13 Simple, Powerful Actions That Can Save Our Planet While There Is Still Time

The following is an excerpt from the new book There Is Still Timeby Peter Seidel (360° Editions, 2015).
In 1958 I read geochemist Harrison Brown’s 1954 book, The Challenge of Man’s Future: An Inquiry Concerning the Condition of Man During the Years That Lie Ahead. It left me with much to think about, and changed the course of not only my personal but my professional life as an architect and urban planner.

Disturbed by humanity’s indifference to all of the evidence clearly showing that we are harming our planet, in 1998 I published a book that looked into this problem. Since then, environmental damage has only grown worse and major segments of our population and governments have become more resistant to doing anything significant about it.

Taking a broader look into why we do not live in harmony with our planet nor each other, I collected ideas from my reading and personal observations and organized them into a manuscript. The more I collected, the more clearly I saw our overall situation, and the more depressed I became. I began to wonder whether what I was writing would serve a useful purpose and whether it should ever be published. Knowing that some environmentalists strongly believe that we must always present a positive message to the public added weight to this thought.

After looking at all of the subjects I have covered, one could view our situation as hopeless. Unless we have passed a tipping point, it is not. While we cannot in our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren have the kind of biosphere people had a hundred years ago, by taking action soon we can do a lot to mitigate what is now threatening our future. If we halt the downward spiral we are now in by significantly reducing the burdens we are placing on the world, stop waging war on each other, share resources equitably, and recognize what really makes us happy, a smaller population can lead rewarding, enjoyable lives on Earth far into the future.
Here are 13 ways we can do this:

1. The hope of change rests on the already committed.

While needs and opportunities to improve our situation are widespread, I will confine my discussion here to what environment-minded people can do, and things that have to do with how we deal with our planet.

I have listed things that need to be done and dealt with, but the likelihood of these things happening to a meaningful extent is not good at this time. The relatively small number of people concerned about how we deal with the planet will understand the great need to do these things, however the mass of humanity and its leaders will largely ignore them or at most make inadequate efforts to deal with them. So the burden of instigating significant change rests on the few who see the gravity of our situation and are deeply committed to doing something about it. 

There are others, also concerned, who think that we are on the way to resolving our problems through constructing wind turbines and solar collectors, recycling, protecting whales, and the like. Others yet recognize that there are environmental problems, yet continue to drive their SUVs and otherwise live as they always have. Increasing the strength and efficacy of the environmental movement rests on the shoulders of the first group, those who see the seriousness of our situation and are already actively engaged. 

Difficult as it is to see the problems before us clearly and their potential solutions, it is even more difficult to achieve those solutions, especially when the effort is being spearheaded by a limited group of individuals already like Sisyphus working against great odds. But it must be done. They need to find more effective ways to arouse the rest of us. In doing so, to conserve and focus their energy, it would be well to keep Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer in mind. “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Just by joining and/or supporting groups like the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, 350.org, or the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, and actively participating in and supporting their activities, concerned individuals can strengthen the environmental movement. Getting their friends involved or volunteering for one of them will do even more.   

2. Improve effectiveness by working together.

Environmentalists and environmental groups need to recognize that the root cause of their individual concerns, the impending extinction of polar bears, future water shortages, and climate change, for example, is human population multiplied by individual Affluence, modified by how Technology is used, as summarized by the IPAT formula. By looking for the origins of specific environmental problems, they would see that just about all of them can be explained by this formula. By recognizing this and publicly proclaiming it—as often as possible—they could more effectively aid their individual goals. Forming a worldwide association of environmentally concerned organizations would help them all pursue their causes and strengthen the whole environmental movement. Environmentalists constructively working together in this way worldwide would be a responsible alternative to the shameful example of world political leaders focusing on narrow national interests, disregarding the overall good of humanity and our planet.

