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Fifty years of Earth Day — where did we go wrong?

Fifty years of Earth Day — where did we go wrong?
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Earth Day turns 50 today. This is a milestone in the environmental movement and should be a cause for celebration. But since 1970, our global carbon emissions have increased by 146 percent and our per capita emissions have increased from 4 to 4.9 metric tons.  

How did we go awry in our effort to save our Earth? Quite simply, we focused our attention in the wrong place. 

Science proves that climate change is real and that we are in an environmental crisis caused by human behavior. As individuals, we are advised to reduce our carbon footprints, reduce our waste and water consumption, switch to plant-based diets, choose local foods, make low-carbon choices, reduce, reuse and recycle. There is no end to the recommended actions for individuals to do their part in reducing our human impact on the planet. 

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This is where we went wrong; these recommendations are misplaced. While these recommendations can help, these are not the most effective actions you can take to produce the change that is needed to save our planet. The source of our environmental problem is the activities of business and industry and the most effective actions you can take are those that will force positive change within business and industry. 

Industries that produce our goods are the largest contributors to the greenhouse gas emissions that are polluting our air and causing climate change. Research has determined that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions and just 25 companies are responsible for 52 percent of global emissions. These companies are primarily gas and oil companies that emit significant greenhouse gasses during the fossil fuel exploration and drilling stages of production. Emissions continue when those fossil fuels are burned for energy. 

Industries are the largest producers of solid waste in the U.S. Although data is not tracked, industrial solid waste is estimated to account for 97 percent of U.S. national trash, while municipal solid waste accounts for 3 percent. Industrial wastewater is also not tracked but it is estimated that as much as 80 percent of global wastewater is not treated before being released back into the environment. 

Industries use the most freshwater in the United States. Industrial, commercial and agricultural activities account for 87 percent of U.S. freshwater usage while domestic and public activities account for 13 percent. Most freshwater in the U.S. is used by the thermoelectric-power industry to cool equipment and by the agricultural industry for irrigation.

To be sure, I am not encouraging you to abandon efforts to reduce your impact on the environment. While doing your part will help, the most influential actions you can take are to insist that business and industry take responsibility and make positive social and environmental change; you can do this through shareholder and stakeholder activism and through voting.

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If you own stock, you can demand more responsible activities from the company. If you have a retirement account, you can pressure your employer and investment firm to adopt socially responsible investing. If you are a concerned citizen, you can pressure industry regulators and certifying bodies to require business and industry to adopt socially and environmentally responsible operations. If you are a consumer, you can pressure businesses to have responsible operations and supply chains. 

But the fastest way to ensure change is through government legislation. Legislators can reallocate subsidies, implement taxes, or use other incentives to force positive social and environmental change for businesses and industries. You can vote for policymakers who will support this change. 

You can make a difference for the future of our planet and help us get on track for the next Earth Day. But your impact can be far greater than simply reducing, reusing and recycling. The greatest impacts you can have are to put pressure on businesses and industries to take responsibility and you can vote for politicians who will ensure positive social and environmental change.  

 Nancy E. Landrum, Ph.D., is a professor of Sustainability Management at Loyola University Chicago and a Fulbright Specialist in sustainability.