04/06/2012 05:18 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2012

What Is the Best Earth Day Pledge?

What is the best Earth Day pledge? One can find a plethora of "green" actions from a variety of websites and programs. It is sometimes overwhelming to the average consumer; what is meaningful? In some cases, actions are fleeting and do not institute long-lasting or meaningful change. For example, bike to work on Earth Day -- it may increase awareness but does it help one to consistently bike to work? Is it meaningful on Earth Day that we pledge to recycle more, for instance, when so many other environmental issues are out there?

Overall, it's not easy being green. The controversy around food miles, for example, speaks to the complicated nature of what is green. We all have heard about the plight of polar bears and other endangered species, shortages in potable water, water quality issues, habitat destruction, air pollution, and how countries are grappling with shortages in food, water, and fuel. Even among (some) urban communities, we see that people exercise less, are getting heavier, are eating unhealthy food, and generally have lost their sense of community and civic duty.

Now, each little bit does some good, so yes -- recycling is a good pledge. But what pledge crosses many of the environmental and human health/economic/social issues and can be done by a wide range of people and have immediate local, regional, and global impact?

I submit that the one often overlooked opportunity is the yard. The cumulative impact of how people manage their own yards can have significant impacts on local, regional, and global environments.

Thus, I propose that the best Earth Day pledge is to reduce the area of lawn by 50 percent and change the way the remaining turfgrass and other landscaped areas are maintained. In terms of reducing lawns:

  • Replacing exotic lawns with native plants will dramatically improve biodiversity measures in the area. More native birds and butterflies will use your backyard!
  • You will immediately save money in terms of using less water, fertilizer, and pesticides.
  • Reduced irrigation decreases runoff and pollutants entering nearby natural areas.
  • Replacing the turfgrass with a vegetable garden, one not only becomes more active but you grow local food for consumption.
  • Planting trees in the area that lawn occupied helps one to obtain multiple environmental and health benefits.

In terms of yard maintenance:

  • Avoid a monoculture of grass -- let herbs and other plants coexist with the grass (just mow occasionally).
  • Replace the gas-powered lawnmower with a reel mower. This reduces air pollution and fuel consumption.
  • By reducing the level of yard maintenance in terms of irrigation, mowing, fertilization, and use of pesticides/herbicides, one reduces the amount of carbon and other global warming gases emitted.

In the end, all environmental pledges are important but I have seen many people purchase compact fluorescent bulbs, buy hybrid cars, and place solar panels on their homes only to irrigate, fertilize, spray pesticides and mow their expansive lawns.

Already half of the world's population is city dwellers and by 2050 it will be about 70 percent. Cities are a key leverage point for connecting society with the natural environment and will ultimately help people to become more aware about conservation. Alternative yard designs and management that reflect a region's natural heritage (i.e., using more native plants) will help engage both youth and adult populations to conserve natural resources. Do not underestimate the power of one individual to change neighborhood practices. This Earth Day -- why not rip up some turfgrass and replace it with native vegetation? Further, tell your neighbor why you are doing this to help spread the word!