Green Living

Six Smart Ways to Save the Planet

Environmental issues you may not know about, why you should and how you can help.

Six Smart Ways to Save the Planet
Pin it Juliette Borda

You’ve heard the same eco-advice over and over (and over) again: Tote reusable bags. Install a low-flow showerhead. Carpool. It’s all good stuff, and you’re probably already doing your part—which may leave you feeling as if there’s not much else you can do to contribute to the stewardship of our planet. Well, we’re right there with you. So we dug in and tapped experts at the top of their fields to find out what the big environmental issues are and, more importantly, what you can do to help. You may not have heard much about phytoplankton or eco-burial (yet), but each of the topics on the following pages has one thing in common: They are of the utmost importance to the health of our planet—and, ultimately, your own well-being. Here, six environmental issues to really wrap your brain around.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: A staggering 75 percent of the Earth’s plant species depends on insect pollinators, of which bees are the most important. “We depend on plant-based ecosystems to produce oxygen, filter carbon dioxide, regulate rainfall and prevent erosion, among other things,” says Rowan Jacobsen, author of Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis (Bloomsbury USA). “Without pollinators, the planet would soon collapse.” Sadly, the number of bee colonies has declined by roughly 50 percent in the last 70 years—and is still falling.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: The biggest threats to pollinators? Pesticide use and habitat destruction. “Don’t use pesticides on your lawn or garden, and consider planting a pollinator garden with organic flowers that bees like, such as sunflowers, rosemary, geraniums, lavender or poppies,” says Jacobsen. Buy local honey to support beekeepers in your area, or, even better, start a hive of your own; check out the American Beekeeping Federation ( to learn how.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Microscopic phytoplankton—which are the foundation of the entire aquatic food web, feeding everything from small krill to big whales— perform a staggering one-half of the Earth’s photosynthesis. This translates to providing one-half of Earth’s total supply of oxygen, says Barton Seaver, a National Geographic fellow for ocean issues in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, global warming is causing a drop in phytoplankton productivity—a whopping 40 percent since 1950, according to a 2010 study in the journal Nature. This could have a devastating effect on our ocean biology and climate, says Seaver. Fewer phytoplankton means less food for fish higher on the food chain, as well as less oxygen for us to breathe.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Limit your carbon footprint on a daily basis to help reduce global warming (for simple acts to do every day, see “A Doable To-Do List” below), and donate your time and money to the National Marine Protected Areas Center ( to help support and sustain crucial habitats and marine resources.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Conventional cotton farming uses less than 5 percent of farmland in the United States, but utilizes more than 15 percent of the country’s chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Pesticides can kill beneficial insects and soil microorganisms, as well as contaminate the surrounding ground and surface water, says Paul Towers, media director at the San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network, which promotes alternatives to pesticides worldwide. Fertilizer runoff also feeds oceanic “dead zones,” areas of water that become deprived of oxygen and, as a result, are unable to support fish and other aquatic species. Currently, runoff from U.S. cotton farms in the Mississippi River Basin is helping to feed a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that’s the size of New Jersey.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Look for goods made with certified organic cotton. “Buying organic sends clear signals to the marketplace that Americans want healthier cotton farming,” says Towers. For more information, check out the Sustainable Cotton Project (