What youth can do to help to save the Earth

03/06/2017 09:16 am ET Updated Mar 06, 2017

Young people are deeply concerned about the destruction of our environment and the complete lack of consideration for their own futures shown by the previous generations. They find it disturbing that those in positions of authority have not only lacked the courage to take on the serious challenge of modifying their own behavior, but also have not even taken the simple step of advocating for policies aimed at the long-term interests of our shared planet. Too often the environment has been brought up with reference to far-away polar bears and glaciers and other things very far away from daily life. It is suggested that the only thing that youth can do is to hope that high government officials and the super rich will sign agreements that will magically transform our world. Youth are led to believe that only through donations to Greenpeace can they have some impact, and that only the highly paid government experts on the intergovernmental panel on climate change are in a position to make a difference.

But youth rarely have a chance to learn about how their daily actions and decisions can have an impact on the environment. Many of those professors and government officials you see on TV have ceased to play any meaningful role and are rather misleading you, giving you the false impression that something is being done when nothing is.

You should know that knowledge, or education at elite schools, if it lacks ethical commitment and concrete action, is like blood in the veins without a beating heart and breathing lungs. Such passive knowledge is the equivalent of death. More often than not education has been reduced to a form of commercial entertainment, and that entertainment is aimed not at focusing attention on critical issues, but rather on distracting the public from the overwhelming threat.

The crisis of a growing global population, desertification, the contamination of water, over-fishing, unsustainable farming, and damage to the atmosphere itself demands a radical change in our society at every level. But the thinking of those educated leaders you see on TV is so sclerotic, so far away from what is needed, that the international community is not taking even the first baby steps towards real change.

Instead, the previous generation consumes resources for its enjoyment during its lifetime with little thought as to what your fate will be.

There are simple steps that you can take that will get us on the path towards real change. You do not need Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project to help you. But you will need bravery and you will need imagination.

The great Greek historian Thucydides wrote:

“The secret to happiness is freedom... And the secret to freedom is courage.”

What he meant was that happiness does not mean feeling good because you are eating an expensive meal at a fancy restaurant or driving a big car. If anything, if you try to satisfy your desire for happiness by consuming, then you are not happy at all. You are rather compulsive and distracted, rushing around trying to make yourself feel like you are doing something that will make your mood better.

The fundamental problem is that you are not free. You are not deciding anything about your life. You are rather absorbing norms from advertising or allowing peer pressure to determine what you think is of value. There is no happiness to be found there. If you have the bravery to insist on knowing the truth and on making your own decisions, even if you should have nothing at all, you will be free in that moment, and you will also be happy in that moment in a sense that you could never achieve by eating expensive food or living in a big house. And if you know that consuming expensive food or living in a big house can only be done by sacrificing the environment and depriving other people, you cannot do it with an easy conscience.

Here are some suggestions as to what you can do today to help the environment and to change the thinking of those around you. Some steps are simple and others are more difficult. I also provide some suggestions concerning what you can demand of those around you. Of course people will not necessarily heed your demands. But if you and others keep asking for these changes, if you have the bravery and the tenacity to keep at it, and others do so as well, you will create a force for change that will eventually make the difference.

You should expand on these points, and add others, then tell them to your friends, parents and neighbors. If you go into a store and tell people what needs to be done, it will put a bit of pressure on people, and if that effort is repeated, it will grow into a wave. Change will require that your friends and many others take the same steps. The act resistance is a powerful way to make a demand. However, in many cases there is not even a plan as to what should be done in place. You not only need to demand change, you must also propose what that change should be.

Finally, we must keep in mind that ultimately this struggle is about culture. As the environment expert James Gustave Speth has written,

"I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation."

In every moment of your life, wrestle to take control of consumer culture
We are trapped inside a consumer culture that is rapidly destroying our ecosystem and our society. As long as we think about things and people as something to consume and we assume that consumption is a positive, we are in trouble. You can take steps to refuse to consume, and also you can resist the pressure to buy.
All citizens should be taught about the dangers of consumer culture starting in kindergarten. Warnings against the destructiveness of a narrow interpretation of human experience must be reiterated in what we read, watch, and listen to. Life has many meanings but thoughtless consumption is not one of them. You can make consumerism, and the terrible spiritual cost it entails, a central topic for discussion. We must use our imagination to come up with ideas for what our society could be, to lay the foundations for a “conservation culture.” You can also engage in creative and intellectual activities that offer a powerful alternative to this consumer culture of death. Start today!
Recycling is the second best approach
You see all around you suggestions that what we need to do is to recycle. And yet, not only is there no effort made to make sure that everything used is collected for recycling, recycling pickup locations poorly planned and explanations are often ambiguous about what can be recycled. But, in reality, the process that you see when trucks come to pick up and take away bottles and cans is not “recycling” in the true sense of the word. The materials that are “recycled” are ultimately used to create lower-grade products in many cases, not reused for the same function. And often the resulting product cannot be further recycled into something of value after use. Therefore, plastics made from petroleum may be recycled into bricks, but those bricks could have been made from other natural products and the entire process is a loss for the environment. Recycling paper is better than dumping it in a landfill, but that paper is rarely recycled into products of the same level of quality. It would be much better to avoid using paper from the beginning.
There are absolute limits to the recycling of many materials. Materials like plastics should simply be banned. These materials can only be reused in a very limited sense and their negative impact is immense. They should only be employed in limited cases where absolutely necessary.
What we need is strict regulations that require that we stop manufacturing wasteful products, and rather create solid useful goods that last for years, or even decades. Most products should be made from organic materials found in the local region. If a product had a component that cannot be readily recycled, then its sales should be limited to absolute necessity.
Finally, recycling is an ethical issue. No one should use throw-away cups, or plastic, or any other product without a sense that he or she is engaged in an unethical act. At first, it will be near impossible for young people to demand that those around them conform to such high standards. But if in your life you set the example, every time you bring to the attention of others that they are wasting resources and contributing to the destruction of our precious environment, you will make a bit of progress in altering our society and culture.
Built to last
The first step towards a 100% recycling society is making products that are built to last. We need shoes and hats can last for twenty years, shirts and pants that can be worn for ten years, or more. And many other products, like tables, chairs, china, pots, and pens, if well-designed and well-made, can last for even longer periods of time. We must make disposable pens illegal; only pens that can be refilled without any element that is thrown away should be permitted.
To make such a system work, we need two fundamental shifts. First, we must make the resale or donation of products, of used clothes and furniture for example, an absolute requirement of all citizens. Reusing products is not a sign of poverty or lack of means, but rather an ethical act of respect for this Earth. If you have a two year-old baby, that baby may outgrow a pair of socks in a few months. But the socks should be made of durable materials that could last for ten years. A system for reselling the used socks quickly to a broad range of possible buyers is essential. An exchange of this kind could generate income for people at the local level.
We need to calculate the value of an umbrella, or a pair of pants, in terms of its value over twenty years. If a pair of shoes can last for twenty years but costs more than a regular pair, micro-finance should be available that allows you to pay for it at a reasonable price at that moment, and then keep making tiny payments over time. A pair of pants might cost $500, but you would pay only $100 and then pay something like two dollars a month for fifteen years. Such finance should be readily available and it should be set not to make profits for banks, but rather to allow people to purchase the appropriate goods using a long-term perspective. Micro insurance should also be available to make sure that owners do not suffer undo losses if their possessions are damaged.
Of course many people leave behind umbrellas or shoes very easily today. This problem is one of culture, not of umbrellas or shoes. If we create a new culture, create new habits and values that make preserving objects a high priority, an ethical priority, people will learn to take good care of their possessions, and keep them for ten or twenty years. We must move beyond a consumer culture to a culture of preservation. Such a culture is conservative in the more honest sense of the word.
Repair houses, clothes, bicycles, furniture, and just about everything else
Nothing, except food and medicine, should be produced if it cannot be repaired. We need to create again a section of our economy that is engaged in the maintenance and restoration of products, from household utensils and clothing to furniture, bicycles, and cameras. Products, even minor ones like pens and staplers, knives and scissors, must be crafted in an attractive manner and be designed so that they can be repaired easily, as is increasingly possible at repair cafes. New goods should never be thrown away.
