THE BLOG

The New Environmentalism Is Issues, Not Eco-Tips

04/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Eighteen years ago today, April 22, 1990, the largest "green event" in history took place: 200 million people from 141 countries gathered to honor Earth Day's 20th anniversary.

Somewhat unexpectedly, I had a central role in that celebration. About 6 months earlier I'd written and self-published a book entitled 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. By April, it had become the unofficial Earth Day handbook, selling millions of copies, and hitting #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. By the end of the year, it had become the bestselling environmental book of all time.

Why was it so popular? Then, as now, Earth Day gave the public a chance to voice their concern about the environment. But when people asked, "What can I do to help?" they got no simple, straightforward answer. Then 50 Simple Things came along. It was the first book to discuss environmental problems in ordinary language and provide detailed, concrete solutions. It was hopeful and accessible--anyone could do at least some of the things. And because of that, it quickly turned into a cultural phenomenon.

The "simple things" that attracted so much attention in 1990 were new to most Americans back then. But today they're commonplace "eco-tips" recommended by everyone from Oprah to the EPA to the latest "green" books: Recycle; install compact fluorescent bulbs and low-flow shower heads; bring cloth bags to the supermarket; and so on.

They're useful tips; they have an impact, and I believe we should continue making them a part of our lives. But after nearly two decades, I also think it's time we acknowledged that they won't save the Earth--or more to the point, they won't preserve our planet's life support system. We know this is true, because today the Earth is in worse shape than ever. And things aren't improving.

Consider:

• In the last 50 years, 90% of the populations of tuna, cod, halibut, and other predator fish have totally disappeared. There are now about 200 "dead zones" in the ocean; 50 have been discovered in just the last three years.

• The world is now annually losing about 25 billion tons of topsoil, the precious resource we need to grow food. In America alone, we lose 1,400 acres of prime farmland every day.

• Extinctions are happening as much as 1,000 times faster than normal. Today (and every day), between one and 100 species will go extinct.

• Global warming is melting the icecaps faster than anyone ever anticipated. At this moment, a piece of Antarctica the size of Connecticut is hanging onto the continent by a thread.

Unfortunately, there are hundreds of similar stats I could cite. They all point to the same conclusion: Contrary to what popular books and magazines might make you think, "going green" isn't just a lifestyle choice or a fashion statement any more. And it isn't optional. We have to come out of denial, and face the fact that the ecosystems we depend on for survival are on the verge of collapse.

Obviously, we all want to do something about this. But if eco-tips aren't enough of a solution, what is? What can an average American do to make a real difference...without totally disrupting his or her life? That's the question that inspired me to create a new version of 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, published this month.

As I explain in the book, I believe the answer is that we need a "new environmentalism" which focuses on issues rather than tips--one that goes further than simple individual effort, to harness the power of cooperation and community; one that not only works to change individual personal habits, but also to change society--laws, business practices, and even values; one that inspires a sustained, committed effort to solve specific problems, rather than simply encouraging random environmental action.

The simplest, most practical way to accomplish this is for each of us to find a single environmental issue that's right for our lives--one that we really care about--and make that issue the focus of our efforts. It might be saving coral reefs, or supporting solar energy, or bringing a modern railroad system to America. Whatever it is, if we really believe in it, we'll find it a pleasure to stay involved. We'll be able to build a satisfying relationship with others who care about the issue--particularly the community of environmental groups that are already working on it--and in the long run, we'll be part of the change we want to create. It doesn't matter which issue you pick--big or small--because they're all connected. If you work to cut carbon emissions from power plants, for example, you're also helping to clean up waterways. If you clean waterways, you're improving wildlife habitat. By improving wildlife habitat, you protect trees. And when we have more trees, we clean the air...which means less climate change. This is the focus of the new 50 Simple Things, and it is explored in more detail on 50simplethings.com.

Is this approach going to be enough to turn things around? We won't know until we try. But I believe our hope for a sustainable society depends on each of us stepping up to help reinvent the concept of environmental action...starting today.