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  • Writer's pictureDeeDee Birch

Make One Good Choice

We are all confronted with choices every day. Perhaps a better word for it is inundated. We all have to make thousands of choices every day. In fact, we face 35,000 decisions every single day, and it can be exhausting– overwhelming– to consider each individual one. Thousands of forks in the road; infinitely many ways in which our lives can play out.

But the reality is there are significant health implications – for yourself, your family, the environment, and billions of other people across the globe– in each singular choice we make. I recognize the effort required to consider and invest in even a fraction of those choices is enormous. Yet it is worthwhile. I won’t suggest that any of us can or should care about every one of those 35,000 daily choices. Neuroscience research has shown that 95% of our cognitions are subconscious, meaning that we only consciously conceive of 5% of our cognitions on a daily basis. Our brains are wired to automate as many of those 35,000 choices as possible (that’s why we’re creatures of habit), but the effects of these choices ripple across the globe. This is both the greatest beauty and the greatest responsibility of our lives.

We can all strive to make one better choice at a time.

Why should you care about making better choices? What is one choice among the millions made each day?

I could tell you that your health depends on it. I could tell you that 40% of fertilizers used in the U.S. lawn care industry are banned in Europe because they are carcinogenic and many industry standards cause toxic algae blooms that decimate waters and wildlife. I could tell you that toxic chemicals leeching into our waters and soils are consumed by wildlife, and eventually, bioaccumulate in our own bodies as we consume foods ranging from meat and fish to fruits and vegetables. I could tell you that we spend more than 90% of our time inside and indoor air is 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air. I could tell you that the built environment is responsible for 40% of global emissions annually and it is comprised of chemicals that cause asthma, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and cancer, among other conditions. I could tell you that as significant as the impacts of our built environment are on you and your family, there is likely another even more vulnerable community enduring even more dangerous risks and health outcomes through no fault of its own.

I could tell you that our buildings are slowly killing us.

While I find these facts terrifying enough to be an impetus for action, history has shown that scary factoids are not enough to spur meaningful change, particularly in the context of our built environment and the climate crisis. Rates of chronic conditions continue to climb; the climate warms degree by degree and sea levels rise; the 24/7 news cycle drones on with another doomsday headline. Life goes on.

I think this phenomenon of disinterest and inaction is, in part, because it is exceedingly difficult to envision and believe in a world of goodness. I understand it’s easy to feel small in a world with so much suffering – I often do. But there are people who have tried and successfully conceived of a better world than the one we know today. In an age where there are millions of people yelling all at once, a few voices are speaking a world of abundance, equity, security, and kindness into existence; it is to these voices that we should listen.

Why should you care about making good choices?

At the heart of sustainability remains a tension between collective impact and individual choice. There are countless scales at which to examine sustainability and the questions of climate change, environmental degradation, social equity, carbon, and energy that live within that term. We can look at global sustainability and talk about the exploitation of the global south by the global north; how the global north has propelled the destruction of biodiversity, local economies, and cultures through material extraction, and then dumped so much of our waste back onto the communities that sacrificed their wellbeing to fuel our consumption in the first place.

Yet we can also look at sustainability in a national context. We can look at the disproportional burden of climate change on low-income and Black and brown communities in the U.S.; at patterns of redlining, environmental racism, white flight, and disinvestment, and how those patterns correlate to pollution, healthy food access, intergenerational poverty, and waste management, among others. Even still, one could also look at sustainability in terms of an individual organization’s impact on the environment. How have companies like Google and Amazon changed our world? How have academic and nonprofit organizations changed our world? At the smallest of sustainability scales stands the individual person.

So amidst all of these grand, complex scales of sustainability, again, why should you care about making good choices?

Michael Pollan, one of the world’s leading food experts, begs the same question in his essay included in the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. He asks, “Why bother? That really is the big question facing us as individuals hoping to do something about climate change, and it’s not an easy one to answer.” Despite the expansiveness of the question, his response is simply to plant a garden, because, “there are so many stories we can tell ourselves to justify doing nothing, but perhaps the most insidious is that, whatever we manage to do, it will be too little too late.” Among the myriad of reasons to plant a garden in your pocket of the planet, whether that pocket is a bucket of dirt on a balcony or acres of open fields, is that “in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to comingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen.”

He points to a steep divide in American life. Despite the inequities and poverty that persist here, few countries are as well-versed in consumption as the United States. In 2008, the U.S. comprised just 5% of the global population but consumed 24% of global energy. US consumers spent 222.2 billion dollars on furniture, furnishings, and floor coverings in 2020 and, according to the EPA, 1,616 tons of furniture were thrown away in 2018 (that's over 23 million pounds; while the years differ, they refer to a recurring pattern). Of that 23 million pounds, over 80% ended up in landfills. The USDA estimates that food waste, which is the largest component of the individual’s carbon footprint, is estimated at between 30-40% of the food supply. How can one garden combat those kinds of numbers?

A garden, Pollan argues, allows us to remember that we are citizens of a global world, human beings that are inherently connected to the land around us. While I would not suggest that we, individually, can or should radically reverse our national consumption patterns, one glance at data on U.S. waste highlights the disconnection between us and the rest of the planet. We are all drowning in stuff, in waste, that we are generating ourselves. Yet as critical as that is, Pollan concludes that “the single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun shines and people can still plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.”

