Environment

How folks got here to imagine that particular person selections might save the Earth

How people came to believe that individual choices could save the Earth


It was the late 1980s, and the headlines warned of acid rain, air air pollution, and contaminated water. So John Javna, then a author finest identified for books discovered on the again of bogs, traveled from drought-stricken California to Washington, D.C., along with his backpack, searching for sensible recommendation on learn how to save the world.

About to show 40, Javna had written the bestselling Uncle John’s Lavatory Reader sequence, filled with trivia just like the origin tales of Foolish Putty and Gatorade. However this time he needed to write down one thing that might ease his concern that the world was falling aside. He confirmed up on the workplaces of the large environmental teams in D.C., gathering books and pamphlets filled with eco-friendly suggestions (pre-internet, such issues have been tougher to search out) to cobble collectively a guide filled with inexperienced recommendation. Javna remembers being informed by one environmental advocate that he was losing his time.

His publishers weren’t keen on his concept, both. So in November 1989, with out fanfare, Javna self-published the guide he’d written in his attic in California: 50 Easy Issues You Can Do to Save the Earth. The information featured “unbelievable simple” steps, like putting in low-flow showerheads and bringing fabric luggage to the grocery retailer.

After which, seemingly out of nowhere, the guide turned a cultural phenomenon. With gross sales buoyed by media protection and occasions surrounding Earth Day’s 20th anniversary in 1990, 50 Easy Issues topped bestseller lists. It went on to promote 5 million copies and was translated into 23 languages, together with Turkish and Bulgarian. The recognition spurred greater than a dozen spinoffs within the 50 Easy Issues sequence — together with a children’ model that Chelsea Clinton learn rising up within the White Home — that ultimately offered simply as many copies as the unique.

“It was a reasonably odd expertise,” Javna stated. “You’re sitting there doing the identical factor you’ve at all times performed, and out of the blue the entire world begins you, leaping up and down, and calling you on the telephone.”

50 Easy Issues had its share of critics, inspiring a style of takedowns. They argued that significant change required advanced and large-scale coverage modifications, not easy fixes. In 1991, Gar Smith wrote the article “50 Troublesome Issues You Can Do to Save the Earth,” that includes hardcore suggestions (“go to jail for one thing you imagine in”) and requires collective motion (“go a nature modification to the U.S. Structure”). A number of years later, J. Robert Hunter wrote Easy Issues Received’t Save the Earth, arguing that the rising reputation of eco-friendly merchandise and habits gave folks the misunderstanding that environmental crises have been being solved.

By the mid-90s, Javna had joined the critics. “I had this imaginative and prescient that it might be a gateway, an entry level, for folks, and that they might get increasingly more concerned,” he stated. “After a couple of years, it was fairly clear that they weren’t.” Individuals have been simply snipping their plastic six-pack rings, feeling a bit of higher about themselves, and calling it a day.

50 Easy Issues was featured on the entrance web page of USA Right this moment, January 24, 1990. John Javna

So Javna pulled his guide from print and moved his household to rural Oregon, the place he nonetheless lives right now, twenty years later. He even stopped taking his personal eco-friendly suggestions.

“What did it matter if I recycled paper, if the traditional forests have been nonetheless being chopped down?” Javna wrote in reflection in 2008. “Who cared if I celebrated ‘no automotive day’ when 80 % of the automobiles on the highway had one individual in them? There was mercury within the air, and tons of waste was being dumped within the ocean each day. Each time I seemed within the rubbish and noticed a pile of aluminum cans, I felt like giving up.”

Whereas many local weather activists right now are demanding a whole overhaul of the economic system and political system, they proceed to wrestle with their private contributions to the local weather disaster: air journey, meat-eating, driving a automotive. At this 12 months’s Golden Globe Awards — the place the menu was fully vegan and glasses of water changed plastic bottles — celebrities referred to as on one another to step up. “It’s nice to vote, however typically we have now to take that accountability on ourselves and make modifications and sacrifices in our personal lives,” stated Joaquin Phoenix, who gained Finest Actor. “We don’t need to take personal jets to Palm Springs for the awards.”

Particular person accountability for the atmosphere has change into what Javna calls “the wallpaper of tradition” — taken as a right. Regardless of promoting almost as many copies as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the guide that launched a wave of consciousness across the pesticide DDT within the 1960s, 50 Easy Issues has been largely forgotten by the general public. The guide doesn’t also have a Wikipedia web page. But it may need modified how hundreds of thousands of individuals take into consideration their position in environmental destruction — and the way they act in response.

Sidewalk artwork from Earth Day 1990. Ron Bull / Toronto Star by way of Getty Photographs

In 2006, Javna’s 13-year-old daughter, Sophie, requested him why their household didn’t compost anymore. “It’s best to care about these things!” she remembers pondering. “You’re like the one who ought to care.”

Sophie was near her dad rising up. They’d go on walks on the path behind their home in Ashland, speaking about life, and as she received extra enthusiastic about recycling and farmers markets, she began getting on his case. Her conversations along with her dad prompted him to revive the long-dead guide and rewrite it in collaboration along with his children, with a brand new focus.

“It dawned on me that I couldn’t afford to be cynical — I needed to maintain making an attempt to make the world higher — as a result of I like my son and daughter, and since I like this planet,” Javna wrote within the introduction to the revised 2008 version of 50 Easy Issues.

The brand new guide was nonetheless damaged into steps however inspired readers to choose one trigger — like bringing again the electrical automotive or saving coral reefs — and become involved with environmental organizations, strain corporations to do higher, and foyer their legislators for his or her trigger. In different phrases, no extra slacktivism.


