A few weeks into my stint with the Iceland Conservation Volunteers led me to a depressing realization.  Every trail I blaze, every step I build, makes it easier for busloads of tourists to access Iceland’s beauty and promptly destroy it like a bunch of pensioner savages.

Each new day at the worksite heralds new shades of light from the perpetual sun and new ways for them to play against a beautifully apocalyptic backdrop, along with more discarded cigarette buts, candy wrappers, and the like.  So am I really helping or somehow hurting?

Some, actually most, will take the utilitarian argument and say that our work is ultimately for the greater good.  Possibly.  We do take our materials from nature - stones and gravel from the hills, trees from the forest - and in a way that no one could ever tell we were there.  We also make it safer for everyone by blocking unofficial paths and improving the official ones. 

We essentially use psychology to herd people, which sounds bad and dehumanizing in theory, but is very true in practice.  We develop curvy, meandering paths instead of straight inclines up steep hills because they are more appealing.  We make the paths tourists are blazing really unappealing, which is fun sometimes.  All in an effort to keep them in a bubble while they take in the almost indescribable beauty of one of the world’s most untouched wildernesses, but on our terms.

However, people will be people.  The common tourist will do almost anything to get a shot without people in it, and when there are three busloads crowding one trail or viewing area, that usually means venturing outside of the environmental agency’s bubble.  

Also, anything you can think of a tourist doing has probably already been done, so they are unpredictable once they enter the area we’re trying to conserve.  It’s not uncommon to find one of our tools missing and locate it minutes later in the hands of a tourist, inexplicably using it as a photo prop…

Not only do the hordes blaze their own trails, but the most logical type - the easiest path around an obstacle - which end up becoming fairly pronounced.  These paths, once blocked, are really convenient for volunteers to use in the transport of materials.  In fact, if we are truly passionate about our mission, we have to, or we would be trampling all over the delicate plant-life ourselves.  The end result is a forced ultimatum to either make the unofficial trails more obvious and defined by using them, or potentially cause new damage to the nature by avoiding them.

In a way, the tourists are our best friends and worst enemies.  We get funding from them, and there’s no point in building or maintaining anything if we don’t want people to see the nature.  But also, some do stupid things, and we give them easier access to extend their stupidity to Iceland’s pristine landscapes.  We fight them every day while greeting them with a smile on our faces.

All of these conundrums don’t even take the environmental agency’s bureaucratic obstacles and fallacies into consideration, which surely contribute to this feedback loop of some conservation at the cost of a tiny bit of destruction.  Iceland’s protected areas are kept fairly untouched, but as soon as we work at an unprotected area, I see rangers driving trucks off-road solely on that very technicality: the area is not protected, so why not?  

This behavior is really counterproductive in areas like Látrabjarg, the most western point in Europe, which is very close to coming under protection.  How serious can we be if we’re driving all over it simply because it’s allowed, even if it’s not really the right thing to do?

I’m not Edward Abbey, but I can somewhat understand the frustration he experienced at Arches National Park.  Any time man presumes to have nature’s best interests in mind, it’s almost never a black and white issue, and of course, something has to be in it for man.  We can only hope that each season we have volunteers on the ground, getting their hands dirty, and telling tourists to stop climbing on that, that some of them are innovators with solutions to tip the scales further for more conservation, and less destruction for the sake of it.

I originally had another article in mind for this week because I thought that I had already missed the mark as far as how relevant this article would be. Most of you already have your decorations up, have purchased gifts and maybe wrapped them, and possibly are already at your holiday destination.

But I figured that if one procrastinator (I’m right there with you) reads this and implements some of the forthcoming tips, it would have made a difference. So here goes!

The holiday season is known for family, cheer, goodwill, and eggnog. You get to see people you haven’t seen all year and share an enormous meal with them (and more eggnog). In addition to all the familial warmth, the holidays are also the most wasteful time of year in America. It’s a season of great excess that knows no bounds. So instead of picking a month to really hammer the earth, let’s try to make this year’s Christmas a green one. I think even Santa drives a hybrid now! All I know is someone owes me a new roof.

Here are five tips to reduce your footprint in some of the biggest areas of waste during the holidays.

1. Modest Decorations – Throughout December, Americans watch their meter go up, up, up, further than it’s ever gone the rest of the year. Roughly 83% of us decorate our homes for the holidays (Electrical Safety Foundation Intl.). Of course, the majority of these decorations are lights. In addition to turning our homes into a virtual tinder boxes, we our wasting our hard-earned cash to see who’s house can be the gaudiest monument on the block for a single day of the year. It’s kind of ridiculous.

Instead of trying to be Chevy Chase this year, let’s all have an exercise in moderation, tastefulness, courtesy to neighbors that like to sleep at night, fire-safety, and efficiency by using decorations that use little to no power.

2. Utilitarian Gifts – I bet some of you already have that person in mind that you know is going to give you something that you will never use in any lifetime. In order to avoid wasting your money on something that you haven’t a clue if it will be used or not, get a specific list of things that people definitely want because they know that they’ll definitely use them.

There’s really no way to avoid looking like a tool by telling someone what you want unless you’re asked. If you do get something that just makes you wonder “why?” then you can always donate it to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Just don’t throw it away or re-gift it to someone else who isn’t going to use it either (read: passing the buck).

