Ask What You Can Do For Your Planet?
With the environment in crisis, are there individual and collective actions that can make a difference? Our experts offer their thoughts.
Last year was the second warmest on record, government agencies found. Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than at any point in at least 800,000 years, according to the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists website. Human activities—what we drive, how we produce energy, what we eat, how we use land—are fueling record amounts of anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gases. For anyone concerned about climate change and other significant threats to the environment, such as plastics in our rivers and oceans, or deforestation, the mantra is act, act, act. But what exactly can you do as one person, or as one group, to have the most impact?
“That’s the really dire question,” says Jonathan Wilson, Haverford College chair of environmental studies and an associate professor who teaches the environmental studies major’s introductory course “Case Studies in Environmental Issues.” This is the department’s central role, he says: to prepare students for this type of thinking.
Haverford magazine reached out to alumni working in a host of environmental spaces, to the environmental studies department, and the College’s arboretum director for ideas on specific actions—both individual and collective—that they think can make the most difference. While there is no single cure-all, these experts offer plenty of possibilities. Here are some:
In the United States, transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution at nearly 29 percent—and within that sector, cars are the worst offenders, contributing nearly 60 percent, notes Jeremy Martin ’90, director of fuels policy and senior scientist in the Clean Transportation Program at Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, D.C. The goal, he says, is to use less oil, thereby reducing greenhouse gases from this major fossil fuel needed to make gasoline.
Individual Action: Buy an electric vehicle.
“The importance of electric vehicles has grown enormously,” Martin says. (EVs include plug-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles, and fuel cell technologies.) And costs are falling. By 2025, Martin expects that we will see prices approach parity between electric vehicles and conventional ones.
EVs are the least polluting choice today and are getting cleaner over time as renewable power generation grows, according to the UCS report “Fueling a Clean Transportation Future.” Top models, Martin says, include Tesla’s more affordable Model 3, the Toyota Prius Prime, the Chevy Bolt, and the Nissan Leaf.
“My goal is to have half of all new car sales be EVs by 2030,” Martin says.“That’s ambitious but achievable.”
Collective Action: Get involved politically.
Martin suggests supporting groups that advocate for EV policies such as the Zero-Emission Vehicle regulation, known as ZEV.
Managed by the California Air Resources Board, ZEV requires automakers to sell a certain number of electric cars and trucks in California, where the program launched in 1990, and in 10 other states that have adopted it. (Those states are Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.) ZEV has helped make EVs more widely available, he says, adding that “the evidence is clear that the standard works.”
Last year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, revoked California’s ability to require ZEVs and set more stringent fuel-efficiency standards. The state, along with 22 others, has filed suit challenging the decision.
Climate change is having a devastating impact on the global ocean, says Jason Patlis ’85, recently appointed president and CEO of the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, Conn., and the former executive director of the Global Marine Conservation Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. While the public is generally aware of the threat of rising sea levels to our coastal infrastructure and communities, and the effects of warming ocean temperatures on coral reefs and other species, what’s less known, says Patlis, is the fundamental chemical change taking place. As we have produced more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the ocean has absorbed about 25 percent of it. And carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater to form carbonic acid, which changes the pH level of the ocean to make the ocean more acidic. As a result, the ocean is 30 percent more acidic than it was at the start of the industrial era.
“Ocean acidification is eroding the foundation of the food web, by affecting zooplankton, shellfish, and coral reefs, which are the basic building blocks of marine ecosystems,” says Patlis.
Individual: Eat less red meat.
The crisis facing the ocean is a direct result of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. So the biggest action we can take is to reduce our own contributions to these emissions. “Raising livestock is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, up to 15 percent by some estimates,” Patlis says. “If we can commit to eating lower on the food chain and particularly eating less red meat, we can make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Collective: Educate the next generation.
“If there is one word that provides an answer, it is education,” he says. The goal: “educating the next generation to become stewards of the planet for the planet’s survival.”
One of the best sources, it turns out, is the local aquarium. “Aquariums are among the most trusted sources for environmental information,” Patlis says. “That’s a role we need to really assume and explore and promote.”
Globally, energy production from fossil fuels contributes to more than half of carbon emissions, what scientist Seth Darling ’97 calls “the 20-billion-ton gorilla in the room.”
“We have to shift from carbon sources to renewables,” says the director of the Center for Molecular Engineering at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill.
