Space is an astonishing place. Black holes contain gravity so strong that even light cannot escape. Stars’ hydrogen cores burn at millions of degrees while stellar winds blow at 5.8 million miles per hour. Dark matter swirls somewhere in the depths of the universe, invisible to the eye but impacting all that exists.
Despite these remarkable pieces of the universe, the most impressive object in space’s vast expanse is not so far away. In fact, it’s the very place on which you are standing: Earth.
Scientists have spotted a galaxy 13.5 billion light years away (that’s 81,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles) yet have never discovered life anywhere besides Earth. The nearest planet that could even house life, Proxima Centauri b, is 25 trillion miles away. We will not be getting there any time soon. All of this is to say that Earth is special. It’s not like we can have our way with it and get a second try somewhere else. We have to take care of the one planet we have. As climate change grows ever more emergent, and the impending world catastrophe seems ever more inevitable, I’m here to raise awareness and answer your question: How can I help save the world?
Via Aletia. Credit: Shutterstock/NASA
The first time in my life I can recall thinking about the environment was when I was eight. A pristine summer day draped itself upon the little town of Wickford, and I was out riding my bike while my dad jogged next to me. As we came down the street we lived on, Waldron Avenue, my dad stopped. He bent and picked a crushed, filthy cup from the weeds. He paused, then disappeared farther into the overgrown grass, emerging a few seconds later with an empty chips bag and two water bottles.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Picking up trash,” was all he said.
“Because someone needs to do it. Otherwise it’ll pile up and we’ll be living in a world full of garbage.”
By the time we got home, my dad’s arms were full of junk, which he carefully separated into trash and recycling.
Since that day, I’ve become captivated by the task of preserving and saving our world. But for a long time, I was shy about it. It wasn’t cool to care about the environment. Climate change was still called global warming back then, and my brilliant peers easily debunked its authenticity by pointing out how last Friday was very cold, thus disproving the warming aspect. In middle school, my friends littered. I asked them not to and explained how my dad picked up trash off the side of the road. They only laughed harder when they threw candy wrappers into the bushes. They weren’t bad people. They were just kids who’d never been taught the difference.
Via Math Bench
In college, I tried to get my roommates to recycle.
“What’s gonna happen, one polar bear is gonna die?” joked my friend as he tossed a plastic bottle into the trash.
I sighed. Maybe he was right. Not that one polar bear would die, but that it really didn’t matter whether that bottle got recycled or not. Besides, I’d tried asking my landlord where to put our recycling and she’d said to dump it in with the trash, assuring me it would get separated later—a prospect I didn’t believe. Could my efforts really do anything? Could one person really make a difference? It was a question I toiled with for a while, and my good habits of reducing, reusing, and recycling slipped away.
A few months later, the semester ended and I drove home. I turned down Waldron Avenue, my mind far away from the fate of our planet and instead on the round of golf I was hoping to get in that afternoon. As I cruised through my neighborhood, I saw a person bent over in the weeds: my dad. Twelve years had passed, yet here he was, carrying on just the same. In that moment I finally realized the extent of my dad’s efforts and the remarkable optimism he’d held as he tirelessly worked to save our planet.
When he’d ordered my siblings and I to take shorter showers and turn off the lights, he was doing it because he wanted us to reduce our energy usage (and to save himself a few bucks, too). It wasn’t eccentricity that made him send hundreds of chip bags to a special company that would recycle them, it was foresight of knowing where they would end up otherwise. Even when that program closed during Covid-19, my dad went on saving those bags, stuffing them into empty trash bins, waiting for the moment when he could resume recycling them.
His efforts reminded me that fighting climate change is not a lost cause. The cliche is true: one person really can make a difference.
Before I offer advice about what we can do, I’d better start with why we need to act. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a gas that absorbs heat and re-releases it in all directions, including back at the Earth. Higher carbon emissions from humans means more carbon in the atmosphere, which creates a greenhouse effect. It traps the heat, limiting Earth’s ability to send the heat into space. We’ve just reached the highest carbon dioxide levels in the past 14 million years. In the last 800,000 years, the CO2 parts per million (ppm) fluctuated between 180 and 300. In 1960 that number was up to 320. Last month, it reached 421.
This means that the Earth will continue to grow hotter as it struggles to cool itself. Scientists predicted that when the Earth’s temperature rose 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial revolution levels, the Earth would experience increasingly catastrophic and potentially irreversible impacts. The current prediction says we will pass this threshold in 2027. A common misconception is that these catastrophes will be short and explosive. Rather, Earth will endure decades of worsening events that lead to extensive natural disasters, starvation, and death that will leave no place untouched.
But before you get too depressed and think, “Oh well, there’s not much we can do and it sounds like we’re screwed,” remember that some of the greatest minds in the world are at work every single day plotting ways to save us. Yes, we have rough times ahead, but life finds a way. We’re not out of it yet. If you want to make a difference and say that you helped save the Earth in one of the most perilous moments in its history, there’s still time.
So what can you do? I’ll start by disclosing that many of my ideas come from a recently released podcast on MoNews. The episode “Our secret Weapon to Fight Climate Change and Save The Planet”— an interview with award-winning photographers Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen—inspired me to write this article.
First, before anything, you must be brave and care. It’s so much easier to be a passenger. It’s so much easier to turn a blind eye and let others do the work, but if you actually want to help, you have to care. Decide that you want to be part of the solution.
