How to Convince Your Family to Be Environmentally Conscious

Illustration by Kaleemah.
Illustration by Kaleemah.

I’m a treehugger. For four years, my day job has been campaigning at environmental organizations. I’ve carried a clipboard and begged strangers to sign petitions, marched in demonstrations against climate change, and even dressed up in a hazmat suit to protest oil drilling. (That’s me cleaning the stuffed dolphin. That’s also me looking miserable behind a very poised and not-sweaty Kate Walsh. Sometimes life isn’t fair.)

I’ve lived as an environmentalist much longer than I’ve worked as one. Every day, I try to live as simply and sustainably as I can. But that’s not always so easy. Very few of us are lucky enough to live exactly as we want to. There’s always money, time, and other people getting in the way. And if you’re a teenager, those other people are probably your family, who also (if you’re lucky) pay for almost everything in your life. Which is great, but how can you live a sustainable life when your parents drive you around in a gas-guzzling SUV while blasting the A/C and chugging bottled water like there’s no tomorrow?

It’s not going to be easy, but you can make a difference, even when the odds are stacked against you. Here’s my three-step process to living an eco-friendly lifestyle while living with other less eco-friendly people:

Step One: Reach people where they are.

Most people are willing to admit that our environment is messed up, but they don’t want to take responsibility. Sometimes it’s because they can’t, or choose not to, see the big picture (“It’s those other people causing this mess!”), or they feel helpless about big problems. It’s easier to ignore what’s happening, or assume that one person’s actions can’t make a difference.

Everyone hates being told what to do, and parents/caregivers probably hate it even more because they’re used to telling you what to do. This is a very frustrating phenomenon when you know that YOU’RE RIGHT and THEY’RE WRONG, but you just have to accept it and find a better way to make your argument. The important thing to remember is that they’re not entirely wrong. One person is a drop in the bucket when there are seven billion of us fouling the planet. Your small efforts to live better won’t singlehandedly turn back climate change, and that piece of litter you accidentally dropped isn’t going to wipe out a species. But making small changes for the better does make a small difference in the world, and could make a big difference in your life.

You can start by explaining small-seeming changes to your family (“We need to cut up six-pack rings so animals don’t get caught in them!”). And: If you’re living sustainably, you’re living simply. You’re not using as much stuff, you’re making more things from scratch, you’re buying from your own community…these things have the added side effects of making you feel good AND saving money. And that’s where you’re going to reach your parents (if your parents are wealthy or not budget-conscious, maybe skip to the next step, or try to sell them on “feeling good”). Your parents probably already care a little bit about conserving electricity and heating/cooling, because they pay for that. I give you permission to lecture—just a little—when your siblings stand in front of the refrigerator for ages or open a window while while the A/C or heat is running. Your parents will take your side on this one!

The cost of all your disposable household items adds up, both in price and in the size of your town’s landfill. There are all sorts of reusable, or longer-lasting, alternatives out there. Another easy suggestion that will make everyone happy is to introduce your parents to LED light bulbs. These are a little pricier than other types of bulbs, but they last practically forever. And at the moment, they’re the most energy-efficient option out there. Cloth napkins make every meal feel fancy, and cut down on your family’s napkin/paper towel budget. Better yet, start dusting and mopping up spills with old cloths (old socks, ratty towels) or buy some microfiber cleaning cloths, and you can cut out paper towels entirely! Are your parents bottled-water addicts? All those single-use bottles are terrible for our planet, and expensive. Buy a couple of reusable bottles, and keep them in the fridge if you like chilled water. Remind everyone to take a bottle with them before you go out for a long day—they might roll their eyes at you, but will appreciate it when they don’t have to pay $4 for water at a concession stand.

Basically, anything that will save your family money in the long run is fair game here. It’s still going to be a series of small battles—especially if you’re asking your parents to pay more up front for a reusable item. You’ll have to start slowly and replace things one by one, but once your house is stocked, people will use them! Which leads to my next point…

Step Two: Set the scene.

People want to do what’s easy. You can talk about climate change until you’re blue in the face, but unless your family is already eco-conscious or willing to listen (in which case, you don’t need this article!) you’re probably not going to convince them to do more than turn off the lights when they leave the room. So instead of telling everyone why they’re doing everything wrong, make it easy for them to do it right. This is going to require a little extra work up front for you, but in the end, everyone will benefit.

Buy some canvas shopping bags at the store (or, again, convince whoever does the shopping to buy some for you). They’re pretty cheap, so it’s a small thing to ask, and your family’s shoppers will soon grow to love them. Seriously, I’ve never met anyone who tried out a reusable grocery bag and hated it. Three or four plastic shopping bags worth of groceries will fit in one canvas bag, AND it’s easier to carry than traditional plastic or paper. There’s literally no downside (maybe making sure they’re clean. But that’s it).

But remember, PEOPLE ARE LAZY. My mom (who is only lazy in this respect and is otherwise a perfect human being who always reads her daughter’s work—I love you, Mom!) owns like 12 reusable grocery bags. And they’re all either full of random stuff or lost in the bottom of a closet. They only make it to the grocery store when I’m there to remind her. Likewise, it very well might be up to you, as the person who cares, to make sure these bags end up back in the trunk after shopping. Just do it—it’ll be worth it knowing that your family isn’t contributing to the turtle-choking plastic bag epidemic.

And setting the scene doesn’t end with bags. There’s so much more you can do that will make your house environmentally friendly, and your parents’ lives easier. Want to make your own eco-friendly cleaning supplies? Go for it! It saves your family money, and no one will complain about you taking an interest in the household chores.

How about setting up a compost bin? You might catch some resistance for this if you live in an apartment, but it’s a no-brainer if you have a yard, or even just a balcony. Just ask everyone to put their apple cores, eggshells, and carrot shavings in a special bucket, and then dump it in a bin outside at the end of the day. They’re going to throw all that away anyway, and if you’re the one taking care of the bin, it’s zero extra work for everyone else.

And now that you’ve got a compost bin helping to create some soil, you might as well start a vegetable garden! Depending on how much you plant, this one could be a little work, but gardening is one of my favorite chores. There’s something so satisfying about picking a pepper or tomato off a plant that YOU GREW, and I swear food tastes more delicious that way too. BONUS: This is how you sneakily make your family eat more local, organic vegetables—how could they not, when their own flesh and blood put so much work into it?

At this point, you’ve probably noticed that I’m telling you to do everything. Sorry about that. The sad truth is, if your family doesn’t care about something, you can’t MAKE them care. My family is pretty good about humoring me and letting me go off and be a crazy environmentalist, but I know they still use plastic bags when I’m not around. (MOM! The grocery bags are RIGHT by the door!)

Why Can’t I Be You: Meredith Kelly

Illustration by Ruby A.

Geologist and paleoclimatologist Meredith Kelly is a total badass. Currently an assistant professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, she studies glacial and sedimentary evidence for clues on what Earth’s climate was like in the past to better understand how it might change in the future. Her focus on ancient fluctuations in temperature takes her to the most extreme landscapes on the planet to collect data, from the Dry Valleys of Antarctica to the far reaches of Greenland, from the tropical ice caps of the Peruvian Andes to the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda. Her work is fascinating and SO IMPORTANT, and her life is shaped by her deep curiosity about how things work. Basically she’s living all of our scientist-superhero dreams.

What got you interested in science?

I always knew I liked the sciences. I liked that they were analytical, and they involved questions, and you could actually find answers to those questions. I always had a harder time with more abstract concepts. Even though I loved art, and I still love writing a lot, I felt like my analytical side was a lot more developed than my creative side. Then there’s also my absolute love for the outdoors. Growing up in Cleveland, we spent Saturdays and Sundays in the Metroparks. Some of my first memories are of walking around and appreciating the outdoors with my family. I think that’s part of why I always liked geology and earth sciences—because a lot of what I do now is wander around outside and look at things.

How did you end up becoming a professor?

I went to Tufts University as an undergrad, and I was thinking maybe I’d try biology. I took my first biology class, and it was filled with pre-med students who were very competitive and not very nice. I knew I didn’t want to study with those kinds of people for four years. So I took a geology class, and I absolutely fell in love with it. It was a really basic class, but we took field trips every week and went out around Boston and learned about landscape evolution and how North America was built, and it was just awesome. After I graduated from college, I took a bike trip with a friend, and we biked from Montana to Seattle. I realized that people have a really disconnected relationship with the environment. So I had the idea to do outdoor scientific education and work with kids. I got a temporary job at the North Cascades Institute in Washington and taught there for a little bit. It was really fun, but it was all temporary work, so I decided to get a master’s degree. I knew by then I wanted to study geologic history.

Why was that?

Well, my project in college involved studying glacial lake sediments in the Connecticut River Valley. The entire valley was once filled with a huge lake, created when the glacial ice sheet retreated northward through New England and left meltwater behind. I was trying to understand why the landscape, particularly in New England, looks like it does. So I went to the University of Maine to do my master’s. I got to study with this professor who did a lot of work in Antarctica, and for my thesis research I spent three months there. We flew to McMurdo Station—

Oh, I know about it from Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, the documentary about the weirdo characters that live there!

