Only a year ago we were buoyed by the promises of “hope and change” that resonated through the political bullhorn and lifted our uncertain spirits. But as the optimistic goals become mired in longstanding political realities, many are still looking for the first signs of real change.

It’s natural to look to charismatic leaders who can deliver sweeping progressive change to those of us who yearn for a more sustainable future. But as the President-elect stated, this change must come from the bottom up. That means us. The actions of individuals and families are the real building blocks of culture and economy.

Creating change of any magnitude begins with small steps, and while these steps may seem insignificant, the rewards are immediate and tangible. Even the first spade in the ground of a new garden makes one feel proactive, in control, and hopeful. Making the simple decision to not use lawn chemicals is enlightening, as it begins the process of looking at the yard as part of an organic ecosystem which contributes to the well-being of our family, pets and local wildlife. Sewing a patch on a torn pair of jeans liberates us from the feeling that our fashion sense is dictated by the whims of designers, and helps instill the message of thrift as a family value.

Here are 6 ways we can each start building a sustainable future for ourselves and the world.

1. Get growing

Building a sustainable future begins with developing a healthy relationship with our environment. The natural cycles of life and the connections between healthy soil, water and air and our personal well-being become obvious to the gardener. If you have a yard, set aside a space for growing vegetables and get the whole family involved. Even a small plot will serve to teach your children the basics of our intimate connection with the environment. If you live in an apartment, even a small garden planter on the balcony can accomplish the same.

In 1900, more than half the U.S. population lived on farms, 46 million out of the 76 million total population. By 1990, there were 3.87 million people living on farms, only 1.6 percent of the total population.

Besides the benefit of awareness, of course, a garden plot can also help defray food costs. However, this is not always the case. Gardening can be labor intensive and costly. If you hope to save on your food budget by gardening, here are some tips about the most ‘cost-effective’ vegetables to grow, and organic methods which can reduce the need for more expensive garden supplements.

2. Champion thrift

Lost in the mirage of consumerism are the timeless values of thrift and modesty. Today, many consumer purchases are not based on real need, but rather to maintain an inflated standard of living that has been influenced by corporate agendas and clever advertising. This marketing has become so pervasive that many of us feel poorly about ourselves if we aren’t driving a late model car, wearing the latest in fashion or using the newest iPhone.

We need to remind ourselves and our children that thrift is the cornerstone of sustainability. Many of us remember our parents or grandparents being proud of being thrifty, not wasting a thing, extending the usable life of an item in an imaginative way. A simple modest lifestyle is a welcome change to the pressure of constantly trying to keep up with ever-increasing consumer standards. Mend clothes, fix things in lieu of replacing them, compost food waste, conserve water in the home and yard, buy clothing with timeless styles, visit thrift shops….you get the idea. Make thrift a family value.

3. Break from the car

While auto companies are retooling to produce more energy-efficient cars, there will always be significant environmental costs associated with driving. We can help mitigate these costs by being more miserly with our use of cars. Setting a family policy of “no driving for trips under 1 mile” or similar restriction, will help everyone get the point.

Consolidating trips deters impulse buying.

Public transportation, bikes, and walking need to be embraced as reasonable alternatives for short trips. The simplest method, consolidating trips, goes without saying. In our family, we now drive to the mall once a month instead of once a week. We simply keep a list and wait till there’s enough to warrant a trip. This has been easy, and I enjoy the extra time at home on weekends. And the funny thing is that by waiting, we often decide we don’t really need some of the items on the list. Consolidating trips deters impulse buying. Our current “car culture” is not realistic in a sustainable future. Walk more, bike more, car pool whenever possible.

4. Avoid using pollutants and toxic materials in your home and yard

Most people trust the safety of products found on store shelves, especially since we have considerable government oversight to ensure consumer safety. But in many instances this trust is unfounded. Many household cleaners, air fresheners, interior paints, carpets and even furniture items contain hazardous chemicals that can harm us. Young children are especially vulnerable, partly because of increased exposure. Everything goes in their mouths and they virtually live on the floor. And children are more sensitive because they are still developing the basic body system; the brain, internal organs, respiratory and immune systems are not fully developed until adolescence.

“How can we, as one of the most advanced countries in the world allow these to enter our household for small children, without the appropriate testing to see that it’s safe?”

Dr. Gideon Koren, Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

Learn about common indoor pollutants (read our article, How to reduce exposure to indoor toxins), read the labels on products coming into your home, and look for nontoxic alternatives for home cleaning and painting. Outdoors, be aware of the hazards of lawn care chemicals found in “weed ‘n feed products. Consider the safer natural alternatives, or look to ways to reduce the size of your lawn. Better yet, convert your lawn to an edible landscape or backyard vegetable garden.

5. Teach your children

As every parent knows, time flies when it comes to raising children. The early years pass quickly while young parents try to balance the demands of career-building with child rearing. Young children today spend a disproportionate amount of time in nurseries and daycare programs, and watching TV at home. The younger the child the more impressionable.

Two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch TV an average of 2 hours a day. Kids and teens 8 to 18 years spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a TV screen and almost 2 additional hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games.

Kaiser Family Foundation

It is essential that young parents make it a priority to spend more time with their children, especially the youngest ones, to teach them your values. Teach them the importance of a healthy environment and how it relates to their personal and future well-being. Schools are remiss in this regard – they do not teach environmental stewardship in core curriculum. It is up to the parents, and essential for any hopes of a sustainable future.

6. Adopt a piece of nature

We each have our favorite places in nature where we can find renewal and inspiration. A lovely spot in a park, a bit of shoreline, a forest path or mountain trail. Because we share these places with others, we may not feel responsible for their maintenance or protection. When we see garbage or the gradual degradation of the natural beauty, the easy rationalization is “someone else will deal with it”.

I’ve taken to bringing a plastic bag once a week when visiting one of my favorite spots, and it is most satisfying to pick up the garbage and clean the site. This simple act bonds me even more to the site, and heightens the pleasure of each visit.

Pick a natural spot that your family values and become ‘silent stewards’. This doesn’t mean starting a ‘save the trees’ campaign or engaging others to take action, but rather it’s about building a personal relationship with nature and sharing the importance of this with your family.

Right now is a special time in history, when optimism and enthusiasm for change have captured our imagination, and the status-quo seems unfulfilling and untenable. Now is the time for us each to participate as agents of the change we seek by incorporating sustainable living values and practices into our everyday lives.

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