New Dream asked Stephanie Feldstein, author of the new book The Animal Lover's Guide to Changing the World, to share a few tips on how rethinking our habits as consumers can bring benefits to the animals we love and the wider environment we all share.
The old cliché that money can’t buy happiness is backed up by research. Joy lies in meaningful experiences, not mountains of stuff.
But it’s not just your own happiness that’s tied to your spending habits. How you spend your time and money affects the lives of those around you—including other animals.
Here are 10 ways that rethinking what you buy and building community can increase animals’ happiness:
If everyone consumed like Americans, we’d need five planets to sustain us. But we only have one Earth—and it’s not all ours. We share it with a multitude of animals who are increasingly crowded out by our giant footprints. Everything we purchase has a production cost that’s paid by nature. Even products made entirely from recycled goods require land, water, and energy to repurpose them.
When we choose to buy less, buy secondhand, or share, we’re choosing to leave a little more in the world for the other animals who need it.
It’s not just housing developments and factories gobbling up habitat, but also our piles of garbage. When we buy things we don’t really need, they’re more likely to wind up in a landfill. Every year, Americans dump about 16 billion pounds of electronics. More than 80 pounds of clothing is tossed per person annually. Landfills and litter are not just toxic eye-sores, they’re also hazardous to wildlife who get tangled in our trash or choke or starve from trying to eat it.
When we avoid bringing unnecessary stuff into our lives, we avoid having to dispose of it where it can cause harm to wild animals.
We’re surrounded by plastic. It’s in carpeting, computers, toys, toothbrushes, yogurt containers, and yoga pants. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea, and every shorebird in the world will be snacking on it. Plastic is indigestible for wildlife and full of toxic chemicals. It’s impossible to completely avoid plastic since, as individuals, we can’t help the plastic that’s in things like medical equipment and electronics. (Though we can urge companies and decision-makers to ditch unnecessary plastic and continue to develop better alternatives.) But the most common plastic in the world is polyethylene, which is used as packaging.
When we buy less, we’re bringing fewer plastic materials into the world from products and packaging, giving our oceans a chance to stay wild.
More than 2 billion pounds of pesticides are sold in the United States each year. Most of that goes to industrial use, often getting drenched on monocrops, but some of it ends up in our yards, sprayed on our vegetable gardens and flower beds. While it may seem like an easier solution than natural pest control to keep our yards beautiful, we’re exposing birds, butterflies, pollinators and even our own pets to toxic chemicals.
When we skip buying pesticides and instead invest in spending a little more time getting our hands a little dirtier, we can have healthier gardens and healthier wild neighbors.
We’ve made our dogs and cats accomplices to our overconsumption. You can buy your four-legged family members toys, collars, and clothing for every season, holiday, and major Hollywood release. You can buy them energy bars and bottled water. And they don’t need any of it. Their needs are simple: nutritious food, fresh water, care, exercise, and a warm, safe place to sleep. Their desires are even simpler: Love and attention.
When we redefine spoiling our dogs and cats to focus on quality time playing or snuggling, it increases everyone’s happiness.
Presents that create memories tend to last longer and have more meaning than something you bought in a store. Outdoor experience gifts can include a hike on your favorite trail, a picnic at your local park, a road trip to the closest National Park or Wildlife Refuge, bird watching, kayaking, or any other activity—as adventurous or low-key as you like (as long as you leave only footprints).
When gift-giving gets us outdoors, we get to enjoy nature, increase our appreciation for wildlife, and support the existence and maintenance of parks that wild animals call home.
We all have to eat, but what we choose to eat has a massive impact on animals—the ones who are raised for food as well as those affected by food production. For many of us, our food choices are an important part of our social lives. Cooking for each other and sharing recipes build community and relationships and give you the opportunity to try new things.
When we share plant-based meals, we can reduce food waste, experiment with local ingredients, save resources for wildlife, and help farmed animals.
Dogs have become an important part of our families and communities, but there’s a lot of variation in how welcome they might be in your town. Some cities are full of dog parks, dog bakeries, specialty vets, and other services, while other cities can be pet food deserts or even ban certain breeds of dogs from living there. Connect with the other dog lovers in your community, whether it’s on social media, at the dog park (if appropriate for your dog), or by getting involved with your local shelter.
When dog people become pack animals, we can help create a safer, friendlier community for our companions.
One of the benefits of building community is coming together to ensure everyone has access to beautiful shared spaces. Parks have been associated with a variety of benefits from improving property values to overall quality of life. And that’s not just for the human residents.
When our communities include wildlife, we can protect natural areas and habitat that give wildlife a place to live and increase well-being for humans and animals alike.
There are countless policies and laws that influence how we interact with wild animals, how domestic animals are treated, and whether animal-friendly options are available to people. Yet animals don’t get a vote. They need us to be their voice—to speak up for policies that help them and against policies that may harm them. On the personal level, changing our daily habits isn’t always easy, but when you’re surrounded by like-minded people with similar goals, you’re more likely to stick with it and find the resources you need.
When we build community with other animal lovers, we can stay informed and engaged to help create a happier, more humane, and sustainable world for everyone.
Stephanie Feldstein is author of The Animal Lover's Guide to Changing the World and Population and Sustainability Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, where she heads a national program that addresses the connection between human population growth, overconsumption, and the wildlife extinction crisis. Her work has been featured in The Huffington Post, NPR, Salon, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and more.