Throughout the nation, the arrival of spring brings along an almost obligate sense of connection to the natural world. It’s the little things that we remember to appreciate as the seasons change: heavy snowfall turns to misty rain, vegetation blooms once again, hibernators and migrators return and bring their standard din. Spring brings new beginnings and reawakening. Even the weeds struggle to do the seemingly impossible and bloom wherever planted, despite having few resources. Earth Day, April 22nd, provides a poignant opportunity for reflecting on our place in this wildly dynamic world.
Despite our differences, there is at least one undeniable truth we need to face collectively: all humans share common ground. We are all Terrans, inhabitants of the planet Earth. We have all been nurtured and sustained by the same giant mass majestically hurdling through the dark vacuum of infinite space. Since we are all residents of this planet, we all have a personal stake in maintaining the planet’s ability to sustain human life. If not for any other reason than to ensure the continuation of our species, we must come together, right now.
The ecosystem in which we live is a minute cog in a ginormous wheel, within an infinitely largerdynamic machine. In the somewhat grand scheme of things, we are human beings, who live in homes, within a community in the city of Madison, in the state of Wisconsin. We’re located in the midwestern region of the United States of America, on the continent of North America, within the Western Hemisphere of the planet Earth. Earth is in the solar system of the Milky Way galaxy in the only known universe. With that scale in mind, it may seem like individual humans are tiny parts of the circle of life in this grand Universe. We are immediately faced with the reality that microbes and microorganisms are much smaller than us, and electrons are even infinitely smaller. Humans possess vast amounts of physical real estate on this planet. For those who envision humanity’s place in the animal kingdom as equals among other species, let’s be better tenants. For those who envision humanity’s place in the worldas the rulers of all other animal species, let’s be better landlords. Whichever way you think of humanity’s place in the world, if you’d like to keep your place and keep this world, then join the fight to protect our shared home on this planet.
Recent discoveries of exoplanets within the “goldilocks zone” in a nearby star system make this Earth Day an excellent opportunity for community reflection on the gravity of our situation. The likelihood of encountering another planetary body with atmospheric conditions even remotely similar enough to Earth’s comfortable abode to compare is astronomically tiny. This planet is currently our one chance at continuation as a species. That is, at least until we discover how to travel outside of this solar system at a remotely reasonable speed to these newly discovered exoplanets and discover how to terraform planetary bodies to make them habitable for humans somewhere along the way…this could take a while. Environments like Earth’s are rare enough for humans to seek out other habitable planets and to race to discover and claim them. Given that, let’s show some appreciation for this humble home of ours and love the one we’re with. Let this Earth Day serve as a call to action to make the most of what we have right now, together.
April Showers May or May Not Bring Flowers…Earlier Or Later Than Expected…
Global climate change is a planetary-wide issue. If we are looking for a reason to unify and cease our in-group fighting as a species, that reason is currently staring us down. The rate at which the climate is changing on this planet is both rapid and alarming. How do we know this? We know this because while data is constantly being collected and updated in this dynamic system, the climate is changing at a more statistically significant rapid rate now than it has in trends past. This is reason for our attention, at the very least. We as individuals can improve our environmentalist habits and positively encourage others to do the same. Our cooperative efforts at an environmentalist collective movement can upset the balance of things, for the better.
The idea of “saving the planet” should result in our innate human instinct to survive kicking into overdrive because what we really fear is species-wide extinction, a genuine reality for more species than we have even been able to record. If we destroy the environment, we are shooting ourselves in the foot, not the planet. The concept of “saving the planet” should really be rebranded as “saving yourself.” In reality, the planet will be fine without human inhabitants; it will adapt, as all things must and do, until its own inevitable fiery star death. At this rate, it’s likely that the human species won’t be around to worry about that. We will have simply made the planet uninhabitable for our species and probably quite a few other innocent bystander species. While some believe that this means that life as we know it will cease to exist immediately, others believe nothing is happening at all and all is well. The truth is somewherein the middle. Honestly, we are changing the world, and I don’t mean that in the idealistic sense, but in the most realistic sense. Truth be told, we are having a significant negative impact on our ecosystems; therefore, we are responsible for the repairs and any subsequent fallout relating to our actions. The good news is: we can do it. In a world packed with billions of humans, our actions really do add up. What we do, cumulatively as a species will, and currently does, affect the environment and the rest of Earth’s inhabitants.
