What can you do for the climate? (Not everything, but start here.)
How to find joy in mitigating climate change.
Joy can strengthen our resolve, help us unlock creativity, and bolster our resilience. In Fix’s Joy Issue, we explore the importance and power of finding joy in the face of grief, anger, and a changing climate.
What can I do?
How can I do more?
Am I doing enough?
It’s safe to say everyone in the climate movement has been haunted by these questions at one time or another. An individual can never really do “enough” when confronting a problem as complex and gargantuan as the climate crisis — and it will never feel like enough when we care, as we ought to, for the fate of our planet, our communities, and ourselves.
Once you’ve gone vegetarian, should you go vegan? Once you’ve attended one climate protest, should you organize the next one? Once you’ve started volunteering with a climate organization, should you quit your job, sell your car, and devote every ounce of your energy to climate solutions? “You’ll burn yourself out if you think you can be everything all at once,” says Kristy Drutman, an environmental justice advocate, host of the Brown Girl Green podcast, and a 2022 Grist 50 honoree. As a passionate young professional in the climate movement, she’s had to recognize her own strengths as well as her limitations. “I can’t be at every protest,” Drutman says. “That’s not even necessarily the work I want to do.” Accepting that doesn’t make her less of an advocate — it means she’s found more effective ways to direct her unique skills toward solutions.
It’s hard to keep guilt and anxiety entirely at bay. But one antidote can be to put real thought into the actions you want to take, then give yourself permission to let go of the rest. I should be doing more feels vague and troubling. I’m showing up to every march in my city — but I need my beef jerky to fuel me while I walk is specific. It’s intentional.
“I try to think small rather than think big,” says Nathaniel Stinnett, founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project and a 2016 Grist 50 honoree. “I really think the key to joyfulness within the climate crisis is not to always think about the enormity of the problem and how can I, as one person, overcome this enormous problem,” Stinnett says. Instead, he suggests focusing on the climate challenges and opportunities within your own life, and how you can succeed at those.
So here are some ways you can succeed: 13 ideas for actions you can take (or leave) for the planet — as suggested by people who spend their time thinking about this — by changing your lifestyle, using your voice, or volunteering your time. Find the ones that spark joy and commit to those, but don’t beat yourself up over the others. It’s not about perfection. It’s about doing the most and the best you can for your planet, your community, and yourself.
Use Your Voice
Vote in every election
Exercising your right to vote is one of the most fundamental ways to make your voice heard — especially if you do it with the climate in mind.
The 2020 presidential election saw record turnout, yet about a third of eligible adults didn’t cast a ballot. For local elections, which are arguably an even more crucial opportunity to have an impact, turnout trends are even worse. Choosing not to vote often comes down to the feeling that your voice doesn’t matter. But over a dozen U.S. elections have been decided by a single vote, or ended in a tie during the past 20 years. And, like any climate action, voting can be seen as contributing to a collective shift, rather than taking all the weight of the movement onto your own ballot-casting shoulders.
“I think most Americans appropriately feel pretty cynical about politics,” the Environmental Voter Project’s Nathaniel Stinnett says. People often believe that politicians will say or do just about anything to win. But that’s not a bad thing, he notes. “That realization actually shows us how much power we have.”
The Environmental Voter Project seeks to turn election-skipping environmentalists into “super voters.” Stinnett believes that if everyone who cares about the climate would vote consistently, the movement could become an unstoppable political force. When citizens speak up about their priorities, especially around elections, politicians are more inclined to listen — or risk not getting elected. Given the ecological and political climate we’re in, it has never been more important for individuals to do their civic duty. “Simply participating in the process, simply voting, means that you’re going to have an outsized influence on climate policymaking,” Stinnett says. Register to vote, check your registration, find your polling place, and even set election reminders at Vote.org.
Use Your Voice
Go to protests
Another classic way to make your voice heard is to carry a megaphone and march down the street — literally.
Climate demonstrations have drawn millions of people in cities all over the world, especially in the years before the pandemic. These protests have become increasingly youth-led, organized by groups like Fridays for Future, Zero Hour, Earth Guardians, and Sunrise Movement. (Check out any of their websites to find out about planned actions near you, or other ways to get involved.)
Protests aren’t necessarily happy experiences in their own right. “It’s not always a joyful feeling,” says Leah Thomas, a climate activist, writer, and founder of Intersectional Environmentalist (and a 2021 Grist 50 honoree). “Sometimes it’s a feeling of mourning or urgency.” But it’s like running a relay race: You’re working hard and possibly in pain, but the feeling of collective accomplishment afterward is what makes the effort worthwhile — and, of course, the celebratory drinks with your comrades. “Getting to just hang out with activists and talk about things that have nothing to do with the environment, those moments bring me a lot of joy,” Thomas says, “where we realize that we can be fighting for our planet, but also have a good time together.”
If you’re active on any social media, be it Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, or even LinkedIn, you have a platform.
With so much of our lives happening online, social media is increasingly used for things like activism and education as well as connection. Although there isn’t a ton of definitive research on the effects of social media advocacy, studies suggest it can play a positive role in influencing opinions, knowledge, and behavior around climate change. If you’re already active on social sites, it’s also mad easy to get started. Supporting climate causes online can be as simple as retweeting your favorite orgs or advocates (or even sharing climate memes).
Some people may insist that social media is the world’s toilet. But others, like Kristy Drutman of Brown Girl Green, have found meaningful connection and joy in engaging on social platforms. “Part of my activism is getting to learn about initiatives and efforts [of other environmental organizations] and figure out ways that I can amplify and support,” says Drutman, who has nearly 65,000 followers on Instagram. Listening to and lifting up the voices of others — particularly people and organizations on the front lines of the climate crisis — can be just as important as using your own. If you have a mic, try passing it. Check out groups like the Uproot Project, a network of environmental journalists of color (Grist is a founding partner), or Green Voices of Color to listen, learn, and amplify.
Use Your Voice
Have ‘the climate talk’
Do you have friends or family who are totally out of the loop on climate issues? (Don’t we all?) Personal conversations matter — perhaps even more than what you say from behind a literal or metaphorical megaphone.
Friends and family are some of our most trusted sources of information. And, for people who are already climate aware, talking can be an important way of processing the chaotic emotions that come with life on a changing planet, while also reminding us that we’re not in this alone.
A 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that discussing climate change can create a positive feedback loop in which people become more likely to continue learning about the issue, then have more discussions with more people. So there may be real value in being “that friend” who won’t shut up about climate change. The podcast How to Save a Planet has an episode on how to approach climate conversations with pals or relatives who you don’t see eye-to-eye with.
Green Your Lifestyle
Eat more plants
The greenest choice on the menu is always steering clear of land-chomping, water-polluting, carbon- and methane-spewing animal agriculture.
Although meat and dairy are beloved for their taste and their significance in many cuisines and cultures, we know that the future of food will look less fleshy and more veggie. Whether that feels like a sacrifice is all in how you look at it.
You don’t have to go vegan to reduce the carbon in your diet. But for those who do decide to embrace veganism or vegetarianism (or another -ism), there are many reasons to love it. For Todd Anderson (who goes by Turnip Vegan on Instagram), eschewing animal products came down to health concerns. Following a particularly bad hangover after a trip to Vegas, Anderson watched the documentary Food Choicesand learned, among other things, that humans are the only animals that drink milk from other species. “By the end of the documentary, I made the decision to try to eat vegan for a couple weeks and see how it goes,” he says.
As he approaches his sixth year of vegan living, Anderson has made it his life’s work to share the learning and the joy with others through his Instagram account, two e-books of recipes, and his San Diego cafe (which closed during COVID, but will likely reopen soon). “These have been the happiest five and a half years of my life,” he says.
Although it is possible to eat an unhealthy vegan diet, consuming mostly plants can reduce blood pressure and lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes.This isn’t some hip new health or eco trend, either — plant-based diets have deep roots in the African diaspora, as well as in many Asian cuisines. Even the idea of fake meat has been around for centuries. Food choices are deeply personal, so understanding the history of plant-based diets as well as the climate benefits can help determine if it’s the right move for you.
If you’re curious about cutting back on meat, Anderson suggests that you don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Try preparing a plant-based version of a favorite dish, or find a vegetarian or vegan restaurant that makes something you love. Treating yourself to scrumptious vegan food might defy your expectations about the culinary pleasures you’ll find in a different diet.
And don’t forget the fungi. One of Anderson’s go-tos right now is lion’s mane mushroom — “I will use that to make anything from crab cakes to a Nashville vegan chicken sandwich.”
