When I reach the top of the hill my back is slick with sweat and my head is so hot that my cheeks will be red for an hour. I am sweating and freezing at the same time.
In the bathroom of my workplace I strip off my clothes. There are no shower facilities, but I have packed a towel to pat the sweat from my torso. In the mirror I see that my hair is a helmet shaped bowl and that my ear warming head band has left a line across the middle of my forehead.
I laugh at my reflection and wave air under my armpits one last time; this is not exactly how I pictured myself on the first day of work, but at least I made it up that hill alive.
It is a wonderful and trying thing to understand that the actions you take in your daily life make a difference.
"You rode your bike?" A co-worker exclaims when she sees the helmet in my hands. "you're crazy!" I smile and nod, yes, perhaps a little. But as I was passing the lines of cars stuck in traffic on Concord Avenue , I have to admit I smirked.
The only other way for me to get to work is to drive. Being red in the face and sweaty is not much to give for stopping a large chunk of carbon dioxide and other noxious gasses from entering the air we breathe.
I like to think of every moment of my life in the city as a possibility for environmental education to occur. Last weekend my husband and I had a party.
"Did you put the sign in the bathroom?" I asked as the doorbell rang with the first guests.
"If it's yellow, let it mellow. You got it!" my husband replied.
Throughout the night everyone at the party remarked on the sign. One of the women confessed that she was embarrassed to leave her pee in the toilet because she put toilet paper in the bowl, and what if a man came in afterwards? I laughed with her. I have had plenty of anxious moments in a bathroom stall, debating whether to flush or not.
My god, I've often thought, what if the next person thinks I am disgusting! Most of the time, I decide that saving 6 gallons of water is worth the potential social embarrassment of letting it mellow, but there was a time in my life when I gave in to the social pressure to flush.
When I go to the grocery store I bring my own bags. Certainly this is not a revolutionary concept, yet almost inevitably the sales person has the food in a bag even before I've looked up from the beep of the first item going through the scanner. When I explain that I do not want a bag and in fact, have my own, I get a look of utmost confusion.
"Your own bag? Are you crazy?."
At one store that I frequent, a woman tried to put all of my fruit products into their own plastic satchels after I had intentionally left them free of containment. She peered over her glasses as if I was Satan incarnate when I asked her to kindly remove the plastic from the fruit. At first these requests embarrassed me. Now, I take small pleasure from strange looks at my arms laden with canvas bags.
When I arrive home from the store I am tired from biking up the mile long incline that leads to my apartment, I usually need to take a few minutes to catch my breath before I put my groceries away. But when I do the math, at a minimum of one grocery trip per week and at least 8 bags (including the ones used for fruits and vegetables), it is all worth it: I have just stopped myself from driving about 590 miles a year, and from using approximately 416 plastic (or paper) bags. That is not counting all of the packaging I save from landfills by purchasing bulk goods.
Every single one of these changes was difficult for me to adopt, mostly because I was embarrassed by the stigma attached to them. In image obsessed American society it is not cool to be sweaty or smelly, or to carry extra bags with you. And we Americans, have such an aversion to bodily fluid that I have often wondered if people admit to themselves that they urinate and defecate. Waste is a part of life and a basic ecological concept. We eat poop in different forms everyday, what do you think the plants consume? I won't mention the animals; that is another story entirely.
In the face of global warming, and all the dire predictions that go along with it these actions may seem small. Believe me there are plenty of days when I would like to swallow the "my actions are insignificant, I am only one person" argument. Getting in a car and driving to work would be much easier than loading myself down with cold weather gear, a change of clothes, coffee mug, and everything else I need for the day, but when I stop and ponder the decision for a moment, I k now what choice I will make.
Individual actions are one of the best ways we have to make immediate change. Change at the legislative level takes too much time and even if there is a miracle in Washington, and the government suddenly passes radical legislation on the environment, all the habits of daily life will still be calling us to act in socially acceptable and environmentally destructive ways. So, for a more sustainable future for all: Dare to be different. Don't flush.
Paige Doughty (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and a graduate student in environmental education with Lesley University and the Audubon Expedition Institute.