EARTHDAY.ORG president Kathleen Rogers shares what we as individuals can do to make life better for everyone. It starts with speaking up.
It might sound odd, but the biggest thing you can do to make the world a better place is complain. That advice from EARTHDAY.ORG president Kathleen Rogers might come as welcome to those of us who are particularly skilled at complaining. The trick is complaining to the right people: elected officials (especially local ones) and corporate leaders.
“There’s just so much waste in this country, and above all, consumers are the ticket out of that,” Rogers told BOSS. “Consumers really tell companies their marching orders.”
If people don’t buy certain products or, say, refuse items packaged with single-use plastics, companies will change their behavior. Governments respond to criticism because they’re elected.
“Complaining is the No. 1 way to get stuff done, unfortunately. That and voting, and your pocketbook.”
The Earth Day theme for 2023 is “Invest in Our Planet,” and as Rogers sees it, there’s an endless list of small investments we each make every day, from what we eat to what we wear and the cars we drive.
We have an incredible opportunity to remake the planet, she said, and each decision has a ripple effect.
Make Your Voice Heard
We tend to focus on national politics, but so many decisions that affect our daily lives happen at the local level. That’s also where individual voices can make the most noise. For example, organizing community garbage cleanups, as she herself often does, is great. But what would be more effective in getting at the root of the problem is if organizers and volunteers hound their local leaders to improve waste management.
“No one’s making the connection between cleaning up time after time and getting your municipal government to do something about it,” she said. “Kill it before it gets there. I have this new system we’re trying to create where you take a picture of pollution that geolocates it and then you put your zip code in and it automatically sends a photo with a comment to your municipal government that says, ‘What the heck?’”
It’s easy to lose sight of the differences individuals can make when there are a couple hundred countries around the world dealing with their own pollution problems. But almost every city, town, or municipality has a plan for climate change, a green plan to attract investment, cut emissions, and make communities healthier. Voicing support for that or making suggestions on what to include is a great way to have your voice heard.
“As they say, all politics is local. That goes for the environment, too.”
The same goes for corporations engaging in greenwashing or harming the environment. A few voices can make a big difference.
“They will respond,” she said. “They’ll respond to 10 consumer letters. Maybe not one, but 10 or 20, you’ll get their attention.”
We’re so used to thinking these structures are too big to notice us as individuals, but we might be surprised at what a little complaining can do.
The Plastic Problem
One area where more voices are needed is plastics. Climate change can be solved, Rogers says, but plastics are forever. Depending on the type of plastic, it can take hundreds or even a thousand years for it to biodegrade. Now that it’s been confirmed microplastics are in human blood, the scenarios become more alarming.
“A child born 500 years from now will have plastics in its bloodstream when it’s born,” she said, “because it is everywhere and you cannot remediate it. It’s an outrage that we’ve saddled generation after generation with this.”
There is research to show that microplastics can alter our DNA, cause endocrine disruption, and cause infertility. Microplastics can act as magnets for heavy metals and other toxins inside our bodies and damage our health.
Negotiations within the UN Environment Programme are under way on an international plastics treaty similar to the Paris climate agreement, with meetings expected to conclude in 2024. Individuals can put pressure on their elected officials to support meaningful change.
“We need to speak up about these decision-making processes that are harming us,” Rogers said.
The only way polluters are going to stop “is if we make them. We make them by complaining to our government and saying, ‘We don’t want this product sold here, or we don’t want these plastic bags or plastic straws or whatever it is. Understanding what we eat, what we buy, what little things we can do that would actually change outcomes is really important.”
It’s not always easy to see the differences we’re making, she acknowledges. People lead busy lives, and they tend to vote based on what’s immediate in their lives. Seeing the long-range, tangible results is tough. But it’s worth it for the future.
“These are really profoundly important issues for our kids and our grandkids and 10 generations from now,” she said.
Opportunity to Lead
Rogers does see promising signs for the climate future. The Inflation Reduction act is a giant boon for manufacturing, infrastructure, and American jobs, she said. “It’s an extraordinary investment in climate and infrastructure.”
States such as California, New Jersey, New York, and Maryland are doing a great job on educating kids in climate literacy.
It’s “a way for America to stay on top and become the country we have been in every technological revolution,” she said. “We are an incredibly smart country, and our kids need to be educated so they can be the entrepreneurs, designers, and inventors of today and tomorrow.
“The U.S. has the opportunity to come out of climate change with not just the moral leadership, but economic leadership. Having a generation of climate entrepreneurs is within our grasp.”
If the U.S. doesn’t seize the leadership opportunity, the E.U., China, or India will. We’re making progress on issues marginalized people in the U.S. face with regard to creating healthier environments, and it starts with small things like municipal waste and green school buildings.
We need to abandon our political tribalism and say, “This is the greatest thing since sliced bread. How do we take advantage of it?” she said.
If we did that, “everybody would get in on the act. Climate deniers or people that don’t see the upside of this would just give it up in a second if they understood how important it is for our long-term economic health and the health of our kids and that we could lead this. Because if we don’t, there are a couple of big countries right behind us. We’re a little slow on the uptake, but I think once we get past the politics of environmental issues and see the economic benefit for fixing it, creating new jobs, that it’ll be a great day for the United States.”
Just a little complaining might be the spark.