When Sylvia Earle was a child, the Gulf of Mexico was her backyard. Her parents encouraged her love of the outdoors, and always taught her to leave a place better than she found it. Three decades later, she was the first person to walk solo on the ocean floor at a depth of more than a quarter of a mile, and later the first chief scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. An oceanographer, she has become one of the worldʼs most vocal ocean advocates, and a leading figure in the environmental movement.
Not everyone can be a full-time environmentalist or a world-famous oceanographer, however. For individuals, the question of what an ordinary person can do to help the environment has become increasingly difficult. Many people would like to leave the world a better place than they find it, but at a time of heatwaves, wildfires, and rising carbon emissions, that task seems very daunting.
Ms Earle sees room for hope, though. “The most important thing is knowing,” she says. “We all have the opportunity armed with knowledge to turn things around.”
She points to the recent focus on plastics, and the growing awareness of how small plastic pieces contribute to the build-up of toxins in the ocean. “Now that we know we have a problem, we have a fighting chance of solving it.”
The reason the anti-plastics movement has been so popular is because it presents something concrete, an aspect of daily life where individual action can have an immediate and satisfying result.
The food we eat and the things we buy are also a big source of emissions. Cutting down on red meat and buying less are two of the most direct ways to reduce individual carbon footprints. Prof Berners-Leeʼs most recent research finds that if food consumption trends continue on their current trajectory, the earth will need to produce 119 per cent more food by 2050.
“It doesnʼt have to be done overnight, none of us have to go vegetarian or vegan . . . But we do need to get on a different trajectory over the next decades,” adds the academic, who is brother of inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Home heating and car travel are other areas where individuals can have a direct impact. Heating and cooling can be made efficient with better insulation and design. Avoiding car travel, or opting for a ride-share or electric vehicle where possible, can also cut emissions.
“Part of it is what we do in our own carbon footprint, and part of it is what are the ripple effects that go out from what we do,” Prof Berners-Lee says. “How you exert your systemic influence in all those other ways — what do you do at work, how you vote, etc.”
Even the most ambitious individual carbon-cutting efforts can go only so far, because of the energy systems already in place in the world.
“What we really need to think about is how can we create the conditions where, as a species, as a planet, as a global society, we can manage those emissions downward,” he says. “There is no escaping the need for some sort of global co- ordinated response.”