3. Gift Bags – Think back to the last Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanza/Winter Solstice morning you had, and visualize all of that colorful paper carnage that littered the ground after the gift-giving frenzy was over. Most of that cannot be recycled because of the shear volume of ink used in production. 

A lot of the gifts exchanged in my family come in those gift bags that you shove tissue paper in. Once you savagely tear out that paper like a wild beast (still just as satisfying as ripping off wrapping paper), you can put it back in and save the bag for your gifting next year. Saves money, and the environment!

4. Local Foods – Most of us, myself included, turn into voracious eating machines during the holidays. Whether you’re an omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, or borderline carnivore, I think we can all admit that we see an increase in food (and alcohol) intake around this time of year. While we’re stuffing our faces, we could help out the environment, our bodies, and the local economy by trying to limit ourselves to locally sourced, organic foods.

While being especially tasty, local organic foods are fresh and contain no harmful preservatives. I always feel better about what I’m eating when I can pronounce every ingredient that it took to make it. Also, you are limiting your carbon footprint by choosing to buy food that didn’t have to be shipped in from halfway across the globe via plane, train, and automobile (and sometimes boat).

5. Energy Efficient Travel – According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, long-distance trips during the Thanksgiving holiday period increase by 54% while trips during the Christmas/New Year’s holiday increase by 23%. That’s a huge increase in emissions. By no means at all am I saying to just leave your family hanging and stay home for the holidays, but there are some creative solutions for long-distance travel.

An obvious one is car-pooling. Communicate with others in the area that are going to be attending your gathering, and even ones that aren’t but are going somewhere nearby, and organize a big car pool to take those cars off the road. If all else fails, those Greyhounds are gonna be on the road no matter what, so you could always pile in to take your car off the road for the holidays.

These are the five biggest areas of waste I can think of. If there are others that I’m missing, please feel free to bring them up in the comments, along with any creative solutions to reduce, reuse, and recycle. And if you happened to get the plate number on Santa’s Prius this year, let me know.

I hope some of you still have time to employ these tips, and if you do, wow what are you waiting for?! It’s going to be hell out there these next few days! Have fun fighting other shoppers for that last whatever. But also thank you. Thanks for waiting the last second so that you could possibly stumble upon this (or literally StumbleUpon it) in time to make a difference. Those of you that are already prepared, bookmark this for next year!

Be safe everyone, and have a great holiday!

I have been living in Lund, Sweden for about two weeks now, and have utilized about every type of transportation available to man, apart from boats and rocket ships.  I used a plane to get here obviously, the bus occasionally, I’ve had a couple of car rides, walked several miles, have taken trains to other towns, and my new bike has already seen some wear.

My focus in this post is on the marriage of minimalism and practicality when it comes to getting around.  I look for a method that is low-impact, cost-efficient and does not abuse my time.  

All of these methods have their merits and their downfalls, and they are each dependent on one’s location and personal situation.  Different countries (and different cities, for that matter) have different levels of infrastructure, so it’s difficult to write a post that is all-inclusive to anywhere in the world.  Expect a huge USA/Sweden bias.  

The Bus

Millions of people worldwide journey to the bus stop everyday.  It is, if carried out correctly by the city, an efficient and dependable way to travel.  Sweden’s public transportation is among the best in the world.  The buses are ALWAYS on time, and you can purchase a ticket simply by walking on with your electronic bus pass.  Most of them use either biodiesel or ethanol for fuel.  In fact, Sweden has the largest ethanol fleet in the world.  

Of course, you have to pay for all these goodies.  It’s generally between $3 - $6 to various places in Lund if you don’t have a pass.  This is opposed to the free bus system at my home university, however unreliable that it was.  It could be worth at least having a pass handy for those mornings you wake up to a torrential downpour.

The Car

As bad for the environment as they are, cars are probably the most comfortable way to get around town.  You can decide on your own schedule, have your personal space, avoid the sometimes true stigma of public transportation…but at what cost?  Gas prices have been consistently getting worse throughout my short life, to the point where going to the pump can sometimes ruin a morning that was going well.

Carpooling is a great way to have the convenience, split the fuel costs, and alleviate some of the environmental impact.  If you want to look at extremely cheap and efficient carpooling on a massive scale, check out Zip Car.

The Bicycle

The bike: exercise, transportation, and adventure, all in one.  It is a great way to see the city and I guarantee you’ll know how to get anywhere in town after spending a day lost and aimless on a bike (especially if it’s raining).  Commuting by cycle is very sustainable because the only environmental impact is from the materials that went into its production.  Oddly enough, you also might be able to get where you need to go more quickly than if you commute by bus or car.  You can easily maneuver where other vehicles cannot.  

The amount of pleasure one can get from biking around town really depends on the bike-friendliness of the town.  Honestly, I think almost any other country in the world is more bike-friendly than the US.  In many parts of South America, India, and Southeast Asia it is the primary form of personal transportation.  In Europe, it is accepted for it’s convenience and sustainability.  Haters aside, I think bicycles are the perfect combination of mobility and sustainability, while also quickly paying for themselves by avoiding bus fares and painful gas prices.

Walking

We can’t forget good old-fashioned walking.  The only costs involved go toward being fully-clothed in accordance to the law.

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