9 Christmas Gifts You Can Give to Your Mother ... Earth

You'll read a lot this time of year about "green" gift guides. But are solar-powered cell phone chargers really the greenest gift we can come up with? Sure they save electricity, but what about the environmental impact of their manufacturing and shipping? If you really want to do something good this holiday season, what about putting Mother Earth at the top of your shopping list? It may help clean up the air and water, cut down on CO2 emissions, and it will save you a trip to the mall.

1. Stay Home

One of the best things you can do for the planet is fix up your own nest with holiday cheer and enjoy the festivities with loved ones near by. Airline travel is one of the biggest parts of our carbon footprint, and buses, cars and trains have big impacts as well.

As the Low Impact Living blog points out:

Our leisure travel by car alone accounts for over 9 billion gallons of fuel and 90 millions tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year. Air travel tacks on 140-plus million tons more of CO2. That's a huge amount of CO2 emissions -- taken together it represents more than the entire annual emissions of countries like Venezuela or the Netherlands!
To put this all in a personal context, if you drove roundtrip from Los Angeles to Kansas City, you'd put out 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), whereas if you flew, you'd be responsible for 2.2 tons. If you took a train, you'd contribute 0.9 tons. For you international vagabonds, if you flew from Los Angeles to Paris, you'd have put out 4.4 tons of CO2 (and yes, we know you can't drive).

Even if you recycle all your wrapping paper, you'll be hard-pressed to make up for a ton of travel miles.

2. Save a Tree

While some can make a case for the environmental benefits of tree farms, if you celebrate Christmas, think about planting a tree instead of cutting one down (or more likely, paying someone to fell it for you and truck it to the city or town where you live). There are lots of great programs abroad and in your own community. The environmental advocacy group NRDC supports a rain-forest restoration program in Costa Rica, where for just $10 you can have a tree planted. You can also make the donation in someone's name as a gift, too.

While there are a bunch of programs like this, I also think it's great to do something in your own community. Here in San Francisco, we've got an amazing group called Friends of the Urban Forest, which plants groups of trees that help clean up and green up neighborhoods. Most cities and many towns have similar programs. While you may not get to decorate these trees, you can enjoy them day after day.

3. Invest in Sustainability

The holiday season is prime fundraising time for thousands of worthy organizations, and while it is great donate to the ones that you support, you can also put your money where your heart is in another way. Consider making an investment in a community instead of a donation. The organization MicroPlace makes this super easy by giving you the opportunity to make small investments -- or loans -- to help lift people out of poverty. To a person living on a dollar a day, $20 or $50 of capital can mean the chance to build or expand small businesses and ensure income for their family. The best part is your money comes back to you over time, and you can invest again, and the gift keeps going.

Here's an example:

Consider the story of Puja Patel, a single mother who lives with her four children in a village in India. With a $50 loan, she bought a sewing machine. She made clothes, sold them for a profit and repaid the loan, with interest. She was also able to save some money to buy books and send her children to the local school. This is microfinance in action.

4. Start Valuing Water

Everyone is abuzz about energy and how much of our precious oil we have left, but a water crisis is afoot, even here in the United States, where 36 states are facing water scarcity in the next five years. And this is one liquid resource we can't find any alternatives for. There are lots of ways to save water in your home -- some that require a little more effort than others. One of the best, and most fun ways, is to collect rainwater. It's easy and and free (once you get your barrel set up), and you can use the water for your garden, plants or lawn. The EPA reports that, "Nationwide, landscape irrigation is estimated to account for almost one-third of all residential water use, totaling more than 7 billion gallons per day." You can also reuse gray water for flushing toilets.

There are also other ways you can save water, beside the usual low-flow options for sinks, toilets and showers (that should be a given by now), and that's in food and energy. According to the Stockholm International Water Institute, it takes more than 1,500 gallons of water to produce the food eaten eat day by the average American. And while we can save water by not eating lettuce grown in Arizona, we can also do really simple things like not waste our food -- according to this study, each year we throw away about $43.3 billion worth of food.

You can also cut down on your energy use, which is a huge source of water use. Over half of us in the United States get our energy from coal-burning power plants, and the Union of Concerned Scientists points out that, "a typical 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant draws about 2.2 billion gallons of water each year from nearby water bodies such as lakes, rivers or oceans to create steam for turning its turbines. This is enough water to support a city of approximately 250,000 people."

5. Buy a CSA Share

The benefits of local food are immeasurable -- and one of the best ways to eat local is by supporting small farmers by getting a Community Support Agriculture share. Basically, you just sign up with a CSA farm to receive a weekly box of whatever is fresh -- veggies, fruit and sometimes other goodies like eggs. This way you get fresh food every week, grown by folks in your community and it travels a very short distance to get to you (According to a study from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, "the produce in the average American dinner is trucked 1,500 miles to get to the plate, up 22 percent in the past two decades.")

Eating local food and eating lower on the food chain, like fruits and veggies, is a big plus for the environment. A report from the United Nations found that eating meat is, "one of the ... most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." And eating outside the industrial agriculture system saves on pesticides, pollution and water. Worldwide, agriculture is our biggest water guzzler, and the same is true in parts of the United States, like California.

If you're into the giving spirit you can also give a CSA share to someone as a gift -- a friend or loved one, or even a community member in need. Here's a great link to find one need you.

