Earth is a mess. It’s been 400,000 years since the planet’s atmosphere last held this much carbon dioxide. And we keep pumping out more. The consequences—melting permafrost, increasingly frequent and violent storms, eroding coastlines and crop failures resulting from erratic weather—are everywhere.
Insect populations—essential to life—are in rapid decline. German researchers report that even protected nature reserves have barely one-fifth as many flying insects as they had half a century ago. Once-common birds such as the barn swallow (down by 70 per cent) and meadowlark (down by more than half) are in trouble. A 2019 report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative shows that Canada has lost half of our shorebird, grassland bird and aerial insectivore populations. Birds that depend on native prairie are down by as much as 90 per cent. Several are now classified as endangered.
These are only some indicators of an environmental catastrophe for which we are to blame. If, as some religious traditions assert, humanity is called to be stewards of the Creator’s riches, it’s time we were fired for dereliction of duty and incompetence.
A lot of people feel hopeless. How can any one of us hope to turn the tide on such massive, inexorable problems? If those problems are systemic, then surely the only solutions are big ones that exceed our individual reach—such as population control, a transition away from capitalism and hydrocarbon fuels, or wholesale conversions of an unconcerned populace to new ways of being.
Actually, no. There are real things we can do at the personal level that could make a real difference. Big changes have almost always started at the individual level. When enough individuals have shown change to be needed, possible and achievable, then that change becomes contagious and unstoppable.
Problems arise one decision at a time. Solutions do too. You would need a pretty huge ego to believe that you, single-handedly, could save the world. But saving your home place? Maybe. And that’s, after all, the scale we live at.
So what would be most useful for individuals to do at that scale? Here are some ideas:
Make the switch to locally sourced, sustainably raised and ethical food. The Alberta farm families who produce it often struggle to stay in business because most of us are too lazy or cheap to buy food that wasn’t produced on factory farms or distant lands. Raising food without added chemicals, without abusing animals and without damaging the land and waters costs more for farmers, so it’s going to cost more for us too. If we want to change our relationship with nature, the first step is to change our relationship with food. We won’t change agriculture for the better unless we’re prepared to start putting our money where our mouths are.
As a consumer, ask hard questions when you shop. Refuse over-packaging, disposable junk and the exploitation of staff and suppliers. Hold capitalism accountable. If you don’t do it, who will?
Tear out your lawn. Start a garden. Maybe start a community garden. Lawns are ecologically and culturally dead spaces that waste massive amounts of water, fuel and chemicals. Gardens, on the other hand, are living places. They yield food, attract birds and insects, and can help build community too. One at a time, we could make lawns socially unacceptable and healthy homegrown food normal again. That would be good.
If you really need a car, switch to a hybrid or electric vehicle next time you replace your wheels. Buying such a vehicle not only helps reduce your impact but also sends a market message both to other consumers and to industry. Don’t buy another vehicle that runs solely on gasoline ever again.
Get up the courage to ask your MLA for a meeting. Ask them to promote policies that protect natural habitats, rivers, wildlife and family farms. Publicly acknowledge their leadership when they do. Politics doesn’t need to be partisan, but politics is important. Those who profit by exploiting nature are good at doing politics; the rest of us need to be even better at it.
Raise outdoors kids. Get off the couch, turn off the cellphone and take them hiking, fishing, hunting or paddling. Nature time strengthens family bonds, makes kids physically healthy and helps them fall in love with nature. People who love nature are motivated to care for it. Think of it as succession planning, because your kids will continue your efforts—or lack of effort.
This world is literally staring ecological disaster in the face. But our job is not to save the world. That’s too big for any one of us. Our best work may be simply to change how we live in our home places, and to help those changes catch on.
The best solution for a sick world is to be a healthy germ and spread better kinds of contagion.
Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.