So I was asked on KTLA morning news here in Los Angeles how we can tell that man-made pollution is causing damage to the environment, that man is even partly to blame for global warming. I suggested that nonbelievers wrap their mouths around the tailpipes of their cars and report back on whether the emissions had any effect. (Note: Do not try this.) I was told my response was "harsh." But harsh is the environment we live in today. We cannot simply think that if we recycle, the world is going to be just fine. It is going to take a lot of work. And some times people just do not want to hear that. That's why in my new book, You Are Here
, I don't just tell people what is wrong with the planet, I show them.
The other point I was trying to make with the "tailpipe" response is that we need to move past the noise of naysayers and focus on the issues at hand. As I write in You Are Here: "We may reduce, reuse, recycle. So we save a tree. We use less gas. We conserve power. What effect do those actions really have on the world? So much of this information is in a vacuum without the necessary context. We have been told, not shown, what issues matter and why."
It's important to focus on the issues and seek out more and better solutions to the environmental problems facing us today. For example, if each person who tosses one of the 81 million plastic water bottles that get used everyday in the U.S. refilled just one, we'd save a billion pounds of plastic from entering landfills. Or if we purchased more local goods we could cut 30% of the pollution in China — and in turn 25% of the pollution in Los Angeles that is created by coal plants in that country. Or if we swapped out a hamburger for a veggie burger once a week we'd save 20,000 gallons of water a year. These plus simple things like composting (which can save 700 pounds of waste a year) can make a big difference.
We may not be able to see carbon dioxide in the air, but we can mitigate its effect by not letting our cars idle (which creates about 20 times more pollution that one moving at 32 miles per hour), and turning off the lights when we leave a room.
We may not realize that the palm oil in our toothpaste, pastries, and potato chips is ravaging the forests of Borneo half a world away and putting species at the brink of extinction (one-quarter of all wild mammals are now on the brink of extinction). But we can seek out better information, and use products that incorporate sustainable ingredients instead.
We may not realize that we are each responsible for the chopping down of about nine trees per year because of our paper use. But we can learn that if we just recycled our Sunday papers, we could save four trees per year.
There are many steps that we can take to make the world better. And they matter. A new report out by the consulting firm McKinsey shows that consumers — we — are responsible for the majority of the environmental problems facing us today; businesses and industry far less so. So when you hear that the simple things don't matter, understand that they do. It's our consumption, our choices that add up to demand — and businesses and industry respond. This too is our power to effect change.
Just as we have always been told, the little things do add up — and they do matter very much, both in terms of what we consume and what we throw away. Tomorrow I'll tell you just how far our waste travels and who ends up dealing with a lot of it.