For Thomas M. Kostigen, it starts with the flick of a light switch and ends with the death of a polar bear. It’s the simple action — leaving the plastic bottle on the beach, leaving the light on when no one’s in the room, driving when you could walk — that leads to environmental degradation. Cliché? Yes, but in his new book, You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet, Kostigen decided to follow the plastic bottle and the emissions and the end result of so many poor environmental choices.

He takes you to Mumbai where the United States quietly ships millions of tons of hazardous e-waste each year. He takes you to Linfen City, China, where dirty coal plants force citizens to wear surgical masks in the streets. He takes you to the Pacific Ocean's Eastern Garbage Patch, an epic sea of trash from places like California and as far away as Asia, brought together on ocean currents.

The Mother Nature Network spoke with Kostigen about his book and his recommendations for readers looking to change the environment in their own way.

 

How did you choose the sites you use for chapters? Are those, to your knowledge, the most hazardous examples of environmental neglect?

I chose them very specifically for what they stood for as well as the seriousness of the environmental consequences that were there. Linfen, for example, is the most polluted place in terms of air pollution in the world. The same thing with the Eastern Garbage Patch. Not only is it emblematic of ocean pollution, but it’s also, “How are we connected to these places by what we do?” I really tried to drive everything into our homes, [to show] products that we purchase and their connection to China and their pollution coming back to us. The oil and grease that we put down our disposals that ends up in the Pacific Ocean. The things we leave on the beach and how that can lead to a garbage patch. I really tried to thread a certain line to showcase the green “butterfly effect” of everything we do right in our homes and how that’s connected all over the planet. I chose places that people could see very imminently the effects of their actions.

You write mostly about what the individual can do to address these issues. But you also write about the possible need for governmental intervention in places like the Amazon jungle. Which is more important and more likely to have the greatest positive effect on the environment?

There have been people who have been saying that, “Individuals don’t matter. It’s going to be up to governments and businesses.” But if you look at reports as recent as this fall that say individuals’ actions lead to up to 65 percent of greenhouse gas emissions around the world, that’s a big number. We comprise the government. The people that represent us are the government. When we create a demand for a certain type of supply, businesses respond. So, we do have a duty. You’re absolutely right. The other constituencies have to step up and do their duty as well. But we can’t shrug ours in the hope that government is going to do it for us or businesses are going to turn around and do it for us and create sustainable products that we’re not going to have to worry about. We have a role in it as well, and that’s why individual actions mean so much. We need to send the message not only to businesses but government officials that we care.

But don’t capitalism and environmentalism inherently clash? Won’t businesses produce products at the lowest possible cost, and won’t consumers inevitably purchase products at the lowest possible cost regardless of the environmental impact?

 

Capitalism and environmentalism can go hand in hand, and that’s really what a lot of people are calling for right now. Can we create more jobs via “greening” the infrastructure that we have today? Can we actually save money by producing less stuff? And can we be smarter about the choices that we make and have products that are sustainable? And, at the same time, can we continue to lead our lives as we have without a very huge shift? I don’t think there really is an opposition there. You could make the argument that the worse the economy gets the better it gets for the environment in many ways. Right here in California, we’re seeing 30% less waste end up in landfills because people are purchasing less. So there is that correlation there where people drive less, where people consume less, where people use less of their utilities.

Environmental issues, when not properly illustrated, can seem overly complicated or abstract to someone who isn’t seeing the effects on their everyday life. How did going to these places and seeing the issues up close change you?

What I really wanted to be able to do was to put the polar bear drowning with the light switch [like] that iconic image of the polar bear swimming for their lives literally. That was a touchstone for a lot of people. Often people didn’t see their connection to that. They didn’t see that when they turn on that light switch, and they’re drawing more electricity from coal plants, and coal plants are polluting more to serve that electricity. And that pollution ends up going north and melting the ice, and that’s how polar bears drown. Drawing those connections was really how I wanted to showcase what we do and what that does to the planet. For me, personally, it awakened me to many more issues that were out there. For example, the palm oil in our toothpaste, in our cookies and many other products, and how that affects the jungles of Borneo and deforestation there. Those types of things really awakened me to the other issues and the other connections that we have that we can use positively in order to affect change. So, for me, the work became an empowering journey to see all the many ways that we can -- almost like a puppeteer -- pull the strings and have an action really result from what we do. Everyone around the world that I encountered has pretty much the same moral DNA as we do here in the United States. They all want to do the right thing, I believe, given the right choice. I think we just have to be presented with those opportunities to change.

What was the worst place you visited? What was most shocking?

Linfen City, China. Just to see all the people walking around with surgical masks. Just to see people living with such bad air quality on a daily basis. And really experiencing the effects of coal burning up close and personal and what that type of energy source is doing to the planet. It was a very, very awakening-type of moment to see. You can’t really see the Garbage Patch, but, intellectually, to know just how large the Garbage Patch is, and how it’s still getting bigger and bigger, and its affect on the ocean, I think, that was also a wake-up call to me that our oceans are connected to the land. And, again, to draw another connection there, how we really are all so intertwined in this amazing network called the planet.

When you see things like that, are you at all discouraged about the chances of reversing these problems?

No. We can’t reverse things tomorrow. It is going to take time. Are things going to get worse before they get better? Yes. Can we all just sit around and say, “So what?” No. I just don’t believe in a defeatist attitude. We do need to make change, and I think we can make change. We’ve seen it already in terms of the price of gas at the pump and how much less we’ve driven. That makes a big difference in the planet when we see prices go up and we’re forced to make change. And really the whole idea is to get that to be a matter of choice. How can we actually choose the right thing to do, and how can we get as many options in front of us as possible so we can make those right decisions so it’s not just a monetary gain. I think around the planet -- because this is getting harder to deny -- part of the dialogue, part of the discussion is people talk about the environment everywhere. In China, they even talk about how bad it is. In Linfen, they’re just at a loss to know what to do about it. That’s our next challenge, and I think we’re making steps down that road. I really do believe in human nature wanting to save itself. People know what global warming is now. You don’t need to explain it. Now we start to move on that knowledge.

What impact do you think President Obama could have on these issues, and how likely do you think he is to pursue changes you believe are necessary to fix places like Shishmaref Village in Alaska or Fresh Kills Landfill in New York?

 

It was very much a part of his talking points and a part of his campaign to use alternative energy sources as hope for change in America. And that by putting more money to the infrastructure to make it more green, and by developing more alternative energy sources with matching funds from the government, that we can actually make a big, big change, and, at the same time, help the economy. I think that right now we haven’t really seen the steak. We’ve heard a lot of the sizzle, but we haven’t seen the meat of the program come out. On infrastructure, we’ve actually seen money being chopped on expenditures that I think are extremely necessary. I think there’s a ways to go, and hopefully because things are still very new and very young and there’s a compromise in politics going on, that will change. I had a chance to do a Q&A with him, and he is knowledgeable about all the right issues, but there hasn’t been a real robust program of specifics that we can turn to and say, “Oh, OK. This is really going to make a big difference.”

 

Before we close, anything you want to add?

I really think the biggest environmental crisis facing us today is water, and that’s something that we really need to focus on. In our towns, our communities and our country we need to focus on better use of water, better water management. Green is not just global warming and not just about energy. It’s about all of our natural resources. I think if we focus on the things that we can see and touch and feel in our daily life, that will affect the policy changes in the future.

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Purchase You Are Here: The Surprising Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet.