In 2019 there was an epic and incredible rise in awareness of environmental and humanitarian issues. It was inspiring and wonderful to see and experience (taking part in peaceful protests in support of the Earth and all living things was a powerful experience). We have also witnessed terrible environmental disasters, seemingly more than ever, which naturally causes widespread feelings of fear, helplessness and anger --- feelings that can only be described as natural in response to this crisis. But when coupled with news streams that feature stories of disaster with very little balance of stories that are hopeful and motivating, it becomes all too easy to get stuck in the cycle of seeing only destruction and increasingly feeling like our individual actions cannot possibly make a difference. In contrast, here is a powerful story: a friend of ours is from Australia and her family have had to deal with the fires firsthand, and yet her father told his daughter not to worry. Worry only makes things worse he said. Send love and hope instead. This was a beautiful and powerful reminder that the world needs compassion, love, hope and beauty instead of fear, dread, guilt and panic. One leads to action taken from a grounded place of loving intent, and the other to action from a place of blame, anger and fear which only creates more of the same and that will not yield the results we are looking for: a world that supports equity, diversity, and LIFE forever more on this planet.
So how do we move towards creating a peaceful, sustainable future in the face of what is happening in the world? Well, as mentioned, first we shift our perspective so that our actions are grounded in compassion and optimism (this is done with a deep understanding of what is happening and by no means is 'sticking our head in the sand' --- it is simply a choice to not dwell on the feelings of fear and dis-empowerment). And then, while acknowledging that the world must unite and work together, as individuals we act at the local level, creating resilient, sustainable communities, for would it not be true that with a united vision if we collectively work at the local level to get things done, it will go a long way to heal and regenerate the balance of life on this planet? Humans hold in their hands the power to change the world --- it is time that we rise up and seize it.
What follows are actions you can take to support your local environment while also having an impact on global emissions. Choose to make a difference where you live and in doing so, lead by example, act on behalf of the kind of world you want to see.
Note: of course there are hundreds of actions you can take in support of of the environment. We have intentionally chosen actions that we feel can be taken by all, regardless of place, or money. Use this as a starting point and then customize it for your particular situation from there.
1. Get outside and enjoy it!!
Make getting out in wild landscapes a priority. Take time to notice it. Meditate on it's beauty and recapture the sense of childlike wonder that fuels discovery and a love for wild things. Use this beauty and wonder to fuel your endeavours to save the wild places and speak up on behalf of them.
2. Eliminate the Big 4, once and for all.
By this we mean plastic bags, water bottles, disposable cups and straws. These are named the Big 4 because they are the top items found littered, not just in the oceans but along the roadsides and in the waterways where we all live. They are one hundred percent avoidable, with very little effort simply a little preparedness. Read our guides to shopping plastic free and zero-waste takeout for more tips. As a bonus, consider organizing a litter pickup in your area to pick up the Big 4 already on the ground.
Above: Little ones participating in our family focused Earth Day pickup last year.
3. Don't Waste Anything!
This way of thinking is not new. Generations before who have lived through difficult times like economic depression and war came through it with an intense attitude of resourcefulness, reusing everything and wasting nothing. However as our consumption and need for convenience soared in the years passed, this way of thinking all but disappeared. With enough care and attention put towards reducing waste however comes a natural shift to conserving resources. We're talking about finding uses for things prior to disposal, diverting waste from landfill, saving energy, paper, water, clothing and especially food, as examples. Basically, think before you buy, and before you toss. If something is truly not useful to you, reallocate that resource to someone who needs it via second-hand stores, charities or online buy/sell/trade groups.
4. Buy less. Choose Well. Make it Last.
This famous quote by Vivienne Westwood sums it up perfectly. Sustain has made a point of focusing on items of practicality. We choose products that we know are made well enough to last you many years, such as a Klean Kanteen insulated cup, so that you will need to buy only one. It is then your responsibility to keep it, and take good care of it so that it lasts you as long as it's meant to. Take this approach to everything you buy.
5. Do a garbage and recycling audit.
The premise here is the same for both garbage and recycling (although we recommend beginning with the trash bin and then moving on to recycling afterwards): for a period of time, take a record of everything you throw away or recycle. Create a tally of every individual item, identify what you dispose of most frequently, and then find an alternative. Start easy like eliminating water bottles and takeout cups from your recycle bin by toting reusables, but keep going until you've decimated your waste output (acknowledging that some things will be unavoidable and compromise will be necessary). Keep reading for tips on how to reduce your waste, but first, we recommend also doing the following:
-Drastically downsize your garbage can (our family often uses a small brown paper bag which we only have to dispose of bi-weekly if not monthly).
-Make sure your recycling center is easily accessible to optimize use.
