Environment

Five Ways You Can Help Save Life on Earth

40 years after the first Earth Day, we're still staring down the barrel of environmental catastrophe. Here are five big approaches we can take to saving life on the planet.

Forty years ago we were living in a different world. Ohio's Cuyahoga River had recently caught fire, nuclear testing had dispersed radioactive material across the West, California was reeling from a massive oil spill, Americans sputtered about their endless highways spewing leaded fumes as the country continued on a post-World War II path bent on industrializing food and farming while growing industry at all cost -- pollution and chemicals be damned.

Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, with the help of young organizer Denis Hayes, is credited with lighting the fuse of the modern environmental era on April 22, 1970 with the first Earth Day -- an event that garnered the support of an incredible 20 million Americans across the country.

Many Republicans and Democrats alike got on board. Government responded in the next few years by creating the Environmental Protection Agency and passing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act, to name a few.

Yet, four decades later, we're still staring down the barrel of environmental catastrophe. Many of those same pieces of legislation have been whittled away, and although we've made massive gains in many areas we are still faced with a global climate crisis, along with food and water systems that are being pushed to the brink, and are downright failing in many places. In a recent story, Denis Hayes recollects the first Earth Day and credits the event with embracing all people who are trying to help the planet -- in any way big or small. But, Hayes says, we need to do more. The time has come for more radical action.

So what can we do? Here's five good ideas that industrious greens in our mix are already working on -- will you join in?

1. A Clean Water Trust Fund

Most people living in the U.S. are fortunate to have clean and safe drinking water available at their tap at a very low cost. We turn on the water and it comes out, we don't have to think about where that water comes from. But what many people don't know is that our water systems are on the verge of collapse. Lurking beneath our streets are 1.5 million miles of aging pipes. Food and Water Watch reports that U.S. cities have 250,000 to 300,000 water main breaks a year and we lose one-fifth of our water through leaks and contaminate our waterways with 1.2 trillion gallons of wastewater annually.

The price tag for fixing all this is going to be big. The EPA estimates that we have a potential funding gap of $150-400 billion between projected needs and current levels of spending over the next 10 years. The New York Times reported that, "There are 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment plants in the United States that operate 100,000 major pumping stations, 600,000 miles of sanitary sewers and 200,000 miles of storm sewers, according to U.S. EPA. That system received a grade of D- from the American Society of Civil Engineers in its latest 'Report Card for America's Infrastructure.'"

One of the reasons for this is a drop in federal funding in the last few decades. In 1978, 78 percent of money for new water infrastructure projects came from the federal government, but by 2007 that number had fallen to 3 percent. Additionally the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which many communities have relied on to help keep their water clean, has also been slashed. The federal government cut spending on this program by 66 percent from 1991 to 2007.

To counter this imbalance, water advocates have been calling for the creation of federal trust for clean water -- similar to what already exists for highways and airports -- and what has been created at the state level with North Carolina's Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Ken Kirk, executive director of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) said, "Communities currently bear 95 percent of the cost of clean water, and ratepayers will continue to see increases unless they see some financial assistance from the federal government to help them fill this gap. A clean water trust fund, financed broadly by fees potentially on such things as bottled beverages, flushable products, pesticides and agricultural chemicals, and pharmaceuticals will help cities cover the staggering cost of meeting their water quality objectives."

The Government Accountability Office recently released a report looking into the various funding strategies and how it could be structured and NACWA, along with other advocates like Food and Water Watch, is calling on Congress to create legislation for a clean water trust fund.

2. Eating for the Planet

Judging from the reception of Anna Lappe's new book, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, we are more than ready to shift our consciousness when it comes to eating. Diet for a Hot Planet outlines how we can transform our diets for a sustainable planet and prevent climate change.

"A key part of the core message is that it matters how your food was made," said Lappe in an interview with AlterNet's Jill Richardson. "The less processed the foods are, of course, the less energy used to produce it. And meat, particularly that raised in factory farms is many times more carbon-intensive than produce and vegetarian sources of protein. A Cornell study found that meeting the annual dietary needs of a typical meateater in New York State requires nearly five times as much farmland as that of a plant-centered eater."

Eating lower on the food chain, eating local, knowing your farmer, skipping processed food, and buying products with minimal (or no) packaging are all helpful. Of course, we can't stop the freight train of global warming simply with personal choices.

"What we're talking about when we talk about the food and climate crisis is a system-wide failure," said Lappe. "System-wide failures need collective actions to fix them." This means greening our food infrastructure and changing our economic structure that supports agribusiness over sustainable agriculture. "We wouldn't expect individuals to personally excavate subway tunnels, purchase a fleet of fuel-efficient buses, or lay down tracks for high-speed rail," she said. "Similarly, we shouldn't expect individuals to fix our broken food infrastructure on their own. We need public investment in climate-friendly food that makes choosing locally raised, organically grown, fresh whole foods as easy as grabbing a Big Mac, fries and shake at the drive-thru."

Farm Sanctuary is one organization putting this idea into practice. Its Green Foods Campaign helps people reach out to their local governments to introduce resolutions to deal with the environmental and health impacts of the food we eat. "A Green Foods Resolution is a city or town council resolution designed to counteract the health threats, animal cruelty and massive environmental damage caused by animal agriculture by calling on citizens to eat lower on the food chain," the organization explains. "This forward-thinking legislation enables cities to take responsibility for their carbon 'foodprint' by encouraging greater access to nutritious plant-based foods, supporting local farmers markets and community gardens, and educating citizens about the health and environmental benefits of consuming more plant-based foods."

