We Are the World


By Carmel Wroth  |  

If you read enough headlines about the current state of the environment—icecaps melting, species disappearing, water tables drying up—you’re likely to get discouraged about the future of our planet. But along with all of these very real disasters, something else is going on—something inspiring and exhilarating—and if you pay attention, it just might reinvigorate your motivation to help make a better world.

There is, right now, a global outpouring of passion to solve our eco-troubles, coupled with boundless innovation in service of the greater good. People around the world are patenting inventions, starting Earth-conscious businesses, and forming organizations to rethink the way we live.

Paul Hawken, a leading environmentalist and the author of Blessed Unrest, says that, taken collectively, those of us who are bringing forth new ideas and committing to living more lightly on the earth make up the biggest movement in history, one with the potential to uplift humanity and the environment. And in a movement like this, every good idea and every sincere effort counts. “Whether it’s a cell, a bug, or a weed, everything in life starts small,” says Hawken. “The beauty of small acts is that they cannot be stopped. There is no inconsequential action, only consequential inaction. Real transformation originates from the bottom and moves outwards.”

Nature adapts to challenges with an outpouring of life. Rivers change direction to move around obstacles. Weeds take root on burned hillsides, preventing erosion. Humanity is no different. We are part of nature and are a vibrant living system like any other. And the very traits that created many of our environment’s problems—the brilliance, restlessness, and inventiveness of our minds—are our greatest assets in facing our challenges.

“There are all the negative statistics about the environment, but there’s also this rising energy of creativity and life force,” says Gillian Kapteyn Comstock, a yoga teacher and co-director of the Metta Earth Institute in Lincoln, Vermont. “There are so many people being generative and thinking up solutions.”

To follow, you’ll find life-altering innovations from change makers and yogis around the world. It’s uplifting to consider the efforts and progress being made to reverse the tide of environmental devastation. Learning about all the cool projects others have started may inspire you to start one of your own.

If it does, take some time to be in nature. Spend quiet, reflective moments in meditation. Ask yourself what kind of world you want to live in and what you can contribute to the quality of life on Earth. Then offer up your best!

Rethinking Energy

Game Changer: Fresh-Grown Fuel

Millions of years ago, before oil was oil, it was algae—tiny marine plants that were compressed beneath the prehistoric ocean floor. Now, scientists have discovered new methods of harnessing sunlight and carbon dioxide to turn pond scum into oil in months, not millennia. Last November, United Airlines flew the first commercial flight in the United States powered by this renewable biofuel, and the airline has signed on to buy millions of gallons in the future. The Navy is getting in on the action, too. It has ordered 450,000 gallons of biofuel (including algae and cooking oil) to test in its ships and planes.

Think About This: A single round-trip, cross-country flight is the carbon-emitting equivalent of two months’ worth of driving in a medium-sized car. But algae remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, so burning biofuel gets jet passengers where they need to go with no net increase in heat-trapping gases.

One Thing You Can Do: Flash Mob for the Planet

How can the average citizen be heard by the corporations and governments that make world-changing decisions about our climate and environment? Environmental nonprofit 350.org says the answer is banding together and sending a message that goes viral. Last November, the group organized 12,000 people to encircle the White House, helping to convince President Obama to reject the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Last year, more than 2,000 groups in 175 countries planned marches, bike rides, yoga classes, and flash dances to remind governments at the UN climate talks that millions care about the planet. Images and video from the actions were shown during the climate talks in Durban. Learn more at 350.org.

Bright Idea: Green Lantern

Nearly 1.3 billion people around the world live off the grid, and not by choice. In developing countries, the rural poor often have to use kerosene lamps to work or study after dark, and they must walk miles to get a cell phone charged. Greenlight Planet, a start-up company run by yoga teacher Radhika Thakkar and several business partners, distributes affordable solar-powered lanterns that produce up to 16 hours of light (larger models can produce 30 hours of light and charge a cell phone) to rural homes in 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Since its founding in 2008, Greenlight Planet has brought clean, green light to almost 1 million people.