-Replace your bathroom garbage with three small receptacles, one each for compost, recycling and trash. (If bathroom waste gets put into the same bin, it will rarely if ever get sorted on pickup day.)
This is truly the number one way to divert waste from landfill. It is also one of the most impactful things you can do. Organic waste in landfill does not properly biodegrade because of the anaerobic environment of landfills. Instead of breaking down into soil-building nutrients it off-gasses methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20x more powerful than carbon dioxide. If you have curbside compost pickup than you have it easy --- opt-in and use that service to it's maximum benefit. If not, then start a home-based system (we've got your back on this one too, stay posted for a comprehensive look at a particular system we're fond of, fermented compost!!!!).
7. Watch what you eat.
Create the world you want to see by also considering what's on your plate. As Michael Pollan famously wrote: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." What you eat is a highly personal choice, but moreover it is impacted by affordability and accessibility --- we are sensitive to this and understand that it is a highly nuanced area. However, there are some universal things you can do limit your impact when it comes to food, here are just a few:
-Eliminate processed, individually packaged foods (cereal bars, etc)
-Consider food miles. Read the labels and choose food that comes first from your local area, second from your province, third produced in Canada, and lastly produced in North America. This will undoubtedly mean choosing to go without certain things. This also encourages a seasonal diet which maximizes the nutritional density of food. It also keeps your local economy thriving and encourages small regenerative farms locally.
-Eliminate over-packaged food. We're looking at salad in a plastic box. Or a pint of winter blueberries from Chile. You get the idea.
-Go organic whenever possible as this does not support pesticides that harm your health as well as destroy biodiversity and soil.
-Avoid factory-farmed meat products (methane offgassed from factory feedlots as well as carbon released during clear cutting of land for cattle or feed is a major factor in global greenhouse gas emissions). Choose locally produced meat from farmers who practice regenerative methods and limit consumption to a few days per week.
-Avoid or limit industrialized monocrops such as corn, soy or canola which are often the core ingredients in processed food and can be the cause of deforestation around the world.
Above: shopping plastic-free at the Muskoka North Good Food Co-Op.
8. Choose to purchase food unpackaged from bulk food stores and to refill!
In the eleven years that we have been open we have witnessed a revolution. It is now possible, largely through independently-owned changemakers like Sustain, to refill everything from toothpaste to dish soap! This option is increasingly available and if a local, independent business is not available to you, then nationally Bulk Barn is a great option now that they accept reusable containers!
9. Embrace and encourage regenerative agricultural practices.
In our minds, this is one of the most promising and sorely needed solutions to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and restore soil. Industrial approaches to farming, organic or not, have degenerated our land to the point that if nothing is done, we will lose our ability to grow food at all because of topsoil erosion and degradation. Regenerative practices also provide a greater yield for the farmer with little to no dependence on expensive technology, pesticides or fertilizers. This is something we plan to talk a LOT more about this year, so please stay tuned!
10. Speaking of which, grow your own food.
Just like the victory gardens of World War II, we believe this is the new, old way. Growing your own food is to take place in a quiet revolution that opts out of unsustainable industrialized practices. It's empowering, healthy, and meaningful. Don't have the space? Consider joining a community garden (which is a really great opportunity for beginners to learn from more experienced gardeners).
11. Make your own...
especially food!! A proven and reliable tactic in our home is make most things from scratch with ingredients purchased package-free. It saves money (if perhaps not time, sorry), is better for you, is empowering, and eliminates a great deal of waste. We plan to add more but for now check out our series "Recipes from the Waste-Free Kitchen" for some ideas (like making your own hummus, nut-milk or crackers). And don't stop with food! Learn to knit, to mend your torn jeans, sew your own shopping bags, the list is endless!
12. What not to wear:
This year, if you can, avoid purchasing new items from fast fashion. There are lots of reasons why, from unfair and unethical labour practices to unsustainable fibers (we recommend Elizabeth Cline's book The Conscious Closet if you would like to learn more). In addition this kind of clothing simply does not last making it a waste of money to boot! These days, thrift and second-hand stores are overflowing with like-new items so there is very little need to purchase new. Consider moving to a capsule-closet (as an added bonus it makes getting dressed so much easier) and embracing a minimalist approach. Look for clothing that is made from natural, not synthetic fibers, for added longevity and value. If you do purchase new, find ethical options from domestic producers preferably from a local store (personally we always feel good about such purchases, you are supporting makers and small business and the fact that you spend more money on these pieces mean that you will wear them for longer and take greater care).
Above: Group thinking 'green lines' (solutions for the climate crisis) at the Green New Deal meeting held at Sustain this past spring.