3. The Limits of Growth

Annie Leonard's hit Internet film and book, The Story of Stuff, helped to popularize research about overconsumption. And the recent book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben drives the point home even further. For decades people have been talking about the threat of overpopulation -- can our planet support so many people? When do we hit the breaking point? But in recent years, the mainstream discussion has been expanded to include the ever-pertinent addendum to the questions of population -- is the problem the number of people we have or how much we are consuming? How do we know when we've hit the limits of growth? Can we and should we stop?

President Obama, McKibben writes, said, "It's going to be an impossible task to balance our budget or even approximate it if we are boosting our growth rates." But far more troubling, McKibben contends, is our mounting ecological debt: "Growth is what we do. Who ever really dreamed it might come to an end."

But, faced with collapse, what are our options? There is another possibility, that "We might chose instead to manage our descent," he explains. "That we might aim for a relatively graceful decline. That instead of trying to fly the plane higher when the engines start to fail, or just letting it crash into the nearest block of apartments, we might start looking around for a smooth stretch of river to put it down in."

McKibben eloquently explains how "bigness" spells trouble and what we can begin to do to counter it -- an idea that is also afoot elsewhere.

Filmmaker Dave Gardner will soon be releasing the documentary, Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity, which takes on this critical question and offers an antidote for how we can become more sustainable. Already, the growth-centric ideas are being challenged on different levels with projects addressing Slow Food, Slow Money, Slow Design and the like, with communities teaming up to declare that less is more.

4. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Thinking small works well when it comes to finance, too. In recent years, people have been embracing the idea of microloans -- small investments, sometimes as little as $20, that can go a long way in helping people in some of the poorest parts of the world. One company leading the way is Oikocredit, which helps provide financing to trade cooperatives, fair trade organizations and small-to-medium enterprises in the developing world.

"As one of the world's oldest and largest international microfinance organizations, Oikocredit currently reaches 19 million poor entrepreneurs in over 70 countries with small loans that help them escape poverty," explained Terry Provance, executive director of Oikocredit’s U.S. office. "Oikocredit is also one of just a few microfinance organizations with transparency and environmental clauses, and supports fair trade cooperatives in 70 countries. Last year, Oikocredit USA -- the U.S. operation for Oikocredit International -- received over $4 million from U.S. investors."

When it comes to the environment, microfinance may be able to play a significant role. "With roughly 3.5 billion people around the world living on less than $2 a day, it is impossible for the poor to escape the cascading effects of climate change such as increasing mosquito populations and malaria, and droughts that make growing food unfeasible. Microfinance--small loans to the world's working poor--is one proven method for giving working entrepreneurs the tools they need to adapt to these changes, and to engage in sustainable practices to help minimize their impact on the environment," said Provance. "For instance, the loans allow the poor to build assets and invest in sustainable business practices that protect the environment versus exploiting it for immediate and desperate gain, such as slash and burn farming or using water-needy pesticides to grow food. The ability of microfinance to positively impact the environment increases as more people are lifted from poverty, and can provide a sturdy future for themselves."

5. A Clean Energy Future

On April 21, the Department of Energy announced it had awarded $452 million in federal grants to 25 cities and states to help with programs to create clean energy jobs. Proponents of clean energy are fighting for funding as a new climate bill is poised to hand away many millions more to nuclear and coal initiatives. Nowhere is the battle between clean and dirty energy as visible as in Appalachia -- where Big Coal reigns and the destructive practice of mountaintop removal (MTR) mining is blowing up whole ecosystems and destroying the communities around them.

But folks there have a vision for a different, cleaner future, in which the jobs are better and safer, too. Coal River Mountain is on the chopping block -- facing annihilation from a mountaintop removal mining operation run by Massey Energy (you may have heard Massey's name in the news lately after the deaths of 29 miners). But instead of seeing another mountain destroyed, locals have come up with a plan, and a damn good one, to cover those mountain ridges with wind farms.

"Set aside for a moment the many health and social ills of MTR--the toxic drainages, the dusty air, the undrinkable tap water--and still the economic argument alone for Coal River Wind is compelling," wrote Ben Jervey for GOOD. He explains:

A 2007 wind potential study found capacity for 328 megawatts of clean energy on Coal River Mountain, enough to power 70,000 West Virginian homes. The revenue would produce $1.7 million in property taxes that would benefit the local communities. That's over 50 times the $36,000-per-year that coal mining would generate in severance taxes, and the wind money wouldn't dry up when the coal runs out in an estimated 14 years. (The coal revenue itself flows immediately out of state.) A wind farm would also create at least 50 permanent jobs that also last long after the coal would disappear. Again, this isn't even to mention the external costs of public health and environmental quality.

One economic study found that by factoring in such externalities--health expenses, environmental cleanup costs and lost resources from tourism and ginseng harvesting--the Massey mines would wind up costing the community $600 million over their brief lifespans. Coal River Wind has the potential to rewrite the economics of mountaintop removal.

Faced with the enormity of our climate and energy problems, can replacing one coal mine with one wind farm make a dent in our quest for a more sustainable future? Of course! It makes a difference in the same way that investing $100 can change a family's life; in the same way that personally knowing your farmer makes a difference in your health and the health of your community; in the same way that starting one teach-in on the environment in 1970 drew 20 million people and awakened a country's consciousness.

So where will we be 40 years from now? Which road do we choose? How many people can we get to join us on that path?

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.