Green Your Lifestyle
Choose sustainable fashion
Not only is it #ontrend, greening your wardrobe can be a true delight. Fashion, like food, is deeply personal, so of course we want it to align with our values.
And it’s well known that the fast-fashion industry is an environmental nightmare, accounting for 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (that’s worse than air travel) and 20 percent of wastewater. Kristy Drutman has found sustainable fashion to be one of the most tangible forms of climate action in her personal life. “It’s how we express ourselves and how we carry our creativity, while also thinking about the planet,” she says. For her, green fashion has involved not only hunting for vintage finds and exploring upcycled clothing, but also developing closer relationships with the companies she shops from.
In Drutman’s case, that has meant meeting the makers behind the brands she supports, and seeing firsthand how those brands treat workers and embrace sustainability. While that level of engagement isn’t possible for most people, digging into a company’s sustainability claims can help you discern the greenwashers from those you can feel truly good about spending money on. “It was all embedded in a process of rethinking my relationship with the things I own, and that brought me a lot of happiness,” Drutman says of her experience. Another surefire way to green your wardrobe is simply to stop adding so much to it — wear, repair, and find more joy in the things you already own. (For more sustainable fashion inspo, check out Grist’s Umbra guide on how to dress for the planet.)
“Trying to drive as little as possible is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” says Nathaniel Stinnett of the Environmental Voter Project.
With the transportation sector as the single largest source of CO2 emissions in the U.S., we hardly have to get into the climate benefits of choosing carbon-neutral modes of transit. But let’s talk about the mental health benefits. A 2015 study in Preventative Medicine found that giving up a car commute for walking, biking, or public transportation made people less stressed and more able to concentrate at work. Being able to accomplish other tasks (like reading on the bus) has also been shown to make a commute more enjoyable — and one of the most preferred activities was simply talking to other passengers. Before the pandemic, over three quarters of Americans drove to work alone every day, so carpooling could be another carbon-slashing, happiness-boosting option.
“Of course, walking to work or to the grocery store or taking our kids to school on our cargo bikes takes longer, but it is the furthest thing from a sacrifice,” Stinnett says. For him, the added minutes are time to enjoy the sights of his city, or to catch up with his family on the phone. “I honestly don’t even think about it as a climate decision anymore,” he says. “It’s something that makes me happier and healthier, and makes my children happier and healthier, and my brothers and parents whom I talk to on the phone while I’m walking — it makes them happier. It’s just a wonderful part of my daily life now.”
Green Your Lifestyle
Do an energy audit
When you think about how to green your energy use at home, your mind might jump straight to installing solar panels or a heat pump — which is great, if that’s feasible for you. But a cheaper and easier approach might be making your home more efficient.
Energy efficiency could reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2050, and the average American household can save about 25 percent on utility bills by minimizing waste. (Instead of sending that money to a utility company, you could do something fun — like buy a cargo bike!) Even if your home is new, you might still find ways to use less power, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. You can do a home energy assessment yourself, or hire a professional to find out where you might be wasting energy through things like air leaks or substandard insulation, and then prioritize upgrades. Think of it as a scavenger hunt where the thing you’re looking for is … waste.
Energy-efficiency measures may not be as attention-grabbing or boast-worthy as something like rooftop solar panels, but Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, sees that as a strength. “A lot of energy-efficiency measures really are set-it-and-forget-it,” says Burke, who was featured on our 2020 Grist 50 list. And once they’ve been set, people benefit, she says, from lower energy bills and more comfortable homes.
Give Your Time
Help mobilize voters
There are tons of ways to get out the vote for climate action. You can volunteer with a particular candidate you believe in, or with a climate- or justice-focused organization like the Environmental Voter Project or NextGen America.
“At the Environmental Voter Project, we’re active in dozens of elections each month,” executive director Nathaniel Stinnett says, “and each one is an opportunity to be part of a climate victory.” The organization has over 6,000 volunteers who help mobilize environmental voters around the country. “I know that they’re not doing this because they get joy out of knocking on doors or writing postcards or talking to voters on the phone,” Stinnett says. “They get joy in the results.” It may sound corny, but winning is fun — and feeling like you played a role in the outcome of an election can be empowering. Stinnett believes we need to embrace those small victories to stay sustained in the climate movement.
