Seven Wonders: Everyday Things for a Healthier Planet

by John C. Ryan

hat do ladybugs, clotheslines and condoms have in common? They are all simple everyday objects that can make the Earth a healthier place. In Seven Wonders: Everyday Things for a Healthier Planet, author John Ryan presents "the seven sustainable wonders of the world" seven practical tools that can improve our lives and help reduce our colossal environmental impacts to a level the Earth can support.

The Seven Wonders pass what Ryan, Research Director at Northwest Environment Watch in Seattle, calls the Dalai Lama test: everyone on Earth can use them without overwhelming the natural world -- a feat that few artifacts of our modern society can match. When the Dalai Lama met with economist John Kenneth Galbraith, the spiritual leader asked the Harvard professor a simple but penetrating question: "What would the world be like if everyone drove a motor car?" The answer is that the environment could never endure a world of 6 billion North American-style drivers and consumers. But contemplating such an impossible world can help us see our own in a different light.

In the midst of worldwide ecological deterioration, Seven Wonders offers a hopeful message and a practical one, putting power back in the hands of individuals. Seven Wonders blends hard facts with hands-on solutions; it brings global issues down to a personal level without trivializing them. The seven wonders are tremendously powerful, but many of them are in danger of falling into disuse. It's up to us to help them realize their wondrous potential to improve human life at little cost to the planet.

The Bicycle: The most energy efficient form of travel ever invented and the world's most popular transport vehicle. Pound for pound, a person on a bicycle expends less energy than any creature or machine covering the same distance. Handy for the one out of four car trips in the United States that are less than a mile.

The Condom: The only thing -- short of abstinence -- that prevents sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and population growth. Not bad for a flimsy tube of rubber.

The Ceiling Fan: Creates light breezes that make a room feel 9º F cooler -- while using less than a tenth the electricity of a room air conditioner. If more Americans used energy-saving ceiling fans in their homes, eastern cities might have avoided the damaging power outages they suffered during the heat wave of 1999.

The Clothesline: The pollution-free alternative to the clothes dryer -- simple, silent and powered by the sun. The average household dryer in the United States puts almost a ton of climate-damaging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year.

Pad Thai: Rich in nutrition and skimpy on environmental impact, a mainstay of Thai restaurants everywhere. Pad Thai is typical of Asian cuisine, which treats meat as a delicacy, not as a staple -- unlike the high-fat, high-impact diets of Americans, who eat more meat than people in any other nation.

The Public Library: By reducing the demand for paper, a library saves forests from logging and rivers from erosion and pulp mill waste. A book printed on 100 percent recycled paper -- like Seven Wonders requires only 60 percent of the energy needed to make a regular book and generates half as much waste. A "100 percent reused" library book produces no waste and consumes no energy.

The Ladybug: The farmer's and gardener's friend. A typical ladybug devours approximately 5,000 crop-munching aphids in its lifetime. While annual worldwide sales of pesticides are roughly $30 billion, natural enemies like ladybugs provide an estimated $120 billion in pest control services -- all without poisoning anybody's food, water or habitat.

Each of the wonders discussed in the book represents an underutilized shortcut to a sustainable way of life -- one that the Earth can endure. The wonders help us rethink major environmental issues: the bicycle gives us a new perspective on transportation; the condom, population growth; the ceiling fan, energy efficiency; the clothesline, solar energy; pad thai, a low-meat diet; the public library, reuse; and the ladybug, sustainable agriculture. Ryan points out that these are not the only "wonders," but they are exceptionally powerful -- and often overlooked. They show that answers to some of society's most vexing problems are often right under our noses.

See the article on bicycle efficiency in this issue.

John C. Ryan is research director at Northwest Environment Watch, a nonprofit research organization based in Seattle, Washington, and Victoria, B.C., that aims to foster a sustainable economy and way of life in the Pacific Northwest -- stretching from northern California to southern Alaska and from the Pacific to the crest of the Rockies. Ryan is lead author of the acclaimed Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things and author of three other books from Northwest Environment Watch: State of the Northwest; Hazardous Handouts: Taxpayer Subsidies to Environmental Degradation; and Over Our Heads: A Local Look at Global Climate. Before joining Northwest Environment Watch in 1993, Ryan worked for local nonprofit groups in Indonesia and for Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. He is fluent in Indonesian and not bad with an electric guitar. Ryan has degrees in History from Yale and Stanford universities. He lives in Seattle, within biking distance of a dozen Thai restaurants.

Seven Wonders: Everyday Things for A Healthier Planet, by John C. Ryan. Sierra Club Books, October 5, 1999; $12.95.