In their current weak position, environmentalists have little effect on who runs governments. Nonetheless, they can prepare the ground for the time it becomes possible to deal with this problem. Inspiration can be found in the group of professors at Freiburg University in Germany opposed to the Nazis known as the Freiburg Circle. The group was made up of economists at the university led by Adolf Lampe, the husband of a distant relative of mine. Meeting in secrecy in the dark days of the Third Reich, they formulated a postwar economic program, the Social Market Economy (Sozialen Marktwirtschaft), which played a major role in the German economic recovery after 1945. Although my relative’s husband, Adolf Lampe, died in 1946, the result of torture by the Gestapo, Conrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor of Germany, and Ludwig Earhart, his Minister of Economics, carried out the group’s plan, which led to the German “Wirtschaftswunder” (Economic Miracle) in the years that followed. Today, environmentalists can discuss possibilities among themselves, write articles and books, use the Internet in every way they can, and have conferences. They should devise and publicly propose alternatives to what governments are currently doing and how tax systems function. This work today would provide the spark that could make widespread discussion and action on this subject possible in the future, and lead the world to better informed, cooperative, more forward-thinking leadership. 

Applying economic pressure by divesting funds and boycotting have become effective tools for bringing about change; they have worked with apartheid in South Africa, for example. Agreeing on everything may not always be possible for all groups seeking to protect the environment and/or establish greater justice and equity between people, nevertheless an organized global environmental movement utilizing these tools would have some direct global impact, and in addition draw attention to businesses significantly contributing to environmental problems such as Exxon and McDonald’s. These companies would not like the orchestrated publicity they would get from such campaigns. An easy way for individuals to divest is to transfer their assets to an ethically responsible investment fund.

Learning from the advertising business and political campaigns, in a unified effort environmentalists around the world should repeatedly point out the obvious to the public, such as the fact that unending economic growth is an oxymoron that can only lead to catastrophe, and that we are already overpopulated and must work to restrain population growth and then reverse it. 

An organized environmental movement would present opportunities that individual groups do not have to draw world attention to critical situations and present solutions. For example, a world conference on human well-being and happiness backed by all environmentalists and their organizations would be difficult for the world media and politicians to ignore. I believe that other organizations and individuals would eagerly join in to support this. Critical topics could be addressed by well-known, respected individuals. Personalities such as Ban Ki-moon, Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, and the King of Bhutan should see this as an opportunity to present their thoughts to the world. Other important thinkers and theologians of all religions could also be asked to participate. The problems of greed for power and wealth, and unflinching national interests over world welfare could be discussed by highly respected psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists, and neuroscientists, as well as ethicists and theologians. The questions of what brings real happiness and why unlimited economic growth cannot work on a finite planet would comprise an important part of such an event.

The newly formed environmental movement should urge members who belong to professional organizations of psychologists and psychiatrists to get these groups to hold events discussing the motivations that drive people to strive for positions of wealth and power that have nothing to do with real human happiness. Results of such investigations should be published widely and brought before the public, so that it can see these individuals for what they really are.

3. Create a new milieu.

The American public is constantly bombarded with the idea that the free market and perpetual economic growth are essential to create jobs and resolve our economic problems. This has established a public mindset that needs to be challenged and changed. Repeatedly presenting easy-to-understand, irrefutable reasons why pursuing these goals is dangerous in today’s environmentally threatened world can make it clear that this is not working, and is taking us on a road to serious trouble. Environmentalists need to make it clear to the public that unlimited population and economic growth are simply impossible in a limited space. They must also demand alternative ways to manage the economy, point out specific cases of irrational thinking, and insist that governments, the media, and the public look for root causes and connections.

International cooperation does not come easy to many of the highly ambitious individuals who hold positions of power. However, cooperation and accommodation are essential for dealing with climate change and the preservation of life in the world’s oceans. Making the truth of these facts and the limitations of our planet clear to most people, and learning from the advertising industry again by repeating them strongly and regularly, should help lead to a new milieu based on reality. It would also provide a receptive setting for environmentalists to present their individual causes in—as well as further world peace. The environmental movement should keep pounding home the facts that to resolve our problems we need to look at the whole, see time as ongoing rather than just the few years ahead, and be mindful of our responsibility to those who follow us.

