I still remember learning it: “the solution to pollution is dilution.” That was the accepted wisdom in 1974, courtesy of my second grade science class. I think we covered the metric system next: it was soon to replace our antiquated imperial system, after all.
As it turns out, old assumptions — like miles, pounds, and gallons — die hard in the United States of America. But that seemingly infinite environment is now full: we’ve run out of planet for our pollution. In the meantime, I’ve grown from a Chicagoland 2nd grader into a California utility executive. Climate change, pollution, sustainability, and resilience are part of every conversation and decision. How do we invent and build and live fulfilling lives while simultaneously mitigating and adapting to the damage already done?
It is the defining challenge of our age, with barely understood consequences from health and food to security and finance, not to mention the other living things with whom we share the planet.
Not just because the solutions are almost inconceivably global and daunting. Not just because the consequences of inaction — from major cities underwater to regular catastrophic storms — are so terrifying. It is more fundamental than that. Mitigating and adapting to this altered world requires us, as individuals and as a species, to be better: proactive rather than reactive, selfless rather than selfish, and willing to sacrifice now for the benefit of future generations. It is easy — perhaps too easy for many in my generation — to leave it to others. (Besides, the pizza is coming and the Bears are on.)
Not so for our children. They see climate change and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for what they are: direct threats to their lifetime health and happiness. Greta Thunberg and her global cohort are pissed: my generation’s pursuit of happiness (and the pursuit of so many before me) is going to diminish theirs.
I get it — and then I freak out. I like to think that I’m getting better at the proactive and the selfless and the future-view. Like the Sears (oops, Willis) Tower or the planet Jupiter, though, the magnitude of what needs to be done and changed strains my human brain. But I must. We all must. How?
I go back to that quintessential American, Mark Twain. “The secret to getting ahead is getting started. The secret to getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting on the first one.” Now that’s something I can do — and I bet you can do too.
Every task, every action and omission, every choice is at its core a sustainability decision. At every moment, we choose to consume more or less and to produce more or less waste. Look around you right now. About 90% of your stuff was on a oil-burning container ship before it got to you. Ask the questions: Do I need it, really? If so, do I need a new one (or can I fix the one I have)? How was it made and how did it get to me? Are there more sustainable alternatives? How will I dispose of it and what happens to it then? Recycling is not perfect but better than a landfill; landfills are far from perfect but far better than unregulated dumping. (The Great Pacific Garbage Patch did not arise spontaneously.) The upcoming winter holidays are a great place to start: consider gifts of unforgettable experience rather than forgettable stuff.
Shelter, food, clothing, transportation, heating and cooling, communication, recreation: we have the freedom to choose to be more or less sustainable in every aspect of our lives. It starts with simple questions like these.
No one can be perfect: it’s not human, as much as we would like it to be. And no choice is perfect. Ceramic coffee mug or paper cup? Yes, the ceramic mug. But it still requires cleaning with a polluting detergent, never mind the environmental costs of manufacturing and shipping it to my desk. Not perfect, but better.
Make no mistake, however: the smaller, everyday choices merely complement — and not excuse or preclude — the larger, societal commitments. Two centuries into the Industrial Revolution, massive steps are urgently needed across our economies and societies, from innovation to behavioral change to infrastructure investment. (That’s a complex and dynamic topic on its own.) We aren’t going to “ceramic mug” our way out of this but change — the change that leads to those larger societal commitments — starts with each one of us.
Let’s each of us focus on better. There are 327,200,000 of us in the US alone: the little things add up. 7.7 billion of us on the planet: the little things really add up. The little things create habits that take on a virtuous momentum of their own. The little things multiply and multiply and multiply and become transformative. And, with that transformation, we drive larger policy decisions and investments while making the “complex and overwhelming tasks” of climate and pollution less complex and less overwhelming. Our children’s inheritance becomes less daunting; successful mitigation and adaptation becomes more certain.
Not perfect, but better. That’s the “greening of me” — and, I hope, of you too.
Lincoln Bleveans is a 25-year veteran of the global electric power industry. He is currently an executive at a progressive, vertically integrated municipal electric and water utility in Southern California. He is a frequent speaker and writer on energy, sustainability, resilience, and leadership and tweets regularly @bleveans. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, or other group or individual.