May 17 marks International Endangered Species Day and is an opportunity to celebrate and support all life on the planet.
News out of the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released in early May painted a stark picture of life on our planet: human activities have put one million species at risk of extinction. This includes all life from the majestic mammals emblazoned on Apple ads to the microscopic bacteria cleaning our water supply.
There have been warnings of impending peril for years—from Dr. Thomas Lovejoy’s initial projections of global extinction in his 1980 Global 2000 Report to President Jimmy Carter, to Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 cautionary tale The Sixth Extinction, to the docu-series Our Planet hosted by David Attenborough, which was released just weeks before the UN report.
While the outlook is bleak, it should also be galvanizing. If you’re already toting a canvas bag or your home is running on renewables, you need to do more. And if you’re brand new to the world of conservation, welcome to the fight.
Stories of innovation and inspiration abound as revolutionary ocean cleanups begin and a teenager sparks a global movement for climate action. If you feel compelled to join the efforts but don’t know where to begin, you are not alone. Here’s how to get started:
Step 1: Learn About Something
Saving the world is a colossal and overwhelming task, so pick one thing to focus on. It might be saving the iconic snow leopard from extinction or keeping the stream in your backyard clean and healthy. Start researching this topic and set time aside each week to learn something new. Find organizations and groups that are active in the space to volunteer with or donate money.
“One of the best ways you can help is simply with your time and money,” says Callie Broaddus of the Rainforest Trust. “If you want to focus on saving a critically endangered species, there are groups that do incredibly good work focused on specific species. So do your research, identify a group that resonates with your concerns, and support their work.”
Want to do more?
Find a news outlet, podcast, or program that is reporting regularly on the state of the planet. Tune in weekly or daily and become an expert. Talk about it with friends and family. Ask them to come to a town hall, city council, state legislature, or congressional meeting with you. Demand action of policymakers. Vote them out if they do not act.
Step 2: Consume Wisely
What each person consumes individually contributes to the global demand for goods. If billions of people stopped consuming goods that are harming the planet, then rainforests would not be decimated to make way for agricultural expansion, oceans would not be overfished, waterways would not be poisoned with waste from power plants, natural carbon stores and critical habitats would not be disrupted.
To start, get reusable goods for long-term use. Replace plastic straws with a stainless steel version; trade tampons and pads for a lunette cup; opt for cloth diapers and glass storage containers. Phase out of plastic packaged goods – everything from food wrap to toiletries to cleaning supplies – and choose package-free or bulk items. Shop at farmers’ markets and secondhand stores. Bring your own shopping bag to retail stores and your own tupperware to restaurants for leftovers.
The truth is out on plastics – 91 percent of what is used is not recycled. More disturbing, plastics take over 400 years to biodegrade, so with roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution entering the oceans each year, plastics will soon outnumber fish.
Beyond the plague of plastics, be mindful of the resources that go into producing and transporting everyday goods. Commodities like beef, soy, palm oil, and timber are extremely taxing on the environment, notwithstanding the losses incurred by local and indigenous communities ousted to make way for large-scale production. Lowering or eliminating consumption of these commodities are some of the biggest impacts individuals can have.
Want to do more?
Rethink your habitual consumption. For example, compare the cost to the planet of paper towels versus cloth dish towels, organic cotton and non. Research the ingredients that go into cosmetics and cleaners. Avoid those that include palm oil, squalene (shark liver oil), and other illegal animal products.
Be wary of wood and timber sourced from places that are home to endangered wildlife. For example, illegal logging in the Russian Far East is destroying the habitat of the world’s last remaining 400 Siberian tigers.
“Timber from the Russian Far East was knowingly purchased by a US retailer and sold to American consumers, which violates US law,” says Alexander von Bismarck, Executive Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency. “While organizations like EIA work to ensure companies are held responsible, consumers should be diligent and ask where their wood products come from before purchasing.”
