As many of us have begun to recognize, we are destroying the biosphere in which we depend on. While greenhouse gas emissions are getting all the attention, other major ecological issues are being unaddressed. The reality may be that the problem we are facing is far broader than what mainstream media and the general public has come to believe. If this is true, the solution requires much more than just moving toward carbon-neutrality to achieve sustainability on this planet.
When it comes to sustainability, people generally think of the heating effect of greenhouse gases on the climate and how things such as electric automobiles, solar and wind power, coral reefs, and rainforest fires relate to it. Yes, carbon emissions are a large part of the problem, but many other things are arguably just as impactful. Extracting and mining resources hurts the planet. Reducing wildlife populations leads to complex ecosystem changes. Replacing natural habitats with cities and crop fields causes numerous ecological issues. If we choose to formulate a problem solely based on one aspect of a multifaceted problem, we may miss out on crucial issues.
So what should society focus on? Is it to transition to renewable energy, to adopt plant-based diets, to eliminate waste, to limit population growth, to create a circular economy, to reform mass consumerism, to change the way we view our relationship to nature? The path to sustainability may require all of these and more. We need to reformulate how we look at the problem and consider all possibilities in order to achieve real progress. Most importantly, let’s listen to each other with respect and remember that the objective is not only in the end result, but in the journey. I will now discuss several overlooked or controversial topics on sustainability.
Dogs and Cats
Dog and cat ownership can be considered a cherished and essential part of culture around the world. They provide a valuable sense of purpose and connection to many. However, they are significant contributors to the ecological crisis. It is important that we consider all factors related to sustainability, no matter how much we value them. Here are some alarming statistics on pet ownership:
- Dogs and cats generate about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is about the same as a year’s worth of driving for 13.6 million cars
- Dogs and cats are responsible for around 25-30% of the total environmental impact of meat consumption in the US
- If America’s dogs and cats comprised their own separate country, their nation would rank 5th in global meat consumption
- Domestic cats kill between 1.3-4 billion birds and 6.3-22.3 billion mammals annually
- Global pet ownership is dramatically increasing, especially in asian countries.
We live in a finite resource ecosystem. If we increase the number of carnivores higher up in the food chain, there must be an increase in lower level prey. That process of producing more prey, otherwise known as animal agriculture, is a very environmentally taxing activity that also has consequences on the no so lucky prey animals. It is a direct cause of major global problems such as methane emissions, deforestation and the water crisis, not to mention a violator of animal welfare. Not many people realize that for every dog or cat that someone chooses to own, several cows, pigs, and chickens must be sacrificed as feed. When we choose to own dogs or cats, other animals and people around the world have to suffer as a result.
Unfortunately, domestic cats are some of the worst invasive predator species on this planet. They decimate local wildlife and have contributed to the extinction of many species around the world. The impact of cat ownership on the environment should not be ignored.
The solution is simple, but can be difficult to acknowledge for some: simply opt out of dog or cat ownership. However, for those who absolutely need to own one, choose a dog over a cat. Since dogs are omnivores, their diet can be covered by mostly plants; cats, on the other hand, are obligate carnivores. You can also limit the number of pets to one and choose a smaller pet over a larger one. An alternative is to get a herbivorous pet such as a rabbit or hamster.
Roadkill is another important, but neglected issue that greatly affects biodiversity and wildlife population levels globally. The term was coined in the late 1950s in the US, when the interstate highway system was beginning construction. It’s talked about so little, there isn’t even an action verb for the word.
- It is estimated that around 1/2 of the American city is dedicated to the car: streets, roads, driveways, parking lots, service stations, automobile businesses, etc
- Roadkill is one of the largest if not the largest anthropological cause of death for wildlife globally
- In the US, around 1 million animals, not including bugs are stuck every day
- According to a study done in Brazil, 1.3 million animals are struck every day or around 1 every 15 seconds. The team documented 165 different species over the duration of the study not including bugs.
Roadkill is a persisting issue that has a profound effect on wildlife. In dense cities, most of the large animals have been struck down already or pushed out. In more rural cities, animals are struck on a daily basis. Individual cases may not seem that impactful, but the accumulation of roadkill over long periods of time has a defined, negative effect on global biodiversity. We have to renew our attention to the unaddressed consequences of our most basic daily actions, such as driving. For society, this means encouraging alternative modes of transportation that cause lower animal mortality and building animal friendly infrastructure in our cities. As individuals, we should drive slower and more carefully, especially around wilderness areas, so we avoid running over our animal friends.
It is a bad idea to quickly dismiss this topic or to criticize those who bring it up, when population size is directly implicated in humanity’s collective footprint.
The truth is, the world is consuming more and more resources, and one of the reasons for this increase in consumption is that there are simply more people. While the total global population is starting to level off, even decreasing in a few places, the planet is struggling to sustain seven billion people under our current global consumeristic system. Simply put, population matters. A smaller population level will help reduce our environmental load on the planet, help us reach our sustainability goals faster, and perhaps benefit humanity as well.
Unknown to most, the most effective individual action in reducing emissions is to have fewer children. According to one study, “a US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives”. That same study estimated that having one less child reduces an average of almost 60 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year in developed countries. Compare that to a typical passenger car which emits roughly 6 tons per year. It makes sense though. More people means higher demand for resources—at a level earth cannot maintain.
This is not to say we shouldn’t have children. We just need to be more aware of the environmental effects of having children. I am not arguing for strict population control measures, but instead, encouraging education and voluntary choice in a time of great adversity. Families—especially those in high-consumption countries—should consider having fewer children in order to greatly reduce our ecological and carbon footprints.
Burials are one of the least environmentally friendly features of modern society. In many developed countries, death and dying are being taken offstage, but perhaps it is time to renew discussion on this topic. Here are some statistics according to the Green Burial Council.
In the US, burials use:
- 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, almost a quarter of that consisting of formaldehyde, methanol, and benzene (toxic chemicals)
- 20 million board feet of hardwoods
- 1.6 million tons of concrete
- 17,000 tons of copper and bronze
- 64,500 tons of steel
- Various metals and chemicals that leach into the environment
- Uses 3,250 cubic feet of natural gas to maintain a temperature of 1900° F for 2 hours
- Releases 139 lbs of co2 into the atmosphere (about a 500 mile car trip)
- Also releases .8 to 5.9 grams of mercury and other byproducts such as nitrogen oxide and dioxins
As you can see, burials are not so environmentally friendly. And this is not even taking into account the enormous environmental cost of cemeteries. We need to rethink the process of burials by replacing traditional burials with green alternatives. Green burials may involve woven basket coffins or simply wrapping the body in a cotton shroud. I encourage everyone to do their own research and consider having a green burial, because if you wait too long, it might be too late.
I talked about four overlooked or neglected topics related to sustainability, but there are numerous other topics. It is up to us individually to continue to educate ourselves and refine our solution to the greatest problem humanity has faced.