Yeah, there are definitely some weirdo characters down there. I totally fit in with them! But instead of living in McMurdo, I took a helicopter with my undergraduate field assistant to this area called the Dry Valleys. We spent three months there without coming back to civilization, and it was just the two of us for most of the time. We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have running water, we didn’t have heat. I actually didn’t shower for 98 days. I guess that places me in the weirdo category right there!

You were there in summer—isn’t that the time of the year when the sun never sets?

Yeah, it’s still cold, but you have 24 hours of daylight. Our tent was yellow—it’s really hard to fall asleep in a bright yellow tent!

What were you doing there?

We were, and are, trying to put together a history of the Antarctic ice sheet, and particularly trying to understand a time in the geologic past when the climate was warm—quite warm actually. So we are trying to figure out how stable that ice sheet has been in warm climates, and if ever it melted a lot or disappeared completely. And we’re trying to figure out how stable that ice sheet is going to be in our future.

What did you wear while you were in the field?

I had six pairs of socks. One pair of pants. And a couple pairs of long underwear and a jacket. For three months I didn’t think about what I was putting on for the day. It was dry enough down there that we didn’t get completely disgusting, but I definitely wanted to shower when I got back. The whole experience was amazing. At that point I thought: I want to be a scientist. This is SO MUCH FUN. I get to be outside, I get to travel to amazing places, I get to think about really interesting questions and test these questions with my data!

How did that experience affect you?

When I got back to civilization it was so hard to understand anything that was going on. Like people who were rushing in the morning to get their coffee and absolutely needed to have this particular thing…I couldn’t relate to that for a while.

What did you do after you got back?

I decided to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Bern in Switzerland. I didn’t know any German, and I didn’t know anyone there. My field area had the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc in it, so I got to spend every summer for three summers walking through the Alps and looking at glacial features and making maps and taking samples.

Environmental scientists have been investigating the Swiss Alps for a long time. What were you doing that was new?

I was mapping the upper surface of the Alpine ice cap—and I was doing it in a much more detailed manner than it had been done before. I was using new technology to determine the age of rock surfaces, a method that’s called cosmogenic nuclide surface exposure dating. It allows me to take a piece of rock that’s exposed to Earth’s surface and be able to tell the last time that rock was uncovered by ice. One thing you can tell from the older Alpine ice cap is where the most precipitation occurred. From that we can map out where we think precipitation was coming from. These and other studies provide information about climate conditions of the past, and they can help predict future climate.

Do Something

Illustration by Sonja

Allow yourself to be used by the spirit of history. Just find a way to get in the way… Get in trouble—good trouble, necessary trouble… Every generation must find a way to leave the planet…a little better than we found it—a little greener and a little more peaceful. I think that’s our calling. We have a mission, a mandate, and a moral obligation to do just that.Georgia congressman John Lewis

So, maybe you can’t vote. Because you’re too young. How does this make you feel? Voiceless? Uninterested? Angry? Apathetic? I remember feeling completely alienated from the political process before I turned 18, and somewhat spurned. As if my voice didn’t matter. It was frustrating. But you guys are powerful! I know this, because I sat in front of hundreds of you a few weeks back at the Rookie Yearbook One launch and cried! I cried because, just five years ago, when my daughter was born, I was a little scared for her. I didn’t see young people out there making it seem cool to be a feminist. I had all of feminist history to show her, and that is some powerful stuff, but I longed for strong feminists who could also be cool-older-sister figures for her. And now, here you are! Thank you!

I’m here to appeal to you, especially the Americans among you, to come out in full force for the upcoming U.S. presidential election, on Tuesday, November 6. (And I’ll admit right here that I’m biased toward Obama’s politics, and this piece will reflect that; if you’re a Republican, or an independent or undecided or ANYTHING else, though, your voice is important too and you need to get your concerns heard by your representatives!) This election affects YOU more than anyone in many ways, because the outcome will affect your future. The results of laws and policies that are being put into motion now may skip a generation (they often do) and come to bite you in the butt when you’re an adult. For example, if the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is struck down, you won’t be able to stay on your parents’ health insurance plan after college. (Obamacare would let you stay on it until you’re 26.) The DREAM Act, which would ensure that immigrants’ kids would have access to educations and basic social services in this country, is still being hotly debated. A lot of other scary-important issues are up for grabs this election too: immigration, education, abortion rights, same-sex marriage, gun control, the environment, global warming, terrorism, the economy, welfare, and unemployment. For a pretty good breakdown of where the presidential candidates fall on these issues go here.

