The conversation around the table turned to the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the sense of powerlessness we all feel to do anything about it. We know our lifestyle is driving the need for oil. We know how complex the economic problems are, the entrenched special interests. “What can we really do?” asked one person.
“What about reciprocity?” I asked. At bottom, our ecological crisis boils down to one simple fact: humans are taking more than we’re giving back to the Earth. What if each of us started giving back as much as we take—in all our relationships, with the human and more-than-human worlds? Even a simple gesture like showing gratitude can make a difference. Everyone loves to be thanked! Reducing our use of unsustainable resources is a solid first step in giving back to the Earth.
What follows are 10 close-to-home ways you can give back to the Earth.
1. Eat closer to home. The average American foodstuff travels 1500 miles to reach the table. That’s an astronomical amount of fossil fuel used just in transporting the food, to say nothing of growing and packaging it. Until our fuel sources are more sustainable, perhaps those bananas or Australian wines (to pick two of my faves) should be a special treat, not a staple. For more info, see the energy stats at Sustainable Table.
2. Thank your food. Look, really look, at the plants and animals on your table. Notice each one. Think about the rice or oat or wheat grasses waving under the sun, the carrots developing underground, the strawberries ripening on the vine. Most of all, if you eat meat, think about every animal. Picture the cow grazing (if you eat cows, eat grass-fed, not corn-fed ones), the chicken scratching, the fish swimming, the life labor that the hen put forth in making an egg, the goat her milk. Thank each animal, every time, for the gifts of their lives and their bodies. Christians call it saying grace. Buddhists call it eating mindfully. All of us can thank the plants and animals. Our lives depend on them. Literally.
3. Pick your teeth the old-fashioned way. Wooden toothpicks are biodegradable, unlike the little plastic gadgets most dentists’ offices try to pass out to their patients. Those tiny plastic picks and brushes only end up in landfills—not a good way to give back to the Earth! Many of them escape down rivers, becoming part of the enormous swirling toilet bowls of plastic in our oceans and endangering the lives of seabirds. When your dentist offers you little plastic tools for dental hygiene, say no thanks.
4. Teach your children reciprocity. Even small children understand fairness. No one wants to get the short end of the stick. Teach your children to give back when they receive something. Practice it yourself. If each of us truly gave as much as we took, the world would change.
5. Thank a tree. As you walk down your street, notice one tree or plant every day. Thank it for making oxygen. Your life depends on it.
6. Work to reduce pesticide use in your area. We all know about pesticide use in agriculture, but pesticides are used at an equivalent rate on suburban lawns. What about the playing fields at your local school? (Fungicides and herbicides are pesticides too.) Children absorb more pesticides per pound of body weight than do adults, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Next on my to-do list: a letter to my local HOA about the annual pesticide application on our pristine common lawn. I’d really rather have a common area that my dog—and all the children on the street—can run and play in safely. For more info, see the “Lawn Care” page at Beyond Pesticides.
7. Refuse overpackaging. Say no thanks to foods or supplements prepackaged in tiny portions. Every piece of plastic ends up in a landfill—if we’re lucky and it doesn’t end up on beaches or in the ocean. Though I love a certain brand of rice cheese, I’m giving it up because it is packaged in individual slices wrapped in plastic.
8. Host a zero-waste party. It’s easier than you think. Paper plates and cups can be composted in municipal composting processes, and cornstarch-based compostable flatware is becoming easy to find. To use even fewer resources (except for water), visit your local thrift store and buy a few dozen older plates and forks and wash them afterward. If you don’t have room to store them, donate them back after the party’s over. Same with napkins and glasses. I spent $25 at a thrift store for my last party and then got credit afterward for the same amount in donation. That thrift store benefits a nonprofit group, so when they sell their merchandise twice they raise even more money.
9. Volunteer for a cleanup or restoration project in your area. People have no idea how much fun these projects are. You get the pleasure of meeting like-minded neighbors in addition to the joy of giving back to the Earth in a very direct way. The sense of camaraderie and a deep-seated satisfaction after a day or a half day of work keep restoration volunteers coming back time after time. They look forward to having more fun. For a list of organizations working in ecological restoration around the country, see Global Restoration Network. (Update: Link no longer available.)
10. Work for the circle of life in your industry. I was astonished to learn recently that nearly half of GM plants are now “nil to the landfill.” If an industry like auto making can stop sending materials to landfills, certainly other industries can follow suit! How did the Earth survive for billions of years, perfecting the ability to sustain life? By a system of exchange in which every part of the whole gives off something others need. One species’s waste is another species’s fuel. What the organisms of Earth have been doing for billions of years, we will have to learn to do in every industry. Waste to fuel, around the circle. That means finding ways to break down plastics, mop up oil spills, and treat sewage by contributing something that someone else in the ecosystem needs. Interdependence is the name of the survival game. What if you are not an engineer or inventor? Then start with recycling. Even your office could be zero waste.