12/18/2012 11:31 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Engaged Individuals Can Help Solve Environmental Challenges


Another year is about to end, creating a natural stopping point for reflection and evaluation. While we consider this year's accomplishments and look ahead to what we'd like to change next year, our environment deserves some attention.

Humans -- you and I and the rest of the world's seven billion people -- possess the means to reign in the degradation of the environment. Nature cannot defend itself against the damage that society creates. It is up to us to chart a wiser path.

What challenges are we facing?

Climate change must be at the top of the list. We have seen our incredible thirst for energy, and the related use of nonrenewable resources, create a global society that today consumes 16.3 terawatts of energy per year. (A terawatt equals a million megawatts.) That number is expected to double by 2050, less than 40 years from now. Think about our world consuming 40,000 gallons of oil per second.

It's clear that we need to moderate our behavior to improve energy efficiency and move in a consistent fashion toward a renewable energy base. So how do we do that?

Here's a heartening fact: The sun shining on the Earth for one hour provides enough energy to meet our needs for a year. Approximately 89,000 terawatts of the sun's energy reaches Earth's surface. Can't our roofs and windows be the integrated renewable energy systems of the future?

Another heartening fact: There is 50 terawatts of energy embedded in global on-shore wind. Can't we capture three terawatts of that energy potential?

Mitigating climate change means enacting ecological engineering solutions. Our forests in the United States sequester approximately 10.6 percent of the CO2 that we emit. Our urban forests alone sequester another 1.5 percent. Protection, enhancement and better management of our forestry resources, wetlands and meadows can have a positive impact. We need 161 million trees to offset the CO2 emissions of an average power plant and we have approximately 600 power plants in the United States. We need to defend these natural systems that sequester carbon. Our country must demonstrate that it can be done before we can expect similar action to be taken globally.

Next on our list of challenges is the loss of global biodiversity. We are losing species at an alarming rate. The United Nations Environment Program, in 2002, estimated that globally we lose 50,000 species a year, up to 1,000 times the natural rate. The protection of critical habitat is an essential part of stemming this frightening tide. Alan Weisman's intriguing book, The World Without Us, describes the DMZ that divides North and South Korea as one of the areas with highest biodiversity in the world. See what happens when humans don't interfere?

Engaged citizens can help change this scenario by protecting sensitive habitats in our own backyards. Most people in the United States have access to grass-roots organizations, conservation groups and education entities that provide an opportunity to volunteer time, talent and funds to protect our sensitive habitats and terrestrial resources.

Saving our planet and our global resources comes down to saving one acre at a time and reducing our use of fossil fuel one gallon at a time. Author Paul Loeb wrote an extraordinary book called, Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times, in which he states: "When we work shoulder to shoulder with others for a greater common good, we gain a powerful sense of human solidarity."

Involvement in these issues transforms us from detached spectators wringing our hands in futility to engaged individuals charged with purpose as we move to solve our problems.