U.S. needs to stop bad environmental habits

By Jeanette Schaible

Flickr/ribarnica

We need a break. I don’t think this is working anymore. It’s time for a change. It’s not you, it’s me.

Sound like typical break-up lines, right? Unfortunately, people are not the only ones who can be involved in bad relationships. Americans especially are in an unproductive and dangerous relationship with the environment. It’s a one-way relationship where we take, consume, neglect and abuse the environment. And sadly, the environment doesn’t have an advocate that will help protect it.

As Americans contribute so heavily to the problem, we particularly need to take responsibility for our environmentally degrading habits. Not only does the environment not deserve this treatment, but the way we exploit it does not even benefit us. We are running out of resources and destroying everything we come in contact with. If we want to continue to live on this earth, we need to change.

One of our main degrading habits is the release of excess greenhouse gases, which trap solar heat, not allowing it to leave the earth’s atmosphere. Having some greenhouse gas emissions are necessary for climate and weather control, but too many emissions is detrimental. The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, nitrous oxide and water vapor. These compounds all occur naturally in the environment, but human activities like driving cars and burning oil produce an unnecessary amount of these gases, and their accumulation leads to a warmer globe.

We produce carbon dioxide by breathing, but also from burning fossil fuels. The United States burns over 20 million barrels of oil every day, producing about 18 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. All that CO2 contributes to global warming. And to make matters worse, burning fossil fuels also releases other compounds that are linked with acid rain, black soot and human diseases, like asthma and heart disease, into the air. So our actions are also harming human health, water systems, plants and animals. This is, again, indicative of an unhealthy relationship between the environment and us. 

A few other aspects of this abusive relationship are deforestation and mining. Deforestation is the clearing or destruction of forests for the development of urban and agricultural areas. However, trees are vitally important to the environment because they provide food and shelter for animals and other organisms, prevent erosion, maintain air temperatures near the ground, absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Without these CO2 absorbers, called “sinks,” there is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which helps trap more heat on earth. Mining areas are similarly comprised of destroyed land and harm the local ecosystems.

Some people would argue that the environment is doing fine. It is continuing to supply us with food and water, there are animals in our backyards, the sky is blue and there are still trees in forests. Things may be OK right now, but they may not be for long. A lot of the changes in the environment are not noticeable until they become endangered or non-existent, like species or access to certain resources, respectively. 

We know the damaging effects of our actions, we have the ability to stop them and we have the tools to help us. Now we need to make a commitment to improve our relationship with the earth. Each person needs to take small steps towards living a more environment-friendly life. You can reduce your carbon dioxide output by carpooling, switching energy sources to ones that don’t require burning fossil fuels, planting trees, recycling, using energy efficient products and unplugging appliances that aren’t in use.

Recycling items helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions because it uses already-made products whose elements do not need to be mined or otherwise made. Unplugging appliances reduces the waste of energy that was most likely derived from fossil fuel sources. Switching energy sources would mean installing solar panels, buying wind energy or driving a hybrid car. Each little change is an improvement for the environment and for us.

After a break from our environmentally abusive habits, our new habits will become routine and effortless. We will do them without thinking, and we won’t miss the harmful behaviors of the past. We will improve our own lives, the well-being of the environment and our relationship with the environment. This is a relationship that we can’t give up on because, like it or not, we can’t live without it. In the end, we will thank ourselves and live better lives.

Jeanette Schaible is a Collegian contributor and a UMass Eco-Rep. She can be reached at [email protected].