Deconstructing the idea that we live in a strictly zero-sum world stands as perhaps one of the most fundamental steps in collectively envisioning a world of goodness and abundance. While the planet isn’t getting any bigger and we certainly have finite resources, this isn’t about the planet’s carrying capacity. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, while explaining how an entire grove of trees can all produce a surplus of nuts in unison, writes that the trees “weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking” through an underground fungi network that transfers carbohydrates from one tree with extra carbohydrates to ones that are lacking them. Nature repeats this pattern time and time again; it operates through symbiosis and productive cooperation, not relentless competition and exploitation as we’ve been led to believe. As Kimmerer concludes, “through unity, survival. All flourishing is mutual.” We can, in fact, use some of our thousands of choices each day to take care of each other and the world around us without sacrificing our own needs. Perhaps taking care of each other helps us take care of ourselves.

And it has to start among us, the individual people who make up each singular strand of our social fabric. Much like Pollan, Paul Hawken, one of the greatest proponents of an ecological economy, suggests that the shift to a better world must be a grassroots effort; he writes that “if there is to be an ecologically sound society, it will come from the bottom up, not the top down.” He is right.

Kindness, humanity, kinship, and relationships - these phenomena all happen on the smallest of scales. Between neighbors; among friends and within families; with two strangers passing each other on a street; when one person chooses to plant some native asters in their yard or chooses to let a bug crawl unbothered along their driveway instead of killing it. Institutions and giant corporations cannot see, serve, or build relationships within the world like individuals can. This is very much like nature. Our entire food system would collapse without pollinators, for example. Or consider that the productivity of an ecosystem depends largely on the specific relationships between plants and insects (not the diversity of plant species). The tiny creatures we all consider inconveniences and their relationships to the plants around us impact the populations and health of species up and down the food chain. Extinction, often conceived of as a large catastrophic event, really happens at the local scale. Plants find new places to grow by spreading seeds carried in the wind.

We all have that unique capacity to think and act at nature’s smallest scales. We can - one choice at a time - create and demand a world that is kinder, more abundant, and more equitable. And it starts with one choice. When we take care of each other and the world around us, the world softens, soothes itself and us, and grows gently.

With this kindness and humanity at even the smallest of scales, each of us holds enormous power.

In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart end their exploration of a circular, nontoxic, and just economy with the following passage:

How can we support and perpetuate the rights of all living things to share in a world of abundance? How can we love the children of all species–not just our own–for all time? Imagine what a world of prosperity and health in the future will look like, and begin designing for it right now. What would it mean to become, once again, native to this place, the Earth– the home of all our relations? This is going to take us all, and it is going to take forever. But then, that is the point.

Let’s circle back to the 35,000 choices you make every single day. One of those choices is where this world of abundance and prosperity starts. One of those choices is where you join a community of people trying to do their best for each other, the planet, and every being we share it with every day. You hold infinite possibilities and potential in the palm of your hand.

Many environmentalists will talk about carbon footprint calculators, global renewable energy sources, bicycles over cars, boycotting airplanes, and going vegan. Those things are all well and good, but I am of the mindset that not everyone can do everything. As Anna Jones writes in the introduction of her cookbook, One Pot, Pan, Planet: A Greener Way to Cook for You and Your Family, “We are all learning; I am learning too...None of us is perfect and the science is complicated. At times it feels hard to make the right choices. But every small change adds up.” It is impossible to make a perfectly sustainable and healthy choice every time, but we can all certainly make one healthy choice one time. Slowly, we can all make one good choice at a time, together. You don’t have to sell your car, become a vegan, or refuse to buy an airline ticket ever again to care about the planet (though if you are able and willing, all the more power to you). Doing what you can in the context of your life, when you can do it, will have an impact.

Sometimes I imagine one person very far from me making one good choice, just as I try to do each day: someone in Iceland, China, Italy, Brazil, or Australia faced with one of their 35,000 choices that day and making one that is kinder to the planet, and kinder to themselves. Perhaps they bought some of their food from a local organic farmer that day; perhaps they walked or biked to work instead of driving; perhaps they adopted their new pet instead of purchasing one. Or maybe they picked up errant trash abandoned on a street, switched to nontoxic laundry detergent, or bought their new piece of furniture secondhand. Millions of these moments happen every day, and there is joy in the thought that somewhere someone is also making one good choice, too.

Sustainability asks a lot of us. It demands that we consider and comprehend vast global systems that we could never see with our own eyes. It asks us to care about places we've never been, invisible microplastics in our waters and soil, the loss of species that we've never seen. Sustainability also asks that we look at our local places - places that appear fine enough - and reimagine them as better. Healthier, more beautiful, more productive, and more regenerative.

Our choices matter; they have meaning. Native plants in your yard won’t single-handedly replenish the dwindling North American bird populations, but they will help a few birds find safety, security, shelter, and sustenance. Opting for cork, linoleum, or hardwood flooring over vinyl flooring will reduce the demand for a dangerous, carcinogenic product and keep those people manufacturing or landfilling it just a little bit safer. One sofa purchased secondhand or from a regional, sustainable vendor won’t cure the world of our waste problem or ensure safe working conditions for global factories, but it will help you breathe in cleaner air, prevent one item from going to landfill, and support one domestic manufacturing job. And those are all pretty incredible consequences.

We can all make one good choice and a time and watch the world slowly change and transform into a kinder, more abundant, and more beautiful place. Plant and tend to your garden because we can and must bother.


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