There’s hope: Personal actions can lead to societal solutions

The following is a guest contribution from Eric Van Vlandren. Eric is a long time sustainability professional specializing in education and communication.  He was recently the Campus Sustainability Coordinator at Emerson College and now works as a consultant for variety of organizations, including Vivergy, Vermontivate, the MA House and others.  He can be reached at ericvanvlandren (at) gmail (dot) com.

The modern world presents us all with many opportunities not available to previous generations. It comes with a host of new challenges as well, first among them things like climate change, pollution and other sustainability issues. If you are like many of us it is easy to feel overwhelmed by seemingly intractable problems, complex and costly solutions and frustration at the inactivity of our elected leaders.

Well, I have good news – which may at first sound like bad news. Each of the challenges threatening our healthy future is not a onetime event. No one pushed a button and overnight put billions of tons of carbon in the atmosphere, or polluted the oceans, or filled the air we breathe with soot and chemicals. Those things all happened over a long time through individuals taking singular actions again and again as part of their daily lives, businesses, industries etc. Our environmental problems have grown gradually and while they are undeniably large now (here comes the good news) the solution to them is, simply, to run the process in reverse. That’s right, there will be no button to push to magically undo any of this. Rather each of us needs to do what we can every day to lighten our footprint, to live mindfully, to “be the change we wish to see in the world” – Gandhi

The even better news I have for you is that many issues lend themselves very well to individual action, to community building and to learning through grass roots action. One of the best is tackling an issue like air pollution. We all contribute to the soot, chemicals and carcinogens in our atmosphere through the normal behaviors of our daily lives. Don’t feel guilty about that – you didn’t create the society and technologies we live with. No, feel empowered. Take heart in examples of awareness resulting in larger solutions as well. Think of the crises of the Antarctic ozone hole of 20 years ago and how widespread understanding led to international treaties and action to mitigate it. This same type of awareness bred action which also lead to indoor smoking laws, because of the harmful effects of second hand smoke and individuals demanding protection of their health. There are many others.

I recommend thinking about what is most important to you – your children. I can tell you that although I have none myself, children are the most important thing to me too. A rational person realizes they are the most precious aspect of any society. Each day children are exposed to high levels of air pollutants through the simple act of going to school. In fact, as Vivergy tells us, the typical child is exposed to toxins and particulates at the equivalent level as being in a closed vehicle breathing second hand cigarette smoke for 20 minutes. No one would tolerate that for their children. What if there were a way to learn, not guess, what the air pollution chemicals were and at what concentrations? What if we could set up a simple monitoring program right at our neighborhood school? We could see the levels fluctuate with time of day and activity. We could compare to other communities. We could empower ourselves with the information we need to make changes that would improve the health of our children as well as take those small steps we all need to take to address larger sustainability issues.

As a professional whose career centers on effective sustainability communication one of the things which fills me with hope is the promise of creating a culture of individual actions, living a resource light lifestyle. It is hundreds of non-profits, NGOs and pioneering startups, like Vivergy, which many times offer the solutions. Every idea was small once. Seek places where you can access information directly, without a mediator. None of us, especially our children, need to live with toxins in the air we breathe. Consider taking steps now, in your town, to do what you can to learn about and reduce air pollution. I think you will find this kind of grass roots activism is empowering and shows a path towards tackling many of our environmental challenges large and small.