Three Things Anyone–including you–Can Do to Help the Environment

David Brower

Somedays I feel like the task is too great, the struggle too demanding. A report about new–or decades old–toxins in the air and water; the count of 180 invasive species in the Great Lakes; the latest disturbing data on a warming planet; or just one more patch of litter along my favorite river; all of it can get me down.  And when I look to our leaders for solutions, I see partisan squabbling, or a newspaper devoid of any story at all about the environment.  “And what can one person do anyway?” I ask myself.  Perhaps I’ll just have a beer and turn on the hockey game. Then I thought some more, and my internal optimist reminded me of three things anyone–and everyone–can do.  None of them are difficult.  So, have hope and take action to:  1) Engage locally; 2) Join up (inter)nationally; and 3) Make contact.

1.  Engage Locally.  We all live in a place, and most of us have made some connection to nature there. Celebrate that place, and take steps to get out in it, and care for it. I came of age along the Shiawassee River, and I am fortunate to live again in its watershed.  It’s not a trout stream, most of its landscape has been logged, farmed, or otherwise developed, and it’s suffered some abuse and neglect.  Still, it harbors an amazing diversity of plant and animal life, it has a special beauty that changes with the seasons, the water is clear and clean most of the time, and it’s the natural feature most accessible to where I live.

I feel an affinity for the natural place that defines my home, and I act on this natural connection by belonging to the Friends of the Shiawassee River.  It’s like hundreds of other small, place-based conservation groups, and my membership and my volunteer efforts make a difference.  My guess is that giving a little bit of your treasure and time for a group active in your home place would be a big help too.

More than 100 volunteers come out for an annual river clean-up

Conservation change begins with environmental awareness, and this often proceeds from a connection to a specific piece of nature.  If we strengthen place-based organizations, they can help increase the number of earth-minded citizens.  Sometimes this is easier with iconic natural landmarks.  As we travel, we often search out the local non-profit that works to protect the resource, the region, or the park, we have come to appreciate.  Join; they always appreciate the support, and its nice to get a newsletter or email a few months later that reminds you of your outdoor adventure.

One tip: add a little bit extra to your donation to groups that have programming for children.  As numerous surveys and personal anecdotes reveal, many of the adults working now, as either professionals or volunteers, to save nature were engaged in the out-of-doors as youth.  For me it was Fernwood in southwest Michigan.  So, your contribution to a nature center, summer camp, or other education program might be an investment in a future conservation leader.

2. Join an (inter)national organization.  Local groups help connect people to nature, but it’s the “big green” environmental groups that currently are leading the conservation charge.  I was starting my teens when the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act were adopted, so I grew up expecting the federal government to be the leader in protecting the environment.  That is no longer the case, as big government has succumbed to over-reach and a loss of support.  Perhaps just as well, as the solution to many of our environmental challenges cannot be solved by regulations.  Rather, they require innovative solutions that bring together many stakeholders.

Non-governmental organizations (NGO) are much more nimble, purposeful, and creative than federal or even state entities in tackling complex issues like preserving privately-owned open space, reducing water pollution that comes from farms and cities, engaging indigenous populations that live near endangered species, mobilizing citizen scientists to identify pollution sources, or working with large corporations to promote sustainability programs.  They also often provide the policy ideas and political leadership to reform or support the governmental programs that are still necessary to make significant and lasting change.

As independent as they are, the work of any nonprofit is extended by the number of members and the amount of supporters who sign-on to their efforts. I choose to support The Nature Conservancy because they are driven by science, are pragmatic, and work both in my landscape as well as around the globe.  But the wonderful thing about green NGOs is that they come from many diverse perspectives and take a variety of approaches to solving environmental challenges.  Some work quietly to protect hunting and fishing habitat; others are confrontational and bring our attention to new or severe problems; some care about beautiful animals in exotic locations; or they work hard to protect the health of disenfranchised people at home or abroad.  Put your name behind the one that appeals to your values, your politics, or your model of change.

One tip:  Join more than one organization. In the early 1980s, I had the chance to hear David Brower speak.  He had been the controversial head of the Sierra Club in the 1960s and then had gone on to start the Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters.  A questioner tried to entice him to name the “best” environmental group by asking him which group to join.  I still remember his answer.  “Join as many as you can” he said, noting that the more supporters each group had, the more powerful they would be as an advocacy group.  I took his advice, and last year when receiving the Oak Leaf Award from The Nature Conservancy, they noted that my involvement had begun in 1983 with a $10 membership.

3.  Make Contact with your legislator, at any level. David Brower was the personification of the environmental activist, and led several efforts to pass environmental protection efforts.  But his work was bi-partisan, and he did not act alone.  Earth Day, first held in 1971, was evidence of the wide-spread, grass-roots conservation efforts of the day.  Yes, there were “radicals” involved, but there were also bird-watchers, scientists, anglers, campers, gardeners, and representatives of all political points of view.  Richard Nixon signed into law the Clean Water Act, and numerous Republican legislators and Governors, starting with Theodore Roosevelt, have been advocates for land preservation and other environmental advances.

President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite National Park

Sadly, green issues have become too partisan in recent years, both because of politically-correct Democrats and anti-science Republicans.  This is not good for either party, and certainly not good for the cause of conservation.  We need to re-build an advocacy for the environment that is not captive to campaign spending, political commentators, or party organizing.  Perhaps the best way we–as individuals–can do this is to take a non-partisan stand on environmental issue we care about.

Again, it does not matter what moves you:  loss of the rainforest in Indonesia, protection of the Great Lakes from asian carp, additions to a national park, mercury in our air or water, or any number of other issues.  If you join an environmental group, they will likely alert you to important governmental issues, or you can research a topic on the internet.  But send an email, or write, or say something in person.  Too many of our legislators both at the state and federal level don’t think voters care about environmental issues; communication from their constituents will convince them otherwise.

One tip:  make your message to an elected representative both personal and relevant to the geography you share.  Hitting “send” on a pre-packaged email can be helpful, but not as powerful as a message that contains your specific experience.  Tell your representative about your kayak trip or fishing success as you ask them to protect clean water.  Recount your meaningful family camping trip as you advocate for more funding for parks.  Nature is central to our lives, and we need our advocacy to come from that deep part of ourselves that connects to place.

Beer and Hockey.  The three steps outlined above are not difficult.  We live in places, our online era makes it easy to find conservation groups, and our legislators really do want to hear from real constituents.  If more of us took these three actions, we could re-awaken an era of environmental activism  that would genuinely reflect where we live, what we do, and what we know.  It really doesn’t take much time or effort.  And we don’t have to give up beer and hockey.  It turns out the Natural Resources Defense Council (another effective NGO) has partnered with about 50 breweries in a “Clean Water, Great Beer” campaign, and the National Hockey League has launched NHL Green to fight climate change.  Both of these are part of growing corporate sustainability efforts and are symbols of how business is now also among the vanguard of environmental protections efforts.  If we all do our part . . . .

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