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Conservation Made Simple

Save the planet in five easy steps

By Adam R. Gold

If you have been reading me since the beginning, you probably noticed that my opinions have an environmental bent. However, you may not have realized just how strongly I feel about environmental issues. Next year, I will be working as an entry-level video game programmer for a very big corporation, so my time on the soapbox has just about run out. So, as my swan song, I want to enumerate some easy ways we Americans can take better care of our environment.

I am proposing these changes because the proper stewardship of our environment is the single most important issue facing the world today. Contrary to how environmentalism can be portrayed, the environment isn’t something “out there” that needs saving—it is also where we all happen to live, and had better make sure it continues to be a hospitable place for us.

First of all, we should encourage people to live where they work. Eliminating the need to commute will reduce global dependence on fossil fuels, prevent carbon emissions, and even reduce deaths due to driving accidents. This can be done easily in any downtown area: Simply take the top half of each office skyscraper and convert it into studio apartments. Instead of driving home each night, workers will simply ride the elevator, and the car can stay in the garage until it’s needed for a weekend surf trip. Purists can still have their white picket fence and backyard so long as they agree to work from home and walk to the supermarket.

Next, we should stop building new residences in places with excessive heating and cooling costs (I’m looking at you, Texas), dramatically elevated risk of natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina, anyone?), or severe water-supply problems (sorry, Los Angeles). Until we stop trying to colonize the desert, we shouldn’t even waste time enforcing environmental building restrictions in temperate zones. Green building codes in Marin County, Calif. Don’t make much of an impact if they just push new housing development out to dry, dry Las Vegas.

Third, we should prevent corporate offices from leaving everything running overnight. Office buildings are not supposed to stay lit up like a Christmas tree even after the late shift goes home to watch Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

Fourth (but who’s counting?), we should eat less meat, especially red meat. That goes not only for Americans, but also people in the developing world who hope to match American levels of meat consumption. Cattle ranching causes a litany of environmental ills ranging from deforestation to acid rain, and it warms the world faster than car exhaust. Getting people accustomed to eating meat less often can easily be done through providing occasional vegetarian-only lunches at public schools.

Finally, much of the habitat conservation work to be done is outside of our borders, as the U.S. has no rainforests and few biodiversity hotspots. So, the fifth idea is for the U.S. to push for global environmental regulations. This can be via multinational organizations such as the UN or through unilateral actions, such as enforcing economic sanctions toward countries that permit excessive greenhouse emissions, massive deforestation, or unsustainable agricultural practices. My suggestions, which are rooted in conservation, are not “easy” in the sense that turning off the light when leaving a room is easy. In some sense, the changes I want to see are fairly drastic, but they merely require changing our cultural attitudes, not re-writing the laws of physics.

Of course, on the other hand, many economic models predict that the sorts of changes I advocate will come about on their own. For example, some tropical countries may eventually undergo reforestation as their economies diversify beyond exporting raw materials. But how many species will have gone extinct by the time that the invisible hand of the market lifts us out of this mess? How many people will have died from famine or air pollution, or from diseases that could have been cured by drugs found in the rainforest?

Taking better care of our environment doesn’t need to be a protracted struggle, and it does not need to reduce our standard of living or our quality of life. But it does need to happen fast. In less than 20 years, we may have exterminated a fifth of the species on earth and cut down 80 percent of the world’s tropical rainforests. In the U.S., for example, some scientists predict that a mega-drought on the scale of the Dust Bowl will hit the southwest in the coming decades due to climate change.

So, my fellow graduating seniors, take these recommendations to heart. If you go on to public office, some of you may one day put them into practice.

Adam R. Gold ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a physics concentrator in Adams House. This is his last column as a Harvard undergraduate.

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