Finally, shifting away from fossil fuels where possible will help to clean the air, water, and ecosystems that give life to the planet.
Switching to renewable energy providers and purchasing electric or hybrid vehicles are examples of feasible, tangible steps in making the energy transition in your own life.
Step 3: Eat Smart
The food you eat—and the way that food is produced—has an outsized impact on the planet and its inhabitants. Agriculture produces nearly a quarter of the greenhouse gases emitted each year. In addition to their impact on the climate, our food systems are demanding more from what’s left of arable land. Crop and livestock production are the main source of water pollution by nitrates, phosphates, and pesticides and both wipe out suitable habitat for native species, plant and animal.
Changing food choices can have sweeping impacts on safeguarding the planet’s species. Meat and dairy for example, account for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, so instead of choosing Meatless Mondays, start trying Meatless Months.
Eating seasonably, choosing local over imported foods, and choosing foods that minimize impact to local ecosystems and support local communities are among the best choices. That includes seafood harvested in ways that ensure sustainable livelihoods and coffee that’s protecting migratory bird habitat.
Want to do more?
Going vegetarian or vegan significantly reduces individual carbon footprints. Collectively, the impact it has on the climate mitigates the changes being felt by species around the globe. Learn about making the transition and what foods are on the menu.
Start composting food scraps and organic material. Composting scraps that would have otherwise been discarded reduces the amount of methane gas emitting from landfills. And compost can be used as fertilizer for home gardens—habitats and food for pollinators like birds, bees, and bats. For city dwellers, many municipalities across the country offer compost collection.
Step 4: Make Space for Species
Advocacy groups and foundations are working to conserve 30 percent of the planet for nature by 2030, but backyards and the spaces in between protected regions are just as important. From insects to birds to mammals and more, many species are becoming endangered due to loss of habitat. Yards, parks, and rooftop gardens are habitat and corridors for wildlife to live and move about in.
If you have a backyard, create a wildlife habitat by providing native plants as food and shelter. Avoid using pesticides that kill pollinators like bees, who are responsible for nearly one in every three bites of food. City dwellers have a part to play as well: from balcony spaces to green roofs, plant native species to serve the local pollinators. If neither space exists, ask building management to consider creating a rooftop garden.
Clean up litter. Pick it up, throw it out, whether it’s yours or not. Thousands of creatures, terrestrial and marine, are ingesting trash thinking it’s food and it’s killing them. Dispose of waste properly; reuse if possible, reduce frequently, and recycle if nothing else.
Want to do more?
Join tree planting initiatives or start your own. Organize monthly nature walks and clean up invasives and trash along the way. Volunteer with local groups to learn more, then help educate the rest of the community. Write letters to the editor of local newspapers about the importance of preserving local habitat.
Step 5: Use Your Voice
A 2017 report revealed that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Because the planet has had such dramatic increases in greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of climate change are already impacting species worldwide, from Adelie penguins in Antarctica to leatherback sea turtles in Central America. Companies should be held accountable for their role and individuals can help to do so.
Speak out against the companies not doing enough. Stop buying their products and learn what makes boycotts successful. Participate in peaceful demonstrations, marches, and protests. Use your voice to change public opinion. Schedule meetings with policymakers to demand action. Call legislators and demand continued protections for and under the Endangered Species Act. Donate to organizations dedicated to conservation. Vote for candidates that prioritize the future of our planet.
Want to do more?
Individual choices matter but are only part of the solution. What an office or business does matters. What retail chains do matters. What multinational corporations do matters. Governments must act to meet climate goals and enact policies that protect species and regulate land development. World leaders must work together to achieve targets set. The people in positions of power and influence to make these changes must step forward to protect the planet.
The most important thing to remember is that every choice makes an impact, good or bad. By making more good choices—and fewer bad ones—you can protect endangered species and the planet we depend on. This is true for all of us as individuals, and it’s even more true for society as a whole.