For our winter road trip, we’ve been closely following storms and snowfall across North America so that we can find the powder. In doing so, we’re seeing the increasing volatility of weather in the data. Records are being broken everywhere. Some places are hitting over 150% of their average snow pack. Other places are experiencing snow packs as low as 30% of average or very delayed/shortened winters. These signs, among many other more devastating ones, point to the climate growing more and more volatile.
During a “ski” trip with college buddies in Tahoe early this February, one friend, an avid cross country skier, confessed that she wonders if she should give up the sport because it’ll become too difficult to pursue in the future. I wonder that too about snowboarding and whether I should quit and focus on something not snow-dependent, like mountain biking. But then I remind myself that changing hobbies won’t solve the problem of climate volatility shrinking access to outdoor recreation. Lack of snow doesn’t only restrict winter sports, it leads to drier, hotter summers which leads to the increased likelihood and intensity of forest fires. There will be no hiking, mountain biking, ATV-ing, fishing, etc. if those trails and areas are in flames and the air is thick with carcinogens. Boulder, my home, briefly experienced this firsthand in March(!) of 2017. So did many other parts of America, making 2017 the most expensive firefighting year for the US Forest Service. It doesn’t matter what season your favorite activity is in: if you like doing things outdoors, you have a responsibility to be good steward of the land and the planet.
I’m aware of how hypocritical this might sound. Right now, I’m regularly driving a gasoline-powered car, up and down mountains, to go to ski areas that demand high use of electricity and attract humans to areas that otherwise would be untouched wilderness. My carbon footprint is non-negligible. But I don’t think I can easily give up this activity. There is a delight that I only feel when I’m sliding around on snow. And in the pursuit of this activity, I’m constantly taken to places where I feel a lasting, visceral urgency to respect and protect the land around me. It’s what drove me to write this post.
So I try to be purposeful with my environmental impact. Aware that my activities are of high cost, I try to minimize it in the more mundane parts of my life. Often times it feels futile. What can I, someone who struggles to remember to water her plants, do about country-shattering natural disasters, shrinking continental glaciers, and a rapidly decaying coastal reef on a daily basis?
Here are some thoughts I have on the matter. Use it as you will. First, believe that the world is worthy of better and that it can get better, no matter how long it takes or how discouraging things might appear. Just as importantly, believe that individuals can and should make a difference. While there are a million things out of your control when it’s comes to earth and the environment, we have primary control of our behaviors, habits, and routines. Let’s start there.
Consider, perhaps on a weekly basis, doing one small thing differently that’ll reduce your footprint. Do it consistently, beyond the time around Earth Day and even when it’s slightly inconvenient, so that it becomes habit, a mindless part of your routine and standard of living. Read up on your local recycling program and make sure you’re recycling the proper items in the proper manner so that recycling batches aren’t contaminated. If you’re somewhere without easy access to recycling, take the time to pack it up instead of tossing it at the nearest trash can. The average US shower is 8.2 minutes; make and use a 5 minute shower playlist. Manage your food cooking and shopping with the goal of minimizing waste. Bike, walk, or take public transportation to work at least once a week. Collect and drop plastic bags at designated bins. This is a tiny sample of ideas. These actions are so small and simple that they are easy to forget or ignore. But with an initial bout of effort and intent, anyone can form a lasting, responsible, environment-friendly habit.
Remember the tale of the guy who could break a single straw but not a fistful of them or whatever? Habits, and the small, simple actions they consist of, are similar in that they add up to something greater. Or for a more practical example, consider that the average shower head uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute according to the EPA. With that in mind, cutting down your daily shower time from 8 to 5 minutes will theoretically save enough water over 1 year to adequately hydrate someone for 15 years. You also get 18 hours and 15 minutes to do whatever (in case you’re wondering, that’s roughly equivalent to 2 seasons of a Netflix series). Win-win! The point is– small, simple actions add up.
And they’ll add up even more if you get more people to do them! Again, start with what’s easiest. Making responsible stewardship the standard for yourself and your immediate communities. By making small yet consistent acts towards sustainability the accepted and expected social behavior in your community (ex: clean open spaces, recycling), it paves the way to larger scale efforts with wider reach (ex: more protected lands, more accessible public recycling bins). Don’t know where to get started within your community? Try using Patagonia’s Action Works platform to find local organizations, events, and programs to get involved with and start acting now.
For motivation, I often think about hand-washing. Not too long ago, hand-washing wasn’t the norm after using the bathroom or in medicine. It took decades and a staggering number of of deaths after hand-washing was found to prevent the spreading of fatal diseases and infections for the public to take it seriously. Now, in most developed areas, hand washing stations are standard fixtures in bathrooms and medical units and people wash their hands without much thought. This benefits the individual (not getting sick) and society (not getting everyone else sick). Sustainable habits are similar in that they can bring us the same combination of personal (clean, beautiful surroundings) and global (reduced carbon emissions) benefits! I believe we can make responsible stewardship and sustainable actions as widespread as hand-washing and I hope we can do so without a catalytic catastrophe.
Our Earth is under increasing stress. Increasing climate volatility is only one repercussion of it. Our habits and routines need to reflect this reality and be shaped by the desire to make the earth better. Because we can make it better. It’s not going to take a single law, accord, or fancy new technology to fix it. It’s going to take billions of people making billions of small actions over billions of whatever time unit you wish to use. Let’s start now.
If you have the means, making consistent donations to environmental organizations is a great habit. There are many that exist. Below are some we particularly like.