Earth is in trouble. The crises that beset our planet, from climate change to plastic pollution and habitat destruction, require bold political action and huge reforms to the systems and institutions that make up modern society, including how we produce energy and what we eat. But fighting for system change isn’t mutually exclusive with making changes to our own lives to lessen our impact on the planet and live according to the vision of the world we wish to create. To that end, here are 20 things you can start doing today.
1. REDUCE, REUSE, AND RECYCLE
Life in the 21st century is dominated by stuff. Everyone is trying to sell you something all of the time, and lots of us are buying it. This is sometimes called ”hyperconsumerism”, and its pinnacle is probably the annual bargain-hunting frenzy that is Black Friday, which originated as a post-Thanksgiving day of sales in America and has spread around the globe.
As we all become more aware of the impact that this overconsumption has on the planet, more people are looking for ways to live with less stuff, which involves, as much as possible, reducing what we buy and how much we use resources like energy and water, reusing what we have, and recycling what we can’t use any more if possible. There are lots of ways to do this.
Take clothes for example, which contribute to around 10 percent of global carbon emissions and use huge amounts of water. You can enjoy fashion without buying new outfits all the time. Tips for reducing how much you buy include borrowing clothes from friends or through clothes renting apps, taking care of what you own so it lasts longer, and quitting following social media accounts that promote buying new things to reduce temptation. You can reuse what you do own, learning to mix different pieces to make new outfits, and either find a good tailor or learn to use a sewing machine to fix or alter clothes as needed. Finally, if you do need to get rid of something, it could go to charity or, if it’s not fit for other people to use (hello, holey socks), look into how to recycle textiles. A similar approach can be applied to most of the things you own.
Volunteering can take many forms and fit all sorts of lifestyles and time commitments. If you want to do something hands on, you can find a local nature group to conserve green spaces near to you, litter pick, or clean up a river. Some environmental organisations and research projects also rely on volunteers to be citizen scientists, gathering data through things like wildlife surveys. You can raise awareness about different environmental issues by helping NGOs and volunteer groups to hold stalls at events or campaign on the streets. Many activist groups, like Animal Rebellion who campaign for a plant-based future, also need people — not only to physically join protests and actions but to help with more conventional volunteer roles like admin, social media, and fundraising.
Educating yourself about the crises facing the planet is important if you want to know what can be done about them. When you know what the problems are and how they could be fixed, you can also help to educate others. Research shows that we are influenced by the environmental (and other) behaviours of our peers, by observing what they do but also by listening to how they perceive certain issues.
Educating others might mean explaining to your friends and family the environmental impacts of eating meat and dairy and why a vegan diet is kinder to the planet and animals. Although the environmental and climate impacts of animal agriculture are well documented, public awareness of its harms is low compared with other sources of emissions such as deforestation and energy use in buildings.
4. CONSERVE WATER
A lot of water gets wasted because of failures to maintain infrastructure by water companies. British water companies lost 1tn litres of water through leaky pipes in 2021. Some industries are also incredibly water intensive, including meat and dairy production, manufacturing, and clothing and textiles production. While fixing the water use and waste of these sectors is crucial, the amount of water used by individuals can vary hugely depending on things like what appliances they use at home and whether they have a water meter. For example, British people use an average of 145 litres a day each, compared to 126 litres a day by Germans. Having short showers instead of baths, only using washing machines and dishwashers when they’re full, and saving water from showering or washing up to water your plants, particularly during times of low rainfall, are among the ways you can easily cut your water use at home.
5. CHOOSE SUSTAINABLE
Whenever you have to buy something, use a service, or perform some activity, it can be useful to think about whether it would be sustainable to do it repeatedly or long-term. For example, using reusable products is more sustainable than disposable ones, particularly if you use them for long enough to outweigh the impact of their production. Take reusable shopping bags: cotton ones need to be reused 131 times before they become a more sustainable choice, climate-wise, than plastic bags. It sounds like a lot, but that’s only two years of use if you use it for a weekly shop. If it’s well-made, it will likely last much longer than that.
6. SHOP WISELY
Eco-friendly. Sustainable. Low-carbon. Lots of products are plastered with environmental claims these days. A lot of it is greenwashing. Try to research the things you want to buy, or the companies you want to buy them from, to see if the products are actually as good or neutral for the environment as they claim. A good place to start is Ethical Consumer, which has shopping guides that rank companies and products on their environmental and ethical record.
7. USE LONG-LASTING LIGHT BULBS
LEDs are the most energy-efficient lightbulbs, and can last up to 10 years if you have them on for no more than three hours a day. According to the Energy Saving Trust, switching all the lightbulbs in your house to LEDs could cut your carbon emissions by up to 40kg a year — roughly the emissions from driving a car for 145 miles.
8. PLANT A TREE
Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they grow, improve air quality, lower the temperature on hot days, and provide habitat and food for wildlife. If you have a garden with space for a tree, plant one that is suited to the local climate and environment. Or volunteer with a local tree-planting project, provided it is planting the right trees in the right place and has a plan to nurture vulnerable saplings.