Feel the Power: A Good Reason to Practice Jumpbacks

When most people think of clean energy, they think of wind turbines or solar panels. Sustainable designer Elizabeth Redmond thinks of the human body. POWERleap, the company she founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2008, develops flooring that harvests electricity from the vibrations created by footfalls. The technology could soon be coming to a mall, dance club, or stadium near you, creating a hyperlocal form of renewable energy. Redmond and other innovators envision embedding the technology on roads, in shoes, and on stairways to power streetlights, gadgets, and small appliances. In fact, Redmond, a yoga practitioner, says her technology could even find its way into sticky mats.

Eco-Practice: Renewable Wisdom

At least twice a month, Los Angeles-based yoga teacher Shiva Rea spends a day without electricity (and that includes her cell phone and laptop). Unplugging for a day is a practice, she says, with personal and environmental benefits. It lowers your carbon output while raising your awareness of your own energy consumption. And it lets you recharge by slowing down and living electronics free.

Power Retreat: To take yourself off the grid, try this practice. First, let go. Disconnect from all of your carbon-creating activities.

Commit: Choose a full-day or half-day retreat.

Pull the Plug: Unplug all appliances except your refrigerator.

Go Tech Free: Power down your computer, cell phone, and television.

Park It: Keep your car parked and walk, bike, or ride the bus if you want to go somewhere.

Then, tune in to your surroundings and your personal energy.

Illumine: Try oil lamps, soy or beeswax candles, or natural light.

Connect: Spend time connecting with friends and family.

Breathe: Practice asana and meditation.

Reflect: Read something that nourishes you.

Be Wild: To outside for a walk, bike ride, or more-playful activities.

Tech’n It to the Streets

Imagine reducing your energy use by 43 percent in one week through small daily choices. That’s what students at an Oberlin College dorm did by using a digital tool called Building Dashboard, which shows users in real time how simple actions such as powering down a computer or unplugging appliances can reduce energy consumption. Made by clean-technology firm Lucid from Oakland, California, Building Dashboard makes it easy for people in corporate offices and apartments to see their energy consumption. Though the Oberlin students achieved their energy savings through a campus-wide competition, Lucid reports sustained energy reductions of between 10 and 20 percent for corporate and collegiate users, proving that real-time visual feedback in a group setting helps people voluntarily consume less—and have fun doing it.

Think About This: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the US come from commercial and industrial buildings. Even a 10 percent increase in energy efficiency would be the emissions-reduction equivalent of taking 30 million cars off the road.

Rethinking Our Relationship to Stuff

Game Changer: Sharing 2.0

Despite your best efforts to reduce your consumer footprint, sometimes baby really does need new shoes. Now, a growing number of businesses are promoting an idea known as “collaborative consumption,” which uses online networks to make it easy to borrow or barter for what you want, reducing the need to buy new stuff. On NeighborGoods (neighborgoods.net), members lend or rent household items such as lawnmowers or juicers. Sites such as I-Ella (i-ella.com) and Swapstyle (swapstyle.com) let you trade, sell, or borrow stylish clothing and accessories. ThredUP (thredup.com) gives parents a way to trade outgrown kids’ clothes for the next size. Swap.com (swap.com) offers electronics, video games, and more. BookMooch (bookmooch.com) is a trading place for book lovers. The movement even includes transportation: RelayRides (relayrides.com) lets you rent out your car by the hour to others who need wheels.

Plastic Protest: Kick Your Bag Habit

Yogi, activist, and entrepreneur Andy Keller is at the forefront of the battle to eliminate our reliance on single-use plastic bags. His ally? The Bag Monster, a floppy costume that Keller created out of 500 plastic shopping bags, the approximate number the average American discards each year. The comically scary character has made thousands of appearances at city council meetings, in schools, and in viral videos. Keller sells a line of reusable grocery sacks through his company, Chico-Bag, based in Chico, California. He has personally campaigned for city- and statewide plastic bag bans and has donated thousands of reusable sacks to community groups to help raise awareness of needless and harmful plastic waste. “My goal is to help humanity kick the single-use bag habit,” he says. “If you take a moment and think, ‘Do I actually need that bag?’ the answer is often no. That’s the big challenge: taking a moment to think.”

Think About This: Plastic bags are made from nonrenewable petroleum, and few of the 100 billion bags Americans use each year are recycled (about 3 percent, according to 2009 data from California). To date, 28 cities have banned single-use bags. Learn more at bagmonster.com.

