Small Ways to Fix a Big Problem

Do all those little things we do for the environment—recycling, giving up bottled water, going vegan—really make a difference?

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A gallery in the current After Nature art exhibition at the New Museum in New York City.The New Museum

It's easy to feel deflated by the ever-growing raft of ecological problems out there. According to a recent MIT report, even if I were the most frugal of consumers—say a monk or a hobo—as an American, I'd still emit more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the average global citizen. That's partly because the U.S. infrastructure that we all enjoy (police, roads, hospitals) is an inevitable part of our per-capita contribution. Think globally, act locally? Even someone like me who's happy to haul around groceries in a recycled cotton tote bag might begin to wonder: does it even matter?

So thanks to Paul Ehrlich and Robert Pringle for re-inflating my outlook today. The Stanford biologists write that yes, there are plenty of individual efforts that, if we mobilize, could add up to slow the sixth extinction. That's a catchphrase for our current biodiversity crisis: the one where we're losing three species an hour. The one that looks much like our planet's five previous mass extinctions, but differs notably in that it's being perpetrated by a single species.

But it's time to move beyond the blame game. We media types are doing a much better job nowadays of publicizing what human beings stand to lose in this experiment (breathable air, sufficient food, clean water, etc.). I won't elaborate on the ugly predictions here. Yet constantly being told that we're bad, bad kids is backfiring. Like a child who's repeatedly sent to the corner, this approach can breed resentment and stubbornness. We need to show each other, in the least obnoxious way possible, how to do the right things and why they matter.

What are those things? One suggestion of Ehrlich and Pringle is that those who are intimate with scale and scope of our ecological problems—ivory-tower scientists like themselves—walk the talk. "Academic ecological papers are often tinseled with one or two sentences about the applied significance of the science, which accomplishes little," they write. "Yet many of the most useful things that we can do for biodiversity—like talking to kindergartners—are not at the cutting edge of science." I sifted through their scholarly text, which appears today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for more "right things." If scaled up to the level of groups, such individual efforts can—as Pollyana as it sounds—really make a difference. Even if you're a millionaire. Even if you're a monk.

• Talk to kindergartners about the value of nature (or better yet, initiate field trips).
• Commandeer the technologies that are driving a wedge between people and the environment—for example, make digital media about nature and get it out to the world.
• Skip the bacon cheeseburger. Eat farmed fish and poultry instead of beef and pork.
• Support education and access to contraception for women in countries where the birth rate is high.
• Build community involvement on conservation issues.
• Set up "conservation trust funds": endowments to establish biological preserves in developing countries.
• Keep some trees standing when developing land for pasture or residence.
• When assessing the monetary value of land or waterways, put a price on its natural benefits, such as erosion control by plants or water filtration by wetlands.
• Produce biofuels from native grasses, not from monoculture crops.
• Don't kill wolves, bears, cougars, and other top predators. They're critical to the health of the food web.
• Be an ecotourist.

For more suggestions, check out:

• American Museum of Natural History Center for Biodiversity and Conservation: What You Can Do
• Monterey Bay Aquarium: Seafood Watch
• Princeton Environmental Institute: Stabilization Wedges—Solving the Climate Problem For the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies
• WorldWatch Institute: 10 Ways to Go Green and Save Green
• ConEdison: 100+ Tips to Help You Go Green and Save Some Green
• U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Air and Radiation—What You Can Do
• U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Climate Change—What You Can Do
• World Wildlife Fund: How You Can Help The Environment in Your Daily Life