Environmental Sustainability: A Conscious Choice


A team of activists hangs a banner on a smokestack alerting citizens to the dangers raining down on their heads. A woman lives in an ancient tree to protect it from the timber industry’s greed. Greenpeace activists in a rubber raft take on a giant ship carrying radioactive waste. While these dramatic and heroic acts continue to shed light on the present course of environmental destruction, they are beyond the scope of action for most of us.

Thousands of people take part in letter writing and telephone campaigns to persuade political leaders to legislate ecological sanity. We even write to corporate leaders asking them to voluntarily change their ways. We donate money to environmental organizations hoping that we can exercise some form of collective clout that we as individuals don’t possess. Surely the work of these organizations over the past thirty years in educating the public and pressuring corporate government leaders to act responsibly (which occasionally happens) has been extremely valuable. (Unfortunately, much of this progress is being threatened by the World Trade Organization).
All of these efforts are obviously not enough. Our forests continue to be destroyed, our air and water defiled and synthetic petroleum based chemicals have wedged their way into every corner of the planet.

An inherent weakness in these types of environmental strategies is that they ultimately rely on someone else to make the final decision for change. This orientation works from the top down and depends on government and industry to take action that will benefit the planet and its inhabitants.

In addition to coaxing the corporate behemoth into action, there are ways to get it to willing follow the path of sustainability bringing with it all of its resources and ingenuity. This happens when the consumer is consciously aware of the environmental, social, and economic impact of each purchase and chooses products and services that foster planetary sustainability.┬áThis places the power for change squarely in our hands — we have the opportunity to create a new story for our future dozens of times each day. A gentle pull is exerted and fresh, innovative, earth friendly streams of commerce flow freely.

Presently, there exist non-toxic and non-resource depleting alternatives for most of our daily needs. Organic foods, tree free and recycled paper products, a wide array of petrochemical free products including soaps, cosmetics, cleaning fluids, building materials, carpets, paints, fertilizers, wood products made from lumber that is certified to be from sustainably managed forests, clothing made from organic natural fibers and alternative energy equipment, such as wind and solar, are just a few of the earth friendly items now widely available. Ironically, many of these same products were the only ones available until we started repeating the mantra “better living through science” fifty to seventy years ago. Co-op America’s National Green Pages is an extensive resource for obtaining many of these products.

As always, in our supply and demand economy, as more people use these products they will become improved, more widely available and less costly. As we grow new businesses and industries that are in line with the natural law of planet earth, the destructive, toxic, and resource depleting ones presently in place will fade away.

Initially, as in the forefront of any movement, the pioneers must be willing to expend energy to get the process started. We need to be willing to alter our present purchasing habits by buying in bulk, mail order or shopping in several smaller stores instead of larger superstores. We must always view our actions through a larger lens. Whereas it may appear that many of these products and services cost ore, in reality they are far less expensive when the “true costs” are taken into account. These “true costs” including acute and long term health problems due to toxic chemical exposure (to workers, consumers, and communities); costs of environmental degradation and cleanup; depletion of resources; government (taxpayer) subsidies, such as grants, tax breaks, and price supports; and loss of wildlife habitat, species, recreation areas and quality of life. As an example, it appears that many petroleum-based products are less expensive than those derived from plant sources. However, when we consider that our tax dollars are used to subsidize the oil industry; the cost of environmental destruction and clean up of oil spills and refineries and many other aspects of this industry; health care costs related to diseases of exposure to these synthetic chemicals; and the irreplaceable diminishment of these finite resources, we see that we are playing an extremely high price for these products.

In developing our new consumer consciousness, there are many other things that we need to be aware of. Environmental organizations and publications are very valuable in relating this information to us. I have learned from them that shrimp production is responsible for the destruction of coastal mangrove forests. Hog factory farms have polluted much of the drinking water of many southern states. Rainforests are being destroyed to produce fast food beef. Certain chemicals in plastics and pesticides are estrogen mimickers. Cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops. And fluoride in our water may have less to do with the health of our teeth and more to do with the need to dispose of a waste product by the aluminum industry, and on and on and on…

We may soon be reaching a point where habitation of this planet will be extremely difficult due to environmental destruction. The Earth is running out of many of its natural resources, including forests, oil, minerals, metals, and topsoil. Throughout history it has been shown that when a civilization runs out of resources it must die. Our present world already possesses the knowledge to change its course of self-destruction. What we need now is the will to do it.

As individuals, we must reevaluate our beliefs of what is necessary for a full and productive life. For example, it is really desirable to have a uniformly green lawn without the diversity of beautiful indigenous plants that we call weeds (where did that notion come from anyway?) No thanks, I’ll keep my dandelions. Besides, I like the way they look and they’re probably more nutritious than any food I can buy. Even if you do desire a homogenous lawn, is it really worth it to obtain this by soaking your land with synthetic chemicals that destroy living organisms in the soil, taint our water supply and most likely lead to a multitude of health problems?

As consumers, we have power to create a just and sustainable society when we demand products that respect our interconnectedness with all life, instead of allowing corporations to tell us, through the media, what we need. As a society our most powerful force for change is our collective voice and in this age it is the dollar we spend that speaks the loudest!

Michael F. Garger

A similar version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2000 issue of Creations magazine.