‘Just because we can’ is not a good enough reason anymore

We live in a culture with abundant choices and, if anything, green living is all about choices. But having the freedom to choose is not enough. Choices can be good or bad. Context is a necessary ingredient when making decisions.

Think about these two statements: Just because things are a certain way now does not mean they always have been or will continue to be that way. And, just because we can do something does not mean we should.

In my experience, they go hand in hand. The first implies context. The second implies responsibility.

Have you ever heard the term “shifting baselines”? It is the acceptance of a certain condition as “normal” in the absence of context.

For example, as a boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was often just a short bike ride to wide-open spaces filled with adventure and discovery. The rolling hills were dotted with oak and eucalyptus trees, or even hidden pockets of majestic redwoods. There were caves, creeks and critters that instilled a sense of wonder and appreciation for the beauty and value of our natural world. Those experiences shaped my views and established my contextual baseline.

When I last visited the area, gone were the rolling hills, the beloved groves and the scurrying chipmunks. The wild places I loved as a child have been replaced with row upon row of matchbox houses, a classic example of suburban sprawl.

The children who are growing up where I did have a completely different life experience. They may still ride bikes, but there are no destinations like the ones I knew. It’s the new normal; the shifting baseline in action. Their contextual experience of the world can never be like mine was.

People need houses. One might argue that it is a sign of progress, economic growth, opportunity or just plain inevitable. But is it?

Is the ongoing perpetual destruction of the natural world a good decision or a bad one? It is an absurd question really, but if you are a victim of a shifting baseline — and, of course, we all are — almost everything in your experience says that things are as they should be. Context is crucial to our ability to make important choices.

We live in a world where the climate crisis is the new normal, where fire seasons last year-round, and where droughts, floods, fracking and spills occur on an ongoing basis. This is not a baseline that I accept. Which brings me to the second statement I mentioned.

Just because we can exhume ancient sunlight in the form of concentrated carbon (fossil fuels) and burn it in ways that enable us to do almost anything does not mean we should. Modern society is built on this seemingly unlimited supply of power that, in my humble opinion, we have squandered in the worst possible way.

Is it the absence of context that allows us to feel OK about constantly wanting more of everything? Are we content with the label and role of “consumer”? Why are we seemingly unable to stop our damaging ways? There is ample, irrefutable evidence that we are pushing beyond the limits of our world to sustain life.

Just because some can afford large, luxurious homes does not mean it’s OK to live extravagantly. Just because we can buy a plane ticket or a cruise or a gas-guzzling SUV does not mean we should. Not in the face of a planetary emergency! As a society, and as individuals, we need to make better choices and we need them now.

In my experience, that is what green living is all about.

Steve Rypka is a green living consultant and president of GreenDream Enterprises, a company committed to helping people live lighter on the planet. For more information and links to additional resources relating to this column, or to reach Rypka, please visit

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