What can I do to make a difference?

You’d be surprised at how much professional environmentalists hate this question. They wish they could answer it, but they really don’t know. Instead, they talk about policy changes and government initiatives, tax incentives and corporate governance.

(Note: The text in this post comes from the Armchair Environmentalist, a book first published in 2004 in London and now in several languages. We’ve turned the chapters (the English versions) into short, easy-to-read free downloads, and the links are below.)

I’m not a professional environmentalist. I’m a busy entrepreneur and occasional author, and I started writing about saving the planet because when I was a new mother I looked for information and couldn’t find anything that worked for me. I needed practical ideas that wouldn’t take a lot of time or cost a lot of money, and an approach that didn’t demand I turn into a woolly-sweatered commune-dweller.

You and I can’t start a wind farm or set up a government committee or legislate taxes (though we should be encouraging these activities – and the Afterword will tell you how to lend your voice). We read about environmental problems or we see them right in front of us, in our neighborhoods and as we go to work, and we want to be able to do right now, in just a few minutes, that will make the world a better place. We really want to make a difference – even if it’s a small one – and we want to show that we care.

That’s what the Armchair Environmentalist is about, the hundreds of little things we can do to help protect the beautiful planet we live on. These changes are not trivial. If we all do a little, it adds up to a lot.

By giving a few minutes a day to changing the way you interact with your personal bit of the global environment, you’re helping to reverse direction, and giving the planet a chance to regroup. You’re also helping design sustainable lifeways and working with millions of people around the world who care about the natural world and a healthy future for all of us, and for our children.

Everybody knows that there are changes we can make at home to help protect the earth, but many of them seem too complicated or daunting – or just plain trivial. Like you, I want maximum impact for the time I put in and I wanted to be able to do a little here and there. That’s why I walk or cycle whenever I can, keep the thermostat at 60, and used cloth nappies when my daughter was a baby.

It isn’t that I don’t like convenience. But I also like food that really tastes like something. I like to use skin cream made with ingredients that don’t cause birth defects or kill off fragile ecosystems. And I like the idea of being able to enjoy a sunny day without worrying about skin cancer.

This isn’t easy, I know. We are constantly bombarded with advertising that tells us about all the things we need and ought to want. Here’s a suggestion: think about the times in your life when you’ve been most content, the times of true joy and fulfillment. How much, really does all that ‘stuff’ really matter?

Most environmental books start with recycling, but in planetary terms it’s our use of electricity and other energy and our use of fresh water that’s has the greatest consequence, especially because there are six billion people on the planet and most of them would like to live like people in the urban, western world. We are polluting the environment with toxic chemicals and altered genetic material. And we’re spreading: housing and commercial developments sprawl across vast areas that used to be habitat for native plants and animals. Our invasive behavior makes it hard – even impossible – for other species to survive.

You and I, people living in the developed world and urban areas, do far more than our share of damage. The up side, though, is that we have lots of opportunity to change, and make a difference!

Afterword

From a biologist’s point of view, it’s not our planet that needs to be saved. The earth will take care of itself. You and I, though, the human race, we’re the ones who need saving if we want to have a place to call home.

There are many environmental problems that call for solutions beyond national boundaries, many that can only be solved as we join together in a global community determined to live together sustainably. But there are also, as you’ve seen, hundreds of small things you can do today to be part of that larger solution.

Here are four easy principles to keep in mind:

  • Small is beautiful. Small cars, small houses, and small pets have less environmental impact, and are easier to maintain and pay for.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Do take special care over major purchases like a car or refrigerator. Don’t agonise over a plastic bag!
  • One step at a time. Turn the thermostat down just one degree, not ten. Then another degree, and another.
  • Be a leader: if you can afford it, be among the first to adopt new technologies like hybrid cars. This is what creates the buzz needed to take important innovations into the mainstream.

It is important, too, to share your values with others, in a gentle way. Showing is almost always better than telling. Offer to bring a picnic basket and pull out real, non-disposable plates (picked up at a jumble sale) and cloth napkins. Turn up at a party on a bike.

I’ve shared many of my ideas in this book, but what works for me may not work for you, and something you come up with may be just the advice I need. We need to build a global community, to make sure good ideas are passed around. We need to support one another and join together to fight developments that will harm the world we share.

Free chapter downloads for Earth Day 2013:

Chapter 1: No Place Like Home • Kindle fileNOOK or Kobo file (ePub)
Chapter 2: Organic Garden, Healthy World • KindleNOOK or Kobo
Chapter 3: Bon Appetit! Better Food, Safer Planet • KindleNOOK or Kobo
Chapter 4: Healthier You, Healthier World • KindleNOOK or Kobo
Chapter 5: Greener Workplace, Cleaner Planet • KindleNOOK or Kobo
Chapter 6: Greener Transport, Safer Planet • KindleNOOK or Kobo
Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability
Karen Christensen is also the publisher of the 10-volume Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability., edited by Ray Anderson et al., with nearly 1,000 expert authors from universities and research centers around the world. Read a free sample article on “Charismatic Megafauna,” by Daniel Lunney of the Office of Environment and Heritage, New South Wales, Australia. Download the flyer by clicking here. ISBN 978-1-933782-01-0, 10 volumes, US$1.500.00, 6,084 pages.