The Single Best and Single Worst Thing We Can Do To Affect The Environment


Let’s face it; Planet Earth is in trouble.  Since 1991, the amount of heavy precipitation has significantly increased, and, in the American Northeast, Midwest, and upper Great Plains, there has been 30% more heavy rain than the 1901-1960 average.  This extra precipitation increased flood damage, reduced summer water availability, and strained sewage systems.  Disasters worsened by climate change, such as Typhoon Haiyan in Thailand (the strongest tropical cyclone in history), and the recent California wildfires have caused countless deaths and cost the international community $2.4 trillion.  Air pollution has reached levels simply unhealthy in which to live, causing increased rates of asthma, and has been linked to many deaths.

While climate change poses an existential threat to the human race, people don’t always seem to care, or to link their daily actions – such as failing to recycle and using energy-inefficient vehicles - to environmental problems.  The next generations will inherit these looming disasters.

So what can anyone do, especially a teenager like me, or someone even younger, to make things better, and what should we try to avoid doing, if we want to make positive changes for the environment?

I asked Kurt Teichert, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies at Brown University and the Associate Director of Brown’s Center for Environmental Science, what he thought was the single worst, small thing my generation might do that would further harm the environment.

Professor Teichert didn’t even blink.        

“Being complacent,” he said. 

Professor Teichert, a man roughly the same age as my parents, then made a very interesting point: the older generation bears a responsibility to give the next generation the tools to solve the mammoth problems they will face when their elders are gone. 

He said, “We [the older generation] can’t get away with saying ‘you’re apathetic, there’s no way we can reach you.’  On the other hand, we need you [the next generation] to step up and be entrepreneurial and take the initiative … and question the way things are.”

Other experts and observers agree that the worst thing my generation and those who come after me can do is to remain complacent about and ignorant of environmental problems and solutions.  Martha Nowlan, Our Task’s Deputy Director and a recent graduate of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, believes the simplest action the next generations can undertake that will cause the greatest harm to the environment is to “stay ignorant about the issues that plague the Earth.”   She believes, along with Teichert that “inaction and acceptance of the inevitability of destruction, or not being proactive, will have a huge negative impact on the environment.”

Hana Fisher, my fellow intern at Our Task, is pursuing a degree in Biology at the University of Virginia.  She observes complacency in other college students about the environment, and believes that many of her peers don’t think that their actions could make a dent in the environmental crisis.

“When I get mad at my friends for not turning off the lights or something like that, they tell me that if one person does one small, unsustainable, thing, it won’t make any difference.  I tell them that if every person turns off the lights, then it will make a big difference.” 

So if the smallest things the next generations can do that would make the biggest negative impact on the environment are all passive: complacency, ignorance, and feeling helpless, what are the little things the next generation can do that would make the biggest positive impact on the environment?

According to Professor Teichert, “It’s always reducing energy demand.  It’s just finding ways that aren’t inconvenient - you don’t have to have any less mobility, you don’t have to have more uncomfortable temperatures and things like that, but there are always things that can be done that take better advantage of wind and sun and light.”  

Professor Teichert believes transportation choices constitute one convenient way the next generation can make a collective positive impact.

Like what?  

Carpooling or taking the subway, for example. Jens Borken-Kleefeld, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis explained that, "Traveling alone in a large car can be as bad for the climate as flying, but driving with three in a small car could have an equally low impact as a train ride.”

Many younger people get it, now, and have begun to make more sustainable transportation choices, as evidenced by the profusion of bike shares and Zip cars across the country.  Professor Teichert said, “I think we’re already seeing that shift in [the next generation] – less demand for cars, more interest in walkability and cycling and things like that.”

Not only should young people make energy-efficient transportation choices, Teichert said, they should also advocate for them; advocacy represents the ladder rung after complacency and action, the one thing we most need to do.

Martha Nowlan agrees.  She believes the next generation must spread the word about environmental issues and solutions that occur on the individual level.  According to Nowlan, the best thing that the individual can do is to be “competent and knowledgeable about the problems our society faces.”

Depressing as it is to acknowledge that our world may not continue, or will be constrained by our choices, all of these experts are right; we must acknowledge and confront environmental issues, in large ways and small, and talk about what we see, know, and do.  I find hope in Hana Fisher’s prescription.  One small change may not seem like much.  But compounding small changes, which lead to larger ones, might be humanity’s most effective weapon against global climate disaster.  As Helen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”


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