Too often, we respond to urgent reports about the decline of nature with a shrug of the shoulders. Since many impacts are embedded within gigantic industrial systems such as the way we manufacture, farm, generate energy, and collect used materials – we often don’t feel there’s much we can do as individuals. We forget that if we speak with one voice, we can change those huge systems. And in various aspects of our lives, our actions can play a role in preserving and restoring nature:

Internet user: The digital universe may have its limitations, however this new medium enables political participation and awareness building and may create a more responsive and egalitarian form of democracy than we’ve ever seen. In less time than it takes to microwave a dish of potatoes, you can be one of half a million signatories of a climate change petition; plant a tree with your contribution, or research options for green personal care products.

Meal Planner: Each household’s meal planner can be a key player in helping nature bounce back, and meat consumption offers the highest returns. The average American diet, heavy on the meat (more than 200 pounds a year) requires twice as much water and two to four times the land area per person as an equally nutritious vegetarian diet. When we learn a new meatless recipe, we are playing a role in changing the ratio of CO2-absorbing plants to methane-generating livestock.

Vacationer: Vacations can be great fun for travelers (up to 800 million of us a year) but sometimes not so much fun for nature. Air travel is one of humanity’s most troublesome habits, as is tourism-related development and consumption that can destroy world-class natural areas. Taking vacations closer to home is a start, and combining that approach with purpose-driven vacations is even better. For example, farms and ranches across the country offer agri-tourism – a chance to stay, for example, on an olive farm on California’s Central Coast and see how olive oil is pressed. Such vacations enable individuals to have an authentic experience that’s neutral or even beneficial in its impact.

Employee: Who in his right mind really wants to spend 100,000 hours per lifetime commuting to a job whose products and services harm the environment? Choosing a nature-friendly job can be one of the most valuable ways to make a difference. Ask Steve Golden, now a senior manager with the National Park Service. “Every day I partner with people – from the South Bronx to the wilds of Maine – working to save their rivers, trails, and open spaces. I think I may have the best job there is.”

Shopper: According to a Natural Marketing Institute survey, certain familiar certification labels have a major, beneficial effect on consumer decisions.  Among the early adopters of green products, 75 percent are more likely to buy products with green labels such as Energy Star, Recycled, USDA Organic, and Fair Trade. And they will pay more for the quality assurance these labels offer: efficiency, less waste, health, sustainable farming practices, and monetary support for workers. For example, to qualify for a Fair Trade label on coffee, chocolate, and other products, importers must support fair wages for workers and assist growers in transitioning to organic methods.

Recycler: Individuals don’t recycle, cultures do. I can be a burning soul for the idea of recycling, but if a recycling system isn’t set up, I’ll ship all my paper, bottles, and cans to the landfill and overseas like all my neighbors do. Fortunately, my hometown has just implemented a commingled, Pay as You Throw program, which means we can now combine most recyclable goods in a single container, and that we will pay by the bag or trashcan for everything we don’t recycle. All of a sudden, recycling becomes kind of a consumer sport. If we want to pay less for trash collection, we need to generate less trash; which means buying products with packaging we can recycle; products that are concentrated, repairable, durable, designed to resist fashion swings.

Environmental Activist: The environmental activism of Kenyan Wangari Maathai won her a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for initiating and shepherding the African Green Belt Movement in which more than 30 million trees have been planted.  Maathai’s energies demonstrate a cornerstone of activism: identify human and environmental needs and meet them using the focused energies of local citizens to improve their quality of life. She observed that Kenyan women needed firewood, clean drinking water, nutritious food, and income, and that planting trees could help meet these needs, along with social connection and a sense of purpose.

House and landscape maintainer: Entomologist Douglas Tallamy looks at the protection of nature through the eyes of an insect. He’s observed throughout his career that native insects don’t thrive on non-native plants and that a land without insects is a land without most forms of higher life. He painstakingly reclaimed his own ten-acre property in Pennsylvania – replacing all the alien species with natives – and then documented it in a book titled Bringing Nature Home.

Educator and student: In a great little book called Beyond Ecotopia, elementary school teacher David Sobel writes, “What’s emerging is a strange kind of schizophrenia. Children are disconnected from the world outside their doors and connected with endangered animals and ecosystems around the globe through electronic media.” To teach children about birds, he likes to craft wings out of cardboard boxes and let his fledgling students become the birds, build nests, and only then bring out the bird books.