With popularity often comes dilution, and the concepts of sustainability are certainly not immune. Those of us who pursue sustainability are often mystified to see the concept applied to automobiles and chemical-based agriculture. As we try to sort the simple truth from the complicated myths, we can become overwhelmed. A state of overwhelm can lead to a spell of immobility—something that we simply can’t risk. Every moment, and every resource, matters.
The word “sustainable” relates to methods of harvesting or using resources so that they are not depleted or permanently damaged. Most of us are far removed from the base resources, and therefore wouldn’t know how close we are getting to the bottom of the well. We have to rely on the word of others, yet it can be a challenge to sort through all the facts. We can, however, apply a few simple and effective practices.
It’s this easy: If you buy something in a jar, refill it with something you’ve made. Most things that you buy in jars can be prepared very easily at home: pesto, salad dressing, jam, kraut, pickles, mustard, nut butter, and many more. Reuse of glass is far more economically sound and environmentally-minded than recycling. If you can put up just one jam on your own, you are making a difference.
Also easy: Buying whole foods vs. refined foods. We are all aware that a whole grain is much better for your health, containing many more nutrients and fiber than refined grains. But there’s more to it than this. For when you buy a whole grain—or any whole food—you are eliminating the need for unnecessary processing, which in turn results in reduced resource consumption. You are also reducing the amount of discarded ‘waste’ products, which are otherwise known as ‘valuable food.’
Hand in hand with buying whole foods is the practice of using as much of the food as is possible. For example, when you buy kale to steam or sauté, and strip the leaf off the rib, what do you do with the rib? Hopefully you save it for juicing or making vegetable stock. Many vegetable trimmings have multiple lives: the base end of celery, leek greens, broccoli and mushroom stems, etc., so please make the most of them.
In the category of “a little more challenging, but doable” is this: Consider your diet beyond the usual categories of local/vegan/raw/organic/herbivore/omnivore/et-cetera-vore. Think also about useful vs. wasted calories. Many comfort foods and indulgences—pastries, for example—don’t give your body what it needs. Therefore you must consume more foods in order to maintain your balance. Should you forever give up birthday cake? No way! But the daily cupcake or double latte might be a good place to start.
For you over-achievers, consider this: Examine the production cycle of the foods you consume. Are they produced in a massive, global, market-driven monoculture? Have you read about the production of bananas, coconuts, and palm oil? Does their production—and therefore your food—embody the values that you yourself espouse? Here’s a clue: if its production occurs on another continent, you might want to investigate its affect on the workers, the land, and the wildlife. Think that you can’t give up tea, coffee, bananas, young coconuts, cacao, sugar, avocadoes, and palm oil all at once? Even if you relinquish only one, you’ve made a big difference.
But truly, don’t make this harder than it has to be. Start in a way that fits your life now, then stretch a little more in a few months. If you want the really, really easy starter list, it’s this: Go to the farmers’ market to buy your produce. That will take care of most of it. Learn to cook simple meals, with a grain, a green, and a legume. Plant a garden. Grow herbs on your windowsill. If you’re going to roast a squash, put two in the oven to make the most use of the heat. If you’ve just made a cup of tea, use the rest of the kettle’s hot water to wash your dishes.
And speaking of water, please review your use of imported bottled water. It is a far-cry from sustainable—especially to those poor souls to whom the water actually belongs. Sustainability may begin at home, but it reaches around the globe.
Whichever of these practices you engage, know that the payoffs are big and varied. There will be lower demands on the earth’s resources; fewer chemicals in our shared soil and waterways; improved health through the consumption of less prepared foods; significant reduction in packaging, and therefore trash; decreasing consumerism and maybe a crack in the foundation of our throw-away culture.
Added bonuses include deeper engagement in your daily life, and an increased sense of community, for we truly are all in this together.
Beyond all of these benefits, you will continue to learn new things. A lifetime of learning is the epitome of living sustainably, and the best way to turn negative impacts into positive effects. Is there a better compensation for good stewardship?