13. Embrace incrementalism while also demanding systemic change.
We have made a life out of making small habit shifts accessible, and we are absolute die-hards in the belief that individual actions matter. It's where every revolution begins. That said, incrementalism (many small changes over time) is no longer enough --- we must also ask for, even demand, systemic change. Once again this is a complicated subject, rife with political debate, but simply put, the status quo will no longer do. So what can you do?
-Buy from independent businesses whenever possible. Your purchasing habits are powerful!
-Write a letter to your MP, MPP, Premier and PM voicing your concerns. Politicians need to hear what you have to say, now more than ever. If they know you aren't on board with how things are and that they have support to make changes they are more likely to!
Above: signing petitions at the Green New Deal meeting held at Sustain last spring.
-Speak to members of your local government, members of council and chairs of committees and tell them how you feel. Express that you support their effort to make change. You could gather a small group to create a petition or create a resolution to present to council signed by local businesses asking for a ban on single-use plastic or the declaration of a climate emergency (with meaningful action attached to it), as an example!
-Sign a petition, heck start one!
-Attend a peaceful protest or demonstration.
Above:The Sustain Huntsville team at our local climate rally this past fall.
-Create a focus or action group on whatever issue is most pressing to you and explore ways to collectively work toward a common goal.
-Speak positively about the hopeful future you envision to others.
14. And... use your voice.
These days there are more ways to exercise free speech then ever before. This is a deep privilege --- use and leverage it. The more that people are talking, the more points of view are shared, the more we will get done.
15. But... be respectful.
Most often we hear about activism or environmentalism as a fight. We prefer to adhere to a framework of unifying our vision for a future that sustains life on this planet indefinitely and speaking out from a place of inclusion and positivity (which can feel really hard on some days but remains more important than ever). Of course, there may be a time and a place for a more aggressive approach, but we feel that in fighting each other the environmental/social justice movements risk losing ground, and here's why:
-It encourages shame and blame. Let's assume that everyone is doing their best with the knowledge and resources they have. We all have room to improve, perfection will never be possible, but we must encourage (rather than shame) each other to be more aware, to take the next step, whatever that may mean to each individual rather than feel badly about not 'doing enough'. (Incidentally shaming and blaming also makes people who are doing a lot feel insignificant or insufficient.)
-It positions one side against the other. We truly need to work together on this. We all share this planet, drink the same water, breathe the same air. We feel that overly divisive tactics leave too many people in the middle, unsure what to do or not wanting to "take sides" and thus they do nothing.
-It more deeply entrenches people and causes change to be resisted for longer. It also makes us blind to different points of view, or to the nuances that influence each person's experiences. In order to change minds, we must also change hearts, and it is our personal feeling that confrontation is rarely the way as opposed to thoughtful, open-minded conversation.
16. Become a conservationist.
Find out what lands are vulnerable in your area and who is working to protect it. Join those groups and add your voice and effort. The survival of Earth depends on biodiversity and restoration of degraded lands --- as we move towards a greener economy we must approach every project through the lens of restoration --- as an example, clearing tropical forests for biofuel plantations is not progress in our view (this has been the approach by some countries to move towards renewable energy economies). This applies to cultural understanding and diversity as well: deliberately seek to understand another culture's understanding of our relationship to the natural world and their solutions. In colonized countries like Canada we must remember our history, seek reparations and show solidarity with Indigenous stewards of this land. This is a time of monumental transition and we need to build as many bridges as possible with understanding, love and empathy as the founding priciniple. We recommend reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's book Braiding Sweetgrass as a wonderful place to start widening your perspective.
17. Think circular.
One of the things we stand for at Sustain is encouraging and embracing a circular economy. Currently, our economy is a linear one, where things are made with only cost in mind, used for a short while, then sent to languish forever in landfill. There is a better way! In a circular economic model, things are made with repair, reuse, recapture and recycling in mind. They are designed so that materials are not mixed, are easily disassembled, and raw materials can be reused in manufacturing. This places responsibility on the manufacturer, their methods, which is shared with the consumer (time and attention must be taken to return items for recapture and recycling). Again, this is something we plan to talk about a lot more this year, but you can dive into some basic ways to support a circular economy here and read The Upcycle by McDonnel and Braungart (this book is among our top life-changing reads).
Read about it. There are some insanely amazing books out there that provide inexhaustible ways to make a difference or shift ways of thinking. Here are some of our favourites:
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming; Edited by Paul Hawken
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
Climate, A New Story by Charles Eisenstein
Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone
So there it is. Our best effort, and a snapshot at what we at Sustain are personally doing to make this year our best year of action ever!! Thank you for reading and for striving to make a difference in your community. As Jonathan always says: "those who doubt one person can make a difference have not spent the night in a tent with a mosquito!"
Photos by Danielle Taylor for Sustain.