At a young age, I became hyper-aware of pollution.
I grew up in Toronto, which is a relatively clean city. It’s certainly not Beijing or somewhere people walk the streets with medical masks on their faces. But on hot windless days, we had smog warnings like almost any other big city thanks to all the fossil fuel energy powering our civilization.
If I went for a bike ride on those days, I’d feel terrible all through the night. I started recognizing that when cars and buses whizzed past me, spewing exhaust, it harmed my breathing and the overall state of wellbeing.
On the other hand, when I took family trips up north to the wilderness, I distinctly remember the refreshing feeling of breathing in truly lush, pristine air. I acutely sensed the vast difference in air quality between there—a setting filled with evergreens and babbling brooks—and the city, a place where everything seemed to grind and release toxic chemicals.
After noticing this, I realized that my desire to be environmentally responsible is driven by my strong love of nature, in all its energizing intrinsic and scientific glory.
I distinctly remember learning the term “biomimicry” in junior high school.
The Biomimicry Institute defines it best as, “An approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” Or, in other words, learning from nature’s success and resilience and applying those learnings to anything we do.
Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” I loved the idea of nature being this massive research lab with proven results to reverse engineer and: no restrictive patents! The teacher I learned the concept from had ideas of going back to plowing fields using animals—but made massive with genetic engineering—rather than tractors. I like going deeper, understanding and stealing the principles rather than copying nature literally.
Even as a kid, I knew pollution was a huge problem that had to be solved.
Once I started cycling and rowing at age 13, my lungs were using a lot of oxygen. Because of the unclean city air, I developed mild asthma and constantly worried about what I was breathing in.
So I did various little things to be more environmentally responsible, like setting up recycling at home and trying to force my parents to do it. The mild inconvenience made it hard to get them on board but was also an early wake-up call for me that solving the environmental problems required solutions to be superior without added short term burden. Unlike the reliable squirrel stowing its nuts for the long winter, we humans are remarkably resilient to persuasion when it comes to embracing short term pain for long term gain!
After growing up in a big metro area, I wanted to go somewhere nature-filled and beautiful for college. That was a big reason why I chose to attend Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. Ithaca is a naturally stunning little town with lots of great cycling spots, and it sits right on Cayuga Lake. As a college athlete, this environment was ideal—being able to breathe clean air helped me pedal and paddle faster. For that part of my life, I was able to experience the benefits of nature. And that inspired me to make sure it didn’t disappear in my lifetime.
When you’re out in nature, you can’t help but want to preserve it. That feeling had a huge influence on me as a city kid and athlete—and it’s what continues to motivate me to end pollution.
Ending pollution requires long-term sustainable solutions.
Sustainability is a multi-dimensional problem that requires a change in how we supply and consume resources.
On the supply side, companies can begin by producing less plastic and styrofoam, for example. They can also start educating themselves on renewable energy, such as solar, wind, and geothermal, which have reached price competitiveness with fossil fuels and reduce climate-change-inducing greenhouse emissions. Understanding these technologies and knowing what it would take to implement them on a large scale will help companies support the right initiatives, whether that be by donating money, spreading the word, or changing internal actions.
On the demand side, consumers can recycle, reuse and, most critically, consume more responsibly. And when possible, purchase efficient technology—from your car to your air-conditioner. Find your own reason to want to be environmentally responsible, whether that be creating a sustainable future for your kids or grandkids, or simply wanting to live on a more beautiful planet.
But the fact of the matter is: consumers can’t be expected to solve the problem of pollution by compromising on the many life-enhancing conveniences of modern civilization. Habits are already set, and humans have a hard enough time understanding the personal costs of their lifestyles, to say nothing of their environmental costs.
In short, we need technology to provide the modern lifestyles we expect, but while consuming fewer resources. Fortunately, we’re at an inflection point where new pollution-ending technologies are becoming economical, just as we approach the tipping point for our climate.