A few first steps to make this policy possible:
a) require that small replacement parts for all electronic and mechanical items be provided by law and that the standard parts of most products (bicycles, toasters, computers, cameras) be interchangeable and interoperable between all brands;
b) build a culture through public education in which home repair is held up as a virtue;
c) offer education to all citizens that allows them to learn for themselves how to repair items.
If it can’t be easily broken down into basic categories for recycling, do not sell it to consumers
All products should be manufactured with the convenience of recycling as a high priority. If it is made using five or six materials, it must be easy to pull them apart and recycle each element independently. If a product cannot be broken down into recyclable parts, it should not be for sale.
Locations for recycling should be prominently placed everywhere in the community and detailed lists presented of what can be recycled, and how. If it is essential to create a product in a format that is hard to recycle, such as IT products with complex computer boards, it will only be available after a tax to cover the expense of recycling has been paid. Demand such services in your neighborhood.
Realistic sanitation
We need a new system for providing cheap and environmentally friendly sanitation in stores, in restaurants, in hospitals, and in other public places. Currently, we wrap, refrigerate, and package foodstuffs, medical supplies, and hardware far more than is necessary. Many objects do not need to be wrapped in plastic or refrigerated in order to be sanitary. People should not think that every product must be wrapped in many layers of plastic before it is clean. Informed dialogue and education is required to educate people about what sanitation means so that we can move away from wasteful commercial practices.
We need to be honest about how much wrapping, sealing, and packaging is necessary. After all, chemicals and plastics employed in and around many products intended to keep us safe from germs are themselves hazardous to the environment, and sometimes hazardous to the products being protected. Rather than wasting resources on unnecessary rituals, we can learn from traditional cultures — so-called “primitive” communities — about how to practice realistic sanitation with the absolute minimum of resources consumed. It is possible to wash dishes, or take a shower, with a tiny amount of water. Many of us have never learned how.
If you must cut down a tree, you must plant three!
We deceive ourselves and others by thinking that, if we plant a tree in a visible place, that the massive destruction of trees around the world is lessened. But we need to keep careful records of what is actually happening to trees around the world and to demand, by law, that if a tree must be cut down, then at least one tree must be planted to compensate. If a square meter of soil is covered up with a building here, then a square meter of soil must be uncovered somewhere else.
This applies to imports as well. Cutting down trees in Indonesia or Thailand to provide cheap desks or paneling to rich countries is even more immoral than cutting down trees in one’s own neighborhood.
All impositions on nature must be strictly regulated and we should set out long-term goals to reforest large parts of our world. This goal can only be achieved if we are made constantly aware of how our actions impinge on the rest of the world. There is plenty of room in our world to plant more trees and thereby to help remove carbon from the atmosphere. Yet there are few incentives to make every empty space a forest. Any building that is not occupied should be torn down immediately and made into a green space. The imposition on green spaces to put up new buildings should be prohibited.
Establish a GDE (Gross Domestic Environment)
We must demand that government and all institutions adopt a realistic assessment for the state of the economy that calculates the cost of damaging the environment. If the environment is damaged in any way, if the air or the water is polluted, or soil is lost as a result of a policy, or of a project, that fact must be factored into the calculation for the economy as a whole.
It is essential that we create a system for monitoring and calculating the state of the environment, both globally and locally, and that system should calculate and publish the GDE (Gross Domestic Environment) and GGE (Gross Global Environment) at regular intervals, thus making them a part of the news presented to citizens. It should not be permissible for a policy or practice that harms the environment for the sake of short-term profit to be presented in a positive light. Such an approach would be a more sophisticated version of the Yale Environmental Performance Index.
Calculating the GDE and GGE requires that we create a sophisticated global monitoring system that assesses the state of the environment at the local and global levels over the short term and long term and provides indications of how the situation is evolving. A new set of indicators must be established that will make such a system reliable and give it the authority that we find today in GDP figures. We must move away from the misleading statistics we currently use, which, by leaving the costs of massive environmental damage out of account, do not represent the true long-term economy.
Slap a display on it
We live in blissful ignorance of just how much energy our self-indulgent behavior consumes. We see nothing around us that suggests what the overall cost is for the energy that we use, let alone the cost for the environment, or for future generations. We must require every person to be made aware of how much energy he or she uses every minute, and how. Every instrument that uses energy, whether a refrigerator, a television, computer, a shower or a toaster, must have a display built into it that indicates exactly how much energy is being used and the value of that energy. Public buildings should also publicly display the amount of energy that they are consuming.
Power load monitors already exist, but they should be mandatory. The application of these displays should go hand and hand with strict rules for efficiency in all appliances. Energy efficiency must be the highest priority in the development of all products and those which do not make the standard should be restricted, or prohibited.
Allow people to produce their own energy and let them sell it to others directly
Although technologically not that complicated, currently there is no easy way for the individual to add energy to the grid either from an exercise bike, a solar panel, or a small wind turbine in most countries. We are forced to remain passive consumers of electricity produced by the big companies. The best way to encourage alternative energy is to set up systems that allow individuals to create energy, even in very small amounts, and to sell it to others. We need to set up grids that belong to the community and that allow everyone to contribute even tiny amounts of energy back for our own use later, or for sale to others in our neighborhood. Even tiny payments will be sufficient to encourage people to set up solar panels, or to stay on the exercise bike for a couple of hours to make a bit of cash. Some efforts are already underway in Hawaii.
A pro-environment movement that is aimed at the upper middle class is a non-starter
One of the great farces of our age is advocacy for environmental awareness from the driver’s seat of a Prius. Too many wealthy lawyers, doctors, and accountants think that they are helping the economy by buying a third car that is electric. Organic food that is priced so that only those who make $80,000 a year can eat it is simply grotesque. We must create a sustainable economy in which everyone can participate.
Unless the environmental movement becomes something that is economically meaningful for the working class people, its impact will be extremely limited and workers will be drawn to the deceitful arguments of businessmen who suggest that we must destroy the environment in order to create jobs.
The new green economy should not be primarily for the upper middle class, but rather primarily for working class people who will find in it a chance to produce their own healthy food and to protect themselves from environmental threats. Electric cars must be cheaper than petro-cars and public transportation should be readily available for everyone at a minimal cost. The more equitable our green society is, the more likely we will be to succeed. We do not want to fall into the Sweden trap of thinking that just because a highly educated privileged population is green-conscious, our work is done.
The environmental crisis is an issue of aesthetics, not merely of economics or of technology
Although we tend to think of the environmental crisis as a problem of poorly designed cities or flawed economic models, the underlying problem is rather one of aesthetics. Greed, indifference, and uncontrolled consumption derive from confusion about the nature of value undermines all efforts to respond to climate change. We have been misled by a gaudy aesthetics of consumption to such a degree that we cannot appreciate the beauty of the world for what it is. Everything must be processed before it is beautiful.
Because we are unable to assess for ourselves what is of value and what is meaningful, we destroy the world that we inhabit without knowing what we do..
We have been trained to think that buildings made of steel, glass, and concrete are modern and glamorous. If we smell a rotten plant when walking down the street, or we step in a puddle, we feel that our society is slipping backwards into neglect and poverty. Items made with injection molding with perfect surfaces seem to us to be modern and trustworthy whereas things made by a local craftsman strike us as being crude and inferior. The problem is one of perceptions and aesthetics and the result is tremendous waste. Industrial society has imprinted on us strict rules of aesthetics that lead us to seek out consumption, waste, and extravagance.
Much better for us if we learn to live with the smell of decay than that we insist on living in a sanitized world, among objects made out of perfect plastic and glass whose manufacture and disposal cause unlimited damage to our ecosystem.
The current corporate-dominated aesthetic disdain for the natural and for the everyday is a major challenge for us as we try to restore the environment. Most people want to blame “corporations” or “capitalism” for the problems that our society faces, but those concepts are themselves born of distorted definitions of aesthetics.
It is the humanities, and not science and technology, that offers the possibility of changing our habits and culture. We can alter our path only if we engage in discussions at highest level of metaphysics and epistemology.
Mindfulness: Learn to sit still
We waste so many resources simply because we cannot sit still. Driven by a relentless need to consume, we wander the house consuming snacks we do not need, then watch movies that do not interest us, and then take off in our cars to drive across the city looking for things to buy, to eat, and to waste. But it is possible, and far more fulfilling, to spend the entire day practicing yoga, meditating, reading books, and writing. In between those activities, you might spend time talking with a few friends about what you have read, or about how it can be applied to improving the community. All this can be done in a small room without consuming much of anything.
Such a change in behavior will do more than any particular technology to protect the environment. If we can just have meaningful conversations, play with our children, and enjoy our lives we will save an amazing amount of energy.
We cannot act in this manner because we lack mindfulness, a deeper awareness of how our thinking works and an ability to understand and control our impulses. Although meditation and yoga practice may seem very far away from environmental policies, that sort of a shift in our thinking could make all the difference.
If we start to expose our citizens from preschool to mindfulness, if we start to instill a culture of awareness, and of stillness, we will have a generation that can sit in a room all day and feel entirely at ease.
