Vowing to plant a tree, buy safer products, or recycle on Earth Day are good gestures, but how much do these simple actions really matter? America has come a long way since the first Earth Day in 1970—many rivers and lakes are no longer flammable, and skies seem clearer. But big problems—ones often invisible to the naked eye—continue to threaten the health of people and the planet. We turned to some of the top experts in the world to help you ID the top Earth Day habits that pack a big impact. Big takeaway? It all starts with your heart...
Isaac Elias, MD, founder of The Amitabha Medical Clinic and Healing Center in Sebastopol, California
The Habit: Let change start with the heart. "Open your heart and increase your ability to express loving kindness toward yourself and others, understanding that all human beings want to be happy," explains Dr. Eliaz. "Through the practice of generating love and compassion, you can promote healing within your own body, mind, and emotions, and you can uplift those around you to a higher level of happiness and greater sense of well-being."
Make It Happen: Dr. Eliaz recommends a basic yet profound meditation practice for compassion to help you get started: Sit comfortably in a quiet place, and focus your eyes, your attention, and your breath on a small object, such as a pebble. Focus your awareness and breath on this object and let your mental chatter slip away with your "out-breath," your exhalation. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the object and your breath--imagine breathing in from the object and directing your breath out to the object.
Philip Landrigan, MD, professor and chair of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York
The Habit: "Avoid use of chemical pesticides," Dr. Landrigan says. "This one action will prevent brain damage caused in infants by chemical pesticides and will preserve vital ecosystems."
The Habit: Want your voice to multiply? "Organize. We must organize to take back our democracy," says Hauter. "We must amplify our voices to contend with the massive power that a handful of corporations wield over policy. The most important thing a person can do this Earth Day is work to organize—beginning in the community where they live."
Make It Happen: "You can't shop to save the planet—very major change for the better has come through organizing," says Patel. "For many people, that sounds like hard, fanatical, unpleasant work. Best thing to do is to recognize how empowering it can be." He says on this Earth Day, why not cook a locally sourced meal for your neighbors and community and, while you eat, talk about what you want to change and how you're going to change it. "This Earth Day, you can lay the foundation for your activism in the decades to come," Patel says.
Bruce Bradley, food-industry insider and author of Fat Profits
The Habit: "We live in a world where companies use marketing tricks to deceive us," Bradley says. "Be vigilant, dig for the truth, and share what you learn."
Make It Happen: Bradley used to work for the processed-food industry and he says this cuisine is made to look healthy. "Instead of accepting advertisements or product claims at face value, we must ask questions," he says. "In most cases, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is."
Nicole Faires, author of Food Tyrants
The Habit: "Each one of us is a contributor to the global damage. We gobble up energy, water, and land for our own pursuits, and one of the biggest ways we do this is through food production," she says. "Each one of us can change this by taking control of our own food supply and growing some vegetables."
Make It Happen: Globalization of our food supply has led to an incredible amount of waste and destruction, from the amount of water used and the way we sell it in stores to its transportation around the world. The solution? Grow a little bit yourself to get a taste of what it feels like to control your food source, and learn how to never throw food away again. "Even an apartment balcony can be home to an abundant container garden," Faires says.
Got a little more land? Rip out the turf grass and grow vegetables (after a soil test). "Lawns have become representative of our environmental negligence, and our carelessness towards our own health," Faires says.
The Habit: "Make sure your alma mater or your religious denomination, should you have either one, divests its fossil fuel stocks," says McKibben.
Make It Happen: Churches, universities and other major social institutions often invest their savings in stocks and mutual funds, as the rest of us do, and sometimes those stocks are purchased from coal, oil, and natural gas companies, the very same industries destroying our air and drinking water with mountaintop-removal mining and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Convince your groups to stop funding those polluting industries, McKibben says, and "weaken this most pernicious of industries." For help in getting started, visit gofossilfree.org.
The Habit: "Humility shows us that our role on earth is as nurturers, not exploiters," says Seifert. "And the truly humble person is filled with gratitude and joy. We need more of that, for sure!"
Make It Happen: The first step in learning humility is accepting that you don't have all the answers, he adds. It's important to take time and appreciate the nature around you, while recognizing that you don't know everything. "Humility is a right understanding and acceptance of our place in the universe, not as center and lords of all things, but as part of the interconnected whole."
Sonya Lunder, MP, a senior research analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group
The Habit: "Reduce your exposure to the highly toxic chemical BPA by not handling cash register receipts, many of which are coated with the substance," says Lunder. Why does the planet benefit? "This is one piece of paper you shouldn't toss in the recycle bin," she says. Recycling BPA-contaminated receipts contaminates other recycled-paper products, like napkins, tissues, and toilet paper.
Make It Happen: If you don't need the receipt, don't take it, she says. Decline receipts at ATMs and gas pumps, and ask store clerks not to print one, if that's an option, or even have your receipt emailed or texted to you, if possible. You'll protect yourself from a chemical linked to reproductive issues, heart problems, and diabetes and keep more unnecessary paper waste out of landfills.
Alicia Silverstone, actress, environmentalist and author of The Kind Diet, a guide to vegan diets
The Habit: "Follow a plant-based diet. It dials down our insane consumption of resources like fresh water, oil, coal, and the precious rain forest," says Silverstone. Thousands of gallons of water are required to raise a pound of beef, and clear-cutting rain forests to make room for cattle grazing lands is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon. Plus, she adds, going veg "helps heal the environment by denying support to toxic food industries."
Make It Happen: You don't have to give up meat entirely to save the world, but going meat-free for at least one meal a day or for one day a week makes a huge difference. According to the Environmental Working Group, if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles, or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.
The Habit: "The most important thing a person can do today to protect the planet, their health, and their freedom is to eat organic, eat non-GMO, know your farmer, know your food," Shiva says..
Make It Happen: Visit LocalHarvest.org to ID local and organic farmers in your neighborhood.
Chensheng Lu, PhD, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard School of Public Health
The Habit: Start shopping with bees in mind, and look for other ways to help save the bees. "If you never saw a honeybee in your life yet, that is ok. Just go to a supermarket. Two third of the edible items sold in there are directly linked to honeybees' pollinating effort," explains Lu. "If you do not care of honeybees' welfare, at least you should care of where you food will come from in the near future. The loss of this perennial nature pollinator would not only jeopardize the steady agricultural production, but also endanger the balance of ecological health. Give bees a chance."
Make It Happen: Choose organic foods. They ban the use of neonicotinoid seed coatings that scientists believe are causing colony collapse disorder.
Coach Mark Smallwood, executive director of Rodale Institute, a nonprofit research institution
The Habit: "It is a perfect way to reflect upon the legacy that we leave behind for future generations," Smallwood says. "When it comes to our good Mother Earth, the question will be 'So, were you involved in all of that?'" Your answer, he adds, can either be, "Yes, we were, and we're sorry and ashamed of ourselves. We blew it." Or you could say, "Yes, and I am so very proud to say that we left behind a better place."
Make It Happen: Do everything on this list! Reuse, reduce, then recycle, conserve water and other precious resources, and be mindful that every action you take on this earth will leave a legacy—and it's up to you to decide whether it's a legacy you want remembered.