Ten Big Things You Can Do for the Environment

About this list

Folks often ask us, What's the most important thing I can do for the environment? There's no simple answer to the question. Three circumstances make it impossible to give a single answer:

circumstance #1: Every lifestyle creates different opportunities for effect. A suburban dweller with a long, daily commute in an SUV can reduce their environmental impact enormously by purchasing a more fuel-efficient vehicle, and vehicle replacement should certainly be on their top-ten list. On the other hand, a Manhattan apartment dweller who travels by subway and owns no car isn't even capable of making this change.

circumstance #2: Different people have different definitions of "doing good for the environment." Some people put human health before ecological preservation; for instance they might put reducing local particulate matter and childhood asthma before halting deforestation in developing countries. Other people will put ecological preservation before human health, and would be inclined to work more urgently on the deforestation. ILEA takes a long-timescale approach to this quandary: we believe that focusing on biodiversity and climate change issues now can positively affect and even save many, many human lives in the future.

circumstance #3: There's often insufficient science to support a conclusion. The comparative environmental impacts of consumer choices have been studied in only a few, specific cases (many of which are documented on this website). Many of the unstudied choices are in fact impossible to study because the relative impacts are not comparable. For instance, is it more effective to make a personal contribution by turning down the thermostat at home, or can one have more effect by writing letters to congress supporting greenhouse gas legislation?

All that said, the ILEA board of directors has compiled the following list of ten of the most effective actions we believe you can take for the environment. The list assumes that the reader is in the United States, is raising children, has a U.S. median income, lives in a detached home and owns at least one car. If this isn't you, then feel free to disregard the few actions that simply don't apply to your lifestyle; there will still be plenty of ideas for you left over.

Three rules to keep in mind: (We're not sure why we keep coming up with things in threes. We just do.)

rule #1: Keep an eye on the big picture. A polluted river can be (mostly) fixed. Climate change and species extinction are irreversible. We live in a time of global environmental crisis, and "think globally, act locally" rings more true today than ever before. By the same token, be careful not to get wrapped up in a single issue and lose sight of the big picture that way. For instance, climate change is a profoundly important issue, but making every choice based on only that issue would lead to strong support for nuclear energy, a technology about which you might have reservations based on nuclear proliferation or other non-climate impacts.

rule #2: Don't sweat the small stuff. A look at the Union of Concerned Scientists' environmental impact ratings shows that most of our impact is tied into energy use, through our vehicles and homes. If you have a very small amount of time for doing something about the environment, then focus on the big decisions that involve energy use. It would be a shame to lose a lot of sleep about switching to plastic grocery bags and soda jugs, if the associated fretting means not having enough enthusiasm left to reduce your weekly driving.

rule #3: Act on the margin. We are in a time of needing environmental change; simply getting on the bandwagon is not effective. Buying a Honda Civic is a nice idea since it gets 44 miles per gallon on the highway, but it does little for advancing technology. Buying a Honda Civic Hybrid is a better idea, since by putting your dollars behind the more advanced, less common product you are in essence voting for the new technology.

Okay enough hemming, hawing and qualifying. Without further delay, here are the ten big things you can do for the environment:

1. Purchase a more efficient automobile and drive less     back to top

No single item that an average consumer owns does as much damage as the automobile. Between 5% and 10% of the car's consumption of energy and emissions of greenhouse gases happen when the car is manufactured. The other 90% to 95% result from driving and maintaining the car. Besides this, automobiles generally encourage roads and parking lots--more than 1% of the United States' surface area is paved over[1] -- and deposit oils and tire rubber that eventually runs into water supplies. The high mobility that cars provide encourages suburban sprawl and the destruction of green space. And of course, the accompanying demand for oil has enormous social costs as well, in the form of U.S. military actions in the Middle East and the related threat of terrorism at home.

If you have to buy a new car, think about the recommendations in our special article. But it's always preferable to avoid buying at all, if possible. You can reduce your needs to drive or to buy a car with some of these ideas:

  • carpooling can easily triple your fuel economy on a per-passenger basis;
  • using vanpools or public transit saves gas and saves you road-rage;
  • car-share programs such as Flexcar might give you just enough access to a vehicle that you don't have to buy one;
  • combining your trips saves you time as well as gas;
  • living in an urban neighborhood near your workplace, shops and other resources can eliminate most of your car trips;
  • If you can't live near work, telecommuting one or more days per week might reduce the family's need for multiple cars;
  • and of course, anytime you can walk or bicycle instead of drive, take the opportunity to get some healthy exercise.

