To do my part in fighting the threat to our planet, I guard against my own rationalizations, and I make sure I repay what I owe to the Earth. So can you. Here’s how.

What I Owe the Earth

What I owe the Earth

“What I owe the Earth” by Ben Brown

Does what I do really matter? I’m just me! How much difference can I make? And, anyway, what debt do I owe to the planet?

Today we face a life-destroying threat, a danger more serious than the asteroid impact blamed for killing off so much life 65 million years ago. Most of us who recognize today’s threat blame a collection of forces beyond our control. I contend that the responsibility falls on all of us – you and me – individually. The longer we believe the current story being fed us, that our individual actions matter little, the more likely our destruction becomes.

Don’t fall for the idea that it’s them. It’s us. We all matter, and what each of us does today creates the future.

Our first challenge is to squarely face the clear patterns that we have forever looked away from.

In the 1980’s I spoke with a farmer and the agricultural extension agent advising him. Both knew that pesticides were deadly for more than pests. Both knew of the long-term danger to humans. But their first concern was their families’ well-being and their children’s success.

In 2016 I read an article about Tony Schwartz, ghost writer for Donald Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal – the book that boosted Trump’s early fame. The article said Schwartz was worried. Trump was dangerous, and Schwartz absolutely knew this in 1987, but he needed the money to insure his children’s success. Now Schwartz fears for the country. He wants to absolve himself by teaching classes in ethical business practices.

I see two patterns:

  1. We justify short-term harm in the name of providing for ourselves.
  2. We fail to consider long-term consequences.

what I owe the EarthFor me, hope for the future requires, foremost, that I refuse to rationalize, minimize, and falsely justify the harm I do.

I owe a debt to the planet, a debt to life. I owe payment to the planet and to all life on it, until the rate of return to the ecosystems and bio-regions – to the planet’s life – exceeds what I borrowed. I have a responsibility to care for the earth in terms of energy. Planetary viability conserved must surpass energy and resources consumed.

So I’ve built a zero-energy-ready home. To do that, I used a ton of petroleum-based insulation and energy-intensive fiberglass. So now, for the sake of the long-term health and wealth of the planet, I am responsible for making sure that my benefit to the planet in terms of energy conserved exceeds the harm I caused by depleting the planet’s resources.

What I owe the Earth

Water from a tidal stretch of the Potomac River flooded Old Town Alexandria in Virginia during high tides in early June. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

Western civilization ignores – even disavows – this debt. But never paying for the harm we do, even refusing to admit that we owe this debt, has brought us to the brink of planetary bankruptcy and eviction of human life. If we love our children, this short-sighted strategy is not viable. It leaves us crashing into a rising tide on our seacoasts, and fracking contamination and industrial poisons are seeping into our water.

It seems cruel and sad to me that people clear-cut forests, purchase gasoline, rely on nuclear energy, consume like there’s no tomorrow, without realizing that they are absolutely shortening their children’s years on this planet.

Individual action truly matters.

Each of us has a degree of power over the way the activities that threaten our planet are conducted. We must first overcome the belief that our individual actions are too small to make a difference. If I were to name the most important step any individual could take, I would say this: Champion any action that helps restore the earth in a clean way.

Who will research what it will take to build a legally-permitted zero-energy home using straw, wool, or other natural building materials and insulators? Can we grow a home? Can we retrofit Michigan homes and buildings to passivhaus standards using current insulation and best practices? How many jobs would that generate?

Could we stop sending 30% of Michigan’s billions of energy dollars to out-of-state corporations run by people who believe their Prime Directive is to shape people for the purpose of generating maximum business profits?

What the Friday?!?!  When will we understand that electric car ownership, especially in two-car homes, has always made sense, personally and for the environment, ever since the very first electric cars? You don’t see major advertising for electric cars because their rate of return on the dollar goes more to the car owner than to the maker. Studies show that car dealers are, for the most part, absolutely dangerous at selling electric cars.

One of the top two factors in governmental conflicts since the early 1900’s has been fossil fuels. Today the fossil fuel industry is in charge of our nation’s incoming government. We’ve become “an oil company with an army.”

Want to freaking change this? Become independent of every fossil fuel source you can.

Your most powerful hits to this system? Buy an electric car. Make your home super energy efficient. Switch to clean energy if you can – and, yes, most of us can. Actions like these will twist a tourniquet around the necks of those fossil fuel and nuclear groups seeking to unduly influence and control world governments. As long as you buy gasoline and live in an inefficient, dirty-energy home, you strengthen this destructive system.

What most worries the Beast? Individual people like you and me taking actions that matter. “Dumping the pump.” Buying electric cars. Investing in energy efficiency and wind and solar power for our homes.

The Beast IS worried. Their industries are working hard to keep our cities and towns, and you and me as individuals, from winning our energy independence. They are using extreme strategies to influence governments and to rationalize, minimize, and falsely justify the harm done.

Three words in closing: Involvement. Connection. Inspiration.

The most important is inspiration. Inspire one another to do good, and respect one another. That is the best and most sustainable way to build the bridges we will need. Inspire.


  1. Thanks for this, Ben! Especially, thanks for the way your own life lives up to those three closing words you left us with.

    The Trump administration won’t be environmentally friendly, and most of Michigan’s legislators don’t seem eager to lead the clean-energy transition. So, yes, while we need to keep applying serious pressure in Washington and Lansing, working for progress at the local level, where politicians are generally more responsive, can still be effective.

    And yes, it’s the most local level of all – our individual action – that can make the biggest difference.

    This is a good time to contact Sierra Club Michigan Chapter’s solar installation partner Solar Winds Power Systems for all the compelling reasons Ben gives and more:

    • Solar Winds has been vetted by Chapter.
    • Sierra Club members get a discount on their installation.
    • Sierra Club Michigan Chapter gets a donation.
    • If the State imposes a net-metering fee, it probably won’t kick in for another year or so.
    • The 30% federal tax incentive for solar installations is still in place.

    Solar Winds

    People who can’t afford a brand new electric car might be surprised at how affordable a used one can be. People thinking of going solar should act soon. Incentives may disappear in the next year or so. Contact Sierra Club Michigan Chapter solar partner Solar Winds. Teaming up with national partner Arcadia Power can be a simple way to move to wind-powered electricity. Getting rid of fossil fuel investments matters a lot. Most IRA accounts have mutual funds that include fossil fuels. People should tell whoever’s managing their IRA that they want to Ditch&Switch. Go to all-green funds. Local governments, universities, and pension and endowment funds could do the same. We can pressure our employers, especially small businesses, to make sure our 501(k) accounts are clean. Consciousness about efficiency and conservation can make a difference. Don’t walk into a room and automatically flip on a light that you may not need. Don’t let the water run while you brush your teeth.

    Like you said, Ben, “The responsibility falls on all of us – you and me – individually. The longer we believe…that our individual actions matter little, the more likely our destruction becomes.”

  2. Great article, Ben! Love finding you and seeing all the amazing things that you are doing! We had lost track of you. We have the same number, would love to hear from you.

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