Big-Picture Choices

Is an ice cube tray with round holes more energy efficient than one with rectangular holes? Many of us attempting to achieve Sustainable Living Perfection have asked ourselves similar questions. Three thousand messages a day from corporations that spend over $620 billion a year on marketing worldwide add to the confusion. We might ask instead, “Which consumer activities have the worst impact, and how can I change them?”
The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists, by Michael Brower, Ph.D., and Warren Leon, Ph.D., (Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999), addresses that question. This index measures the greenhouse gases, air and water pollutants, habitat alteration, water and land use associated with household consumption, and provides illuminating facts:
Transportation is responsible for 28% to 51% of greenhouse gases and air pollution and 23% of water pollution created by the average American household.
Meat consumption alone is responsible for about a quarter of the damage to natural ecosystems and wildlife; about 40% of US land area is used for grazing livestock.
Recycling in all categories eliminates 620 pounds of carbon dioxide, 30 pounds of methane, 5 pounds of carbon monoxide, and 2.5 pounds of particulates (soot and ash) for every ton of waste processed, but the greatest benefit comes from replacing virgin raw materials such as wood and petroleum. It takes less than 25% as much energy to make aluminum cans from recycled cans as from virgin ore, for instance.
The authors provide a list of Priority Actions for American Consumers:
Transportation<br>• Choose a place to live that reduces the need to drive.<br>• Think twice before purchasing another car.<br>• Choose a fuel-efficient, low-polluting car.<br>• Walk, bicycle, or take public transportation.
Food<br>• Eat less meat.<br>• Buy certified organic produce.
Home/Energy<br>• Choose a reasonably sized home.<br>• Install efficient lighting and appliances.<br>• Choose an electricity supplier offering renewable energy. (Not currently possible in California)
So maybe you’ve made great headway on this list. Maybe you’re well beyond it. Maybe your circumstances don’t allow the privilege of making such choices. Rather than obsess about the shape of your ice cubes, pick up David Korten’s When Corporations Rule the World and be reminded that sustainable living can’t happen without community-based, life-centered activism to change the structures that limit all of us.

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