Within this gargantuan machine in which we live, if one cog ceases to function, the machine may perform less efficiently, but if many cogs cease to function, the machine itself may cease to function entirely. Have heart, because while we are having a large impact on the environment, our impact will inevitably continue, but we can strive to make our future impactpositive.
The Gravity of the Situation
The topic of environmentalism and conservation may seem like niche interests to some. However, anyone who lives in and relies upon an environment for existence should logically be an environmentalist for the sake of self-preservation. The fact that catastrophic environmental change doesn’t appear to currently be affecting everyone in every region prevents some from recognizing what that statement means. Preventative care is key to ameliorating both chronic and acute problems, but the key is the care aspect. Earth Day began as a movement to improve quality of life for all of Earth’s inhabitants by properly caring for the environment. By proxy, it is a movement to care for all of Earth’s inhabitants via clean water, clean air, and use of renewable resources. Environmentalism isn’t a choice; it’s about the long game for all of us.
Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson said it best while reflecting on Earth Day’s importance just a year after the movement began:
“So long as the human species inhabits the Earth, proper management of its resources will be the most fundamental issue we face. Our very survival will depend upon whether or not we are able to preserve, protect and defend our environment. We are not free to decide about whether or not our environment ‘matters.’ It does matter, apart from any political exigencies. We disregard the needs of our ecosystem at our mortal peril. That was the great lesson of Earth Day. It must never be forgotten.”
This should be our aim: never forget why Earth Day was and is needed and to work to make sure that in the future it is not needed. In an ideal world, future Earth Days would be celebrations of our environmental accomplishments. Earth Day would be selected as a celebratory holiday for generations and generations of humans to come to reflect on another pivotal turning point in humanity’s history; one in which we make the decision to do better for ourselves and everyone else. Outlined below are some strategies and tips for improving your environmental impact and helping others do the same to change the course of humankind’s history and our future.
REUSING, REDUCING, & REPAIRING
The idea of reusing goods rather than disposing of them for the sake of the environment may seem like an obvious solution to some. However, you can safely re-use many products marketed as disposable or one-time-use. Here are simple ways to reuse, reduce, and repair everyday products to help us help ourselves:
•Reduce food waste: Food waste and starvation are both on the rise across the globe. This means that we have the resources to feed too many in some places and not enough resources to feed many in other places. This poor allocation of resources can be mitigated by reducing food waste and re-routing food that would be wasted to people who would otherwise go hungry. Start by noting leftovers and trying to implement them into upcoming meals before preparing or buying new food. After that, try adjusting your grocery shopping schedule to shop when it’s most efficient; this may mean more frequently than you may be accustomed to, or buying certain products only on the day they are needed. Finally, if you have surplus, share.
•Reusable water bottles: Glass, stainless steel, bpa-/bps-/phthalate-free plastic, food-grade silicone, or aluminum; take your pick from the multitude of materials in which reusable water bottles are now offered. Fewer disposable plastic bottles in the landfills is a simple but noble goal.
•Reusable shopping bags: Full-sized backpacks that fold down to the size of a small tablet, capacious canvas bags, and efficient insulated grocery bags are just some of the options available for reusable shopping bags. For a minimalist option, simply reuse the paper or plastic grocery bags that you get from the Co-op on your next shopping trip if you don’t already have any. If handled with care when carried, folded and stored, standard paper grocery bags can last more trips before needing to be replaced than you might expect. Keep your bags in the car and save yourself the hassle of more “disposable” bags of which you must later dispose. If you already have a surplus, try using paper grocery bags as fireplace kindling or recycling holders and try plastic bags as small bathroom trash liners.