4. Press for replacing the GDP indicator.

Events such as the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda to improve global well-being present an opportunity for environmentalists to present critical ideas to the world public. For example: 1. Relying on economic growth to solve all our economic problems is a road to catastrophe; 2. Using the Gross Domestic Product indicator (which includes the costs of producing environmental damage, cleaning it up and the medical problems resulting from it, etc.) as a goal for human well-being is both nonsensical and dangerous; 3. Evidence shows that accumulating more money and goods beyond a point does not increase happiness. 

Organizing a worldwide conference of notable environmentalists and sympathetic economists calling for a replacement for the GDP as an indicator would provide a tempting feast of subjects for the media, encourage public discussion, and get people to think. It is probably too late for world environmentalists to set up an umbrella organization and organize a conference before the UN’s goals are set in 2015, nevertheless there is an opportunity here to present rational, indisputable ideas that should not be missed. Sensible alternatives to the GDP have been presented and should be looked at, for example: the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI); the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW); and the Kingdom of Bhutan’s goal to achieve Gross National Happiness (GNH).

5. Spread the word.

While the widespread organization of the environmental movement is taking place, there are other things that can be done. The movement can expand its impact by awakening and gaining support from those who mistakenly believe we are now on the path to sustainability, and hopefully from some of the now blasé drivers of SUVs. The already committed must help these other groups understand that our earth is changing by the day, that conditions are rapidly growing worse without a clear end in sight, and that this can be reversed. As the milieu among the well-educated changes, the task of arousal will become easier and gain support. The backing of these new converts to participation would add significant power to the environmental movement.

With their help, we need to do all we can in our contacts with open-minded people to discuss environmental issues, foster clear thinking on largely ignored, easily understood ideas, draw their attention to our ecological footprints, and suggest reliable sources of information.  Many environmentally concerned individuals like myself learn and think about various problems, but fail to develop the skills needed to persuade and arouse others. Becoming good at this could be a real boost to the environmental movement. There are numerous books dealing with persuasion that can help us, including Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by Frank Luntz, and various books by George Lakoff on framing. We should also encourage people to require evidence rather than blindly follow an agenda. Environmentalists should have effective answers ready for the inevitable questions. To arouse and inspire others, we need to be prepared to speak to their emotions as well as their intellects. We should encourage those who develop an awareness of and concern for our current situation to join in and support environmental organizations they see as important, and to visit their websites and join their blogs. 

Reaching out like this can be awkward and uncomfortable at times. Wishing to retain relationships, in the past I was shy about doing this. Now that I recognize the importance of educating others, however, I carefully choose promising subjects, risk rejection, and do my best to educate people without turning them off.

Today there are many groups and individuals setting examples of how we should live, but they are not having the impact on society that they should. Good real-life examples can be powerful motivators. A widespread understanding by environmentalists of the possibilities here, and a serious effort by them to utilize this potential could influence many. For such an effort to be effective it would be important that people notice and understand the reasons behind what participants do and recognize their commitment. These efforts would have to be carefully orchestrated so that people would be moved by the dedication of the participants, and not view them as extremists or crazies.  

There are many ways for environmentalists to openly demonstrate their awareness of the dangers we face and show their resolve to do what they can to mitigate them. Where we choose to live, how we move about, what we eat and wear, and how we care for what we own can show our commitment to reducing the burdens we place on our planet. Here’s an example of what not to do. A well-known environmental organization used to hold its meetings at a central location in Cincinnati. It later moved its meetings to a remote suburban location requiring extensive driving, and in doing so accepted suburban sprawl. This is not the kind of example such an organization should present. Activists should look across the board for opportunities where they can set positive examples, and make it clear to others why they do what they do.

Environmentalists wishing to devote themselves full-time for a period of months or years to pushing the broad or a limited environmental agenda could join yet to be established groups in some ways resembling Catholic or Buddhist monastic orders. This would give interested individuals opportunities to connect to organized, promising organizations with a clear programs and techniques for expanding public awareness of the dangers we face and offering possible solutions. It would also enable them to concentrate on, and devote themselves full-time to the cause. Such groups would offer them support from like-minded individuals. The differences between such groups, such as how and where they work, would offer potential participants a broad range of opportunities.