One Thing You Can Do: Think Twice, Buy Once

“We are using up the resources of 1.5 planets. That is a long way from sustainability. Every product made takes something from the planet that we can’t give back. So think twice before you buy anything. Think about what went into making that product. Buy better quality, but buy less. Your shopping habits are where you control your impact on natural resources.” —Yvon Chouinard, founder and CEO of outdoor-apparel company Patagonia.

Eco-Practice: Nurture Nature

“True conscious consumption begins with awareness that we are one with nature. You can care about the planet intellectually and emotion-ally, but to actually comprehend that we are nature requires an embodied experience,” says Gillian Kapteyn Comstock of the Metta Earth Institute, an ecological retreat center in Lincoln, Vermont. She offers the following practice for deepening your ecological consciousness.

1. Sit down and begin audible Ujjayi breathing. Notice the sound and sensation of your breath as you inhale and exhale.

2. As you breathe in, realize that you are inhaling molecules that were once in the clouds, the trees, or another creature’s lungs.

3. As you breathe out, imagine your breath flowing back into the atmosphere to be breathed back in by other people or animals.

4. Continue until you begin to feel that you are your environment, that you are literally connected through your breath with all of life. Sit for at least two or three minutes, or until you feel the awareness settle into your body and mind. Carry this ecological consciousness with you throughout the day and let it affect your choices.

Simple Solution: Naked Groceries

Advocates of healthful eating suggest shopping the grocery store’s perimeter to avoid the processed and packaged foods displayed in the center aisles. A team of entrepreneurs in Austin, Texas, have a better idea: eliminate the middle altogether. Their store, in.gredients, scheduled to open this summer, will be entirely packaging free, encouraging customers to reconsider their shopping and cooking habits. The goal, says co-founder Christian Lane, is to encourage a zero-waste lifestyle, one that he strives to live. “We practice pre-cycling by refusing to create waste in the first place,” he says.

Think About This: Thirty percent of the waste we create each year in the US comes from product packaging (roughly 75 million tons).

Cellular Rejuvenation: Call For You

Sprint’s Samsung Replenish smartphone is composed of 82 percent recyclable materials and encased in 35 percent recycled plastic. With decent processing power and a full array of features, the $50 Samsung Replenish is a respectable entry-level Android—one that can get its charge directly from the sun with an optional solar-paneled battery cover. Now that’s a smart phone.

Think About This: Some 129 million mobile devices, made of precious (and toxic) metals and plastics, were deposited in landfills in 2009, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Upcycled: Message in a Bottle

Proving that even tiny scraps of ocean plastic waste can be recovered and turned into a viable resource, Method, a manufacturer of cleaning products based in San Francisco, has recycled some of the plastic that washed ashore from the North Pacific Gyre. Method teamed up with recycler Envision Plastics and beach clean-up organizations in Hawaii to collect, clean, and re-engineer ocean plastic into material as good as virgin plastic to make bottles for their line of cleaning products this year.

RETHINKING OUR HABITAT

Game Changer: Take Me to the River

Colorful island gardens float on a major waterway in downtown Manila, the capital of the Philippines and home to 1.6 million people. Underneath the surface, these man-made islands hold an innovative water pollution treatment system in the form of floating panels that create a protective home for pollution-eating bacteria. Inspired by the structure of coral reefs, scientists at Biomatrix Water, a Scottish engineering firm, designed the system to adapt to the flow of currents and withstand flooding. The islands are turning what was once a polluted, eco-logically dead waterway into a thriving ecosystem that supports fish and birds. Galen Fulford, a yoga practitioner and managing partner of Biomatrix, says: “By studying nature’s success stories, we can make technology that’s robust, beautiful, and in harmony with the natural world.”

Green-Topia: Forest in the Sky

Trees in cities provide critical benefits. They cool buildings, clean polluted air, and provide a habitat for birds and insects. But when land is scarce, creative gardening is called for. Bosco Verticale, a pair of skyscrapers under construction in Milan, Italy, will support plant life on their balconies and outer walls, including 730 trees, 5,000 shrubs, and 11,000 ground plants—the equivalent of a small forest.

Insular Thinking: School Houses Rock

Sometimes the best innovation arises not from sci-fi-type novelty, but by rearranging puzzle pieces into a new shape. At Richardsville Elementary in Bowling Green, Kentucky—one of the country’s first net-zero-energy schools—the classrooms wrap around the gym and cafeteria, insulating the energy-hogging large rooms so that they need less heating and cooling. The school also has geothermal heating, rooftop solar panels, rainwater harvesting for irrigation, and TV screens that let students and teachers monitor energy and water use in real time.

