It’s no great sacrifice to protect the environment

From David Suzuki and Faisal Moola’s weekly Science Matters blog:

It’s no great sacrifice to protect the environment

I recently read an article about a woman in Spokane, Washington, who doesn’t like phosphate-free dish-washing detergents. Phosphate-containing detergents are banned in Spokane County because of their negative impact on the environment, so the woman drives 45 minutes to Idaho where phosphate detergents are still sold. The article also notes that the woman has a five-year-old daughter. I’m astounded.

People often argue that protecting the environment will require too many sacrifices. Is this what they mean? That they would risk their children’s futures because they can’t be bothered to rinse their dishes before putting them into the dishwasher?

Phosphates are added to cleaning products because they help cut grease and get rid of food particles on dishes. But they also have enormous negative impacts on rivers, streams, and lakes. By fertilizing the waters, phosphates can cause massive algae blooms that starve the water of oxygen and choke aquatic ecosystems, killing fish, amphibians, insects, and plants. Phosphates have been banned from laundry detergents in most places for a number of years now, but consumers have resisted moves to ban them from dish-washing detergents.

The article notes that the Spokane River is one of the most endangered in the U.S. and that phosphate pollution from the county’s main wastewater treatment plant has been reduced by 14 per cent since the dishwasher-detergent law was passed in July. But apparently this woman doesn’t care if the river is devoid of life when her daughter grows up – as long as her dishes are spot-free!

The woman claims to be “environmentally conscious”. I guess she means that she cares about the environment only when it is convenient for her. This is a good example of the kind of challenges faced by people who really do care about the environment and the future. Part of the problem may be that some people can’t really relate their own behaviour to the consequences. Think of parents with asthmatic children who continue to smoke in the house or drive SUVs. Others are simply not willing to make even the smallest sacrifices when it comes to protecting the environment. Yet, for the most part, no real sacrifices are required.

At the David Suzuki Foundation, we hear almost daily from people who thought it would be difficult to get up a bit earlier and expend a bit more energy to cycle to work instead of drive, for example. But they soon found that the benefits of cycling – from getting in better shape to enjoying the outside world – far outweighed any of the negative consequences.

It’s more about changing the way we think than about giving something up. If we take a broader, more long-range view of things, we see that we usually gain more than we lose when we make changes in our lives to protect our surroundings.

We see the same kind of resistance to things like a carbon tax. Never mind that market forces play a far greater role in fuel-price increases than a carbon tax ever will! People see that they might have to pay a few pennies more at the gas pump or for home-heating bills and they immediately cry that they will have to give up their cars and freeze in their homes during winter.

But we see immediate and long-term benefits from putting a price on carbon. People find ways to conserve energy, companies invest in technologies that use renewable energy, and we end up with less pollution and fewer emissions that contribute to global warming.

We live in consumer societies, especially here in North America. We’ve become convinced that we have to keep replacing our goods with newer and “better”, often over-packaged, products. We dispose of things even before they have broken down. And the world suffers for it. People sometimes accuse me and other environmentalists of wanting to send us back to living in caves and scrounging for roots and berries. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We can lead lives that are even more fulfilling on a cleaner planet where more people have access to clean air, water, and food. All it takes is some imagination and some forward thinking. If we really cared about our world and about our children and grandchildren, we would be willing to make some sacrifices to make the world a better, healthier place. But in most cases, the sacrifices are as illusory as some of the benefits we think we are deriving from our rampant consumerism.

Science Matters has been running weekly since 1999. To read past columns, please visit www.davidsuzuki.org/science_matters/.

Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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