Celebrate World Environment Day: Adopt a Planet

Lori Pottinger

Kihansi Spray Toad
Kihansi Spray Toad
What will the world be like for your grandchildren – and their grandchildren – if tigers disappear from the planet? Or sharks? What will their planet be like if Nectophrynoides asperginis goes the way of the dodo?

That last was a trick question; N. asperginis - the Kihansi Spray Toad - is already extinct in the wild. Your kids can visit it in the Bronx Zoo.   
The Kihansi Spray Toad was a victim of a large dam in East Africa. It joined a sadly long list of species that couldn't survive the huge hydrological changes to their riverine habitat brought by big dams. The list of the dammed includes the famed river dolphins of the Yangtze, a victim of Three Gorges Dam - the first human-caused extinction of a dolphin species.  Most dam-threatened species are less charismatic than the Baiji dolphin, but no less important in the planetary picture.
In the past 60 years or so, we've walled off most of the world's major rivers, causing major disruptions to the web of life once supported by free-flowing waters. Many more destructive dams are planned for rivers that are critical habitat in species-rich places like Southeast Asia's  Mekong, Latin America's Amazon, and Africa's Congo.
Dams and diversions are a huge factor in the world's crashing freshwater biodiversity, but biodiversity in all major ecosystems is in trouble. "The latest data from scientists indicates to us that the loss of species is occurring at anywhere between 100-1000 times faster than has traditionally been the case," says Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Program.
We're developing ourselves out of a planet, and the universe isn't making any new ones quite as nice as this.  
We can't do anything once a species is lost. But we – the species with almost total power over this planet – can most definitely do better at preserving our fellow species. For freshwater creatures, that means letting rivers flow; restoring and preserving wetlands; ending the pollution of waterways, and preventing diversions that dry up lakes and rivers.  
Maybe you're thinking planetary change-for-good is beyond your control. But we really are all hitched up together in this web of life, and nearly everything we do has consequences, good and bad. We have enormous control in ways that matter: where we shop, what we buy (or don't buy), how we transport ourselves, how we live our lives.
You've probably gotten the flyers from well-meaning green groups urging you to adopt a species. I'm here to say you need to do more. You need to adopt the whole planet. You can start with everyday actions that reduce your footprint on the planet. Here are just a few:

  • Learn what watershed you're in, and tell us about it in the comments section below. Learn about its major creeks and rivers, and potential threats to its water quality. Get involved with local watershed or river groups (or form one!) to monitor watershed (or river) health. 
  • Know where your energy is coming from, and use less of it. Lots less. Weatherstrip, insulate, solarize, and of course, kill vampires sucking energy in your home.
  • Drive and fly less, bike and walk more. 
  • Eat less meat – it saves water and reduces carbon pollution.
  • Eat only sustainable seafood. And boycott restaurants serving sharkfin soup and other unsustainable practices.   
  •  Become an expert on a locally challenged or endangered species, and become its champion.

If we all commemorate this World Environment Day – June 5 – by starting to educate ourselves, and our families, about how to live with less impact on the planet, there will be a lot more planet to go around when those grandkids of yours grow up. You won't regret it.