This Earth Day, Focus on 21st Century Conservation

We asked our authors: In today's age of slacktivism, has Earth Day become meaningless as a way to make impactful environmental change? Check out what Joe S. Whitworth, author of Quantified: Redefining Conservation for the Next Economy had to say below.

I wrote a blog on Huffington Post a few years back about Earth Day being an opportunity to take stock of where we are headed. April 22 is not a moment to celebrate the wonder of this unique planet. It’s an opportunity to recognize what next steps we need to take to secure a better future.

Modern environmentalism is in need of a major overhaul. Despite some progress over the past generation, the majority of today’s environmental groups have been using the same set of tactics that have been used since the environmental movement took hold in the 1960s and 1970s. As result, environmentalists are obtaining an even smaller return on their investment.

Today, there are more than 15,000 environment and animal public charities in the United States, compared with just a few hundred in 1970. Membership in U.S. environmental organizations has more than tripled, from 5 million in 1981 to 16 million. In addition, revenues have climbed to nearly $15 billion, and Earth Day has grown from 20 million participants at its launch in 1970 to a worldwide movement that attracts more than 1 billion people each year. Despite all advocacy, legal victories, and public and private funding that have been funneled into environmental efforts, we have an overwhelming amount of evidence that we’re not getting the type of return on investment that will secure a cleaner, greener future for decades to come.

In the same way that many of us take a step back once in a while to evaluate whether we’re accomplishing our personal goals, it’s important for the environmental movement to assess its effectiveness. What results have we been getting? Where have we been successful, and in what areas can we improve? Smart businesses remake themselves all the time—and for modern environmentalism, such an assessment is long overdue.

We need to stop focusing on actions taken and more on outcomes received. Because we live in a world of instant gratification, it’s easy for “slacktivists” to support a number of causes without tracking that support back to a difference actually made for the environment. Imagine that a sizable chunk of the $15 billion in annual U.S. environmental nonprofit revenue were instead spent on restoration programs tied to measurable improvements for the environment. Certainly, we would see many more gains for the environment than what’s currently taking place.

To determine how to spend one’s efforts, Google’s Larry Page suggests asking the threshold question, “Am I working on something that can change the world?” This same question could and should be tweaked for “slacktivists” supporting environmental efforts. Am I supporting something that will really make a measurable impact?

At The Freshwater Trust, we build all our river restoration work around an approach called “quantified conservation.” We believe if it’s worth doing, it’s worth measuring. Quantified Conservation is about ensuring every restoration action taken translates to a positive outcome for the environment. It’s about methodically tracking the ways in which our restoration actions will improve water quality and quantity. We use 21st century tools and technologies to measure baseline ecosystem conditions, model the water quality benefit associated with the restored conditions, and monitor environmental gain over time. This approach will ultimately allow us to better target investments in nature and fix more rivers faster. We’re able to exactly identify how many pounds of phosphorus and sediment were prevented from entering rivers, how many gallons of water we kept in rivers that needed it, how many feet of habitat we restored for native fish and more.

So is Earth Day meaningless? Not if it forces us to take stock and recognize that we do not need 10% improvements for the environment—we need 1,000% improvements. Not if it brings us to a recognition that we need to be more adamant about tracking and measuring our environmental progress and outcomes, and not if it draws attention to those environmental groups that are moving the needle, doing 21st century conservation and having a true, quantifiable impact on the finite resources we all rely upon.