The concept people might assist repair the planet’s overwhelming environmental issues was already a part of the American psyche in 1970, the 12 months of the very first Earth Day, when 20 million People joined within the occasions. Throughout the nation, demonstrators demanded that politicians clear up the air and water, and the following decade introduced the institution of the Environmental Safety Company together with the Clear Water Act and Endangered Species Act, together with scores of environmental rules.

“In 1970, everybody took as a right that robust legal guidelines have been wanted to guard and clear up the atmosphere,” stated Adam Rome, professor of atmosphere and sustainability on the College of Buffalo.

The flurry of environmental motion books that got here out within the early 1970s included sensible recommendation, like learn how to make your personal cleaning soap, however they tended to conclude with a stirring name for residents to demand large-scale change. The kids’s guide S.O.S. Save Our Earth, printed in 1972, ends with a piece telling children to ship postcards with examples of air pollution to their metropolis council, members of Congress, and the Inside Division, chargeable for overseeing nationwide parks and forests.

After which got here the 1980s, a tricky decade for the environmental motion. Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency, in its zeal to unleash the free market, eroded religion in authorities motion. “It was eight misplaced years — years of misplaced time that can’t be made up and the place plenty of harm was performed that will not be reparable,” George T. Frampton Jr, then-president of the Wilderness Society, informed the New York Instances in 1989, the identical 12 months that Javna self-published 50 Easy Issues.

The period introduced a shift in how People considered themselves — not a lot as residents however as shoppers who might vote with their spending energy.

The technique of boycotting Coca-Cola for its involvement in apartheid South Africa ended up working in 1986, when the corporate withdrew its operations from the nation. All through the 1990s, Nike confronted boycotts over low wages and poor working situations in its factories. Environmentalists thought one thing comparable might work for them. The main target shifted from collective motion to client motion: pushing companies to be extra sustainable and residing a greener way of life.

A Expensive Abby column from July 1990 referred to as 50 Easy Issues  “required studying for everybody getting into the 21st century.” John Javna

In his introduction to the unique 50 Easy Issues, Chris Calwell of the Pure Assets Protection Council, wrote that establishments alone couldn’t clear up environmental issues, however the sum of hundreds of thousands of individuals taking motion simply would possibly. “My trash, your use of inefficient automobiles, another person’s water use — all make the planet much less livable for the kids of right now and tomorrow. However bear in mind: as a lot as we’re the foundation of the issue, we’re additionally the genesis of its resolution. Go to it!”

That form of pondering had it backwards, Rome stated. “Solely individuals who had been worn out from a decade of preventing would say that, as a result of it’s clearly the alternative of what it is advisable to say. Till establishments change, we aren’t going to resolve any of those issues.”


After the Javnas completed rewriting 50 Easy Issues in 2008, they turned their focus to the meals system. Sophie now lives in Minneapolis and serves on the Fairness, Inclusion, and Justice committee of the nationwide department of Gradual Meals, a company working for a cleaner, fairer meals system. And through the Nice Recession, when Javna’s native meals financial institution in Ashland introduced it may need to shut some days, he determined to do one thing about it.

“My neighbors could be completely prepared to provide one thing if it was made simple for them,” Javna remembers pondering. So he helped develop a system to go door-to-door to choose up meals, which became the Ashland Meals Mission in 2009. It’s nonetheless going right now. Donors fill a inexperienced bag with nonperishable meals as soon as each two months and put it outdoors their entrance door. The neighborhood coordinators choose up the luggage and ship them to native meals banks. The concept is that every individual does a small half — a “easy factor” — however understands that their half is simply as important as everybody else’s.

“We hope that this may change into a special form of paradigm in grassroots motion,” Javna stated. The mission has introduced hundreds of thousands of kilos of meals to native meals banks, with almost 1 / 4 of households in Ashland collaborating. The mannequin has unfold to dozens of communities, spawning impartial Meals Initiatives from the West Coast to Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Florida.

50 Easy Issues taught me that you are able to do one thing small in your attic, and it might probably have this sudden affect on different folks,” Javna stated. Along with his work in Ashland, he’s spent the final decade determining learn how to design a system for social change that makes it simple and compelling for folks to remain concerned as an alternative of dropping steam. “You’re taking anyone’s impulse to do one thing on their very own and mix it with different folks’s impulse to do it on their very own, and engineer a system that makes it attainable for every of them to play an element in creating a much bigger affect,” he stated.

John Javna

Twenty years after 50 Easy Issues got here out, the environmental motion is gaining momentum once more. Or relatively, “Momentum” — a comparatively new organizing technique that’s influenced the Black Lives Matter motion in addition to local weather activism teams like Extinction Insurrection and the Dawn Motion. It presents a blueprint for sustaining social actions, as an alternative of watching them peter out after a protest or two. As Rebecca Leber wrote for Mom Jones, the concept behind it’s to provide you with a story of what you need to accomplish, appeal to a wider base by means of protests, after which spherical up keen new members to affix in-person trainings. Filling metropolis streets with one well-attended march is only the start, relatively than the tip purpose.

“In the long run, if something works, it’s not spreading your self as skinny as attainable and doing the simplest attainable issues,” Javna stated. The trail to success, he believes, is becoming a member of a group of individuals making an attempt to alter one thing for the higher — and if the system is ready up successfully, then doing the precise factor turns into easy.

This story was initially printed by Grist with the headline How folks got here to imagine that particular person selections might save the Earth on Jan 16, 2020.