Photo: Kantega Peak, Everest, Himalayan mountains, Nepal

The Himalaya's Kantega Peak pierces a blue sky in Nepal. Hundreds of millions of people rely on meltwater from Himalayan glaciers. As these glaciers continue to retreat, it will have enormous economic and environmental consequences for the region.

Photograph by Alexander Stewart/Getty Images

Written by P.W. McRandle

Republished from the pages of The Green Guide

This Earth Day, consider the planet as you do your body: Our health is intimately connected with the world around us. Scientists are continually discovering new ways that ecosystems affect us. Destruction of natural wildlife habitats, for instance, can lead to humans being exposed to new diseases.

"What we really need to understand are the implications that activities like deforestation, global travel and trade, and agricultural intensification have for the spillover of diseases from wild animals," says Jon Epstein, a veterinary epidemiologist with the Consortium for Environmental Medicine at Wildlife Trust. For example, avian flu spreads from wild birds to domestic poultry, from which it can infect humans.

"In Asia it's probably about a billion contacts annually between humans and animals, and the chances of diseases like SARS, avian flu, and Nipah fever go way up," says William Karesh, director of the field veterinary program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, who recently found the avian flu virus H5N1 in migratory birds in Mongolia. He has also extensively studied Ebola fever, tracing it to "the consumption of wild animals, [which] is creating disease outbreaks and biodiversity loss."

For our own sake, we can act on behalf of Earth's health and get others involved, at home, the office, and school, as well as on vacations. Below are some opportunities for consumers to help protect specific ecosystems and global resources.

Rain Forests

Satellite photos show that in addition to the devastation wrought by clear-cutting of trees, even selective logging in the Amazon takes a substantial toll, causing 50 to 80 million tons (45.4 to 72.8 million metric tons) more carbon dioxide (CO2) to enter the atmosphere each year, according to Gregory Asner, who works at the Carnegie Institution for Science. "There's an enormous amount of collateral damage caused in selective logging," Asner says. This includes pollution of watersheds and fragmentation of habitats by logging roads, resulting in more human contacts with such vectors as malaria-bearing mosquitoes or ticks carrying Lyme disease.

With "deforestation and loss of clean drinking water, you see outbreaks of disease," Karesh says. The effects of dramatic weather are made worse by deforestation. During the December 2004 tsunami, "the people [living along coasts] with healthy mangrove forests and coral reefs survived in much larger numbers," says Alfredo Quarto, director of the Mangrove Action Project (MAP). Mangroves are often cleared for short-lived shrimp farms—more than 965 square miles (25,000 square kilometers) of former forests are now abandoned, lifeless shrimp ponds. Recognizing that mangrove forests are an essential buffer, Southeast Asian nations are replanting them across thousands of acres.

What You Can Do

  • Support the protection of mangrove forests by donating to MAP.
  • Ask your office to stock brands of recycled paper that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and made from 100 percent post-consumer-recycled content.

Reducing the Atmosphere's Load of Pollutants and Greenhouse Gases

Smoggy air not only irritates your lungs, it can also provoke heart attacks, stroke, and asthma. And, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), warmer temperatures can strain those with heart problems and increase lung-damaging ozone levels at ground level. Higher temperatures may also result in the spread of tropical diseases such as malaria into more temperate climes.

What You Can Do

  • Buy a TerraPass to offset your car's CO2 emissions by funding clean energy projects. Or offset the emissions by planting trees.
  • Ride a bike to work and to shop. Encourage your kids to bike to school.

Wetlands and Streams

The loss of Louisiana wetlands has removed a shield between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, magnifying the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Preserving our wetlands protects both wildlife and natural filters that remove pollutants from water before they reach the ocean or our taps. The effects of pollutants can be vivid: Birth-control pill residues in sewage have resulted in male carp with female characteristics.

What You Can Do

  • Purchase a federal duck stamp to support wetlands.
  • Don't dump trash in wetlands.

Oceans

Chemicals, sewage, fertilizer runoff, and other pollution released on land find their way into the sea, to our detriment when we swim or eat seafood from contaminated water. A third of the world's 146 oxygen-depleted oceanic dead zones lie off U.S. shores, according to the U.N. In the Gulf of Mexico, one dead zone alone covers more than 7,000 square miles (18,000 square kilometers). It is fed by millions of tons of nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers and animal feces draining into the Mississippi, sparking "red tide" algae blooms that can poison unwary shellfish consumers.

Neurotoxic mercury released from coal-fired power plants and chlorine factories has concentrated in swordfish, albacore tuna, and other predatory fish. Sea life is also threatened by the trade in more than 1,500 exotic species, and 50 to 70 percent of the world's reefs have been harmed by the export of coral.

What You Can Do

  • Don't overfertilize your lawn. Leave clippings on grass instead.
  • Buy USDA-certified organic food and cotton, grown without synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.
  • Buy from local farms that protect watersheds. Also, join a local community-supported agriculture group and reap fresh farm-grown produce all summer.

Grasslands

The seas of grass that once covered the United States have been reduced to isolated patches by development, agriculture, and roadways. "Just in the last two years in the Missouri Coteau region of South Dakota, we've documented the loss of more than 170,000 acres (69,000 hectares) of native prairie," says Jim Ringelman, a director of conservation at the nonprofit Ducks Unlimited. He adds that "probably the greatest reason for this is the extension of Roundup ready soy into grassland" as farmers convert to this genetically engineered crop. The results: More chemicals entering our water supplies due to loss of the grasses' natural filtration, greater soil erosion, and a nearly 70 percent decline in the population of some grassland bird species since 1966, according to the Audubon Society.

What You Can Do

  • If you own grassland, enroll in the USDA's Grassland Reserve Program for help with restoration and protection.
  • Support Ducks Unlimited's Grasslands for Tomorrow project to preserve the Great Plains. Help bobolinks, larks, and other grasslands species through the Audubon Society.

Deserts

Natural deserts are not arid wastelands: The United States' Southwest deserts account for nearly 10 percent of all plant species found in the country.

What You Can Do

  • Stay out of the desert washes to avoid disturbing wildlife.
  • Buy archaeological artifacts, rocks and sand, animals, and wild plants from Desert Botanical Garden or from Park Service educational units. Purchase artwork, seeds, and foods from Native American merchants to support their communities and native species.

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