How to live sustainably

What exactly does it mean to live ‘sustainably’? It simply means that we use energy and resources in such a way that we could continue indefinitely, that our use of resources could be maintained without causing damage to human well-being or the environment. A good analogy is that of trying to live off of a retirement account. To live sustainably is to spend only the interest, so that one protects and even grows the nest egg. Living this way, a retiree would never run out of money and would even pass along their healthy finances to their inheritors.  This is what we must do with the planet, to take care of it so that we pass a healthier planet on to future generations.

Good practical advice can be hard to come by when it comes to sustainable living. Too much of what we find in the media is very fragmented, incomplete, or inaccurate. How can a person decide which actions are worth the effort unless they a good understanding of the bigger picture of sustainability? For instance, how much difference would it really make to install a ‘smart’ thermostat or buy a more fuel efficient car? The goal of this section is to give an overview of all the ways that we use energy and resources, and to impart some knowledge about what we can do to make our lives more sustainable. Individual posts will then dig deeper into particular points.

The really big picture is that there are two massive ecological problems facing humanity in the early 21st century, and how we deal with them over the next couple of decades has huge implications for the livability of the world that we will pass to our children. The first threat is global climate change caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions (see a longer post here). We produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at a completely unsustainable rate. In brief, to halt global warming places like the US and Canada will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by close to 90%. This goes for individuals as well, true sustainability requires enormous reductions in emissions. Technology will do much of the heavy lifting for us, but there are a lot of shifts that are necessary at the level of individual behavior. This doesn’t mean that people need to live with ‘less’, rather we need to be smarter and more efficient.

The second problem is the ongoing damage to ecosystems and extinctions of species all around the world, caused largely by humans pushing into and exploiting all corners of our planet. Through agriculture, timber cutting, resource extraction and other uses, we are over-using the very surface of the planet, and not leaving enough space for non-human species. Protecting biodiversity first and foremost requires protecting the spaces where all of these species live, and making necessary changes to make room for the rest of the biosphere (see a longer post here).

There really is a great deal that individuals can do; even though the problems are global in scale, the actions of each individual can either contribute to the problems or to their solutions.

Calculating our footprints:  The other pages in this section contain much information and detail about how sustainability interacts with our every-day life choices, and we at Sunshine Saved have gone in depth to look at exactly where our impacts come from and how large they are. But there are online resources that allow people to do much quicker estimates of the impact of their lifestyles, called footprint calculators. These allow you to answer a set of questions and the sites then try to make an estimate the ‘footprint’ of your lifestyle. A couple of examples of carbon emissions calculators include ones from the Nature Conservancy and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Another alternative is to look at how much land is needed to support a lifestyle such as this calculator from the Global Footprint Network.