Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.
By now, you know many basics when it comes to environmental-friendly tips: Use less water, recycle, turn off the lights. But you also know that those alone won’t solve the environmental problems we face, like a warming planet, drought and biodiversity loss.
How do you balance the recognition that we must help usher in systemic solutions while still making impactful changes?
In part, it’s about seeing the limits and possibilities of both. Personal habits collectively add up. Meanwhile, policies, organizations and governments only change when enough people do something about it.
“Sustainability is actually trying to address climate problems. It’s not just describing the problem, it’s figuring out what we should do,” says Diane Pataki, Foundation Professor and director of the School of Sustainability, a program within the College of Global Futures.
“You need to understand the science,” Pataki says, “but it’s now moving past describing the way the world is and figuring out: What should we do? What should the future look like?”
To begin, start with a list: What are you doing in terms of sustainability in your own home, at work, in your community?
Then, consider the advice below from scientists in the School of Sustainability, and build from there.
What makes a true difference is figuring out what you can do as a regular practice, and commit to it.
Try to walk or bike more and drive less. Buy locally grown food when possible. Avoid fast fashion and overall buy fewer things.
Consider making household changes, like an energy audit of your house that can be provided for free by your utility company, or updating old appliances with energy-efficient ones.
For water-saving tips, add aerators to your faucets and use low-flow showerheads.
These tips also help lower your bills, and while there’s a bigger upfront cost for some of them, federal and state tax credits for solar panels and heat pumps for your house can help.
These smaller actions across society matter and help create “sustainability,” as well as happiness and self-care, something Scott Cloutier, assistant professor in the School of Sustainability, says often gets overlooked.
How happiness relates to sustainability
Cloutier studies the connections between happiness and sustainability. Research has shown that buying more things does not lead to long-term happiness, instead leading to overconsumption.
“For me, sustainability is an internal process of understanding how we relate to the world, how we see the world outside ourselves, and then asking ourselves how those relationships we develop contribute to an equitable, just, sustainable, regenerative future,” Cloutier says. “The happiness angle is that you can find synergistic ways of living that do make you happy and regenerate the environment, rebuild soil health and reestablish community connections.”
A good example of how to do that is a straightforward one: Grow a garden of any size, maybe in a community garden or in place of a water-thirsty lawn, Cloutier says.
Gardening has been shown to boost mental health and overall well-being, along with the ecosystem benefits it provides to native insects, pollinators and birds. Added up around the world, backyard gardens provide 15% to 20% of the world’s food.
Cloutier’s research has also found gardening to be a meaningful way to connect to the community and ecosystem outside your household.
“That is when you see the power of how growing food can move through and inspire community, in the way that it brings people together and reconnects us to nature,” Cloutier says.
Gardening also connects to composting, either at home or at the municipal level. When organic materials like food waste or yard trimmings get into landfills they emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In 2018, food waste accounted for 21% of municipal solid waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Worldwide, food waste accounts for 8% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, which makes preventing food waste and diverting it from landfills a critical piece of addressing climate change.
Another place to think about sustainability changes is at work, school, your HOA or while volunteering.
Increasingly, organizations are establishing goals and programs toward sustainability like emissions reduction, net zero waste, or renewable energy that you could be a part of. Or, they may not have a program yet, but would be willing to support one, or have goals but no concrete plan with how to achieve them. Finding out more about your own workplace, school or HOA provides a first step to impact the sustainability footprint of something bigger than your own household.
While career pathways around sustainability used to be limited, people with sustainability skills are in high demand right now, Pataki says. Over the past five years in the energy sector alone, jobs growth has increased 237%. But you don’t have to work in a sustainability-focused job to make a difference or to help guide your community in taking science-based actions, Pataki adds.
In the community
To better understand your environment, start with learning about whose ancestral lands you’re living on and what tribal nations are connected to them. Follow that up by getting familiar with what issues nearby tribal nations face. ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute holds talks and events on these types of topics and welcomes all.
Understand the systems around sustainability and how they impact your community and others. Because while it’s simple to support renewable energy over coal, Lydia Jennings, who is Wixárika and Yoeme and a postdoctoral research scholar in the School of Sustainability, says it’s important to ask “sustainable for whom?”
As a soil microbiologist and environmental scientist, Jennings studies the impact of mining on soil and how mines like the Rosemont Mine in southern Arizona affect tribes. Renewable energy relies on extractive industries like mining for lithium and copper, which means one region’s ability to use wind or solar is reliant on the use of land and minerals from another. Understanding the trade-offs and who might be impacted is a key part of environmental justice that makes up sustainability, Jennings says.
Still, the science is clear that society must move to decarbonize. Learning about the nuances and how to make this equitable matters, and scientists across the university study climate-social justice. Public events like film screenings, sustainability walking tours and book talks offer opportunities to meet other, like-minded people while you get informed.
You can then put that and other science-based learning about sustainability to use by becoming involved in local decision-making. Lots of questions around housing, transportation and environmental justice get decided locally, Pataki says.
“People often don’t recognize the power a small group of individuals can have in that process at the local level by just showing up,” she says. “Even showing up while still continuing to learn is critical.”
Start by figuring out what local issues matter to you, and what city council members and initiatives support them, and what politicians listen to and collaborate with scientists, Pataki says.
One evidence-based finding to come out of Pataki’s Urban Greening Lab is that reducing air pollution, “a matter of life or death,” Pataki says, requires more public transportation and electric vehicles, to start. This is the surest way to improve human health in cities: by eliminating pollution at its source.
Envision the future
Lastly, envision the future that you want, and then talk about it, Pataki says. Make space for conversations with family and friends, in community spaces or church groups, and get into the specifics: What does a sustainable society look like to you, as an individual, based on your values and your experience? How does that society work? What does it look like for your specific community?
Talking about the future is a hopeful act, since there is room to impact it through your decisions, big and small.
“Most people are overwhelmed by the fact that they feel we’re very far from sustainability, which is true, but we have to have a lot more conversation about the alternative,” Pataki says. “This is how humanity makes progress: We envision a future that’s different than what we have today.”
Learn more at collegeofglobalfutures.asu.edu/careers/career-paths/.
Story by Anna V. Smith, an associate editor for the High Country News Indigenous affairs desk; her work has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, Audubon and Mother Jones. Photos by Sabira Madady, a student photographer from Afghanistan pursuing medical studies.
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