Updated: Jul 10
By Emilie Changeux April 22nd, 2023
Since its conception more than 50 years ago in 1970, the Earth Day movement has evolved to mobilize more than 1 billion people and 190 countries around the globe. The initiative was created to combat air and water pollution in the United States in the face of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which generated increased concern about how a depleted environment could impede human health. Today, Earth Day has grown to encompass environmental activism as a whole, championing a multitude of causes ranging from toxic pesticides, wilderness conservation, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and waste management.
Demonstrators for the first Earth Day, 1970
For many people the burning question remains; what can we do to help the earth?
The general consensus is that acting collectively, through international environmental or economic policy measures, is the clear solution to preventing further climate change and limiting its impacts on a large scale.
But, with the ever-present flood of bad news about how lethargic the world’s biggest polluting corporations and governments are to take steps to limit their environmental impact, many people are left with an overwhelming sense of doom. After all, if media like The Guardian says that 100 of the world’s countries are responsible for 71% of the world’s emissions, then how can we, as individuals, do anything that will cause a significant change?
Personal action has been at the forefront of the media since the environmental movement began, encouraging readers and listeners to take small steps to improve the situation by doing things like turning the lights off and using reusable water bottles. This hyper-individualistic “lifestyle” approach focused on changing our consumption habits tends to create a sense of pessimism and never seems to do enough to improve the situation. If climate change is a global issue, how can one person’s actions really do anything to help? Indeed, acting completely individually is flawed because of its tendency to overemphasize the individual as a consumer, ignoring the global economic complex behind it. The blame for the climate crisis should not be on the individual, but on the companies that have done the most environmental damage.
Personal action through lifestyle change, to the degree that it offsets a significant amount of pollution, is also often a privilege for people who can afford the shift. Certainly, many people depend on their cars where there is no public transportation to get to work, or lack the resources to switch to solar powered homes and electric vehicles. A consumerist approach is flawed when the majority of people cannot join in because the current system is unavoidable. Pressuring people who might want to change their habits but are dependent on them can create a feeling of shame and hopelessness about their everyday lives, and is ultimately detrimental to the environmental movement by limiting the amount of people who can participate.
So, if personal action alone is not a good solution, then should the object of our focus as climate-conscious people be collective action?
The merging of individual and collective action is the key to creating actual, persistent change. We should strive to work together towards a transformed economy where a climate-conscious personal lifestyle is accessible and normal, rather than a luxury. A key part of creating this vision is engaging in behavior that creates public pressure on governments and industries. This means voting for officials that will push for environmental legislation, writing to representatives, donating to environmental funds, and marching in support of climate action. Joining government organizations and historically polluting industries to help shift away from damaging policies is also helpful, to promote environmental action from the top down.
HAF tree planting with youth in Morocco
Collective action also means engaging with your own community through art, education, and service to promote change on a local level. Initiatives like river or beach cleanups, tree planting ceremonies, community gardens, and farmers markets are essential to create a sense of participatory change. Encourage schools and workplaces to participate in the annual Earth Day celebrations. This is also a great opportunity to promote traditional and cultural practices, as indigenous communities often have a wealth of knowledge on the best sustainable practices for their location. For a more dramatic approach many consider guerilla gardening; growing plants on land that they do not legally own such as sidewalk strips, round-abouts, abandoned sites, or any piece of land that is not currently being used. This can be as easy as sprinkling a packet of non-invasive native seeds on the sidewalk in front of your home.
If it is the case that lifestyle changes can easily be made, there are things we can do at home that can have an important impact and supplement efforts for collective action. It’s important to engage in both to maximize our potential for change.
One of the most effective alternative behaviors is limiting meat in the diet. Animal-based foods tend to have a higher footprint than plant-based foods; producing a kilogram of beef emits 60 kg of GHGs while peas emit around 1 kg (see chart below by Our World in Data). These emissions largely come from land use change, transportation, and upkeep. Cows in particular have a large footprint because of their release of methane, a potent GHG, and the large tracts of land they occupy.
While changing your diet from meat to plant based is the best way to reduce your food footprint, choosing to eat products that are sourced locally to cut on transportation costs, like imported bananas and chocolate, and choosing fruits and vegetables that are in season also helps. Eating tomatoes grown in a greenhouse during a cold winter involves just as much, if not more, energy costs through upkeep as shipping them from another location where they can grow organically. It can be easy to reduce food waste as well, just by buying groceries every few days instead of once a week and planning meals. This way, there is less of a chance of items going unused. If produce is starting to turn, do things like making broth for other recipes, baking, or freezing them.
It’s also always a good idea to try composting once organic produce has been used as much as possible, which will have the added impact of helping your garden or houseplants be healthier. This can easily be done even in an apartment, with just a container, water, and some sort of dry material like shredded paper or cardboard. If you do have a garden, plant native species and use permaculture garden design principles to make it as efficient, productive, and organic as possible. Planting native species, especially of flowers, is incredibly helpful to preserve the genetic diversity of your local ecosystem, increase pollinators, and attract helpful native animal and insect species.
Aside from diet and waste management, there are more ways to cut back on energy consumption and reduce your carbon footprint. Instead of using a dryer, air dry clothes on a clothing rack. Instead of loading up a washing machine after every meal, wash dishes by hand in your sink. If it’s accessible, use public transportation, carpool, or walk to get from place to place. For some added entertainment and health benefits during your commute, consider biking, running, or even skateboarding.
In addition to changes to behavior at home, a key theme of this year’s Earth Day is sustainable fashion. According to the Earth Day website, the fast fashion industry is the culprit for 10% of all carbon emissions. This is largely because of toxic and intense textile processing techniques, the production of synthetic materials like polyester, and their incineration in landfills. Because of the high levels of mass production of fast fashion garments, there is also an increase in textile waste that is shipped overseas, incinerated, or dumped.
Fast Fashion Landfill
A component of solving this problem is making an effort to buy durable, high quality clothing instead of cheaper items that will fall apart much more quickly. This is challenging to tackle, since high quality clothing usually comes with a high price tag that makes them inaccessible to many people. The shift can be made more approachable by adjusting spending habits to buy less clothes in general. Instead of buying multiple shoes that are less expensive but will last less time, wait to buy one good pair of shoes that you can use for years. Also do things to ensure that your items are being used even when they are not fit to wear, such as converting old t-shirts into rags or cutting jeans to make a pair of shorts.
In terms of pushing for a larger systemic change in fashion, we should focus on pressuring industries to reinvest in high quality materials and workmanship as well as combatting the social trend cycle. Slowing down the evolution of trends to reduce the turnover of fashion is essential to make items desirable for longer, so there is less incentive to participate in the cycle of buying and replacing clothes.
The key to lasting change is creating an environment where these personal actions are accessible and easy. Choosing to engage in climate-conscious alternative behaviors should ideally not be treated as a statement for radical change. There should not exist a decision between having basic necessities for our daily lives, like transportation to work and a fulfilling diet, and having a low carbon footprint.
So what should we do to help the Earth? Work towards creating collective structural change so that those individual actions can be normalized and easy in the future.
“Just 100 Companies Responsible for 71% of Global Emissions, Study Says.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 July 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change.
Ritchie, Hannah. “You Want to Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Your Food? Focus on What You Eat, Not Whether Your Food Is Local.” Our World in Data, 24 Jan. 2020, https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local.