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When Simple Things You Can Do Really Do Make a Difference
Emily Gertz, 30 Jun 07

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I'm wary of the "50 simple things you can do to save the earth" approach to environmentalism and economic justice. Some things just aren't that easy to do at the scale we need to do them. And this focus on tiny individual changes distracts us from demanding better environmental or economic decisions and actions from our elected and corporate leaders.

The first wave of this easy steps and shopping for a better world movement was in full swing about 20 years ago. It bottomed out in an overload of hype. Like the miraculous health-saving elixirs once touted in newspaper ads, the claims made for these products -- both in how good they were for you and how much they'd change the world -- were too good to be true. Face it: there is just so much turing an old spaghetti sauce jar into a vase does for saving endangered species or ending poverty.

But there are cheering developments in the current wave of consumer interest in things green. For every weird and disheartening instance of hype -- as covered recently in The New York Times, Home Depot's Eco Choices marketing campaign encompasses everything from energy-efficient lightbulbs to electric chainsaws (not gas-powered!) -- there are signs that people are becoming more sophisticated about how to root out the substance behind these claims. In the case of Home Depot, according to The Times, Ron Jarvis, the senior vice president in charge of the Eco Options program, actually goes back to manufacturers to check out the putative eco-friendliness of their products, sometimes asking them to improve products. Although some eco-advocates complain that Eco Options is too inclusive, Jarvis is portrayed as someone using his buying power to make substantially better choices available to customers, at a scale where they could have a big impact.

There's a lot of potential profit in it; why else would Home Depot be interested? That's good news, too: hopefully it puts long-term pressure on companies like Home Depot not to kill the green cash cow with overpromises of eco-goodness.

I'm also heartened by the small but growing signs of political leadership. Mayor Mike Bloomberg had no particular reason to stick his political neck out on PlaNYC, except that he believes in it -- there are probably easier ways to advance his well-established development agenda for the city's brownfields and other real estate wastelands, as well as his national profile. Now, in concert with PlaNYC, the Bloomberg administration has launched the GreeNYC campaign, encouraging Gothamites to make 10 changes in our daily lives that will reduce the city's carbon footprint (the amount of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide the city's population as a whole adds to the atmosphere):

  1. Switch to ENERGY STAR® qualified Compact Fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs).
  2. Buy ENERGY STAR® appliances.
  3. Don’t air condition an empty room
  4. Unplug chargers and appliances when not in use.
  5. Switch to a green energy provider.
  6. Walk or take public transportation.
  7. Recycle your glass, metal, paper and plastic.
  8. Bring your own cloth bag to the grocery store.

  9. Use green cleaning products.
  10. Switch to paperless bank statements and online bill paying.

How are these 10 tips of 2007 any different from the 50 simple things of 1987? Well, they are quite well-edited, for one thing. Rather than overpromising, these changes really will have a huge impact on cutting oil consumption, reducing energy use, increasing the clean power infrastructure, and cutting several kinds of serious environmental pollution if a significant percentage of city residents take them up. (See the GreeNYC web site for more on how these steps can make a big impact.)

These tips don't involve purchasing anything we didn't already buy before, but instead mean making changes in a few key purchases we were unlikely to give up anyway (the idea of giving stuff up has a long and vibrant currency in the environmental movement, but it's a non-starter as far as the majority of Americans is concerned). In the case of the point nine, using green cleaning products, there are already low cost and low impact goods widely available (hello, my beloved Method® line!), making it an easy step for anyone to take up. And think about what it would mean for even a relatively small percentage of New York's eight million people to stop using the mystery chemicals in many cleaning liquids and goos -- which put all sorts of dubious, critter-killing substances (some petroleum-based) into our local waters, and can hurt human health as well.

I don't love everything Mayor Mike has done -- but his local and increasingly national leadership on environmental issues in cities is helping to keep the hounds of cynicism off my heels.

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Comments

Here's a resource full of small but meaningful tips:

CoolPeopleCare


Posted by: Sam Davdson on 1 Jul 07

Where can we find a list of which appliances draw electricity when plugged in but turned off. I was surprised to learn that cell-phone chargers do.
What about wahing machines, for instance?


Posted by: Jorge on 1 Jul 07

Where can we find a list of which appliances draw electricity when plugged in but turned off. I was surprised to learn that cell-phone chargers do.
What about wahing machines, for instance?


Posted by: Jorge on 1 Jul 07

Where can we find a list of which appliances draw electricity when plugged in but turned off. I was surprised to learn that cell-phone chargers do.
What about wahing machines, for instance?


Posted by: Jorge on 1 Jul 07

I fully have a spaghetti sauce jar with flowers in it on my counter right now.


Posted by: Amy Leaman on 1 Jul 07

I fully have a spaghetti sauce jar with flowers in it on my counter right now.


Posted by: Amy Leaman on 1 Jul 07

Just a heads-up: leaving the r trademark symbols is quite unnecessary, makes for a bumpy read and reminds me of the type of "magazines" which reprint corportate PR statements. You will notice that it never appears, say, newspaper articles.


Posted by: chandru on 2 Jul 07

I believe you missed one of the easiest and possibly the biggest: Eat whole foods grown locally. We don't expect people to change their entire diet or eating lifestyle, but small changes like like buying local dairy and veggies can go a long way.


Posted by: Fred on 4 Jul 07

Check out "Choose to Reuse" the most extensive book on the neglected "second environmental R." It is full of remarkable and constructive reuse products and practices.


Posted by: Scott Anderson on 4 Jul 07

Re: eating locally. CSA, Community Supported Agriculture. Google it and then you can sign up to be an investor in a local farm. You pay quarterly, and you get a bi-monthly box of yummy local veggies and fruits. Helps the farms, helps you stay healthy and pesticide free, helps the plant by reducing the travel of the produce. Also, you can go help out on the farm every so often.

Also, Whole Foods helpfully identifies which produce are bought from local farms.


Posted by: R on 4 Jul 07

I agree that these little changes aren't the only things that will save us. I do believe, however, that if we educate as many people as possible on the little things that they can do that won't disrupt their lives, it can make a big difference. I enjoy reading your blog. I have one of my own, if you'd like to check it out. By the way, you've been tagged. http://easyecoliving.blogspot.com/2007/07/eight-random-facts-meme.html


Posted by: Beth on 6 Jul 07

I agree that these little changes aren't the only things that will save us. I do believe, however, that if we educate as many people as possible on the little things that they can do that won't disrupt their lives, it can make a big difference. I enjoy reading your blog. I have one of my own, if you'd like to check it out. By the way, you've been tagged. http://easyecoliving.blogspot.com/2007/07/eight-random-facts-meme.html


Posted by: Beth on 6 Jul 07



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