Make some impact, effectively

I write about sustainability — it’s the blogosphere’s new cottage industry — and have been batting around an article about useful life changes and those that aren’t. I was inspired by a recycling blog that I think takes things too far.

Some of my own environmental choices I could point to include

  • shaving with brush, soap and safety razor
  • writing almost exclusively with a fountain pen filled from a bottle
  • wearing repairable glasses frames
  • taking my own cutlery for lunch at work, and so forth

But the fact is that I

  • really like the shave my grandfather’s old razor gives
  • the ink doesn’t smudge on the fleshy part of my hand (I’m left-handed)
  • the blades and ink are much cheaper than their newer alternatives
  • the girth of most fountain pens makes holding easier and takes the strain off my wrist (a note to those with arthritis)
  • love my frames, and
  • hate flimsy office-supplied plastic ware

The environmental benefits are so negligible as to be meaningless; they’re only incidental and came after I made other, larger decisions. There are bigger reasons why one does what one does and yet some people get caught up in all-or-nothing thinking. Don’t get lost in the trifles.

Thus we come to a blogger — No Impact Man — who’s gotten covered in the New York Times. A rather strict local-food/ultra-low-consumption/no-trash year-long project. The Times article well conveys the ick factor: “The Year Without Toilet Paper.” (March 22, 2007)

I think he carries things too far, or at the very least I would wonder if taking in a lodger would lead to a smaller footprint than some of the more stringent demands of their plan.

Decades ago, Jessica Mitford, writing in The American Way of Death (1963), got people thinking about the costs associated with funerals. She noted there wasn’t anything else that we would spend as much on and yet not carefully consider the purchase, or be so willingly manipulated. It’s where I learned about memorial societies, comprised in her words of “Unitarians, Quakers, egg-heads, and old-farts.” But the memorial society convinced my nominally Lutheran paternal grandmother, who joined the memorial society and after her death was cremated “directly” (without a viewing, and probably without a casket; I didn’t ask) and her remains were buried with my grandfather.

I think that’s a good rule of thumb: start with what costs, and consider wisely. Look at your checkbook. It should be pretty easy to pick out the parts of your life that deserve an sustainability and environmental audit. Let’s say housing and property maintainance, electricity and fuel, transportation, food, medical and health care and charitable giving. I’ll go with Mitford and add in funerals, too.

So, consider this:

  • Do you live near where you work, study and shop? If not, why not?
  • Do you have more house than you need or maintain, yard included?
  • How convenient would public tranport need to be to give up your car some of the time? All of the time?
  • Would you eat what you do if you knew its origins? Do you understand the motivations behind your eating? If you knew what it would do to your health?
  • How many of our tranport and travel ideals are sold to us, rather than being decisions we carefully ponder?
  • What savings can I make in electricity, heating oil and gas? What steps would a thrifty ancestor take?
  • What steps would I make in improving my health would I take today if someone offered me $100,00 for those efforts? Or another ten years of healthy, independent living?
  • What standards of efficiency, accountability and transparancy do I hold charitable causes?
  • What do I value in my “final resting place” ten years after my death? 50? 100? 500?

Ruminate on these in the privacy of your own home. (But clever tips are always welcome.) Once you deal with these, razor blades and toilet paper takes care of itself.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Pingback: Mile High Soapbox
  2. Actually, I think it’s all about habits.

    E.g., we like to compost. Even though we live in an apartment, we managed to get our landlady to let us put a composter out back (no animal scraps or fat due to rats). We have no need for compost — our “garden” is two feet by four feet — but we’ve been composting together for 17 years, starting back when we had a garden. Now it’s a habit.

    Or maybe some things are genetic. Like turning off lights. Generations of New England Yankee and Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors scream in my head when I leave a light on.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.