More people are living on the planet, but the amount of usable water stays the same. “Clearly, we must adjust our habits to live more sustainably on the earth.”
Fresh running water is something many people living in developed countries take for granted. When we turn on the tap, water magically appears. If we want hot water, we simply twist a handle. Toilets whisk away our waste so quickly that it’s immediately forgotten. Most of us bathe, make our morning coffee, and start the washing machine without contemplating how water comes to us or how precious it is.
As the daughter of two immigrants born in Eastern Europe in the 1920s, I grew up on my parents’ stories about what it’s like to live without such conveniences. In Hungary, my mother’s family had to carry their water home one bucket at a time from the town’s communal well a mile away. Hot water for cleaning or bathing had to be heated one pot at a time on a wood or coal stove. Every drop was used wisely. In Poland, where long winters frequently brought below-freezing temperatures, my father’s family of eight shared one outdoor latrine.
A decade ago, when I was conducting extensive research for my eco-conscious cookbook The Earthbound Cook—250 Recipes for Delicious Food and a Healthy Planet, I was surprised to discover just how many ecological burdens are attached to delivering an ample supply of fresh water. Now, as climate change is making these issues more pressing than ever before, it’s crucial that we do a better job of conserving this essential resource.
Many people who live in areas where rainfall is abundant aren’t concerned about letting water run down the drain as they brush their teeth or soap their dishes, but this leaves energy consumption and emissions out of the equation. Pumping, treating, collecting, and discharging water and wastewater is extremely energy intensive. In my home state of California, our water supply accounts for nearly 20 percent of our state’s total electricity use while generating about 10 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Hot water heaters use so much energy that they are responsible for approximately 18 percent of the average home’s total energy usage.
It’s also easy to forget that humans consume a tremendous amount of water in ways we don’t directly see, such as in producing our food and manufacturing all the goods we consume. As the world’s population continues to grow—from 3 billion in 1960 to 7.8 billion in 2020 to an estimated 9.9 billion in 2050—our water supply will remain fairly constant. Experts predict that by 2030, the world’s demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent.
In our homes alone, the average American family consumes more than 300 gallons of water per day. Imagine if my mother’s family had to draw 300 gallons from the well every day and carry each one a mile by foot? Impossible!
Clearly, we must adjust our habits to live more sustainably on the earth. Here are some easy and effective ways to do that without sacrificing our quality of life:
- Use cold water instead of hot whenever possible.
- Don’t leave the water running when doing dishes; running a full dishwasher uses much less water than hand washing dishes.
- Garbage disposals use electricity and lots of water, so avoid using them to dispose of food waste. Composting is always best.
- Fix all leaks, install aeration filters on sinks and shower heads, and choose dual flush or low flow toilets.
- Eat lower on the food chain more frequently (it takes approximately 920 gallons of water to produce eight ounces of conventional beef, versus 250 gallons for eight ounces of chicken, 150 gallons for eight ounces of tofu, and 25 gallons for eight ounces of broccoli). Plan your meals with the goal of reducing food waste.
- Choose paper products (paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, copy paper) that have a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content. This saves water, energy, and trees, while diverting waste. Use reusables whenever possible.
- Reduce water usage in your garden and landscape by installing drip lines, automatic rain shut-off devices, and/or a rain barrel. Choose drought-tolerant plants and apply mulch, which helps keep moisture in the soil.
While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and pessimistic about the long list of severe environmental problems we are facing right now, it’s important to remember that the cumulative effect of all of us developing more sustainable habits is huge. Instead of being motivated by fear, a far more positive and powerful approach is to be inspired by our love and reverence for our home planet, as well as for the children who will inherit what we leave behind.
Waking up to water can be a powerful spiritual practice that feeds our connection to Mother Nature and all the life she so generously supports.
From our rivers, lakes and seas, to the clouds that gather in the skies above—the water cycle is the earth’s circulatory system, and we are all part of it. The majority of the human body is made up of water that continually cycles through each of us and through Mother Nature. Bringing consciousness to this sacred flow that gives life to everything can foster deep appreciation and more mindful and careful enjoyment.
Read more from Myra Goodman.