•Reusable food containers: lunch boxes, bento boxes, and lunch sacks are all great options for transporting your food. Paper grocery bags and plastic shopping bags also work well. You can also reuse the containers from common refrigerated grocery products, from yogurt containers for leftover food storage to resealable cereal bags for use with dry bulk pantry products.
•Reusable hygiene products: Cloth baby diapers, reusable cloth menstrual pads, rechargeable electric razors, and reusable medical-grade silicone menstrual cups are all options for reusable hygiene products that are available as environmentally friendly long-term reusable solutions. Check out the co-op’s health and wellness department for a fount of knowledge on the variety of options available reusable hygiene products.
•Reusable energy storage: Rechargeable batteries are another excellent way to avoid adding caustic materials to the disposal cycle. Try some of these options and find your level of interest in re-use; you may be surprised by what you’re able to stop purchasing.
•Repairing clothing: Tiny tears in clothing make them disposable now, when just a few years ago, patched and torn clothing was all the rage. Now consider the number of articles of clothing disposed of each year because of cosmetic issues. Learn to sew, knit, crochet, or find a community member who knows how to do one or all and negotiate a mutually beneficial exchange of goods or services. Less consumerism simply means fewer carbon emissions and resources expended in the supply chain.
•Repairing electronics: Electronics like laptops, tablets, and cell phones can sometimes be repaired when damaged. Disposing of these types of electronics can be complicated due to manufacturing component disposal regulations. Exchanging or selling the useful parts of these types of electronics can prove to be more lucrative than simply disposing them and taking a loss. Ever dropped your cell phone in water and had to throw it away? Next time, immediately remove the battery and submerge your phone in a bowl of rice. The rice will draw out the moisture and if done in a timely manner, just may save your phone.
•Repairing appliances: This may require a specialist, depending on the appliance, and your skill level. Repair can be a good option for appliances that have proven durable but may require regular maintenance. Household and commercial appliance disposal requires special permissions and advanced planning. Keep this in mind if disposal of large appliances is necessary and plan ahead.
RECYCLING: PAPER, CONTAINERS, BOTTLES, JUGS & CARDBOARD, OH MY!
Decoding what can be recycled may seem daunting in the heat of the moment. You’re standing frozen in front of the waste bins with a used napkin, a plastic water bottle, and a used hot bar container in hand, wondering which goes where for disposal. The used napkin and used hot bar container should be put in the trash…after scraping food scraps from the hot bar container into the compost bin. The plastic water bottle should be put in the recycling bin. If your water bottle came from a six-pack, make sure you cut the plastic rings that the bottles come packaged in to hold them together. Water creatures experience a myriad of problems with the abundance of this type of waste that ends up in our oceans, lakes, and waterways, so a little extra care when recycling really can make an impact.
Recycling will get easier with practice, and doing it properly requires a small amount of self-education to perfect this skill. For easydisposal, plastic containers should be labeled with the proper plastic type code, or instructions for proper disposal should be prominently displayed on the container. Bins of two different colors are helpful for making proper separation less complicated. If you notice a heavy flow of certain kinds of disposables in a specific area, put a bin near that spot for the specific disposal type most commonly used there. For example, you can make your recycling bin more accessible in the kitchen, like under a countertop; and put the trash in a less accessible place, like in a broom closet, to ensure recyclables don’t get habitually thrown into the trash. Prioritize recycling and optimize accessibility to recycling resources to gradually improve your environmental impact.
