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The Most Effective Thing You Can Do For The Environment, As Told By Activists

By Emma Loewe

You've cut down on electricity, joined a food co-op, invested in reusable everything, and even started composting. But reading the headlines ("Miami has its hottest month ever!" "The Gulf of Mexico is in danger!" "Antarctica is melting!") makes you eager to do more.

If you're looking to enact sustainable change on a larger scale, it's time to start getting vocal. Here, leading environmental activists and activist organizations share what they see as the most effective ways to take action:

1. Make a personal change first.

One of the most effective actions I have done is also one of the simplest because it was a commitment to nobody but myself. In this modern era, it's so easy to jump on a plane to give a talk or attend a conference—and of course we all want to visit our distant families and friends. But after I learned that a couple of domestic flights can add more CO2 to the atmosphere than is saved by an entire year of vegetarianism (something I also advocate), I decided to give up domestic air travel, except in the case of a family emergency.

These days, I give talks via Skype and travel by train or electric car to see family and friends. Even choosing to give up a single flight annually makes a huge difference. Start with that, then begin talking about this publicly by contacting the leadership of the airlines to push for more efficient, sustainable travel options.

Jenny Kendler, environmental artist

2. Stay engaged and fully present.

Activism means different things to many people. For some, it means marching in the street. For others, it's posting something on social media or raising money for a cause. What's important is that we are making an effort to engage. Engage in your relationships by having a conversation and really hearing the other side. Engage in your home by making decisions that reduce your carbon footprint. Engage in your community by calling your mayor and telling him or her you want to see climate action in your city.

—Sara Thomas, director of activism and outreach for the World Wildlife Fund

3. Propose a new way to increase awareness.

One of my greatest accomplishments thus far has been meeting with my senator and proposing the idea of a new holiday for our state: Plastic Pollution Awareness Day. Together, we proclaimed this day throughout Georgia on February 15, 2017, and it was covered on CNN, local new stations, in newspapers, magazines, and other outlets. Hundreds of thousands of people got to better appreciate what single-use plastics are doing to our Earth.

Hannah Testa, 14-year-old activist

4. Do more than just show up.

I had this incredible experience working with Dorothy Cotton at college, who was Martin Luther King Jr.'s right-hand woman in the civil rights movement. She shared a story about "The March" of 1963. "Everyone always wants to talk about 'The March,'" she told me. "But it wasn't about the March; it was about the education—what was happening behind the scenes." She clarified her point further by emphasizing that the 250,000 or so people who came to march had all been educated and trained—trained to be activists, leaders, and disrupters in their own communities. The March was just the convergence of all of these moments and pockets of education.

That really stuck with me, particularly as I started to go to Powershift, which was the first place that really taught me how to lobby my state legislators. It was the first effort that really felt coordinated. That's powerful, and one thing that I realize we're missing in most of our "marches" of today. People come to hold signs, but they're not learning about what can really make a difference: showing up, sitting face-to-face with your legislators, looking them in the eye, and handing over your ideas for solutions so that your representatives represent you.

Summer Rayne Oakes, author and environmental entrepreneur

5. Join a group, or form your own.

The most effective climate actions WE ACT has undertaken has been developing, in 2007, a 40-member, (in 19 states) Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change to unify a grass-roots voice in Washington, D.C., on federal climate policy. Also organizing 400 northern Manhattan residents to develop a northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan focused on energy security, emergency preparedness, and social hubs.

—Peggy Shepard, co-founder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice

6. Be persistent.

Many politicians are very good at saying one thing when asking for votes but doing another once inside the state capital. The key to climate progress is watchdogging governors and state legislators, reaching out directly via phone calls and in-office visits, making sure to thank them for progress, and holding them accountable if they side with polluters.

—Travis Proulx, communications director of Environmental Advocates of New York

7. Walk the walk.

For me the most effective action I've taken is leading by example and not being a hypocrite. There are few things that turn me off more than hearing someone tell me what to do, and then seeing them do the opposite. Following my own word closely, and demonstrating a positive way forward has proved far more beneficial than telling anyone what to do. And definitely doing it with a smile on my face, rather than a scowl has made people who you might not have expected to care end changing their own actions for the better.

Rob Greenfield, activist and adventurer

8. Educate and inspire the next generation.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Mandela’s words have long guided my personal, professional, and activism paths. I believe that the single most effective step we can take as climate activists is to educate the next generation, to build our movements, to grow stakeholder collectives, to cultivate changemakers, to sustain action. And I’ve found that showing up on campuses to speak with, listen to, and learn from students is where it all begins. I began this journey as an activist at 13—and there’s no reason we cannot and should not inspire, educate and mobilize from the youngest of ages in every community, beginning today. 

Erin Schrode, environmentalist

Want to start taking more green action in your own life? Here are a few promises you can make to the planet right now. Plus, the most important changes you can make—ranked by effectiveness.

Read this article on Mind Body Green!


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