If you’re old enough to do so, you can register to vote here. If you’re not sure if you’re already registered, find out here. We all need to vote, especially women and young people. We adults know that despite all of the fighting, name-calling, outright lying, and bad mojo that the election cycle pollutes our country’s political narrative with, one truth remains: you, the young folk, the next generation, are the ones who will really feel the sting of getting rid of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Planned Parenthood, and other social services that women of all ages depend on (low-income women especially). The people fighting for office now are the ones who will decide whether you’ll be able to get an abortion, what your taxes will be spent on, how big a portion of your income those taxes will ask for, whether arts are supported in our country, whether the safety net that is supposed to catch citizens who aren’t doing so well financially or otherwise will be strengthened or destroyed. Personally, as a feminist, I feel a moral obligation to support girls, women, people of color, gay people, bi people, trans people, poor people, and anyone else who has been cheated out of a measure of power and justice just because of who they are. I believe we all have a responsibility to help one another. We don’t live on a level playing field, and that makes me angry. Until we are all equal, I believe our government has a responsibility to give everyone access to a good education, affordable health care, after-school activities, a living wage, and a lot of other important stuff.

As women and girls, we have an extra responsibility to send a message to our leaders. It’s not OK for a politician to draw lines between “legitimate” or “illegitimate” rape; rape is rape, duh. It’s not OK for influential political commentators to call women names for demanding the right to birth control. It’s not OK that women make substantially less than men for the same work, or that women of color and undocumented women make less than white citizens. It’s shameful to make health care so complicated and inaccessible for us, to deny marriage rights to so many people, to deny basic human rights to so many more. And there’s still an urgent need for more women on the Supreme Court, in the presidential administration, in Congress, and in local offices everywhere.

But if you’re too young to vote, what can you do? I have some ideas. You can canvas potential voters by knocking on doors and encouraging people to register. If a sweet-faced young cherub like yourself showed up on the doorstep of a jaded, stone-faced grownup and implored them with pleading eyes to “please vote, it’s important for my future,” who could turn you down? Organize a debate at your school, in your living room, anywhere! Bug your too-cool-for-school older friends to please use their votes. Press your local candidates to elaborate on their ideas for empowering young people. Hold them to task on their beliefs on women’s issues, civil rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ rights, youth issues, the environment, voter suppression, etc. If you live in a swing state (Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin), you have a TON of power. Your state could make or break this election. Get involved in a local election. And if electoral politics aren’t your thing, agitate for the causes you care about (but I hope you will still vote—it really does make a difference).

Listen. I’ve been watching you guys. I’ve been watching you embrace feminism, community, social justice, and positive hooliganism; it’s one of the more inspiring things I’ve been privileged to behold in my lifetime. The landscape has changed. My daughter’s cup runneth over with amazing role models, magazines, movies, TV shows. I have you all to thank for this. (Thank you all for this!) But being such a kick-ass generation of role models comes with the burden of responsibility. There’s a short story by Delmore Schwartz called “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” I love that phrase—to me it means that rising up and creating the future you imagine for yourself and for humanity takes a lot of work. Nothing big, wonderful, life-altering, and revolutionary happens without it. It’s really, really hard, and it’s worth it.

You girls are a tribe. It’s so beautiful and incredible to see, and oh man do I wish I’d had what you have when I was in my teens. Don’t waste this. You’re an army! You have power. Take your power, gather your ranks, organize, and use your collective voice to change things! Pound the pavement with your friends. It doesn’t matter what your politics are—find a candidate who speaks your language and cares about what’s important to you, and volunteer for them. Write letters! Write blogs! Raise money for issues and candidates you care about! Find out how you can help, on election day, to monitor polls in your city and make sure everyone’s voting rights are upheld! If any of you are in Virginia, or will be in Virginia on election day, let me know. I will be there campaigning with a big ol’ group of folks and will be psyched to see you out there!

Text, Instagram, tweet, post, email! Advocate, agitate, and scream from the rooftops. Our rights are under attack. Let’s get to work!

All My Love,
Sarah Sophie

Here are a few sites to get you started:

Rock the Vote
The League of Young Voters
Black Youth Vote!
Young Politicians of America
The League of Women Voters
National Organization for Women
Youth Service America
Do Something
A long list of student organizations

And a great book: A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. ♦

Sarah Sophie Flicker is a performer, director, aerialist, designer, writer, and filmmaker. She is the creative director of the Citizens Band, half of a filmmaking team with Maximilla Lukacs, a contributor to HelloGiggles, and editor at large for Lula magazine.