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Earth Day: 10 Big, Really Hard Things We Can Do to Save the Planet
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Traditionally, this is a day devoted to making green accessible to all. It's a day when each of us is invited to take small, individual steps toward reducing our carbon footprints, limiting our waste, or restoring the environment. See how easy it is – and how fun – to do your part to save the planet? Whether Earth Day does any good is a subject of some real debate around here.

Admittedly, this year's goals from the Earth Day Network (EDN) show that the holiday might be heading in the right direction. The EDN calls for action and civic engagement toward renewable energy, sustainable consumption and green jobs … and nods to the approaching COP15.

But in general, Earth Day is still being used primarily to sell crap that won't make a difference. Our inboxes were still flooded with press announcements touting Earth Day solar bikinis; Earth Day buy-this-thing-and-we'll-plant-a-tree promotions; Earth Day specials on a greener SUV.

There are no simple steps worth caring about. We'll only head off disaster by taking steps -- together -- that are massive, societal and thorough. Most of what needs to be done involves political engagement, systems redesign, and cultural change. It can't be done in an afternoon and then forgotten about.

So screw the little things. Here are 10 big, difficult, world-changing concepts we can get behind.

Czech crowds cheered for U.S. President Barack Obama's recent announcement that America must lead the charge to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide. But no matter which nation or alliance takes the helm, reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction is a critical part of sustainability. Simply put, nuclear weapons have no place in a bright green future.

Problems This Helps Solve: Nuclear warheads are like the anti-resilience. They don't make us safer; they actually make us brittle. And pouring enormous amounts of money and natural resources into mutually-assured destruction seems like an outdated model for peacekeeping on a finite planet.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
A New Military Mission: Clean Energy
The Future of the U.S. Military: An Interview with Thomas P.M. Barnett
The Unexpected Nature of Peace
Nuclear Energy: Not a Climate Change Solution?

In order to have a resilient and peaceful planet, we must first meet the basic needs of all the people who live here. Each person deserves clean water, adequate sanitation, and access to health care. But building this basic foundation will also require stability of a more intangible kind, including giving every person access to education, protecting civil rights around the globe, and putting an end to human servitude. As a society, we've outlined the plan in various ways, most notably in the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals. And we have the means to do it in this century, through advances in community empowerment, sustainable development and microlending programs.

Problems This Helps Solve: The difficulties the bottom billion people face don't just waste their human potential; they also undermine global public health, accelerate habitat destruction, worsen the destabilizing effects of violence, and drag down failing states. In a very real sense, the problems of the bottom billion are problems for us all, and tied into every other problem we want to solve.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Principle 9: Social Entrepreneurship/Base Of the Pyramid
Principle 17: Environmental Justice
Sustainable Development and Social Well-Being
Ending Poverty

We write often about transparency, which is part of the foundation for a just, equitable, sustainable and democratic future. This involves transparency and accountability in both business and government. It also includes tools that let us easily see and understand the backstory of the products in our lives, from the homes we live in to the food on our plates. Open-source approaches are excellent tools for promoting transparency, since these collaborative problem-solving systems increasingly eradicate hidden agendas and exclusivity.

Problems This Helps Solve: Lack of knowledge and lack of access are two of the biggest factors keeping today's communities locked in repetitive, destructive cycles. In politics, opacity makes it easy for leaders to deceive citizens and serve special interests. In the business world, opacity lets corporations participate actively in corruption and ecological destruction, while greenwashing the effects of their actions. Exposing political and business practices to the sunlight of pubic scrutiny can transform the possible.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Corporate Political Transparency: The Green Business Rating We Really Need
The Wall Street Crowd and the Transparency Revolution
Tools for Open Government
Principle 1: The Backstory
Principle 6: Transparency

Although no one wants to live in fear of uncontrollable, unforeseen disasters, it's hard to argue against having a well thought out emergency preparedness plan. These plans help people know what do to when a disaster strikes, decreasing the level of panic and improving the probability that more people will escape unharmed. On a small scale, families and neighbors can communicate and coordinate with each other to create plans that provide food and shelter for their communities. And on a larger scale, states and nations can create response plans that effectively deliver aid, as well as short- and long-term shelter solutions.