6. Grow Your Own Greens

Being part of CSA is fun, but if you have the space, try getting your own hands dirty by starting a food-growing garden or turning your lawn into something edible. When it comes to healthy eating, there is nothing more satisfying then being able to eat food you've grown and picked yourself. And, organic farming is a great way to combat climate change. Research from the Rodale Institute shows that "organically managed soils can store (sequester) more than 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre, while nonorganic systems can cause carbon loss."

If you currently have a lawn, considering switching to an "edible estate," as the organization and book by Fritz Haeg suggests. Here are a few facts that may make you reconsider trying to keep your green lawn:

  • Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, 23 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 11 are toxic to bees and 16 are toxic to birds. (National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns)
  • Homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
  • North Americans now devote 40,000 square miles to lawns, more than we use for wheat, corn or even tobacco. (The Lawn: North America's Magnificent Obsession by Robert Fulford)
  • Americans spend $750 million a year on grass seed alone and more than $25 billion on do-it-yourself lawn and garden care. (From the exhibit at CCA, "The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life")

You can find great resources and photos about edible estates on their Web site.

7. Join Forces with Community Members

If you don't have a lawn or yard of your own, fear not -- there are 10,000 community gardens in the United States that you can join. And if you can't find one in your area, then consider teaming up with your neighbors to start your own.  It has great "environmental, economic and social impacts on a neighborhood," as Urban Community Gardens points out.

Not only are people in communities getting together to grow food, but there are also tool-sharing networks cropping up, as well, that help people share the cost of owning tools that can be used for gardening or home improvements. Need help getting those new solar panels up? Consider asking your neighbors and working to form a tool collective.

8. Re-energize Your Home

The most popular residential renewable energy option right now is solar, although you can find other renewable energy options, here. More than 10,000 homes in the United States are completely powered by solar, and 200,000 use some type of photovoltaic solar technology.

One of the best places to use solar energy in the home is for heating water. Solar Development points out:

  • The United States spends more than $13 billion a year on energy for home water heating. That is the equivalent of 11.4 barrels of oil per household, more than the amount of oil burned by a medium-sized automobile driven 12,000 miles.
  • Of all of the major types of water-heating systems, solar energy systems offer the biggest potential savings to homeowners -- with owners saving 85 percent on their utility bills over the costs of electric water heating.

Realistically, not everyone can afford to buy solar systems for their homes, although the long-term savings usually outweigh the up-front costs. And of course, many people are renters and can't put capital investments into the place where they live. So how else can we save energy, and as a result, also money and water?

Here's a few ideas from Flex Your Power:

  • Enable "power management" on all computers and make sure to turn them off at night. A laptop computer uses up to 90 percent less energy than bigger desktop models.
  • When possible, wash clothes in cold water. About 90 percent of the energy use in a clothes washer goes to water heating.
  • Turn your water heater down to 120 degrees or the "Normal" setting when home, and to the lowest setting when away. Water heating accounts for about 13 percent of home energy costs.
  • Test for air leaks by holding a lit incense stick next to windows, doors, electrical boxes, plumbing fixtures, electrical outlets, ceiling fixtures, attic hatches and other locations where there is a possible air path to the outside. If the smoke stream travels horizontally, you have located an air leak that may need caulking, sealing or weather stripping.
  • Add weather stripping around windows and doors to reduce drafts.
  • Unplug electronics, battery chargers and other equipment when not in use. Taken together, these small items can use as much power as your refrigerator.

There are also a bunch of great resources to do a home energy audit. And if you're curious whether your home is powered by coal that comes from the destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining, then you can check this easy link at I Love Mountains to find out. 

9. Stop Buying Stuff

If it's one thing the holidays can be sure to provide, it's a desire to buy lots of stuff we don't really need. Let's start with clothes. Author Stan Cox writes about how much Americans spend on clothes:

The average annual shopping haul swelled from $1,550 per household in 2002 to $1,760 last year. That spending spree was prompted in part by what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says was a 30 percent drop in real apparel prices over the past decade. With cheap imports allowing a dollar to buy more, the physical bulk of garb purchased by the average household has risen 18 percent in just five years.

All this shopping means we each discard around 68 pounds of clothing each year. This of course, stresses landfills, but as Cox points out, the most harm comes from producing clothes with pesticide-laden cotton and synthetic fabric that "consumes petroleum, blows out greenhouse gases and spews wastewater-bearing organic solvents, heavy metals and poisonous dyes and fiber treatments."

And it's not just clothes that are a problem, our consumer goods, in general have huge environmental impacts, especially because most of it comes from overseas. Cox writes:

In and near the world's ports and coastal sea lanes, emissions from oceangoing vessels caused 60,000 premature deaths in 2002. With increasing trade, the number of such deaths is projected to rise 40 percent by 2012. Ships' crews, dockworkers, truckers, other port personnel and local residents are all vulnerable.
The particulate matter produced by burning diesel has been associated with lung cancer, asthma, chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, decreased lung function in children and infant mortality.

And that's just the human impact, not withstanding the enormous cost of increased pollution and the burning of fossil fuels on global warming and air and water quality.

Clearly we've got to make changes, he writes:

Halting that growth or even making deep cuts in imports would not only help clear the air, it would make it easier to clean up the toxic water pollution that accumulates in sea lanes and ports; it would curb the noise pollution that can do serious damage to human health and interfere with communications among marine mammals; and it would stop the headlong rush to pave more land for logistics parks.

Of course there is an upside to all these grim numbers. A recent article from YES! Magazine summed up, that "The Good Life Doesn't Have to Cost the Planet." Spending less money on stuff and more money with family and friends is bound to be way more rewarding. And that seems like the best part of the holidays, anyway.

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