To truly make an impact, Darling says, requires market incentives, such as carbon taxes (a fee placed on the burning of fossil fuels). The generated revenue can then be used to subsidize green energy conversion for low-income households, he argues.
“The changes that are needed to deal with climate disruption are massive,” Darling says. “It’s a global-scale challenge.”
Still, individuals and communities can make a difference.
Individual: Drive and fly less.
“This is an area where an individual can have a serious impact,” he says. “At the individual scale, it’s hard to change how energy is produced. But transportation involves a lot of individual-scale actions, whether it’s choosing to drive your own car or choosing to fly—or not.”
Collective: Establish a mini solar farm.
Putting solar panels on your own home is not an option for everyone, says Darling. A much bigger impact would come from “a neighborhood of people investing in a mini solar farm on a vacant lot.” Once the space is converted, the people who contributed reap the energy benefits. Find information on community solar options, with links to additional resources, on the website of the Solar Energy Industries Association.
The current environmental challenges demand “durable, long-term changes in our lifestyle,” according to Kate Irvine ’86, senior researcher in environment, well-being, and sustainable behavior at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland.
One popular way to assess lifestyle choices on the environment is by measuring your carbon footprint, she says. (The EPA offers a household calculator.) The next step is to make adjustments.
Individual: Start or join a carbon-reduction action group.
This type of small group intervention—six to eight people who meet regularly to discuss ways to reduce their impact on the environment—has proved effective in the United Kingdom and Netherlands, research shows.
“The [groups] provide a structure to look at your transportation, look at your energy use, look at your food use, look at your other waste,” Irvine says.
By focusing on multiple behaviors across multiple areas of one’s life, such groups can help bring about long-term changes in habits. “What’s really powerful about them,” she says, “is that they provide you a supportive environment to engage in small experiments and learn from and build on one another’s experiences.”
Collective: Get to know your neighbors.
Neighbors coming together to address climate change can lead to more resilient neighborhoods, Irvine says. In her research in Scotland, she has found communities that have planted vegetable gardens to avoid importing food long distances and have organized groups of children who bike to school in a parent-led caravan, rather than travel by car or bus. Along with connecting community members, such actions can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions alongside addressing other environmental issues.
Every time it rains in Philadelphia, plastic bottles, chip bags, Styrofoam and other trash items enter storm drains and end up in the lower tidal Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers on the way to the Atlantic Ocean, says Chloe Wang ’17, river programs coordinator for the 45-acre Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia. It is a problem that plagues many urban waterways.
“Many rivers are sources of drinking water,” Wang says. “We actually depend on them. There is a whole ecosystem in and around rivers that also depends on the water and habitat in various ways.” In addition, waterways offer recreation, food (via fishing), and simple enjoyment.
“We’re all connected,” she says, “through the water.”
Individual: Limit the use of single-use plastics.
While recycling helps, avoiding plastics in the first place goes further to protect the marine environment, Wang says.
Aquatic life can get harmed when animals ingest or get tangled in plastics. Less known is that PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, toxic manmade chemicals) and oil can stick to plastic, contaminating fish and ultimately the human diet.
“Plastics are used in so many disposable products, but they are extremely slow to break down,” Wang says. “So plastics are a huge source of aquatic pollution that just keeps building up.”
Collective: Join an environmental advocacy organization.
Advocacy groups such as Riverkeeper networks throughout the country can help people learn about policies and regulations that affect local water quality, identify ways to improve environmental practices, and advocate for changes.
“There’s more power in numbers,” she says.
Worldwide, animal agriculture accounts for about 15 percent of anthropogenic, or human-caused, greenhouse gases, says Chris Schlottmann ’02, co-author of the 2018 book Food, Animals, and the Environment: An Ethical Approach.
The practice of raising livestock also is one of the largest users of land, threatening biodiversity, adds the clinical professor of environmental studies at New York University. It also consumes vast amounts of water.
“Pick your environmental issue… and you end up seeing animal agriculture showing up high on the list of contributing harm there,” Schlottmann says. “It has a pretty big footprint on everything.”
Individual: Transition to a plant-based diet.
Going vegan overnight might be too overwhelming for some. Change your diet for one or two meals, he suggests. As more people made that choice, demand for animal agriculture would drop. “Transitioning to plant-based agriculture could happen much more quickly than transitioning to a lower-carbon electrical grid,” he says. “Those are multi-decade infrastructure upgrades.”