Problems This Helps Solve: Living in the age of climate change means that natural disasters will happen more frequently and with more ferocity than ever before. Applying climate foresight (and anticipating other potential problems) gives us the capacity to build resilience into the systems we're building, maximizing the chances that our sustainability is rugged.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Applying Climate Foresight
Learning From The Earthquake
Worldchanging Interview: Thomas Homer-Dixon
Environmental Refugees

Equality for women is more than a justice issue. By giving women equal rights we also help create a more sustainable world. Research shows that women who have access to education and rights over their own bodies choose to have fewer children, who they can give more to. Overpopulation is a serious issue, with huge implications for problems like climate change. By giving women rights we are investing in what Kim Stanley Robinson calls the some of the best climate change technology available today.

Problems This Helps Solve: Empowering women through education, health care and economic opportunity is the number one way to stabilize and eventually decrease overpopulation, a “driving force behind some of today's most serious problems, including climate change and rising food prices," according to Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. Having the human numbers stop growing -- reaching peak population -- at the earliest humanely possible moment will make nearly every other problem we face easier to solve.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
More Choice for Women Means More Sustainability
Peak Population and Generation X
Interview: Kavita Ramdas, Global Fund for Women

One of the most readily available solutions for creating a more sustainable world is also one that we might have the most personal control over: our diets. We can greatly decrease our environmental and social footprints by eating locally, organically and mostly meat and dairy free (according to the U.N. report Livestock’s Long Shadow, livestock produce more greenhouse gases than all of the world's transport combined). But in order for more people to be able to choose better options, we also need to transform the food system. That means not only transparency innovations, such as labels and codes that tell you where your food came from and how it was produced, but also economic and regulatory support for a transformed relationship between farmers, food sellers and eaters.

Problems This Helps Solve: Better diets are critical to increasing global food security. But better farming and herding practices are also vital to preserving natural habitats, ecosystem services, clean water and healthy topsoil. Agriculture is one of the largest drivers of planetary destruction, and better diets can drive forward the search for more sustainable agricultural systems.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Cows Aren't Part of a Climate-Healthy Diet, Study Says
The Food Less Traveled
Eating Really Local
Food Carbon, Corporate Farming and Transnational Community-Supported Agriculture
Agricultural Sustainability = Agricultural Productivity

Scientists estimate that our planet is home to somewhere between 10 and 100 million species. We've described only 1.8 million: the rest are yet to be discovered. Today, scientists are using new techniques and tools to discover and name more new species than at any other time in taxonomic history. Ironically this “Age of Discovery” is simultaneously the Sixth Extinction, the largest mass-extinction since the Death of the Dinosaurs.

Problems This Helps Solve: The diversity of life offers dividends that are almost impossible to reckon. Discovering and documenting the planet's biodiversity now is essential, both because discovery sometimes leads to protection and because once species are gone, they're gone forever. By documenting all life now, we can better understand the web of life around us, and by making it open and accessible, we can help to cultivate an appreciation for its existence and leave a priceless legacy for future generations.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Biodiversity Triage and Frozen Zooz The Culture of Extinction
What the Yeti Crab Has to Teach Us
Understanding Extinction
Discovering to Recover: The Age of Species Discovery and the Sixth Extinction

We need a global treaty that holds all players accountable to decreasing their carbon emissions. This treaty must decrease global carbon levels to 350 parts per million by 2080, if we are to avoid a series of global tipping points that will push us over the edge and make life on this planet unbearable for the majority of life on Earth.

Problems This Helps Solve: An effective climate treaty will help create global accountability for decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions to a level that allows humans to remain on the Earth. As we've said before carbon-neutral prosperity is possible. We can design and build a sustainable society within the time we have remaining. The matter hinges entirely on having the will to build it. And that's what's going to be tested now, and big time: our will.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Breaking the Climate Deadlock
350 ppm
Yes, really, 350 ppm
Zero, Now.

We are now an urban planet. In general, urbanization offers many benefits. But we need to design cities that allow people access to their greatest potential within a framework of sustainable prosperity. Bright green cities are designed so that residents have access to public parks, basic goods, entertainment, services and jobs within walking distance. Bright green cities include transit systems and mobility options to allow people to get from one place to another comfortably and on time without the use of a private vehicle. Bright green cities feature carbon-neutral buildings that are healthy for the people who live and work inside them. They use strategies like zero-waste plans and producer takeback laws to channel materials in closed loops.