We must become more materialistic
What exactly do we mean when we use the word “materialism?” Although at first glance it may seem as if the problem is that we are taken up too much with the material world, in fact this mad consumption means rather a lack of attention to the actual materiality of objects. We are moving away from the material and from the personal experience of the specific. We consume things as if they were all interchangeable homogenous experiences that trigger a pleasurable response. We do so by assigning prices to what we consume to set its value. But that practice takes us further away from the material world.
If anything, a consumption culture is about quantitative values (how much?) or about vague associations (it makes me feel fashionable!). The result is that we waste more, but we enjoy the taste of the food less, the texture of the clothes less. Often conversations are about how much things cost, rather than about what they are in themselves.
We need to return to the material, everyday world, to enjoy the touch of wood or stone, to value books or pencils, seeing them as truly precious. A deep appreciation of ordinary objects and simple food will relieve the need that we feel to consume. If we care for the objects around us, they will last far into the future and give us simple pleasures that cannot be matched by any level of consumption.
We must be brave
It takes a special kind of bravery to confront those who are promoting actions dangerous to the climate. Most people do not want to recognize the gravity of the threat of climate change, let alone take any action. But we need the leadership of those who have the bravery to refuse to use plastic utensils and to say no to disposable plastic bags. They need to be brave enough to go hungry if necessary.
It is a different bravery than marching into battle, but in some ways it is a more precious form of bravery. There are many who are capable of marching off to war, but few who are willing to stand up against an entire engrained system, which may include their entire family and all of their friends. We think nothing of flying planes, despite the terrible impact they have on society, or using electricity for the internet. Who will have the bravery to be the first to say no to waste, to the destruction of the environment?
That bravery to refuse seafood because of the damage done to the life of our oceans, or to walk rather than riding a bus, is often painful, but it can also inspire others to strive for something higher. One must brave the distain, the misunderstanding, and the contempt of those who refuse to confront the truth.
The greatest bravery is seen in those who will tell strangers that they should not use disposable forks and knives, that they should not waste food, that they should respect the environment. There must be those who go up to the owners of stores and ask that they not waste energy, or materials, or food. When we have many who are so brave, we will see real change.
We must defeat denial even at the cost of pain
Denial is a beast with many heads and it must be battled at every turn. People do not want to think about the scale of the climate threat, or to contemplate the implications of their actions for their children and grandchildren. We should never assume that we have defeated denial. Humans create elaborate mechanisms that allow them to deny the severity of climate change. Your mother, for example, will comment about how cold a day it is when it is obvious to anyone that the temperature is far too warm for February. Such a psychology is natural, but it must be challenged.
We must be brave enough to accept the reality of climate change and to face directly its brutal consequences before we can make any progress. We must be brave enough to keep repeating this fact to those around us who do not want to think about this crisis, and do so until they start to pay attention.
Most of us are part of the cause of this crisis. In our actions, big and small, we contribute to climate change and only few of us have the discipline necessary to change our behavior. Denial and self-justification keep us from facing the truth. But the truth must be faced, and it must be faced now.
Advertising and media muddy the water about cause and effect
Our culture is based on thrills and shocks offered as thoughtless entertainment. This world leaves little room for careful contemplation. In part, the problem results from a misuse of technology. Children see image after image for free on television, but they see no cause and effect relationship between the images shown. As a result, many youth simply do not understand how cause and effect works in the natural world. That lack of a sense of cause and effect, born of years of exposure to corporate advertising, has resulted in a generation of young people who have trouble understanding how their actions impact the environment and appreciating how humans cause climate change.
The sin of false monumentality
Everywhere we see towering structures of concrete and glass that ignore the natural world and pay tribute to some fantasy of human self-importance. This massive structure that screams out “look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” is repeated in the media, in images that we see of “advanced nations” from our childhood on. As a result we naturally assume that erecting some massive structure will increase the value of land, bring status to the individual and the community, and make us more important.
The entire assumption is wrong and destructive. It is possible to have a society in which from childhood we learn to appreciate the tremendous depth and beauty in the simplest of objects in nature itself. We can come to value small and simple homes and also find value in our relations with others. I refer to the delusion as “false monumentality,” a frailty in all humans to think that building something grander in size will enhance our experiences and make life more significant, make our civilization more complete. This cultural misunderstanding underlies much of our consumer imperative, but that mentality can be slowly and carefully changed.
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