6. Work within our own religious communities.

Religion is a powerful force in the world. Large numbers of environmentally concerned individuals belong to organized religious groups, and herein lies opportunity. While some groups ignore or see environmental problems as irrelevant, many have taken environmental problems seriously and recognized their responsibility towards the planet. They have made statements and organized conferences; nevertheless they can do better. Environmentally concerned members of these organizations have an opportunity to see that they do.

An umbrella group of environmentally oriented organizations would make it easy for members and supporters of different groups, the Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy, for example, within a particular religious denomination to connect with each other. Working together they would have a voice that would be hard to ignore and that top leaders of their religious organizations would want to listen to. They could press their religious group and individual congregations to vigorously express their concerns about the environment, and have them take strong positions on issues such as global warming and excessive consumption. Responsibilities towards our environment should be a regular topic in sermons and study groups. These kinds of actions would have an impact on many religious people, and consequently the behavior of governments.

7. Educate journalists.

Journalists are a vital bridge between reality, the public, and politicians. To do their job properly, they need to understand some fundamental things about science and be able to present a clear picture of reality to their audience. Working together, environmental groups could plan and present workshops with noted speakers directed to journalists and editors. These would broaden their knowledge on the basics and breadth of environmental problems and their root causes, and make sure that all attendees understand that science is not just another agenda, but an honest search for evidence and truth. People in the media must also be shown that presenting a knowledgeable expert paired with someone representing a special interest is not “balanced reporting,” but misleading, and therefore bad journalism. As more attention is given to climate change and other environmental problems in the media, many journalists, beyond members of the Society of Environmental Journalists (I am a member because I think their work is essential) might be eager to attend such workshops. Foundations interested in the environment must see the value in having better-informed journalists committed to passing accurate information about the environment on to their audience. They should be willing to fund such workshops generously.

8. Get scientists to speak up and educators to teach real science.

Honest, informed scientists spend their time searching for reality without being influenced by ideologies. The public needs to understand this simple fact. Many scientists work in areas related to our environment and understand what is happening today. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge and brainpower out there that needs to speak up, like James Hansen who resigned his position as the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City in order to take a more active role in the political and legal efforts to limit greenhouse gases. Already in his 70s, his arrests for protesting the TransCanada pipeline have drawn considerable attention. More scientists standing up, speaking out, and taking risks would help many people become more aware of the grim reality we are headed for. Environmentalists should find and encourage more scientists to do this.

Just as creationists have run for school boards, environmentalists should do the same and make sure that real science is taught in classrooms. An organized environmental movement would make this easier. Environmentalists involved with science should build bonds with colleges and individuals who educate teachers, and do all they can to see that those who teach science to young people truly understand what science is. Where possible environmentalists should participate in workshops for teachers.

9. Push important business leaders to broaden their concerns

Many of the rich and CEOs of major corporations live in a limited, narrow world of their own making which includes people who think like they do and generally tell them what they want to hear, and excludes individuals who could broaden their outlook and tell them things they ought to know. If business leaders were to hear the truth about our situation from respected scientists in an attractive setting like an exclusive meeting for influential decision-makers, some of them might gain an understanding of the seriousness of the situation we are facing, and see the need for change. Organizing a group of important, well-known scientists, including Nobel laureates, to present a one-day workshop, and with considerable publicity inviting important business leaders to it, would make it awkward for them to decline. Having some move to the side of the environmental movement would be a significant boost for dealing with what we face.

10. Get artists and other specialists to help.

Today many visual artists seem to be more interested in form than in intellectual content, leaving a void in social commentary. We should make a concerted effort to reach out to and encourage painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, cartoonists, composers, lyricists, and choreographers to depict environmental and social problems and show how our greed, ignorance, irrationality, and fallacious beliefs contribute to them. Artists should grasp opportunities to expose contemporary bad behavior, ignorance, and apathy, and express their own feelings and thinking regarding ways to meet the need for a better world. Honoré Daumier and Diego Rivera, and works such as The Three Penny Opera and Oliver Twist have done this in the past. As I write this, Silent Night, a powerful opera with music composed by Kevin Puts with libretto by Mark Campbell, is being performed by a number of opera companies in this country. It beautifully demonstrates the stupidity of war and the benefits of cooperation. Stories and metaphors can arouse an important part of our brain that facts and figures cannot. Information and data can leave us unmoved, but artists through their craft can give us a feel for where we are, where we are headed, and where we might go instead. 


