Spreading the Word About Sustainable Living

My official month of green living has come to an end, though my goal is to continue with many of little lifestyle tweaks I’ve adopted and tested in the previous month.

As I had hoped, the past month was an illuminating and eye-opening 31 days for me, someone who considering himself somewhat in tune with environmental sustainability and eco-friendly living.

I didn’t really understand what green living entailed, however, until I consciously changed my own day-to-day behaviors, shopping habits, cleaning, the way I ate and the way I worked.

With my month-long experiment now finished, there are plenty of lessons and truths and observations I’ve learned and taken to heart. In today’s post and the post to follow, I want to point out a couple of those big-picture ideas I could’ve only learned spending 30 days changing my own lifestyle to be more sustainable and writing about it.

The first idea, which I’ll discuss in the post, involves dispelling a certain stereotype associated with environmentally conscious people.

Since around the 1960s, anyone who’s voiced even the smallest interest in decreasing his or her carbon footprint, reducing his or her personal impact on the environment or even deciding to eat more vegetables over meat have been labeled as a treehugger, hippie, environmental wackjob and the list goes on.

For the past 40 years, there hasn’t been a great middle ground between your average consumer and the types who camp out in trees to save them from destruction or the people who throw paint on rich people’s fur coats. It’s always been us or them, normalcy versus environmental extremism.

But having spent this past month, in 2009, living as green as possible, I can honestly say that anyone still peddling the “look at those nature-loving maniacs” label is behind the times. The people I met over the past month were of all ages—college students, single parents, retirees, upper-middle class newlyweds—and none of them fit the old environmentally conscious labels. And they weren’t all Greenpeace activists (not that I dislike Greenpeace, by any means) or members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or tied to any other similar organizations. They simply cared about the environment and their impact on it.

Which goes to show that eco-friendly living is catching on throughout the population. I see more “green” or “natural” or “organic” products in various stores than ever before; I hear more people in my classes, at the grocery store, at the coffee shop, talking about environmental issues, which are more mainstream and visible today.

Does that mean we’re at a place where promoting these kinds of ideas and messages is no longer necessary? Not at all. And access to these ideas, and eco-friendly products and foods and supplies, needs to be greatly expanded as well.

One of the main critiques of the environmental movement I have after my month-long project is the cost. To be fair, living green ain’t cheap. The health and environmental benefits are immense, but for some people (many college students included) the costs are still too steep. The Ann Arbor farmer’s market, for instance, for all its virtues and locally grown, healthy food, still costs a good amount for college student like myself stretching every dollar to its breaking point.

The kinds of information about living a more sustainable lifestyle need to be more accessible as well. Not everyone knows of Michael Pollan. Not everyone has readily available Internet access and can look up information about natural and organic food.

We could start by incorporating more information about sustainable living and healthy eating habits into our K-12 schools. Building sustainable habits with young students will influence them as they get older and could also encourage these students to talk to their parents sustainability-related issues as well.

Beyond the classroom, spreading ideas about living sustainably—growing your own garden, building a compost pile, reusing as much as possible—through community networks and newspapers is crucial, too. Anything to get more people interested in living sustainably is worth the effort.

While today’s post took a broader look at what I’ve learned from my green living experiment, the next—and final—post will address my personal experience and whether I succeeded in meeting my goal of cutting my carbon footprint in half. If readers have any thoughts on the ideas above, I’d love to hear them, either in the Comments section or in an e-mail. You can reach me at akroll [at] umich.com.