COMPOSTING: YARD WASTE & VEGETABLE SCRAPS
Composting is the process of disposing of valuable food scraps, specifically non-meat food scraps and yard vegetation, to allow the process of biodegradation to take place under optimized conditions. The food we eat is edible for other inhabitants in our ecosystems, and the byproducts from these other species’ feast, make for delicious nutrients for local plant life. This metaphorical potluck creates a symbiotic relationship between us, the insects and microbes that ingest our food scraps, and the plants that ultimately flourish due to digestive byproducts from the insects and microbes which provide the soil with vital minerals and nutrients in a cyclical and systemic fashion. Composting is the circle of life zoomed in on one tiny slice of the planet.
We can encourage certain kinds of visitors with our compost waste when it’s stored in the yard if non-compostable food scraps are introduced. Compost containers need to meet specific requirements for proper storage and maintenance to ensure safety from predators and efficiently composted soil. Requirements for both indoor and outdoor use vary widely based on your average compost output, smell factor, community and local ordinance requirements, and accessibility. Outdoor compost bins can be made from material as simple and inexpensive as shipping pallets, scrap wood or chicken wire, depending on your needs. Be sure to research composting bin options, your local ordinances; and consider checking with neighbors on their systems, if they have one. Kitchen compost containers should ideally be sealable, and yard containers should be breathable and easily turned, but not accessible to scavengers. This is one reason meat and bones are not compostable; they make for tasty treats for unwanted carnivorous and omnivorous visitors, such as raccoons and other stealthy trash and compost surfers. Outdoor compost piles can be a fast food walk-thru for these hungry scavengers; so leaving choice meat and bones outside, ripe for the picking, isn’t ideal. Meat and bones also delay the composting process, as they take longer to break down and disrupt the decomposition process.
Egg shells, on the other hand, provide a good source of calcium to your soil and plants and are a valuable addition to your compost pile, whenever available. Compost piles should be turned regularly, as in the bottom portion and top portion should be rotated, so that all portions get equal exposure to each position and are therefore processed equally. If you’re really interested in your local ecosystem and getting top-notch compost, you can add a colony of red earthworms to the mix and watch them refine your soil like well-trained factory workers. Composting pays off not only for the flora and fauna, but for gardens and yards also. Once the soil is completely processed, it should be a deep, dark, rich shade of earthy brown and your soil-dwelling partners have completed their duties. Your soil should now contain the vital nutrients and minerals that are part of what makes composting worth the effort for all parties involved. Composting can be mutually beneficial for the entire eco-system, if done correctly.
DONATING: GOODS, MONEY, OR TIME
Spring cleaning means a lot of paring down. Most of us are fortunate enough to have basic resources for survival readily available, but there are many of us who don’t. We can cooperate and right the balance of justice and equality in the world by donating our unneeded clothing, home goods, pantry foods, and other resources to community members who don’t have access to those resources. Willy North, West, and East all have food pantry donation areas near Customer Service all year round where you can donate to local community members easily before or after you shop. Look for the big clothing donation bins in the parking lots of many major business areas, including Willy North’s Sherman Ave. shopping center parking lot, and donate your new or gently used clothing to your local community members. There are tons of opportunities to donate most anything, so before you dispose of your unneeded resources, consider giving.
There are always opportunities to donate monetarily to organizations that support environmental, humanitarian and conservation organizations. Be sure to research any organizations to which you donate; how much is a typical donation, how much of the organization’s budget goes to the actual cause advertised, and consider getting involved to get a realistic impression of what you are supporting. All three of the Willy Street Co-op locations accept on-the-spot monetary donations at the checkout lanes for the Wisconsin Shares CHIP program. The default amount is 1% of your purchase total, but any custom amount that you would prefer to donate can be easily added to your total at the end of your shopping transaction. You can find out more about the CHIP program at any of the Co-op locations’ Customer Service desks.
Donating your time is one of the most fruitful ways to give back to your community. Volunteering allows insight into the inner workings of the organization you support and an opportunity to connect directly with the members of your community. Select opportunities that contribute to your community. From picking up trash near the waterways and walking areas; to volunteering your time at botanical gardens, community gardens, and animal shelters; there are limitless opportunities to get involved in positive environmental change. With a variety of charitable causes and organizations with special interests, there’s something for everyone. The key is to do something, anything, whatever strikes your interest in the realm of the environment and conservation efforts.
