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City Places for City People
New Year Resolutions for a Sustainable 2012

by Eric Miller

It's New Year's Day and you don't have a resolution yet. As Rick Perry might say, "Ooops." Don't worry, I have come up with five possibilities for you. These are resolutions that should not only make your life more enjoyable, but can go a long way towards making the world a better, more sustainable place. Choose one, or go all out and start all five now!

  1. Drive less, or quit driving altogether
    This is a point that's been made frequently, but one that deserves repeating. Many instead opt for fuel efficient cars. Smaller, more efficient cars are, as far as emissions go, better than larger gas-guzzling ones. However, as the World Health Organization (WHO) points out, green or not, cars kill. Not only in terms of traffic injuries, but also through air pollution, physical inactivity and noise stress. Traffic injuries and urban air pollution (produced largely by motor vehicles) kill 2.6 million people globally per year. The physical inactivity associated with car culture accounts for 3.2 million deaths annually. "The link between air pollution and heart and respiratory disease, obesity, diabetes and certain cancers (like lung and breast cancer) is well-established," says Carlos Dora of WHO's Department of Public Health and Environment, "as is the link between car use and physical inactivity, which contributes to many of the same ills." Bicycles are often faster than cars in busy neighborhoods, while mass transit grants you time to read, study, or socialize with your seatmates if you want. And there's always walking, which is what we evolved to do.

  2. Buy Used
    The mantra in the antiques industry these days is "antiques are green." It may seem odd that furniture containing some exotic woods can be considered green. But buying an antique means you're not buying something that was produced recently, probably in Asia, and shipped across the ocean. Antiques may be green, but so are many things you buy second-hand. So whether you go for high-end collectibility or just old furniture, using what may have otherwise been discarded is green. Of course there are different levels involved. Sometimes a high-end piece will be transported thousands of miles to shows before it is finally sold. That's not so green. Likewise buying a piano in Maine and shipping it to San Diego is not so green. Remember the intensity of antiques shopping being a green activity is increased the more it is local.

  3. Eat less meat
    A recent United Nations report concluded that a global shift toward a vegan diet is necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change. The fact is, it's not just about your health. Raising animals for food damages the environment more than just about anything else that we do. If you want to learn more about the impact of a vegan diet on your health, I recommend a movie called Forks Over Knives that's available on Netflix. It's a dual purpose resolution, however. According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U.S. roads. As for water, its availability is already at crisis stage in several states. There are several ways you can cut usage--see #5 below--but the most obvious may be to stop lawn watering.

  4. Move to a smaller space
    The building industry likes to talk about energy-efficient upgrades, but chances are all those upgrades are not as effective in contributing to a sustainable world as is downsizing. Living in a smaller space means heating and cooling a smaller space. It also means more spaces can fit into a given area, creating higher density. That in turn means more activities are within walking and biking distance or accessible by public transportation, using less fuel, and time, to get from here to there. And the time you're saving can be spent planting vegetables or talking to your neighbors. See, it's about a lot more than the walk-in closets.

  5. Use Less Water
    Californians have been warned that more than half of all the water used by most California households goes to lawn watering. In Texas, I've seen that number pegged at eighty percent. Water is becoming increasingly scarce, and using less water may have the most impact of any of the resolutions on our list. Replacing your lawn with plants that are native and drought resistant may take some planning and effort, but other ways to save can more easily fit into your routine. Wash dishes by hand and don't let the water run when you rinse. Plan ahead--don't defrost frozen foods with running water. Run only full loads in the washer. Turn off the water while brushing your teeth. If the toilet runs, repair it immediately. You can also put a bag of rocks or a brick in the tank to help use less water.

Five resolutions that can turn you into a Sustainability Superhero!

Eric Miller