Collective: Advocate for policies that limit animal agriculture.
Schlottmann points to Meatless Mondays, which started as a pilot program in some New York City public schools and spread to the entire district last fall.
“In the last two years, we saw the scaling up of a plant-based diet that [now] applies to one million schoolchildren,” he says.
Eileen Crist ’82, author of the 2019 book Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization, paints a grim, urgent picture regarding Earth’s biodiversity. It is collapsing, she says. And climate change is making matters worse.
“We’re changing the face of the planet and turning it into a domesticated manor, filled with humans and livestock,” says Crist, who recently retired as an associate professor in the department of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech University.
Crist points out that 40 percent of the ice-free world is devoted to food production and within that, 30 percent to animal agriculture, displacing the habitat of wild animals. Wild fish stocks, too, are being over-exploited or depleted. “We’ve eaten up the ocean,” she laments. (According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report, surveyed wild animal populations have declined by more than 50 percent on average since 1970.)
Large-scale protection of the natural world is essential, Crist argues. “There’s a lot that needs to be done,” she says. “It’s important to remember no one thing is enough.”
Individual: Do not have any children, or no more than one child.
The population of the world is at 7.8 billion, having seen exponential growth since the Industrial Revolution, Crist says, and is headed to a whopping 11 billion by the end of the century.
“The global middle class is growing and growing incredibly rapidly,” she says, adding that half the population is middle class. “This is viewed as a good thing, because you’ve escaped poverty.”
But with respect to biodiversity and the planet’s health, not so much. As people gain a better standard of living, they eat higher on the food chain and have more resources to acquire consumer goods—both of which can pose harm to the environment, she says.
Millennials who belong to groups such as Birthstrike are refusing to have children because of the ecological crisis, Crist points out. “If we want to bring down the impact on the planet,” she says, “there has to be fewer of us.”
Collective: Support funding of family planning.
Crist says family planning is especially important in developing nations, and part of that effort needs to include support of education for girls.
“If you incentivize girls to stay in school through secondary education,” she says, “the number of children they have drops dramatically.”
Clearly carbon dioxide is a major culprit in climate change and global warming, and trees are one of the best antidotes, says Claudia Kent, director of Haverford’s campus arboretum.
Trees have many benefits, and at the forefront is trapping the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, thereby helping to cool the planet, she says. Trees also offer shade, provide habitat to diverse species, prevent soil erosion, and reduce water runoff.
“We wouldn’t be able to live without trees,” Kent says.
Individual: Plant a tree.
“Planting trees is one of the best things you can do to help the planet,” she says. “Even if you plant one, it’s better than nothing.”
Kent emphasizes that diversity is important and notes that arboretum plant sales, such as the one the College holds in the spring, often offer a wide choice of native species. “If everyone plants only one thing and that species gets a disease, that disease will wipe out the whole block,” she says.
Collective: Join a community group.
Shade tree committees, for one, advocate for trees in local communities. Organizations such as the Arbor Day Foundation support planting trees in communities around the country.
“The more people you can get out to plant trees,” Kent says, “the better.”
Also a positive move: Donating to reforestation efforts going on around the globe.
The chemicals—hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—used as coolants in refrigerators may not make the front page in the climate change war, but Wilson of Haverford’s environmental studies department argues that they can have a huge impact on the environment.
Even though HFCs represent only a small percentage of greenhouse gases, the impact on global warming can be many, many more times that of carbon dioxide per unit of mass, he explains. They also remain in the atmosphere for a very long time—up to 29 years, according to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.
“One pound of refrigerant,” Wilson says, “is equal to 1,000 pounds or more of carbon dioxide. If you want to do something now that’s going to reduce the
climate change impact over the next decade, prevent refrigerants from getting into the atmosphere.”
“If you throw away a refrigerator and don’t recycle the chemicals in the refrigerator, and it has two pounds of refrigerant, that’s the equivalent of 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide you’re adding to the atmosphere,” he says.
Many communities have recycling programs. The federal government’s Energy Star site offers suggestions.
Collective: Find the policy you’re passionate about.
Wilson says refrigerants are an issue close to his heart, but for someone else, it could be food waste. (For every three grocery bags of food purchased in the United States, one of those is wasted, he says.) Others might feel passionate about renewable energy. In Germany, for example, communities are forming energy co-ops based on renewable power, he adds.
“My advice,” Wilson says, “is open your eyes, look around you, and lend a hand.”