Earth Day Is Your Opportunity to Practice Healthy Habits


I used to think that either you were a humanitarian or you weren’t. In 1972, my mom was driving us down the Blue Route freeway in Cape Town, South Africa, when we pulled alongside a truck carrying cows. I asked her where they were going, and she told me that they were likely going to be killed and turned into meat. Four-year-old Brent told her in no uncertain terms that we needed to pull that truck over and free those cows. When she told me that couldn’t happen, I began crying.

As with most young children, I forgot the whole incident—until a night or two later when we went to our favorite burger joint, the Acapulco Steakhouse. As I bit into my burger, I immediately remembered the looks on those cows’ faces, spat the food onto my plate and swore off meat forever. Surprisingly, I’ve stuck to it, and much of the time, I’ve considered myself holier than thou for sparing a lot of farm animals from suffering and for helping the environment.

But recently, I’ve become aware that choices like this are far from black and white. When I read this NPR piece on the various types of eggs one can buy, I came to the conclusion that the eggs I was eating without a thought were likely causing more animal suffering than had I eaten a few quarter-pounders a week (given that beef cows spend most of their pre-slaughter lives in open fields).

But before I managed to summon the courage to buy my first burger in over 40 years, I saw this LA Times graphic on how much water various types of food require. At 1,800 gallons per pound of food, beef is more responsible for California’s drought than pretty much any other consumer decision (including overwatering your lawn or taking long showers). But carnivores shouldn’t be singled out—lentils and garbanzos each demand about 70% as much water as beef. All this leads to my question, how do I make the “most” impact on the environment in a good way?

No one wants to say no to a worthy cause. And yet we all have finite money and time to put toward the world’s big problems. It’s just as much a valid choice to take a diversified approach and parcel out a portion of your resources among a lot of problems as it is to take a concentrated approach and focus all your resources on one problem that you care about most.

So this Earth Day, instead of feeling like there’s too much going on to make a difference, just take one small step to change one unhealthy habit into one that helps more than yourself. Ride your bike to work. Turn the water off while you brush your teeth. Learn some recipes for Meatless Monday. Make a microfinance loan through with your kids. The world isn’t black and white, and neither is your impact on it.


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