Have you done that? Good, let’s move on.
Next, you need to embrace content about climate change. The more you watch and read about it, the more passionate you’ll become. Follow a few Instagram pages that remind you how beautiful the world is. The two people I mentioned on the MoNews podcast are a good place to start. Their handles are mitty and paulnicklen. Instead of watching TikTok videos for half an hour, spend that time watching a David Attenborough documentary. His choice of language and soothing voice are almost as extraordinary as the footage. Go to nationalgeographic.com and mess around for ten minutes on their website. Or while in the shower put on a podcast like Reversing Climate Change or How to Save the Planet. Once you start caring, it becomes a lot easier to make changes.
Photo by Paul Nicklen
Before I list some of the small changes you can make in daily life, I’d like you to consider one of the most important steps: DONATING. In many cases, organizations have the resources available to make an impact, but they don’t have the money. In the MoNews podcast, Paul Nicklen says that $500 million is given to charity in the U.S. every year, but “33% of that goes to religion, 15% goes to education, 11% to arts and entertainment. Go down the list, and at the very bottom, 1.8% goes to the environment.”
That needs to change. Think of donating like any old subscription, like Spotify or Netflix. Just $5 or $10 a month makes a massive difference. If you’d like to donate, here’s a useful article to help you decide where to give your money: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/12/2/20976180/climate-change-best-charities-effective-philanthropy
Even if you can’t give money, you can make small changes in your daily life.
Turn the lights off when you’re not using them. It saves energy and thus limits carbon emissions.
Turn off the water while brushing your teeth and take shorter showers. We’ve reached critical water shortages across the U.S. as droughts have become increasingly common. If you can hang out for five fewer minutes at the end of the shower, you would save around 4,000 gallons of water each year.
Don’t litter. This is one of those things you learn as a kid and you hopefully adhere to once you’re old enough to understand, but it’s worth giving the reminder. One example of what litter has done to our world is the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is a floating mass of plastic and garbage in the Pacific Ocean that covers 1.6 million square kilometers, or twice the size of Texas. Besides ruining the view, it’s killing animals. A whale that died near the Philippines in 2019 was found to have 88 pounds—88 pounds—of plastic in its stomach. It gave the whale a false sense of fullness while offering no nutrition. The plastic hardened into a congealed block and left the whale throwing up blood before eventually killing it. This is far from the only instance. Other whale deaths were meticulously documented with researchers counting dozens of plastic bags, sandals, water bottles and other items in the whales’ stomachs.
Via New York TImes. Credit: Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme
In conjunction with the previous note, pick up trash when you see it. It’s so easy to walk by litter on the ground and I’ve done it many times. No one will fault you for it. But consider what would happen if every single person walked by that empty water bottle—it would go on littering our streets for years. It takes effort to pick up trash and find a place to dispose of it, but these little actions are exactly what we need to make an impact.
Recycle. It only takes two minutes to review what is and isn’t recyclable, and the rules are simple. Be sure to adhere to your city’s guidelines. Most will generally look like this: https://www.providenceri.gov/public-works/can-put-recycling-barrel/
Try to use less plastic. If you have the option between plastic utensils or reusable ones, go reusable. Here’s the thing about plastic: it takes a long time for it to decompose, sometimes up to a thousand years. It’s a good thing plastic was only invented in 1907, because otherwise our world would be inundated in it. William Shakespeare’s plastic lunch bags would still be fluttering around the dump. Plastic might appear to be degrading, but it’s really just breaking down into smaller particles called microplastics. According to Healthy Human Life, by 2050 the total volume of plastic in the ocean will surpass that of fish.
Be conscious of who you’re voting for. Yes, both you and politicians contend with so many more issues than just climate change, but when it’s time to vote, consider if this person is willing to help our planet. Will they enforce policies to cut carbon emissions? Will they ban single-use plastics? Right now, no laws enforce what type of plastic companies can use to make products. This creates a big problem, because a plastic detergent container cannot be recycled with a plastic water bottle, which can’t be recycled with a plastic food container. This results in just 5% of plastic being recycled. What can you do about that? Well, the sad truth is not much, because on this level it is hard for an individual like you and me to make a change. But when the time comes, you can voice your opinion by voting for someone who will help solve these problems.
Eat less meat. Okay, this is a hard one. I’ve tried going vegetarian two days a week, and I didn’t last a month. But here’s the reason eating less meat is beneficial. Animals require more space than plants, so forests are cleared to make way for farmland. Fewer trees means less carbon gets absorbed and a smaller habitat for wild animals. Each cow, for instance, needs at least an acre of land for humane living conditions. There are 92 million cows in the U.S., which means that 92 million acres should be used just for cows. The entire continental United States is only 1.9 billion acres. That means nearly 5% of the entire U.S. should be reserved only for cows, which is impossible. I’m not saying to stop enjoying steak. I’m just saying to consider going one or two days a week without consuming meat.
This list might seem extensive, but it’s really not. It doesn’t take much effort to separate your recyclables from your trash. It just takes knowledge and the desire to want to make a change. If you feel overwhelmed, attempt to tackle just one of these things at a time. Hop over to the link above and donate a few dollars, or pick up a couple of littered plastic water bottles at the park. In the end, every little action makes a difference. Our planet is in trouble, but we can find a way out. We just have to want to.