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Your actions can make a big difference when we all work together.

When I was a child I was fascinated by monarch butterflies, with their orange wings demarcated with black lines like tiny stained glass windows. They seemed magical to me. As I type this, serenaded by house finches on the summer-soaked patio, I can’t remember the last time I saw a monarch. When researching for this article, I discovered that 90% of the monarch butterfly population has been decimated by glyphosate, a common chemical in farming. Ah. So that’s why.

Advocating for the environment has been my passion for the last twenty years, but I was always fighting for the prevention of a crisis. Now, with the loss of the monarch, the environmental crisis is literally in my backyard. It makes me angry. And sad. And sober: we humans are destroying our home. It’s that simple. We must, must, must stop.

But what, exactly, do we need to stop? What are the most pressing issues, and what can really be done about them by every day folks like you and me? Can we really make a difference?

You bet your butterflies we can. While glyphosate is a huge issue, there are goings-on even more dangerous. I’ve compiled the five biggest threats to the environment, and what we can do about them.

1. Climate change

A recent Gallup poll showed most people are worried about water pollution, but all the articles I read agreed unanimously that climate change needs to move to the top of the list yesterday. Why? Carbon emissions are eating the ozone layer and raising the earth’s overall temperature, meaning melting polar ice caps, disrupted ocean current patterns, severe weather, loss of animal habitat, drought, and weird growing conditions for the crops we depend on for food. Basically, climate change is taking the planet’s rhythms we depend on for survival and sending them to the Queen’s croquet game in Alice’s Wonderland. And it’s happening quickly. Scientists note we are well past temperature targets set by the Paris Climate agreement–over halfway to what the United Nations calls the worst-case scenario.

How did we get to this point? Energy consumption accounts for 73% of carbon emissions–anything that runs on electricity or burns fossil fuels. Agriculture practices are the next biggest culprit.

What you can do: 

Call your State Representatives and tell them climate change is vitally important, and we need to take action as a global people.
Support legislation requiring industries to curb their carbon outputs.

Buy local and organic meat and produce. It takes less carbon to produce them.

Ask your energy company if you can purchase green electricity from non-fossil fuel sources.

Carpool or ride your bike to reduce carbon emissions from your vehicle. It’s not much, but if everyone did it, it would make a significant difference.

Plant carbon-eating trees!

2. Deforestation

Speaking of trees, we are consuming them at a blinding rate: since immigrants set foot on what is now the United States, 75% of the forest has been cleared for logging and development. Globally, 25 million acres of trees–mostly rainforest–are cleared every year. Trees are vital in supporting diverse plants and animals as well as drawing carbon out of the atmosphere through natural photosynthesis. Trees are the lungs of the planet, and deforestation is the cancer. The good news is reforestation efforts are working, with about 12 million trees planted annually.

What you can do:

Keep planting trees!

Support businesses that will plant a tree when you make a purchase.

Look for recycled or tree-free paper products, such as hemp and bamboo.

Buy lumber from companies that support sustainable forest management, such as Home Depot. If you don’t know where the wood comes from, ask before you buy.

Eat local beef. Not only is it tastier and higher in nutrition, but no rain forest was cleared to produce it. (Unless you live in the Amazon.) 

3. Pollution

Whether it’s the air, the water, soil, or landfills, we humans pollute it, but most of the pollution doesn’t feel like the purview of the average Joe, honestly. How much glyphosate have you personally sprayed on your tomatoes? While commercial industry is the biggest contributor to pollution of every kind, consider that we consumers support those industries with every purchase we make. The good news is, the average Joe wields tremendous power for effecting a clean up. We can fight pollution with every dollar we spend, and you’d better believe commercial industry will sit up and listen.

What you can do:

Try to limit every purchase to organic, local, recycled, repurposed, or reused. 

Before you purchase anything new, read product labels for words like eco-friendly, non-toxic, sustainable, or biodegradable.

Avoid buying plastic whenever you can. Choose glass or metal.

Avoid buying single-use. Buy in bulk and repackage in reusable containers.

4. Ocean Acidification

I had never heard of this before, so if you’re wondering how it made it into the top five list, listen up: carbon isn’t just a problem in the atmosphere, but in oceans, too. If carbon is eating our ozone layer, carbon–absorbed by ocean water directly from the air–is choking the oxygen out of the oceans, creating havoc for marine life that depend on oxygen to sniff our predators, shellfish that depend on oxygen to form strong outer shells, and coral reefs needing the higher pH level to form exoskeletons.

What You Can Do:

See Climate Change, above. Everything you do to curb carbon in the atmosphere directly decreases carbon in the ocean.
Be water savvy. Water saving devices and proper disposal of leftover medicine (don’t flush them!) help keep wastewater from reaching the already-stressed ocean.

5. Loss of Biodiversity

It’s estimated one third of all species are threatened or endangered due to climate change and pollution. Ninety percent of bees, for example, are simply gone. Without them to pollinate, many species of plants can’t reproduce, and animals relying on the plants for food struggle to eat. Earth depends on a variety of plants and animals to power the circle of life, so it’s imperative we take biodiversity very seriously.

What You Can Do:

Buy local meat and produce. Smaller farms mean a larger diversity of plants and animals and less reliance on large-scale mono-agriculture.

Buy organic, which translates to fewer biodiversity-killing chemicals.

Cultivate bee and butterfly plants in your garden.

Pull weeds instead of using herbicides.
Look for eco-friendly ways to control specific pests, like pouring boiling water on the ant colony squatting on your patio, or releasing ladybird beetles to control tomato aphids.

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