Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory. Photo by Annie O'Neill.

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is focused on “walking the walk” both in our organization and for many of us who work here personally, moving from words to meaningful actions that will make life-changing differences in our lives and those around us.

Today, when it comes to our environment, taking action becomes paramount. We are seeing unprecedented changes in the earth’s environmental and physical processes. Climate change, air pollution, reduced availability of clean water and persistent toxic chemicals threaten human, animal and environmental health and well-being.

We often focus on these issues, and they are important, yet these are a symptom of a greater problem. The root cause of many of the environmental and human health issues we have today is related to our lifestyles. The western way of life uses an enormous amount of natural resources. I once heard a statistic that if everyone in the world were to try and live like we do in the United States, it would take seven planets worth of natural resources to do so. That is obviously impossible.

It is a social justice issue because in order to continue to live like we do, we either need to keep the rest of the world in poverty, or a better choice would be to reinvent the way we live to make it possible for everyone in the world to have a chance to share in the world’s resources. And that would include all the other species that we share the planet with, too.

Most people throughout the world aspire to live like we do in the west. One only has to look to China to see the tremendous growth that has taken place over the last few decades. They are adopting our traditional lifestyle as are many other developing countries; this is not good. We need to reinvent the way we live and make that the model we export to the rest of the world.

One of the first things many people think about when they think about living sustainably is that it is going to be ugly and uncomfortable and they will have to give up many of the things they like to do. This is one area that the environmental movement got wrong from the very beginning, for it was true that if you were an early adopter this is what you could expect. In most cases, that is no longer true.

One only has to look at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) at Phipps, a net-zero energy and net-zero water building free from toxic chemicals to see that green healthy places can be better than the places we live, work, play and learn in now. After having worked in the CSL for the past five years, I can tell you I would never want to work in a different kind of building. We have the technology and capacity to build buildings like this now. It is no longer science fiction and it can be done with off-the-shelf technologies.

So what can you do? Demand better — you deserve it and so does the planet. The traditional excuses and reasons for not doing anything are not acceptable anymore. The accelerating symptomatic casualties of our lifestyles like climate change and loss of biodiversity demand we do something fast. We need to stop waiting for our leaders and other people to solve the problem first. That is not going to happen. Each one of us needs to take responsibility to do what we can. We need to change our time frame from instant gratification and quick payback to the long-term where we will undoubtedly see greater returns for both ourselves and future generations.

Can it make a difference? We think it can. For example, the average Pennsylvania home produces 8 tons of CO2 a year from their use of electricity. What is a ton of CO2? Most people cannot visualize this. Another way to think of it is that it is equivalent to burning 16 barrels of oil a year. So how is that going to make a difference? It makes a big difference when we all start moving in this direction.

At Phipps we have a program where if you switch your electricity provider to renewable energy, in this case Green Mountain Energy, while you are at Phipps you will get a free membership. So far over 1,600 families have made the switch since January. Those 16 barrels of oil are now 26,000 barrels a year.

What else can you do? In addition to switching your electricity to renewables, consider eating less meat. The production of meat is another major cause of greenhouse gasses. Walk, ride a bike, carpool or take public transportation whenever you can. If you must drive, drive the most fuel-efficient car you can afford. Better yet, go electric, but make sure you charge it with renewable energy.

Buy less stuff. Recycling is important, but not buying things in the first place is the best way to go. If you really need it, make sure you understand how it was produced. Make smart choices. Go outside, be in nature and learn how to bring nature inside through biophilic design. You will be amazed to learn how much research there is that shows how being connected to nature can make you healthier, happier and more productive.

Many of our leaders are really followers. They will lead where we demand and show them where we want to go. So what are you waiting for? The time to act is now.

Richard V. Piacentini is executive director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.  Guiding the organization since 1994, he is responsible for the green transformation of Phipps’ facilities and operations, including the Center for Sustainable Landscapes — one of the greenest buildings in the world — inspiring almost half a million visitors globally each year. 

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