"Because you can't hug a tree if you can't find one."


6 Things (and Counting) That Governments Can Do to Save the Environment

There are so many lists of things people can do “to save the planet,” published online, in books or in magazines. These lists are a good way to empower people and get them involved in environmental activism. Taking shorter showers, hanging laundry on a clothesline, et cetera. These are all good things that we should do to save energy and water, and reduce our own environmental footprints.

But can’t more be done? Whenever I see one of those lists, I keep looking for suggestions for actions that the city, state, or corporation can take. Because there are so many things that are outside of our control as individuals, and that have a huge impact on the environment – the way our cities or workplaces are designed, for instance. These things suggest actions that have to be taken at the governmental level.

Where are the guidelines for governmental action to save the planet? Why are municipalities let off the hook? I’d like to see a set of comprehensive legislative initiatives that will enable cities or states to reduce their carbon emissions, reduce water and energy use, decrease solid waste – and all the other good things that we are usually urged to do on the household level.

Below, reflecting my own priorities, is the beginning of such a list. Many of them are actions being taken in some places already (like plastic bag bans) that I think should be more widespread. Maybe most Mayors (Governors, Congressional Reps…) just don’t know where to start?

1. Build up the public transportation infrastructure, and subsidize it heavily. Make buses, trains and trams so convenient, frequent and cheap that it won’t make sense for people to drive in from the suburbs or within city limits. Put bicycle lanes everywhere, and create pedestrian only zones.

2. Prioritize open public space over parking lots. Fill these spaces with benches, native trees, shrubs and plants, playgrounds and public art. Keep them clean and inviting.

3. Ban plastic grocery bags. And any other plastics that can’t be efficiently and locally recycled into their original forms. Regulate the types, materials and quantities of packaging that businesses can introduce in your city/county/state. Mandate that secondary packaging (crates, palettes, et c) must be sustainable and reusable. Single use, disposable packaging is a poor use of resources.

4. Bigger, better bottle bills – to make manufacturers responsible for the waste they produce. Better yet, mandate that beverage bottles be reusable, the way they were before we entered the throwaway era.

5. Introduce intensive recycling, so that everything not reusable, and not eliminated through source reduction, can be reclaimed. If the waste stream is treated as a resource, there will be a decreased need for extraction/production of raw materials as well as landfill space.

6. Provide substantial financial incentives for energy efficiency so home owners, landlords and businesses can insulate older buildings and convert heating and cooling systems to more efficient and renewable technology. Municipal buildings should be the first to adopt green systems and practices.

Like I said, it’s just a beginning. Feel free to add to the list, make changes. And forward it to your local representatives. Maybe the more such lists they see, the more likely they’ll be to adopt (or legislate) some green practices. It worked for me.


Krissy said...

Everyone can make a difference! And it can be just as simple as changing a light bulb! If you are passionate about stopping global warming and the environment you should check out this website http://www.nvisioncfl.com . Changing to CFLs is a great way for individual people to really make a difference! You should also check out this site http://www.youtube.com/user/helpourworld for more ideas on how to help our world!

Rejin L said...

"Krissy," I appreciate your enthusiasm, I really do. But what about the mercury contained in CFLs? What happens when it is time to dispose of the bulbs? And, once I change my light bulbs, what's next?
Legislation can reduce a lot more carbon emissions than I can personally: by mandating CFLs (and CFL recycling by the manufacturers), or higher gas mileage, or by requiring as many bike lanes as there are roads. If I just make my own little home greener, and go on a green bulb shopping spree, that might make me feel good. But it won't reduce worldwide emissions as fast is necessary to avert global climate change.

(By the way, "Krissy" and her links seem to be an ad campaign for a particular brand of CFL.)

Randi Cecchine said...

Interesting comments, Rejin. So companies are trolling the blogsphere to launch ad campaigns? Her comment seemed so 'off' compared to your article urging collective, as opposed to individual action.

When I returned from Amsterdam this summer I was incredibly angry about the sorry state of New York City's transportation landscape. Feeling safe on extensive bike paths in Amsterdam, I was newly aware of the intense anxiety I feel each day when I ride my bike here. Fear of death at every moment!

Instead of getting trapped in my anger I got online to see what is going on to make New York safer for bikers.

And you know what?? The city, and organizations like Transportation Alternatives are doing INCREDIBLE work on these issues!! There's no better feeling than wishing something would happen, and then turning around and seeing that someone is doing it! (Unless, that is, you are committed to living in a never ending state of resistance...)

It will be slow, but New York has actually made big changes recently. Check out the new bike path on 9th avenue below 23rd street- it is COMPLETELY separated from the traffic with physical barriers!

The city has a long term comprehensive set of plans, and the congestion pricing plan is still in the works.

You can learn more and find info about the congestion pricing discussions happening in the coming weeks at:http://www.transalt.org/streetbeat/2007/Oct/1019.html#hearings

We have to remember to find and praise good people who are making big changes personally and in the govt. The City of New York is filled with tons of committed public servants, we just don't hear enough about their good works. You can subscribe to the City of New York's email announcements in your area of interest (including Environmental, Recycling, & Waste Prevention News) at:

Govt is never perfect, but lets not throw the baby out with the bath water... Europeans believe their govt. will do things for the greater good, and I want us to believe this too!

Again, thanks for all the great ideas and reminding me to bring my canvas bag (again).


Rejin L said...

Randi, I wonder how easy it is to get involved with Transportation Alternatives. Have you gotten in touch with them? I bet they could use some good video work.
You are my hero, by the way, for getting around on your own steam. Daniel put together a collection of used bikes this summer, but there never seems to be an opportunity for us to ride them.

SustainableFlatbush said...

Rejin, getting involved with Transportation Alternatives is pretty easy. They have a lot of volunteer activities, ranging from monthly mailing parties to valet bike parking at events to providing research data by measuring traffic speeds on your block. IMHO they are doing more than any other group to promote sustainable transportation here in NYC.

As for the good video work, have you checked out Streetfilms.org? They are using video as an activism tool to promote livable streets, biking, walking and public transit. If you put a piece together on any of these topics I can pretty much guarantee they'd be happy to receive it.

AND, if you happen to live south of Prospect Park, Sustainable Flatbush is going to be starting up a transportation committee very soon. I think it's about time the city showed US some of that green-painted-bike-lane love down here!

SustainableFlatbush said...

and about the lightbulbs, shiny-happy-sales-pitch aside... it's worth changing them. the mercury they contain is apparently pretty miniscule, especially compared to the fossil fuel emissions they save by using less energy. plus they last for years, and hopefully by the time they go out we will have a better infrastructure to dispose of them. i'm betting that Home Depot is working on that right now (so they can keep selling the bulbs). it's one of those things that doesn't seem like much if only you do it, but if millions of people did it, we'd save xyz kazillion barrels of oil blah blah blah...

Rejin L said...

Thanks, Anne, for the info on TA, (which I think my friend Randi should get involved with) and the info on streetfilms.org. I love your blog as well and will keep checking it out.
I have changed my lightbulbs, but it was "Krissy's" tone that made me want to do a little devil's advocate work. I do think not only the mercury but the plastic bubble packs need to be dealt with. Until the packaging is more sustainable, I am very ambivalent about the bulbs.