2. Increase energy-efficiency in your household     back to top

Home heating and cooling, hot water, and appliances together account for between one quarter and one third of a family's total contribution to greenhouse gases and air pollutants. The electricity and gas we purchase to power these services are probably the second largest single contributor to our direct environmental impact, after the use of automobiles. Follow the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy's checklist if you want to focus on the most effective and easiest changes. If you want to get into the details, then you might want to buy their paperback Consumer Guide

3. Purchase green electricity and/or generate your own     back to top

The U.S. mines and burns nearly one billion tons of coal each year to generate electricity [2]--that's more than three tons for every man, woman and child in the country. The results are ecosystem destruction and water pollution at the mines, air pollution at the electric generating plants, and climate change the world over. In most states, you can choose to purchase your electricity from renewable resources like wind, rivers, and sunlight. If your utility does not have a green power option, you can buy green tags, certificates that guarantee that an equal amount of green electricity is being generated somewhere else, as the amount of regular electricity you are buying. Visit thegreen-e website and you will find many options for offsetting the emissions from your electricity.

A (much) more adventurous solution is to generate your own electricity. The most common way to do this is with roof-mounted photovoltaics -- "solar cells." Photovoltaics are expensive, and it can take ten to twenty years for the free electricity you get from them to pay off your up-front investment. But if you own your home, plan to stay there, and have the cash up front to afford it, there is nothing better you can do. Not only will you avoid burning coal (how much depends on who your electricity provider is), but you will help support the photovoltaic industry, which needs more purchase volume in order to reduce prices so that even more people can afford them. To get started with photovoltaics, you might want to get hooked in with the renewable energy community at the American Solar Energy Society website; when you're ready to buy Real Goods is likely to have the products you need. But one last thing before you start spending your money: you will want to make sure that your utility has an appropriate net metering program that allows you to sell any extra energy you generate back to your utility.

4. Include more vegetable protein in your diet     back to top

The animal that became today's hamburger either grazed in pasture, ate a feed grain diet, or a combination of both. A lot of land is required to graze those animals, or to grow the grain that feeds them. Only a small fraction of the nutritional value consumed by the animal becomes nutritional value in the meat. If you had instead consumed the grain (or some other crop) directly, a far smaller "footprint" of land would be used to provide you with the same amount of nutrition. Debate abounds about exactly how big the differences are, but there is agreement on two basic facts:

  • Eating red meat requires somewhere between four and twenty times as much land as eating vegetables, on an equal-calorie basis;[3] and
  • Poultry has an intermediate impact between vegetables and red meat.

Fish has never been evaluated in this way, because the environmental impacts of fishing happen in a different ecosystem and cannot be directly compared with those of land-based agriculture. However, there is no doubt that humanity's fish consumption is at unsustainable levels and seriously threatens marine ecosystems.[4]

Each time you shift your diet to include less meat or fish, and more vegetable protein, you are reducing the burden on overextended grazing lands and fisheries, and helping to make the best use of a limited land resource that is only growing more pressured as the global population increases.[5]

5. Teach children about the environment     back to top

Environmental preservation is an activity of enormous scale -- both in terms of geography and in terms of time. We expect some of the most pressing environmental problems to be at their worst well after our own lives are over, and it will remain in the hands of our children to continue the work to mitigate these. Teaching children early in their lives how the planet works, how ecosystems work together, and how humans affect those ecosystems, will help them grow to be responsible adults who are able to live responsibly, and who will be able to make the wisest choices for the next steps in preservation, upon which we are not yet even embarking.

6. Consider having a small family     back to top

Today's world population of over six billion is probably three times larger than the planet can permanently support in a comfortable, natural environment. Human population is at the center of environmental impact, and nothing is more important than reducing global population to a sustainable level.

As a resident of the United States, you have a particular potency to change your affect on the environment by limiting your family size. According to research by the United Nations, "A child born in the industrial world adds more to consumption and pollution over his or her lifetime than do 30-50 children born in developing countries.[6] If you want to give this option some deeper thought than the short paragraphs here, you might want to give Bill McKibben's 1999 treatise Maybe One a read. (This book is out of print, which is a great excuse to buy somebody's recycled copy from a book reseller.)

7. Contribute money to an environmental organization     back to top

Active environmental organizations that enforce laws, lobby on behalf of progressive policies, and research and document problems and solutions are able to work much closer to the country's power centers than most individuals. They also have the means to do the research necessary to determine which policy changes will have the best environmental effect, something else most individuals do not have the time or expertise to do. Examples of some well-known environmental organizations that can best put the dollars you earn with your own skills to an environmental purpose are the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace U.S.A., and the Sierra Club.

