can all progress toward the more sustainable end of the sustainability spectrum. All of us have to start somewhere. 

Today, I challenge you to identify a new sustainability behavior, find a friend who does it well, learn from them, master it, and then teach it to a new person. One step at a time, we all can get to the top. 

We start this new journey on Earth Day!

Yesterday, I picked up trash from the banks of the Milwaukee River with the Milwaukee Riverkeepers. As I filled a big trash bag with tiny Swisher Sweets (which are evidently cigarillos, unlike what I originally thought they were) wrappers, or McDonald's ketchup, or Taco Bell barbecue sauce packets, that were (I would like to think) disposed off in one of the trash cans on Capitol Dr but blew over in the Wisconsin wind gusts to pollute the river, I couldn't help wondering how our easy lifestyles have come at the cost of the planet. I will not rail against fast foods in this blog, not yet. Instead, I want to set an intention in this blog, something that I would like to do going forward. 

Four years ago, I became intensely aware of the amount of food I was tossing in the trash and how much it made my trashcan stink. Just that awareness made me start on a journey, where now, not only do I compost all my food scraps but also try to not to create that much waste in the first place. Sure it was difficult at first to change my habits and there were a lot of times I failed. But eventually, I got it right. Of course, I still drive a lot, forget my traveling coffee mug at home, fly for work (quite a bit) and stop by at Taco Bell drive-through when it seems like it is either that or faint at the wheel. However, to become better at this effort, I have made friends with people who are ahead of me in reducing their carbon footprint and am constantly inspired by them to move forward in the sustainable living spectrum. On the other hand, I try to (and hope to) inspire those you are behind me. Sometimes, I even succeed. 

I am of the opinion that every problem has a solution and once we deconstruct the problem and achieve small solutions to its parts, the bigger one gets resolved on its own. In this case, the sum is larger than the whole. 

So we begin this journey, to deconstruct the problem, not just food waste, but waste in general and what we as average Joes/Janes can do to change one behavior at a time, how to make it stick and finally, what could be the outcome of such a change. I welcome you to contribute and become part of this community. 

So on Earth Day, fueled by the guilt of seeing the trash on the Milwaukee river, and also the effort required to clean it up, I start this blog to publicly admit my failures (and successes) to live more sustainably. In this process, I hope to engage in a constructive dialogue about the different challenges that are in the path of an average person aiming to live more sustainably and how we can overcome it. 

Please join me on this journey! Like and subscribe to the blog. Invite your friends to do it.  I will update this biweekly!