The manageable way to make a difference

By Amanda Mack

I was recently struck by the words of Susan Power, a speaker and best selling author who spoke at a North Dakota Humanities Council event in Bismarck during the Young Professionals Summit. Her topic was on personal and global transformation in a quickly changing economy. She said that if you are trying to get from A to Z and focus on Z, you might not get very far. She suggested setting your sights on B instead.

That makes sense. No one ever accomplishes anything without taking the first small step, then the many that follow. This one-step-at-time view makes both the work toward a goal, and even the setting of goals, less daunting.

A personal goal that leaves me on a roller coaster ride of hopeful heights and despairing lows is my effort to reduce my ecological footprint. I’m trying to cut down on how many natural resources I consume on a daily basis, and it isn’t easy.

Whether you believe in global warming or not, the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is enough to make anyone think twice about their daily consumption of oil. If it weren’t for demand, British Petroleum would never have been drilling so remotely and so deeply for this limited and precious natural resource in the first place. Without demand, this ecological devastation would never have occurred.

About four weeks after the spill began, a friend posted on Facebook that the millions of gallons of oil that had leaked into the Gulf were still less than the amount of oil consumed in the United States in one hour.

In the face of this devastation and the statistics accompanying it, what can we do to make a difference? Immediately, I think I should stop driving my car and only ride my bike. Well, first thing’s first. I don’t even own a bike and I have two small children!

So, when giving up my car (Z) is not a realistic undertaking, what steps can I take today to reach B, C and maybe even D?

Don’t get stuck in “it’s never enough”
I have a tendency to get overwhelmed by the scope of the job. A friend turned me on to the Global Footprint Network. She instructed me to go to their website, take the ecological footprint quiz and find out how many planets it would take if everyone else on Earth lived like me. For the average American, it takes five planets. I happen to be above average. I measure in at five and a half.

The quiz asks questions about red meat consumption (I married a serious carnivore who does most of the cooking), shopping habits (online sale shopping, anyone?), how many miles per gallon your car gets, food sources (do you buy local or shop at the grocery store?), how many times you fly in a year, and if your house has electricity (um, yes!), among others.

The quiz results beg the question, what am I willing to give up or do differently?

Here’s what I’ve determined:

1. (or, actually, B): Ride, don’t drive. I’m not willing to give up my car, but I am willing to get a bike, and ride it. I’m also up for trying out the bus. Sounds like a fun adventure for my three year old and a good relearning experience for me since my days using public transit in the big city. As for reducing my airplane travel, I’m not yet willing to go there. We fly two to three times per year. Give up my husband’s winter conferences in warm locales, visits to family, and those occasional girlfriend trips? I just don’t want to do it.

C. Reuse. When we do visit my husband’s family in Seattle, I insist on hitting the second hand and consignment stores for my kids. The selection is wider so I buy sizes two years ahead. I want to start doing this for me too. I see this more and more among my friends lately. It seems whenever I comment on a friend’s sweater or jacket they proudly respond, “thrift store!” with a look of great satisfaction on their faces. Between thrift stores, yard sales, ebay, auctions, and Bismarck’s own local barter network, a lot of great things can, with a little patience, be reused or repurposed, for that matter.

D. Energy efficiency. As a home improvement junky, I’m more than willing to make my home more energy efficient. We recently had an energy audit done for our home, a procedure that rates your home’s energy efficiency or lack thereof on a national scale and identifies how to make energy-saving home improvements. We learned that replacing our storm doors and insulating the basement in our 1948 house are the best things we can do to reduce our ecological footprint as well as our energy bills. We also will recoup a third of the costs for any energy improvements we make to our home this year as part of the 2010 Federal Tax Credits for Consumer Energy Efficiency.

Next steps (E-G on the way to Z!)

E. Pick up the North Dakota Department of Agriculture newly published guide to local food sources in North Dakota. It lists the dates, times and locations of farmer’s markets and identifies local producers of meat, poultry and other food items. I would like to try buying more local food year round.

F. My husband and I are both up for cutting down our meat consumption. After I told him that is the first question asked on the ecological footprint quiz, he came to me suggesting we come up with ways to cut back. Coming from him, this is huge! We also are in our fifth year of vegetable gardening and started composting our kitchen food waste this year.

G. I am going to maintain my involvement with Bismarck’s Urban Harvest. Urban Harvest is a local group that advocates buying local and hosts an open-air street market six Thursdays each summer featuring only local food, wares and entertainment. Urban Harvest book club events and the markets themselves remind me of the creativity and resourcefulness of human beings. My association inspires me to dig deeper to find my own inner food-preserving goddess.

Making time for more
Each new effort toward this end goal requires a time commitment. Shopping the local butcher shops, spending more time scavenging yard sales and thrift stores, and carving out extra time to take the bus instead of jumping in my conveniently-located car all take time. Unless I placed such a high value on the end goal – preserving natural resources – I would have a hard time justifying such time-consuming commitments. That’s part of the journey too – committing not to everything, but to the things that really matter to you.

In her new book “Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth,” sociologist and economist Juliet B. Schor makes a case for conservation of not just resources but also of our time. In a book review in Time magazine, Alexandra Silver writes, “Schor argues we’ve been focused on the wrong kind of green, greedily brushing the natural world aside to the detriment of not just the planet but also our personal well-being. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate the benefits of working fewer hours and increasing self-reliance.” The review concludes, “Reduce, reuse, recycle, but also slow down, strengthen relationships and get more out of life.”

If getting more out of life is what’s in it for me, I’m in. Are you? If so, how do you intend to get from point A to B?

Resource List
2010 Federal Tax Credits for Consumer Energy Efficiency,
Bismarck Bartering Network, Facebook group
City of Bismarck Recycling,
Global Footprint Network,
North Dakota Agriculture Department,
Thermal Auditing,, Tori Otto, owner
Urban Harvest,