If you’re not a climate professional and love what you do for work, pro-bono opportunities may be a way to have your cake and green it, too.
Using your unique skills, talent, and training to help an environmental project or organization can be personally and professionally fulfilling. The benefits of pro-bono work on things like job satisfaction, skill development, and sense of purpose have been well documented, particularly among those in the legal profession.
“Even though I wasn’t paid for my efforts, I felt happier and more satisfied with my work than ever, and it led to more professional success,” environmental attorney Matt Karmel wrote in a recent opinion piece for Fix. Karmel had sought out work with a nonprofit in New Jersey that helps community gardens expand their composting operations, but in his piece he shares other avenues for finding opportunities. For attorneys, there’s the Environmental Law Institute’s Pro Bono Clearinghouse. For professionals in HR, marketing, finance, and tech, the Taproot Foundation offers matchmaking with social change organizations, ranging from long-term projects to one-hour virtual consulting sessions. And folks with 10 or more hours a week to contribute, especially those pondering an eventual career switch, might consider applying to join the Climate Fellows network of professional volunteers, part of the Work on Climate initiative that aims to get more skilled professionals from different sectors working on climate solutions.
You also could reach out to an org you’re interested in working with and start a conversation about what you might offer. Community-based organizations, particularly those led by people of color, tend to be particularly resource-strapped. Pro-bono services can go a long way toward helping them get things done. “Don’t be discouraged if you don’t make an immediate connection,” Karmel writes. “Needs change, and just being available can make the difference.”
If you have a beloved green space near you, spending some time picking up trash (or joining organized clean-ups) could be a great way to connect more deeply with the land and its nooks and crannies.
Youth climate activist Edgar McGregor spent 589 days cleaning up Eaton Canyon, a popular hiking area in Southern California, and didn’t stop until he declared the park totally trash-free. That’s more zeal than the average bear might have for picking up litter, but it clearly gave McGregor a great sense of accomplishment. (“I’VE DONE IT!!! WOOOOOO!!!!!!!!” he posted on Twitter.) In a Q&A with Fix last year, McGregor advised other climate-curious folks to start small. “The hardest part about becoming a climate activist is taking the first step,” he said. And a good first step for trash cleanup is much smaller than an entire park. “One good way to start your climate activism: The next time you see rainfall in the forecast, go clean the trash out of the gutter,” McGregor said. “If there’s trash in the street gutters, when that rainfall comes, it’s going to dump the trash into your local parks, waterways, rivers, or worse, the ocean.”
Give Your Time
Plant some trees
“When I was in college, I volunteered at this restoration program twice a week,” says Intersectional Environmentalist founder Leah Thomas. “I would come out and get rid of invasive plant species along the coast and then also nurture new seedlings. It was really fun.”
“I tend to look for urban tree-planting projects,” she says. “I think getting involved in your own local community feels even better, because then you get to see that tree grow over time. It feels like you’re doing something good for your community.” If you want to plant trees beyond your own garden, so to speak, and help ensure tree equity, just be sure to follow the lead of local residents.
Give Your Time
Savor nature — with others
OK, this isn’t volunteering exactly. But spending time enjoying the beauty of the earth (especially alongside fellow earth-lovers) can be a crucial way to stay sustained in the climate movement — and connecting with nature can take many forms.
Leah Thomas of the Intersectional Environmentalist loves venturing out with affinity organizations like Outdoor Afro and Hike Clerb. “Being with women of color, reclaiming what it means to be outdoors for ourselves and finding community, getting outdoors together — those are the moments that bring me the most joy,” Thomas says.
She emphasizes that protecting those moments of pure happiness and connection is particularly important for people of color in the climate movement. She quotes climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar in saying that climate change isn’t the first existential threat to face Black and Indigenous people in this country, and eco-anxiety is far from the only stress weighing on people who experience systematic oppression. That’s why Black joy has taken root as a form of rebellion, while artistic movements like Afrofuturism and even the delightful TikTok “frolicking” trend have put it proudly on display.
“Climate optimism at times can feel surface level, or it can feel like you’re ignoring or running away from the truth,” Thomas says. “But in fact, to find joy despite it all is one of the most revolutionary things that I think people can do.” So don’t forget that taking time to appreciate the earth and its inhabitants — to savor rather than save — is a part of climate and justice work, too.