LANDFILLS: THE LAST RESORT
Landfills are the seemingly final goodbye we say to our waste products. However, landfills and their effects are far more long-term than many of us realize. From islands of trash in the oceans, to trash strewn all over our public spaces, our trash is really putting a damper on things. It’s up to us to reduce it. After recycling, reusing, repairing and donating all that we can, the trash should serve as the absolute last resort for our waste. In some extreme cases, people have managed to conscientiously reduce theirtrash waste to negligible amounts each year. While not everyone is prepared for such measures required for that level of commitment, being mindful of what we are disposing of can help keep our landfill deposits lower.
We can also connect community members with much-needed resources that would otherwise be sent to the heaps of trash collecting silently. Landfills are akin to keeping all your trash piled in the yard, buried deep in a hole that’s been dug as deep as possible but has been full for a very long time. Eventually, there will be spillover, and it will need to be dealt with. We need to deal with our spillover and minimize our output at the same time to deal with the repercussions of literally filling our land with trash. Both issues can be addressed on an individual level with more attention to our impact on the world around us, “invisible” landfills included. Think before youtrash.
Go green gadget. If you’re a homeowner, one of the best investments you can make for your home and the environment is converting to green energy.
•Set your home thermostat manually: Set your home’s temperature to a level where you are comfortable, but keep in mind that many thermostats may be set to highly inefficient default settings. Setting your thermostat to cool-but-not-cold in the summer, and warm-but-not-hot in the winter is a great way to gauge your needs and help you decide whether a throw blanket is in order or fewer layers are required to reach your optimal body temperature. Learn about your heating and cooling system to work efficiently to optimize your comfort level or consider a new fully customizable smart-home thermostat system. Your options are boundless.
•Solar panels: Many cities offer tax incentives for homeowners who invest in solar panels for home energy use. Check your local ordinances to see how sustainable practices are incentivized for homeowners in your area; and if they aren’t, contact your local alderperson to express your interest in these types of incentivized sustainable options. Some highly efficient home solar panel systems can output a surplus of energy and earn credits from the local energy company if plugged into the grid in a locale that offers this valuable incentive.
•Sustainable energy co-operatives: Another option for green energy is to join a sustainable energy co-operative; empowering you, your community, and the environment. Look for local organizations that offer beneficial services and education to members.
Water conservation: With water shortages and lack of access to clean water on the rise, every little drop counts. Here’re some ways to conserve this precious resource:
•Rain barrels: A simple sustainable option that can be implemented in most homes is a rain barrel. Rain barrel systems are large barrels, usually set up as a catchment system for a home’s gutter overflow system, which catch the rain and reserve it for use in the garden and other non-potable purposes. Why waste water when you can use nature’s recycled water on your gardens?
•Rain garden: These specialized gardens designed to allow typical rain runoff to gather in depressed garden areas allow the rainwater to be reabsorbed into the soil instead.
•Composting, incinerating, low-flow, and dual flush toilets: If you have the resources and you’re in it for the long haul, specialized toilets are an option for more efficient use of water or no water use. The dual-flush and low-flow systems may use a dual handle which separates flow rates based on whether you require a big flush or a little flush or they can maintain an overall lower water level in your toilet, for more efficient water usage. Composting toilets do exactly as you may suspect. They compost human waste. They can be as simple as a bucket with a lid and sawdust or a unit that contains the waste like an in-bathroom compost bin until it’s emptied. Incinerating toilets incinerate waste into a combusted ash by-product.
•On demand water heater: Instead of the huge tanks that are commonly used for water heaters in the U.S., travel abroad and you’ll find that many other countries use much smaller on-demand water heaters. They are usually petite enough to be kept in-unit and heat just enough water for one use with the push of a button and a wait of around 15 minutes. This solution is both impressive and efficient.
