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October 14, 2009

Simple acts of great courage

Don’t switch on an incandescent light bulb for a year. Take every piece of non-compost trash and recyclable you accumulate over 365 days with you in your car; store that stuff in one shoebox. Spend 12 months on the road in a Ford Escape hybrid, stop in every state and film the whole thing for a feature-length documentary.

Ben Evans did these things.

Why? Nondiscrimination treaties with lighting and curbside garbage pickup are so much more convenient.

The 39-year-old Evans, his wife Julie and their friend Mark Dixon, made “YERT” (www.yert.com) — an acronym for Your Environmental Road Trip — in part to make sustainability and other “green” movements seem less daunting and overly scientific than we’re used to.

“The big, overarching goal was to try to personalize sustainability,” Evans says. “We came up with the idea when the green wave was starting to kick off, and a lot of terms were being thrown around.”

Like sustainability, whose easiest definition is something like this: to maintain a thing over time at its current level. To understand this as something beyond balancing a glass of water on your head, start by looking around you, right now. What do you see that is necessary to your survival? What can be jettisoned, and how might you get rid of it in a responsible way? Which lights can be turned off? Are you staring at your computer when it’d be more useful to get familiar with that bird sitting on the windowsill?

It takes milliseconds for sustainability to seem esoteric if you apply it to the whole planet. This is unnecessary, and part of what Evans et al. are trying to convey: If you think of sustainability as your singular responsibility to save the world, you might as well give up. But if you can convince the people around you — and they convince more, and so on — that sustainability is a series of mostly simple acts requiring slightly more consideration than normal, we’re getting somewhere.

“The best news we found from the trip was that in saving the planet, we’re saving ourselves on almost every level,” Evans says.

As Emily Bonden writes in “Breaking bread” on page 15, eating is an act of ecology, politics and agriculture (to paraphrase the writer Michael Pollan). Bonden’s piece loosely follows the life cycle of a basic meal, from whence it came to where it spends eternity, to-go box and all.

Eating probably best encompasses the myriad issues that contribute to the ideal of sustainability. Try to learn where your meals come from, not so much to gin up sympathy for the cow you’re eating as to know that the patty actually came from one grazing cow, not several who spent their final days in the various dirty pens of a multinational food conglomerate. Think of the distance from here to Uruguay, and the fossil fuels consumed moving beef between those places. We know that the environmental costs of eating beef are staggering. Consider making it an occasional accessory to your meal, not the centerpiece. Consider a backyard garden for salads and beans. Remember farmers markets.

Sustainability is rarely mentioned in news reports of global warming and commercial beef recalls, but it is the essential connector. The word itself seems to have garnered a similar rhetorical bequest as “progressive” has in mainstream politics; it is a self-identifying term more than an indicator of anything that actually exists.

This is one place where we’ve faltered: We consistently fail to see the interrelatedness of our actions, even in our eating, where it is easiest to see.

After the road trip, Ben and Julie Evans moved to Louisville. In their travels they came across a sustainability convention called Bioneers, and Ben decided to try and establish a satellite site for the next one.

Louisville is the only city for 350 miles in any direction where you’ll find Bioneers. Bluegrass Bioneers 2009 runs Oct. 16-18 at the University of Louisville’s Rauch Planetarium and Strickler Hall. Along with beamed-in addresses by Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) and eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, you will find local greenies Tom FitzGerald, Jennifer Oladipo, Ben Sollee, Gill Holland, Gary Heine and tons more, talking about the various ways we can make things a little easier on the planet and, by extension, ourselves.

It’s free, and it’s all about how we might go about this continued evolution of ours — one meal, one road trip and one light bulb at a time.

Check out bb2009.org for more intel.

Tagged: Editor’s Note |