Problems This Helps Solve: Because people who live close together use infrastructure and space much more efficiently, cities may just be our most powerful weapon against global warming. As the human population continues to grow on a planet that remains the same, our urban centers will continue to grow to accommodate those people's needs for shelter and employment. If we design our cities well, they will become places where people can live in bright green prosperity, enjoying access to a larger number of goods and services. And with people concentrated in comfortable, happy, healthy cities, these urban centers will become incubators for the best ideas and innovations of the centuries to come.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Does City Living Trim Greenhouse Gas Emissions?
The Next Slum and the New Green City
Dongtan and Greening China
Architecture 2030: An Interview with Ed Mazria
Principle 3: Cradle to Cradle and Closing the Loop
The Post-Oil Megacity
Urban Sustainability, Megacity Leapfrogging

It's time to stop building highways, and stop developing the disconnected, suburban sprawl they support. Instead, local and national governments in the Global North need to focus their resources on improving the streets and infrastructure that's already in place, making those streets work for all forms of mobility, from transit to cycling, to walking, to driving and cargo transport. This solution must go hand-in-hand with building comfortable, attractive, bright green cities where people can live densely while living well. If we redefine the model for growth, density and transportation in the industrialized world, we will help rapidly growing nations avoid the problems associated with auto-dependent development.

Problems This Helps Solve: We're stuck on the outdated idea that highways equal mobility. But although most of North America continues to pave new lanes in the hopes of reducing choking congestion, we're actually making the problem worse. According to this study from the Sightline Institute, adding even one mile of new highway lane will increase C02 emissions by more than 100,000 tons over 50 years. But the problem of highways goes beyond traffic, and beyond North America. Highways feed development that sprawls further and further out from urban centers, destroying green space and farmland, and locking residents into patterns of car-dependency. Not only does sprawl exacerbate the problem of emissions – it also fosters social problems, including increased cost of living and heightened risk of health problems.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Ray LaHood and Changing Our Thinking About Transportation
Worldchanging Interview: Peter Newman and Timothy Beatley
My Other Car is a Bright Green City
The Housing & Transportation Affordability Index
Toward a New American Infrastructure

Now go out there and take some gigantic leaps!

Image credits (left to right): angela7dreams, iChaz and angela7dreams. All shared under the Creative Commons license. Image editing: Sean Conroe.

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Nice job, Worldchanging! This is a great -- even surprising -- list, and makes a fine manifesto. Thanks for raising the bar(s).

Posted by: Ted Wolf on 22 Apr 09

"crap that won't make a difference" indeed. people have a hard time understanding that a genuinely sustainable solution requires some major changes, commitment and a long term vision on our part. i applaud worldchanging for publishing such a direct critique (though you conveniently forgot to mention the elephant in the room - population)

i certainly hope humans will be able to avoid being part of the Sixth intelligent as we are, we are also afraid and we easily forget the lessons of the past.

Posted by: Nidal Mahmoud on 22 Apr 09

It's a great list, and exactly the right attitude. Thanks for putting this together.

(I look forward to people suggesting even bigger and harder things that should kick some of your off the list - but that'll take some doing!)

Posted by: Gil Friend on 22 Apr 09

Rebuild community. Work together with neighbors to enact common goals. Serve civic organizations. Be a foot soldier in a real living place as well as a leader in your field. Grow a garden and let it feed you and teach you to be humble and attentive. Call friends to see how they are. Have dinner parties. Host conversations. Stay home for a while rather than flying around the world. Get to know people you don't understand and even like, because they are part of you. The consumer culture feeds on hyper individualism, alienation, shame, greed, arrogance and domination. It separates us, and then clothes us in products and policies to protect us from a lonely scary world. Living in communities of place, being responsible and accountable to real neighbors, is the natural human state. We are made for rhythm and resonance. To foster community in a consumer culture is radical - and a big shift for all of us to make.

Problems solved?
health increases the more you are connected. see
we are less likely to soil the nest we have to live in for a long time.
as global systems break, local systems need to be strong
ultimately all change has to hit the ground locally to actually make a difference. We need global and national governance to reset rules of the game but we also need bonded communities to make it real.
the hardest thing and best thing any of us ever does is love other people over the long haul.

Posted by: Vicki on 22 Apr 09

Excellent suggestions. It's inspiring to read a list that asks us to do the hard work of fundamentally rethinking how we do things, since this is ultimately how systemic change will come about. This also provides a much-needed vision for what a sustainable future might actually look like.

I think that #2, #3, and #5 have the most potential to serve as important leverage points for bringing about change because they would empower people to be able to make better decisions in all of the other areas.

Posted by: Carolina on 23 Apr 09

The biggest obstacle we face in changing attitudes toward overpopulation is economists. Since the field of economics was branded "the dismal science" after Malthus' theory, economists have been adamant that they would never again consider the subject of overpopulation and continue to insist that man is ingenious enough to overcome any obstacle to further growth. This is why world leaders continue to ignore population growth in the face of mounting challenges like peak oil, global warming and a whole host of other environmental and resource issues. They believe we'll always find technological solutions that allow more growth.

But because they are blind to population growth, there's one obstacle they haven't considered: the finiteness of space available on earth. The very act of using space more efficiently creates a problem for which there is no solution: it inevitably begins to drive down per capita consumption and, consequently, per capita employment, leading to rising unemployment and poverty.

If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit either of my web sites at or where you can read the preface, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like.

Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph, but I don't know how else to inject this new theory into the debate about overpopulation without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"

Posted by: Pete Murphy on 24 Apr 09

Bravo, WC.

"Empower women" is a much more productive and positive way of thinking about population than "Poor people, stop having babies." The operative word in Reproductive Freedom is Freedom!

The typical overpopulation argument drives off folks who have different values from the educated, wealthy, postmodern people who overpopulate the environmental movement.

We can and must debate our ideas, but we also must learn to present them in ways that allow people with different values to access and see the wisdom in them.

I also think that we won't truly have succeeded in our task until we can look at the birth of a new child as a precious gift rather than an increased denominator by which we have to divide up the pie. Life is positive and humans have value! We need to look at our work in terms of development of all human potential, not population control.

Posted by: Megan Dietz on 24 Apr 09

I'd run that list in reverse order.

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 24 Apr 09

This is a good article. There are points some details of which one can quibble with, but I won't dig them up now. I'd particularly like to see a wide variety of beautiful and inspiring designs for green cities (hint: they won't look like Dubai, nor function socioeconomically in that manner). In fact I'd like to design some myself - I'm an artist skilled in perspective rendering - but need to learn much more about green design.

Posted by: Kevin on 24 Apr 09

We at are working hard on #2, though I'm afraid it's closer to 2 billion who lack grid electricity. Microfinancing distributed, local, renewable energy tech - biodigesters & solar - and pairing them with higher efficiency cookstoves is the way to go! Finally the Bottom of the Pyramid can leapfrog right over power plant generated (and dirty) energy.

Posted by: Betsy - GreenMicrofinance on 24 Apr 09

This list succinctly addresses some of the major issues afflicting Planet Earth today.

I would also like to add the idea that Strengthening Societies is yet another key element to consider as "Earth Day" moves forward yet another year. Fostering true collaboration amongst families, communities, organizations, schools, and universities can lead to stronger and healthier social environments. Studies show that healthy environments are often associated with healthy communities and vice versa, all the more reason to keep in mind that strong societies are crucial in our quest for a better world.

Posted by: Deepa Mehta on 24 Apr 09

Number 5 is hands down the most important item. If the world population continures to grow unchecked, nothing else we do will matter for long.

Posted by: Evan Jones on 24 Apr 09

Thank you for a refreshingly bullshit free post! We desperately need to begin to tackle the hard things, in particular human overpopulation, the elephant in the room. Or on the planet.

Posted by: TinTex on 24 Apr 09

A good list.

It's worth noting that the new Transportation bill being considered in Congress will have nearly a half trillion dollars toward new and expanded superhighways. A few billion dollars to fix Amtrak's worst problems is nice, but that won't bring about high speed rail or European quality train service.

To get these shifts to happen, we would have to convert the military industrial complex for peaceful purposes. That would make these goals much easier, but neither political party is interested in that.

The 2005 "Hirsch Report" commissioned by the US Department of Energy was a report about the implications of Peak Oil, prepared by the military / intelligence contractor Science Applications International Corporation. It concluded that it would require two decades of intense efforts to mitigate the impacts of Peak Oil, and that failing to do preparation and mitigation would have massive economic impacts. The report considered toxic, centralized technologies as tar sands and coal-to-liquids to be acceptable, and did not make much effort to suggest more sane solutions would be decentralization, relocalization and power down approaches. But despite this approach, it subtly said - if reading between the lines - that Jimmy Carter was right and we blew it when our society ignored the warnings of the 1970s energy crises.

Easy mitigation of the energy crisis is not possible because Carter was sabotaged. The same forces that toppled the Carter administration are still running the show: militarism, covert intelligence agencies, centralized energy companies and the global financial system.

for more information:
Peak Oil Wars and Global Permaculture Solutions

Posted by: Mark Robinowitz on 25 Apr 09

I agree on these, but how do we do them? This is why so many people feel powerless. These are world changing ideas but at the local level, we feel that what we can do is limited.