GET TO KNOW THE LOCALS
Native flora and fauna contribute immensely to our ecosystems and play an important role in regulating the flow of resources in the community. We can protect and encourage local plants and wildlife by making our environment more habitable for these oft-forgotten neighbors.
•Plant natives: If you have access to a garden or green space, consider the number of native plant species that might grow well in your growing zone and optimize based on your desired usage. You can plant culinary herbs that also repel pests for you, milkweed for the monarch butterfly, and native wildflowers and heirloom vegetables for the local bee hive and other ground-dwellers. Those are just some options, which many growing zones in Wisconsin can accommodate. Check your local garden center or the USDA’s website for details on how you can optimize ecosystem efficiency and get more bang for your buck in the garden.
•Encourage native animal and insect species: Bird migration can be quite the wondersome experience if you live near a local migratory bird population. Some species have a more difficult time than others and may require assistance from us. Look for local bird migratory patterns and find an organization that supports volunteers in your area to help with the migration process. Or just share the roads with our winged neighbors to help our ecosystem thrive. For your viewing pleasure, you can also plant a butterfly garden to attract more environmentally beneficial creatures to your area. Milkweed is high on the list of beneficial plant species that attract winged flyers like the Monarch, and are critically needed along their migratory journeys. If you’re interested in the monarch, visit the USDA Forest Service website (www.fs.fed.us) for more details than you can imagine and a chance to help researchers by reporting your local monarch sightings.
•Eat & shop locally: The less distance our goods must travel, the fewer carbon emissions for which we are responsible. Simple.
THE LITTLE THINGS:
Simple, but sustainable strategies:
•Walk, bike, carpool, or use public transportation: The fewer vehicles on the road, the better. The fewer vehicles on the road with just the driver inside, even better. Cars, trucks and vans are huge honking machines that require huge honking amounts of energy and resources to operate. That means, just like with any other machine, input requires output. Minimizing this output by any means necessary is a top priority for us all.
•Turn off the lights: A simple change we can all make is diligently turning off the lights when they’re not in use. By the way, if you’re still using any type of lighting other than LED in your home, it’s time to make the switch. You’ll be saving yourself money, energy and time by replacing them. Disposal of other older lighting systems requires specific handling due to the release of mercury into the environment when they’re shattered. That’s something we want to minimize. Be sure to consult your local waste management department for details.
•Unplug: Unplug electronics when you leave for a long trip, and remember to turn off any automatic settings that require energy use. Minimizing our usage in general is a powerful tool in the environmentalist’s toolkit.
•Clean up: On your next walk around your neighborhood, bring a glove or a long sharp stick, and a plastic bag. See how much litter you can collect around your neighborhood on a typical walk around the block; you may be astounded.
•Plant a tree: This one really is that simple.
•Eat humanely: Do your research before investing your hard-earned cash in any product or brand. Fair trade, vegan, free-range, farmer-owned, or rBGH-free, whatever your dietary needs or consumerist code of ethics, working to meet those needs in the most humane way possible is an attainable and worthy goal for all.
•Low tech & no tech: Turn off your devices and get outdoors. Explore your community or get to know your neighbors. Learn about your local flora and fauna. Whatever you do, do plan time to get outside and into the wild to gain a better appreciation of why we should all want to keep this planet up and running.
IN CONCLUSION: EVERY LITTLE BIT COUNTS
Finally, we can look forward to the fact that there are so many simple changes we can implement to positively affect the balance of things. However, we all need to do our part to work cooperatively as a species toward a common goal…survival. We should ultimately feel hopeful, because fixing this problem is a biological imperative. In other words, while the problems that we face are a direct threat to the human species, we have proven to be highly adaptive. We can handle this, we just have to decide to do it, and then do it together. I’ll do my best, and all that I ask of you, fellow Earthling, is that you do your best. The Earth will do the rest.