Image: “The Legislative Belly,” political commentary by Honoré Daumier. Wikimedia Commons. Brooklyn Museum, Ella W. Woodward Memorial Fund.

Uri Hasson, assistant professor at Princeton University’s Department of Psychology and the Neuroscience Institute, uses MRI machines to observe the effect of stories on the brain. He discovered that “Stories have a very strong impact on the brain. They’re very strong stimuli that can take control over the listener’s brain.” To encourage small families, the Population Media Center of Shelburne, Vermont, uses serialized dramas on radio and television in Third World countries where characters evolve into role models for the audience to foster positive behavior change. Followup studies have shown significant reductions in family size and in the spread of AIDS among the audiences of these programs. This success needs to be extended into other media. Utilizing the power of stories, writers should be encouraged to produce novels, short stories, poems, plays, and movie scripts to develop an awareness of threats to our planet and promote solutions, as well as encourage cooperative, peaceful behavior.

We should encourage individuals with special knowledge in environmental areas—ecology, energy, or oceanography for example—to volunteer to teach adult education classes at universities and colleges near where they live. As news coverage of environmental problems increases, there should be a growing demand for such courses.

Environmentalists and individuals promoting world peace and cooperation should encourage psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and anthropologists to write popular books and articles on the minds of despots and greedy people. Discussing and dissecting what drives them and allows them to behave as they do should intellectually strip them before the public and affect their self-esteem and position as status symbols.

11. Stage dramatic events.

A dramatic event can get people thinking. In January 1971 I attended a talk about air pollution in Cincinnati. It was growing worse, and not enough was being done about it. During the talk I wondered how to get people to think about what pollution and automobile traffic would be like in the future if we continued as we were. During the question and answer period I asked if anyone there would help me work on a demonstration of what would happen if we let things get worse. A mass “drive-in” to Washington, DC, and Detroit of concerned individuals from across the nation on April 2 would show what lay ahead. A reporter called me a week later to see how my plans were going. There were none, because no one had volunteered to join me in this. Thinking quickly, I told him to call back in a couple of days. He did and I had cooked up a good story for him. The telephone next to my bed started ringing at five a.m. the next morning, first a call from the Detroit Free Press followed by other newspapers and radio stations. Letters to editors flowed in, often quite hostile, several calling me a communist. Sadly, some people didn’t get the point, although it should have gotten many people to think of what cities would be like, jammed with automobiles. Considering the harm such an event could cause by preventing emergency vehicles from getting through, I abandoned my plans well before April 2. Environmentalists should look for opportunities, dramatic or otherwise, to wake people up and get them thinking about what lies ahead of us.

12. Find other ways to dramatize important issues.

Some years ago, without success, I tried to interest a number of organizations and individuals in creating a war museum that would show the brutality of war rather than glorifying it. Such a museum could have a powerful impact on people. A group of organizations promoting this idea together would have significantly more effect than I did.          

13. Help others to recognize what we are.

Recognizing that we have not evolved sufficiently to consistently function safely in the civilization we now have, and deciding to do something about it, will enable us to better understand our predicament. Then we can move beyond our current inadequate efforts and deal effectively with our complex problems. But how to get there from where we are? We need to think about this. Here is an idea that could help. Organizing, running, and publicizing conferences with notable scholars in areas like anthropology and evolutionary psychology to discuss this problem would draw attention to it and get people thinking. 

Because facing our inadequacies could be seen as humiliating, developing such an awareness will be difficult. There will be strong resistance, including from many religious and some political groups. Although our shortcomings should be clear to anyone who looks at evidence and sees how we treat our planet and one another, some people will hate us for pointing this out. The stakes are high, so we must do this carefully so as not to offend, and when it is unavoidable bear the hate. Such an awareness, if it can be developed, would create greater modesty and willingness to examine our own behavior. Although this will be difficult to achieve, the environmental movement would be given a significant lift by it.

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