Want to Help the Environment? Eight Questions to Get You Started

We face an often bewildering set of environmental challenges–on a local, regional, and global scale. Sometimes that’s enough to freeze you in place and not know where to start. And yet, while no one person can fix the world, everyone can make a difference in some area.

After two years of rewilding our yard to be an ark for wildlife, I’ve given some thought to how I decide what to do–and what not to do. If you’re struggling with where to start, here are eight questions that might just help you narrow things down to a manageable scale.

When considering these questions, recognize that some people have no choice about what they focus on environmentally, because an existential threat looms that directly threatens their health, their lives, their livehoods.

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1–How much time and what resources can you realistically devote? Being realistic about the number of hours you can spend on a project helps to ensure your effectiveness. Being realistic about money or other resources you can bring to a project is also key. It may be better to under-commit and eventually spend more time and money on something than to, out of a need to be of use, overcommit but not be able to fulfill that commitment. When we talk about environmental projects, where wildlife and habitat may be affected, this is very important.

2–What are you most passionate about? Morale is a powerful driver of effort over time. It is useful if you have joy and energy in accomplishing the tasks associated with the project. To give a small example, if you find weeding out invasive plants excruciating rather than therapeutic, then consider that when deciding what you what to focus the bulk of your time on. Sometimes you just have to gut through unpleasant tasks, but joy has to live in these projects, too.

3–Is there a unique contribution you can make? Especially in a local or regional context, a good question might be: What can you do that no one else is doing? Often, conservation groups, for example, focus on larger land purchases and ignore smaller but valuable land acquisitions. This past year, I helped fund (through contributions and pushing it on social media) two small 12-acre conservation purchases, one in Tallahassee and one in Colombia. Both were below the radar of conservation groups.

4–How urgent is the issue or project you want to tackle? Urgency has to do with whether some situation is irrevocable. For example, if someone wants to create a phosphate mine on your doorstep, that’s an emergency situation where the landscape will be changed for a generation. Or, if sewer renovations near your house may result in mature trees being cut down on an easement (and there’s a more delicate way to handle the operation). On the other hand, if your neighbor starts putting on bright backyard lights that will ultimately make declining firefly populations in your area plummet…you might have a few months until the emergence of fireflies in the spring to convince them to turn them off. Even if it feels like a more pressing issue, because it’s literally affecting your backyard.

5–What are your own strengths and weaknesses? Having a good sense of what you do well and what you don’t do well is important in many contexts in life. When it comes to environmental efforts, this may take the form of what you do in volunteering for an organization. Inasmuch as such organizations have finite resources, you may wind up doing things you have no experience in because there’s no one else to do them. But if you have a choice, it’s wise not to use your activism as an opportunity to achieve some other personal goal. For example, if you’ve never been a graphic designer, using an environmental cause to volunteer to be the one to make fliers would be better left to someone who already has that experience.

6–How much can you handle emotionally? Many people are already on the front lines of an environmental battle, without any choices. But regardless of your situation, it’s difficult not to get very invested in environmental causes–and especially so when you involve yourself in a local effort where you’re “on site,” so to speak, every day. The passion and energy you get from that personal aspect is a good thing–it motivates, it gives you the endurance to see things through. But it can also be exhausting, especially if there are setbacks along the way. It is perfectly fine to factor in stressors along with time and resources when determining what to tackle. Especially in a context where we have so many emergencies due to the climate crisis.

7–Can your project in some way erode toxic systems? We all know the debate about personal responsibility versus the responsibility of corporations and governments to behave in an ethical and life-affirming way. Sometimes your personal project will help directly dismantle toxic systems. Sometimes, however, it’s not that direct, especially on a local level. However, you may still be able to find the sweet spot between your personal commitment to environmental issues and helping to wrong-foot or diminish the effects of larger toxic systems. (This point could be its own essay all by itself, so apologies for the brevity on a complex issue.)

8–Is there a benefit even if you don’t achieve your goal? We can become too invested in a definition of success that is all or nothing. But the fact is many times even a seeming failure can create future success. A local protest over tearing down trees for a stormwater pond failed to save the trees… but woke up a lot of citizens to excesses of local government–and galvanized people to support successful upstart city and county commission candidates. In a different context, an effort to weed out invasive species or pick up litter at a local park that stalls out half-way through would still result in a better park with more value for wildlife.

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When answering the questions above, you might also consider the following issues:

Whether or not the project requires buy-in from other people or entities with a stake in the issue. If so, there may be significant planning and communication to achieve the goal on the front end, before you do anything substantive. (For example, wanting to improve water quality and tree cover at a local neighborhood pond.)

Whether or not the project has an end date. If the project is an ongoing one, you may want to first gather helpers or allies who can assist if your ability to commit your time changes. (For example, weeding out invasive plants at a local park.) Try to visualize where your project will be in 20 years and how it would continue to be sustained.

Whether or not others are already making the same or similar effort. Even conservation groups sometimes clash and if your project isn’t limited to your yard, you may need to research the history of and current status of efforts to do the same or similar thing in your area. For those not already coming from an indigenous and/or a social justice perspective on a particular issue, you should make sure you are tune with and respectful of those points of view. (Which are integral to a full perspective and to climate crisis solutions.)

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As may be clear from the examples I’ve used, the word “project” can mean something as small as buying and caring for a pot of wildflowers for an apartment balcony or as large as spearheading the clean-up and rewilding of fifty acres of land. It can mean regular contributions to an environmental organization coupled with you supporting those contributions in some way with your time. It can mean running for some role in city government that has a large environmental impact–or organizing protests or boycotts. It can mean citizen action to stop a city or county from using herbicides in public parks. It can mean being a proactive advocate for legislation at the state level. It can mean organizing a neighborhood to stop a grove of mature trees from being cut down to build a bank.

Although you may have the most impact on local or regional issues (which can definitely feed into larger systemic reform), I highly recommend balancing those commitments with national or global efforts, if that is possible. In addition, I find that here in the US even small contributions to the Center for Biological Diversity, Audubon, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy or similar organizations and/or becoming active for the local chapters of national/international conservation groups is both useful and educational. (As always, do your research to find the best fit.)

The point is, there are so many ways to make a difference. Figuring out what works best for you, balanced with what will make the greatest impact, not only helps the environment–it may also help with any anxiety about these issues and your role through better clarity on your focus and goals.

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