9. DON’T RELEASE CHEMICALS INTO OUR WATERWAYS
Many household products like bathroom cleaners and detergents contain toxic chemicals that end up in waterways. Choose products that are non-toxic and safe for the environment and wildlife.
10. BIKE MORE
According to government data, transport was responsible for 27 percent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, with 91 percent of that coming from road transport vehicles, mainly private cars and taxis. Though car fumes are cleaner than they used to be, cars still create air pollution from their exhausts and from their tyres. More than 60 percent of journeys of one or two miles are made by car. For many people, those short journeys could be made by bike instead. Cycling instead of driving means less carbon emissions, cleaner air, less noise pollution, and healthier people.
11. BE INFORMED
One of the obstacles to meaningful action on the climate and environment is misinformation. It’s a tactic used by those profiting from destructive practices to hold back green policies and projects, and it is successful at fooling a lot of people. Being informed about the facts of climate change and other environmental issues, particularly their causes like fossil fuels and the meat industry, means you can more easily counter misinformation when you come across it.
12. BE POLITICAL
Political action is necessary to protect the environment, because destructive companies and industries don’t spontaneously volunteer for regulations and substantive changes that may hit their profits. Vote for political candidates with strong environmental policies. Get involved in local elections that will shape the way your community responds to the climate and nature crises. Tell local councillors what action you want them to take and give them your support when they are doing the right thing. You could even stand for office if you wanted.
13. EAT SUSTAINABLY
According to climate scientists, eating sustainably means eating a plant-based diet. Some people will claim it’s about eating locally or in season, which have their own advantages, but the most important thing for the environment is what we eat rather than how it’s produced. The “best” meat is still worse on emissions, water use, and land use than most plant-based foods, even imported ones.
14. FIND WAYS TO DONATE
Participating in fundraising events or making a small regular donation to an activist group or an NGO, for example one working to end animal agriculture, is a great way to help the planet. One-off donations can also be valuable for initiatives like the Vegan Land Movement, which sometimes needs to raise a lot of money at short notice to bid on former dairy farmland to turn it into a haven for wildlife.
15. CHALLENGE YOURSELF
Lowering your environmental impact can involve breaking long-term habits and building new ones. A good way to start could be by signing up to challenges like Veganuary, or setting yourself some other daily or weekly goal to help shift your behaviour. This can also apply to getting more involved with activism or becoming more politically active for the planet. It can be daunting to start with, but making it part of your life in small, ongoing ways can be a great way to make it feel more accessible and doable. For example, start joining the regular meetings of a group you want to be involved in, or use your social media to engage in some digital activism every day.
16. PROTECT AND ENJOY GREEN SPACES
Our green spaces are precious and their survival is not always guaranteed. In England and Wales, the provision of green spaces in neighbourhoods has declined by a third in developments built since 2000, while the proportion of parks considered by local authorities to be in ”good condition” decreased from 60 percent to just over 40 percent between 2013 and 2021. Community groups often spring up to challenge proposed developments that will harm their green spaces, so keep an eye on what is happening in your local area and ways to get involved.
But protecting green spaces also means enjoying them (while leaving no trace). For one thing, we will protect what we love, so forging a connection with your local green space is more likely to make you care about its prosperity and longevity. Beyond that, in this time of climate and ecological crisis, it matters that we notice and appreciate the value of these spaces. It can also be a way to help ourselves through the crises we face. As writer Ari Honarvar wrote during the early part of the pandemic: “Cultivating joy is an important component of resilience as it increases our capacity to face difficulties.”
17. USE AND SUPPORT SCIENCE
Those who wish to deny the reality of climate change and its causes, like meat and dairy production, like to cast doubt on the science and the integrity of scientists. One way to counter this is to actually listen to scientists and use their research rather than relying on other people’s opinions and misinformed takes on social media.
18. GIVE COMPOSTING A TRY
Globally, 1.8bn tonnes of food is wasted every year. That’s 30 percent of what we produce, and it accounts for 8 percent of all emissions. This absurd waste comes from lots of sources: food services, fruit and vegetables rejected by supermarkets for not being pretty enough, and lack of refrigeration in low-income countries. But in the UK, 70 percent of food waste comes from households. There are a number of things we can do to reduce this waste, including composting.
Composting your leftovers and food scraps in a well-maintained bin that lets in oxygen will reduce the methane released into the atmosphere compared with letting the food decompose in a landfill site. The compost you produce can be used in your garden, where it helps to store carbon in the soil. According to climate research group Project Drawdown, an increase in composting levels worldwide could cut emissions by 1.4bn tonnes by 2050.
19. REDUCE PLASTICS
This is often easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. Find a local market or shop that sells kitchen and household staples without packaging so you can bring your own and fill up on what you need. Carry a reusable water bottle and shopping bag. Buy bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic ones. Buy things secondhand where possible.
20. CHECK THE IMPACT OF PRODUCTS AND ACTIVITIES
There are lots of ways to lessen your impact on the planet that you can start doing at home, right now, that can complement and feed into the bigger task of changing and abolishing the polluting, oppressive systems that we currently use to produce much of our food, energy, and other goods. And when we all live in the vegan, fossil fuel-free utopia of the future, you’ll be glad you got a head start.