Remaking Holidays for Sustainability: Ways to Improve Any Holiday

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, the Fourth of July, and other holidays all have a few things in common: they tend to involve travel and special meals or feasts. For many extended families, like mine, these kinds of occasions are the only times during the year we all have a chance to see each other, yet travel and food are two of the four biggest ways individuals and households contribute to global warming*. So our choices are to give up on sustainability over the holidays, to give up on the holidays, or to find ways to the holidays more sustainable, starting now. These posts are focused on that last option.

The way I propose we look at cutting any emissions is “biggest impacts first.” We often look for the easiest, most obvious ways to act more sustainably, but the truth is that there are so many low-impact things we can do, we can easily spend all our time on those and never get to the good stuff, the major savings. That’s where the Big Four offer a starting point. With those in mind, here are some tips for the making the largest possible savings in emissions at the holidays.

Rethink air travel: Flying around the country and even the rest of the plant has become relatively inexpensive and easy, but unfortunately it’s one of the worst offenders in terms of emissions. Not only do planes burn a lot of fossil fuels, they push out their exhaust at altitudes where their bad effects are at least doubled compared to what they would be on the ground. It’s not up to me to tell you or your family members not to fly, but there are ways to fly less, for instance driving together in an efficient car, taking a bus or plane or boat, or making one longer visit instead of two shorter ones. For more information on flying, see “You Want Me to Stop Doing What?”

If the trip is very important to you and you can’t find any way to make it other than air travel, you can consider making a donation to offset the climate impact. For example, Cool Earth is a non-profit organization that does excellent work preserving forests, which is one of the best possible ways to help slow climate change (even better than planting new trees). Donations to organizations that make a smaller or less direct impact would have to be proportionately larger.

The cost of offsetting a flight depends very much on how long the flight is. For a transatlantic round trip, an offset donation to an organization like Cool Earth would be only $20.90. A short round trip, for instance between Niagara Falls and New York City, would be only about $2.50. (Source: How Bad Are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee)

Not making the trip in the first place is certainly the ideal way to go, but offsetting is a decent alternative if you are having trouble finding away around flying.

Use food well: According to FeedingAmerica.org, between 25% and 40% of all food produced in the U.S. will never be eaten. Take a moment to reflect on that with me: At least a quarter of all our food, and possibly closer to half, goes completely to waste! Meanwhile, much of this food is produced with energy-intensive methods that burn many tons of fossil fuels; methane from ruminant livestock (cows, sheep, and goats) that is more than 20 times as potent in damaging the climate than carbon dioxide; and chemical fertilizers that release Nitrous Oxide (NO2), a greenhouse gas more than 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Careful attention to what and how much food we buy and how we serve and store it can cut our personal food waste to far below the usual amount.

Time permitting, I’ll be posting further ways to transform the holidays over the coming weeks. A happy and sustainable holiday season to all!

Photo courtesy of Emily Barney

* The other two are heat/hot water and electricity.

You want me to stop doing WHAT?

Flying. I’d like it if you stopped using airplanes. I’m not saying you have to or that I’m going to make you or that you should: I’m just hoping you’ll think about it.

downed airplane

The number of things we could be doing every day to reduce our carbon footprint and fight climate change disaster is unmanageable, overwhelming. Reducing paper and plastic use, recycling, reusing, repurposing, gardening, public transit, local foods, avoiding processed foods, solar and wind power …  I don’t know if you have time to tackle it all at once, but there’s no way I can manage. I have to change at most a few things at a time–which is why it’s essential for me to to figure out the things I can do that will make the greatest impact and do those first.

Number one on my list? Not flying.

For millions upon millions of years, not flying for humans has been a no-brainer. Then the airplane comes along and suddenly we’re Jonathan freakin’ Seagull.

I totally get the wonder of flight. I don’t mean the feeling of it, which for humans generally means getting a little queasy, trying not to spill the little airplane meal, and looking out a small window at a weirdly disconnect landscape; I mean the possibilities. Years ago I flew to Japan, and while I visited, there wasn’t a day I didn’t look around me to see and feel that holy crap, I was in Japan, and my two shoestring trips to Europe after I got out of college felt even more life-changing to me. On the other hand, as wonderful as those trips were, did I really need to go to Japan or Belgium or Hungary? No, not really. It was fun and fascinating, but there are other fun and fascinating things to do in the world.

Travel to foreign countries used to be one of my favorite things. Now that I see the real cost of it–which is not counted in dollars but in disasters–the shine has worn off.

I understand there are a lot of people who travel for business. The first thing I would suggest is that this often isn’t strictly necessary, just convenient and even, from a cost standpoint, reasonable. The second thing I’d suggest is that if you’re in a business that really does require a lot of air travel, you could make a disproportionately huge, positive impact on climate change by finding a way to cut way back, or to stop it. The third thing I’d suggest is that if your job really requires air travel and you don’t have the means to change it, it may be worth considering another job if you want to fight climate change.

Easy for me to say, though. Except for vacations and writing-related events, I generally have no reason to fly. Yet it being easy for me to say this doesn’t take away any of its importance. I’m sure I’d be more convincing on the subject if I were a former world-traveling business prodigy who had stopped flying instead of some schmuck who started taking regional vacations, but I’m doing my best.

Just how bad is air travel? Of course it depends on the specifics, but two or three round trip transatlantic flights can do as much damage to the climate as everything else an average American might do during the course of a year put together. All of the heating fuel, the driving, the fertilizers and fuel to bring you food, the cow methane, the household waste, and everything else: it’s doubled by a few flights.

As far as alternatives are concerned, the best and easiest is often to stay put or go to some alternative destination close by. Trains, boats, and buses are good bets, each having a much smaller carbon footprint than airplanes. Even cars are a lot better than planes, with hybrid, plug-in electric, and highly fuel-efficient cars of course being the preferred way to go. A trip by car can come close to emitting the same amount of greenhouse gases as a flight of the same distance, depending on the circumstances, but airplane emissions occur high in the atmosphere, where they have several times the impact they would have on the ground.

No one is going to stop you from flying. Few people even care at this point, but I hope you’ll be one of them, if you aren’t already. If fighting climate change is important to you, there’s not a single thing I can recommend that can reduce your footprint so easily and so profoundly.

Photo by The_ Incredible_ Mr.E