Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Negative Impact + Positive Impact = No Net Impact

First some business from The Conscious Shopper...The winner of the Green Collar Economy giveaway is: Suzannah! Please email your address to consciousshopperblog [at] gmail [dot] com, and I'll ship that right out to you!

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how I've been "thinking too much" about my car(bon) problem - my gas guzzling minivan. I was hoping that by writing about it, I could put it out of my mind, but it didn't work. All of your amazing comments put a fresh spin on my thoughts, so I kept thinking about it and calculating ways to solve my problem and googling for ways to fit me and three kids on a bike until finally my husband was tired of hearing about it. "You've thought it all through," he said. "You're doing the best you can. Just give it up."

"But I can't!" I said. "Transportation is an area where we could really make a difference, but we're not!"

I've hit a wall in this category. I could sacrifice more but it would involve spending money we don't have or saying bye-bye to good friends because I can't reach their houses by public transportation or making grandparents miserable because they live too far away to see my kids. I could make more sacrifices, but it would make us unhappy. Should saving the planet make us unhappy?

Colin Beavan has touched on this concept both on his blog and in his book No Impact Man. For people who criticized Beavan by saying that no one (especially not an American living in New York City) could live a truly no impact life, Beavan responded that the point was not to sacrifice to the point of making one's life miserable. The point was to figure out "how much of our consumption of the planet's resources actually makes us happier and how much just keeps us chained up as wage slaves."

Knowing that he couldn't possibly reach no impact, he says:
[I decided] I'd have to balance what negative impact we couldn't eliminate with some sort of positive impact...In blunt mathematical terms, in case you are an engineer or just a geek who likes math, we would try to achieve an equilibrium that looked something like this:

Negative Impact + Positive Impact = No Net Impact
Beavan's idea really struck me as I was thinking about my car problem. We're still trying to walk more and drive less, I'd like to get some kind of kid-hauling bike contraption in a year or two when I plan to go back to college, and in five years when we're in the market for a new vehicle, we will make a much more eco-friendly choice. But because we live in Raleigh and have three kids, a car-free lifestyle isn't likely for a long long time (if ever). Even with all of our efforts to reduce our impact, our transportation will have some sort of negative impact on the planet.

You may have areas of your own life where you can relate. Maybe you're renting and your landlords won't even discuss energy efficiency. Maybe you've tried to create less trash, but there are no grocery stores in your area with bulk bins. Maybe you're trying to decrease your exposure to pesticides, but your grocery store has a limited selection of organic fruits and vegetables. You've honestly tried! But it doesn't feel like enough.

I haven't read to the point of the book yet where Beavan describes his own attempts at balancing negative impact with positive impact, but I have a few ideas of my own about how to make a positive impact when you feel like you've hit a wall in decreasing your negative impact.

"Balancing Act" by SashaW

1. Find a carbon offset program.

This is the obvious first suggestion. I have to admit that in the past, I've been skeptical about carbon offset programs. Do people feel like they have a free pass if they buy carbon offsets? How do they know how much carbon I'm producing and how much to offset? Is my money really being used for the right purposes? And then there's the issue of cost. (Around here cost is always an issue). If you've had these same thoughts, Green America has an informative article about how carbon offsetting works and what are the best "carbon-busting projects" to support.

2. Vote.

Do you want to see more farmer's markets? Elect officials who support farmer's markets.

Do you wish your neighborhood was more walkable? Elect officials that support good urban planning, mixed communities, and sidewalks.

Do you support a greener economy? Elect officials who support a greener economy (in whatever way you believe is the best way to get there).

I have never understood people who love to complain but don't vote. You have a voice! Use it!

3. Vote with your dollar.

As the Conscious Shopper, this is a concept I truly believe in. Corporations will whip out their claws to fight laws and regulation, but when the marketplace speaks, they listen.

If we want to see organic products more widely available, we need to buy organic products. If we're tired of reading every label in search of non-toxic personal care products, we need to buy non-toxic personal care products. If we want more accessible public transportation, we need to support the public transit we already have. (That last sentence is for me...) When corporations and elected officials get the message that we are in the market for a cleaner, greener world, they will deliver.

4. Get active.

If something outside of your immediate control is hampering your ability to go green, get involved in the solution. For example, Raleigh is the most tree-lovin' city I've ever seen (it's called the City of Oaks, after all), which is great for carbon capture and energy efficient landscaping but not so great for urban gardening. Although my current yard is sunny enough for a garden, we probably won't always live in this house, so I'm involved with a group that advocates for community gardens.

What's holding you back from living a green life? How could you solve it? Where are your passions? Now get involved.

5. Perform eco service.

In the part I've read so far, Beavan says that he plans to create a positive impact by "cleaning up garbage in the Hudson River" and "helping care for newly planted trees." I'm sure you can find similar ways to help out in your own communities - it may be as simple as picking up trash on the side of the road.

6. Serve others.

Also on Beavan's list of ways he plans to create positive impact, he includes "giving money to charity." I'm sure this is not a traditional way to offset your carbon footprint, but I really like it - the idea that you can balance out your negative environmental impact not just by doing good to the planet but by doing good in general.

This idea works for me because I believe that one of the reasons we're in this mess is that we got caught up in earning money, improving our "standard of living," and accumulating things, and as a result, we became less connected to people. We don't have the same sense of social obligation that previous generations had. In general, we care less, and we're less kind.

Doing good to others might not directly have an affect on your carbon footprint, but it will still have a positive effect on the world. If you don't have time but you have money, give to charity, as Beavan suggests. But if you do have time, the selfless act of spending it in the service of others is invaluable to the well-being of our families, communities, cities, and countries.

Please note that I don't mean for these ideas to be used as an excuse for not trying to lower your impact. Transitioning to a greener life should always come in this order: Work on lowering your impact first, do all that you can, and then find ways to offset the rest.

What do you think about Beavan's idea that negative impact + positive impact = no net impact? And what ways have you found to offset your negative impact on the planet?


Green Bean said...

A great reminder. Sometimes, I just throw my hands up in the air over my transportation woes but it is important to remember that making a positive difference helps, to a degree, off set that. Thanks.

Daisy said...

#2 and #3 are my favorites.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Green Bean - Ha! You're such a good example of making a positive impact - both with your involvement with your son's school's money woes and with your inspirational words here.

@Daisy - Yes! Yesterday was election day here in Raleigh, and only 11% of registered voters made it to the polls. That's pathetic! Voting is such an important way to have a positive impact.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin