Earth Day comes to us at the perfect time of year. It is easy to appreciate nature when it is literally bursting open before our eyes. Wildflowers are blooming, birds are singing, and the warm weather and longer days make time outdoors a pleasure. Our natural world is beautiful at any time of year, but spring is a nature lover’s paradise.
Loving nature comes with a challenge, however. We have all heard the dire warnings about our changing climate, biodiversity loss, and the unprecedented pressures we are placing on the world around us. Earth Day has always been about recognizing the importance of our natural world and pushing society to do much more to protect it.
Earth Day also frequently raises the question of whether that path to sustainability lies primarily with individual choices or whether only more comprehensive governmental or societal-wide action can make a difference. I believe the answer is not “either/or” but “yes, and.”
Let’s start at the level of individual choice. Our individual choices as consumers, especially in a wealthy nation like the United States, make a huge difference in the health of our planet. Reduce, reuse, recycle is not just a catchy slogan but a simple guide to lightening our ecological footprint. Buying paper products with high post-consumer recycled content or from Forest Stewardship Council-managed forests (like The Nature Conservancy’s Cumberland Forest Project in southeastern Kentucky) help drive healthy markets for recycling and better forest management respectively. And with transportation now the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., driving less, carpooling more, walking or bicycling when possible, using public transportation, and choosing electric or more fuel-efficient vehicles all make a big difference. In short, our collective appetite for the planet’s resources is a product of billions of individual choices, and the only choices we can directly change are our own.
However, these individual actions are not sufficient. To tackle global environmental crises such as climate change, strong conservation and climate policies at the state, federal, and ultimately international level must supplement, incentivize, and leverage individual and market-led improvements. Just as successful companies respond to consumer preferences, our elected leaders will take action only when they hear from us on these issues. We must convince policymakers that taking action to protect the natural world is not only good policy but also good politics. As we say here at the Conservancy, we must speak up for nature. Our voices matter. The future of our planet is quite literally at stake. I urge everyone to go to nature.org/speakup to learn about the many options we have for making a real difference this Earth Day – and every day.
As I reflect on the beauty of nature this spring, I feel tremendous gratitude. After a long and hard pandemic year, spring once again brings optimism and hope. I also feel tremendous responsibility. We count on nature for so much. Can nature count on us?
David Phemister is the Kentucky State Director for The Nature Conservancy.