Posted by: Martie Anderson on 25 Apr 09

Don't even know what a URL is , or if I have one,and still posting,have we any hope?
Yes! the ideas here seem very good. I will start on my "Chana" dish,have had it from restaurants and it's delicious, and who knew: more green than I've considered I guess.. My bride didn't like it then but she is finicky perhaps this try of mine.
Great ideas,I must admit.
As an American I would ad one idea...learn to be sales people all. separating consumers from their money still drives things around here ,but we all know the model has drastically changed...this is no cycle... I repeat : we have a sea change here.Get in contact with me if you can tell me a bit about the derivation of that phrase "sea change" I have almost as small a handle on that as I do of URL thank you

Posted by: ed on 25 Apr 09

Why just empower women? Why now all mankind? Do women hold a secret to save the planet?

If you do not build roads how do you get "things" to people without? Equipment for pumps to get clean drinking water does not just appear in Africa?

Figure out how to cool the sun then lets talk about a climate treaty. I think this argument hurts the green casue so much. Are we that stupid to belive we actually have control over this planet? Explain all the climate change prior to human life. (note there was BILLIONS of years of it). Stop making the cause of living within our means one climate change... it is silly.

Ok we elimate Nucler weapons... but what about the people who do not listen... Remember Crack, pot, coke, speeding, killing ones self is all illegal but it sill happens... its not about getting rid of the NW its about changing the need for NW.

Posted by: sean mcdermott on 25 Apr 09

Just a thought:

On the one hand, there are those who promote lists of individual actions that people can perform that are not clearly connected to reaching big goals. On the other hand, there are those that promote the big goals, but they don't provide the individual with things they can do to get there. It's not big goals vs. individual actions, it's how do we coordinate the right individual actions to get to the big goals. This is what we have to figure out.

Posted by: Tavita on 26 Apr 09

Thanks so much for your thoughtful list. There are so many important elements here, such as empowering women, paying attention to the impact of our diets and helping those most desperately in need.One essential concept that’s missing from your list is:

Integrate comprehensive humane education into all areas of our lives.

If we’re taught from a young age to live with integrity, compassion and wisdom; if we’re given the tools and knowledge to put our deepest values into action; if we learn to pay attention to the impact of our choices and to do the most good and least harm for all people, animals and the planet; if we’re encouraged to think critically and creatively and to find solutions that work for all; if we’re inspired to look at the world through a lens of interconnectedness; if we’re empowered to make positive personal choices and to transform systems, we can create a truly humane world.

Humane education has the power to instill in all of us a reverence and respect for the world and all its inhabitants and to give us the tools, skills, knowledge and motivation to create a just, compassionate, sustainable world for all. We can't have a humane world if learning to live with intention and integrity isn't part of our education from cradle to grave.

Posted by: Marsha Rakestraw on 26 Apr 09

This is a great, ambitious and pretty fundamentally right on list. is chipping in by providing tools that enable managers of businesses, nonprofits and governments to measure the net social and environmental impact of their work. If we can't measure it, we can't manage it.

Way to go, WorldChanging!


Posted by: Sara Olsen on 27 Apr 09

Glad to see people trying to make others more aware of how we can improve environmental damage. I'm trying to bring awareness by spreading the word on the winners of the Tomorrows World video contest:

They had a competition over videos about water efficiency and flooding. Living off the West Coast, it's a very real worry of mine. I think the winners did a great job! Check out their work and forward the link if you like it.

Posted by: mark on 28 Apr 09

Dr. Stephen Greer is working valiantly to bring suppressed technology to we, the people; technology that would greatly reduce our environmental footprint and enable us to have much greater control over our personal lives and get us quickly off the road we're on. But his ideas are suppressed and he is ridiculed by those who feel threatened i.e. big oil, etc. Although a lot of his ideas seem way out there to the biggest share of our population, he has miles of data to back up his claims and is genuinely devoting his life to better our planet. Support from organizations mentioned on this website would benefit our common goals.

Posted by: judy on 29 Apr 09

Thanks for the effort to make the world a better place to live.Am a kenyan and worried about our forest cover.Over the years it has dropped drasticaly to 3% from 12% in 4 years.I have promised myself to plant 10 trees every month but i feel my efforts are fruitless when i see trees are cut dowm, burning of charcoal is rampant,so where are we heading to

Posted by: florence on 24 Jun 09

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