But getting policy shifts to happen in the government can be very difficult. Perhaps unfortunately, sometimes the best way to protect an ecosystem is simply to buy it. Conservation biology research has shown that biodiversity tends to concentrate in "hot spots:" a conservationist can save the most species per dollar by focusing on a few areas that have an unusually rich representation of the surrounding region's flora and fauna. By contributing money to a trustworthy and carefully-planned land trust you can purchase, on behalf of the planet, ownership of the most important natural resources. A well-designed land trust will arrange protections for the purchased land such that even if the trust folds, the land will remain protected, barring a major sociopolitical collapse of the surrounding nation of course. Examples of some well-known environmental organizations that use this approach (at least in part) are the Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International.

The Land Trust Alliance coordinates the work of smaller land trusts throughout the United States. Contributing to a small, local land trust has the advantage of feeling closer to home and more tangible. However, the larger organizations named before are more able to take a global approach and direct your money towards the biodiversity hotspots, where it is needed most.

Developing nations continue to have quickly growing populations and are working hard to increase their standard of living and therefore are increasing their per-capita environmental impact. Population remains a critical, global environmental issue, so contributing to an organization working on global population policy like the United Nations Population Fund or Population Connection is also money very well spent on the planet's future.

Whichever type of organization you choose to support, the Guidestar service is a great resource for checking that they are in good financial standing.

8. Give time to an organized environmental cause     back to top

In the U.S., action on a federal level is slow. Sometimes the best way to make change happen on a national or global scale is to start locally. Starting locally demonstrates that a new habit, rule, or law works, paving the way for a federal bill. Also, Washington, DC industrial lobbyists sometimes end up standing behind federal environmental regulation when a panoply of differing, local rules make doing business across state lines complicated.

Working locally also helps to educate your neighbors. Environmental legislation in your city, county or state, or adult education through workshops, public lectures, doorbelling or advertising will make people ask questions about the environment, and will help raise awareness. By working together with a local environmental organization you will reap the benefits of networking directly with other environmentalists, and figure out ways to be effective together that are not included in this list at all.

National environmental organizations that organize local chapters include the Sierra Club and Audubon. The State PIRGs, or Public Interest Research Groups, are a network of effective, public advocacy and canvassing organizations that approach both social and environmental issues.

9. Live in the city     back to top

When you do your homework about the environment, a lot of things turn out to be a bit counterintuitive (most people are surprised that ILEA recommends plastic bags at the grocery store, for instance). One of the most profound of these counterintuitive conclusions is that living in a dense city is much more environmentally responsible than living in a bucolic, green suburb.

Buildings are more energy-efficient than detached housing. City dwellers are likely to use efficient mass transportation to commute, or may walk to work. Some are able to live without a car entirely. Large cities support the most sophisticated possible sewage treatment facilities and garbage recycling systems that smaller communities cannot afford. By purchasing or renting housing in a developed city, you are also guaranteed not to be contributing to the development of "greenfields" -? natural space that is being developed for the first time to support suburban sprawl. A few urban areas even offer location efficient mortgages that reward you for choosing a location that reduces environmental impact.

For a fabulous, deeper take on this topic by an accomplished writer, read David Owen's essay Green Manhattan.

10. Vote     back to top

The United States is a powerful nation and the environmental policies that our leaders set affect the rest of the world both by force and by example. There may be no single more important environmental action you can take, than to participate in our democracy as an environmentalist. ILEA strongly suggests you vote every election cycle. Always consult your local chapter of the League of Conservation Voters beforehand, to find out about candidates' environmental records.

Environmental legislation has been especially hampered by industrial interests that have undue lobbying power in political settings, because they finance elected officials' successful election campaigns. Any work you do to promote campaign finance reform is also work for the environment. If you are interested in getting involved in this issue, ILEA recommends beginning by visiting the website of opensecrets.org.

[1] Todd Litman, Evaluating Transportation Land Use Impacts, Victoria, BC: VTPI2002.

[2] U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy 2001, DOE/EIA-0384(2000) p. 199.

[3] Lower estimate from Diana Deumling, Mathis Wackernagel, and Chad Monfreda, Eating Up the Earth: How Sustainable Food Systems Shrink Our Ecological Footprint, Oakland, CA: Redefining Progress 2003. Higher estimate from: Brower, Michael, and Warren Leon, The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice From the Union of Concerned Scientists, New York, NY: Three Rivers Press 1999, Table 3.3.

[4] U.S. Department of State, Overfishing: A Global Challenge, Washington, DC.: U.S. Department of State 2003, Economic Perspectives Vol. 8 No. 1.

[5] Deumling, Wackernagel & Monfreda.

[6] United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1998, New York: Oxford University Press 1998, p. 4.