Think About This: Green schools use an average of 30 percent less energy and water than conventional schools, saving about $100,000 per year. Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools in Washington, DC, says the students who attend them learn valuable lessons in saving resources.

Eco-Practice: Thank Your Mother

The call to protect Earth may feel especially urgent in our time, but it’s not new to yoga. Praise of Mother Earth, a new translation of the section of the Vedas known as Prithivi Sukta, shows that honoring the sacredness of nature was a practice in the early days of yoga. Co-translated by Christopher Key Chapple, a professor of Indic and comparative theology at Loyola Marymount University, the Prithivi Sukta is illuminating to read today. “The hills, forests, and plants all can be seen through the eyes of yoga with renewed gratitudeand appreciation,” says Chapple, who is an environmentalist and yoga practitioner. “By reading these verses, a spark of recognition grows into a profound love for Mother Earth and, from that love, a desire to protect and revere our wonder-filled planet.”

Earth is adorned with many hills plains and slopes.

She bears plants with medicinal properties,

May no person oppress her,

And may she spread prosperity for us all around.

—from Praise of Mother Earth

Art Attack: Greenwashing

From San Francisco to Sao Paolo, a handful of street artists are broadcasting environmental wake-up calls with an art known as reverse graffiti. Armed with wire brushes and water sprayers, they clean away pollution to create reverse images that stand out on sidewalks and walls. British artist Moose Curtis created a picture of a forest in a sooty San Francisco tunnel and another, of flying birds, on a police station in Bristol, England. “Every mark I make becomes an environmental message, as it shows how dirty our world is,” says Curtis. “People see there’s no paint involved and they stop to take a closer look.”

Urban Outfitters: Is That a Farm in Your Window?

New York City artists Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray believed the impossible: You can grow a garden inside a big-city apartment. Their invention, Windowfarms, outfits a window with a set of hanging planters that lets you “farm” everything from salad greens and fresh herbs to cherry tomatoes indoors. By using hydroponic cultivation (feeding plants with liquid organic fertilizer), they have eliminated the need for dirt and bulky pots, using old soda bottles instead. Today, some 30,000 Windowfarmers have joined the movement. Go to windowfarms.org.

Natural Wonder: Leave It to Beavers

Seeking solutions to declining water tables in many western states, several groups of environmentalists are promoting a wild idea: why not turn to nature’s most talented hydro-engineer, the beaver? “Beavers make better habitats than we could ever make,” says Brock Dolman of the California Beaver Working Group, an organization that protects beavers in California’s watersheds. The rodents’ naturally engineered systems help control flooding and erosion, hold water in the water table in dry months, and make ponds that support wildlife. It’s brilliant: Beavers put in hours of hard labor to build water-saving dams, with no oversight and no salary required.

Picture This: Animal App

Your smartphone isn’t just for texting. A new app allows you to contribute to scientific research and connect with other explorers of the natural world. Project Noah lets you upload and share pictures (time stamped and location tagged) of all the rare and wonderful species you see around you, whether you’re on an island vacation or walking in the local park. You can browse participants’ sightings—from leatherback turtles to Arctic foxes—on a map. Upload your own findings and have the satisfaction of building an ongoing database of knowledge. Join collaborative missions such as the Mushroom Mapping project, sponsored by Columbia University to spread knowledge about mushroom habitats, or perhaps one that tracks butterfly migration patterns.

Bright Idea: Play For Change

Video games may have a reputation for escapism, but they can also be a force for good. With the World Bank Institute, Jane McGonigal, a yoga student and game developer in Silicon Valley, created Evoke, a game that taps into people’s heroic impulses. Taking the form of a graphic novel, Evoke lets players try on fantasy personas and go on missions to fight various social and environmental ills. In this year’s version of the game, players tackle waste management in Brazil, receiving points for uploading videos and pictures of real-world waste-reducing actions. A final mission asks players to envision a social enterprise that could solve the trash problem in their community. Winners will be eligible for real-world funding.

Anna Dubrovsky, Josie Garthwaite, Katherine Griffin, Shannon Sexton, and Sarah Terry-Cobo contributed reporting to this article.