When Going Green, Little Things Mean A Lot

When Going Green, Little Things Mean A Lot

When I was quite young, I convinced my mom to buy me a wonderful book called something like "50 Things Kids Can Do to Save the Environment." Early environmentalist that I was, I studied it carefully. I dragged my mom out with me on Earth Day to our local park with a trash bag. I turned off the water while I brushed my teeth. I closed the refrigerator door when my dad took too long to locate the ketchup.
I must have been rather irritatingly righteous.
Today, I don't hear as much about these simple sorts of efforts. What I do hear are grand schemes to lessen the country's dependence on foreign oil-or oil at all. Oilman T. Boone Pickens, for example, has put forward the Pickens Plan, an ambitious proposal to wean Americans from our fossil fuel addiction by building vast wind farms and increasing our use of natural gas.
I'm a supporter of grand planning and thinking big. But your average citizen may not have the wherewithal to plan as grandly or act as sweepingly as could a billionaire or perhaps the president. That's why I think we should reemphasize the small acts of environmental good that my eight-year-old self found so fulfilling.
Before getting overwhelmed with major lifestyle changes or expensive investments -- like replacing an SUV with a hybrid or investing in solar panels for a home -- don't forget that small changes still make a difference.
Acting locally can reap big benefits. Picking up trash in the neighborhood, keeping showers short, turning off lights, combining trips, using cloth shopping bags-all these acts may seem trivial when taken alone. But such actions not only benefit the environment, they can also allow families to spend more time together, cut utility costs, and spread the environmental message. And education is perhaps the most important aspect of the environmental message.
Take cloth bags as one example. Using them is a visual symbol to those around you, in the grocery store or on a town's street, that you care and are doing something to help the earth. Perhaps, either out of guilt or just because of the simple reminder, someone else on the street or in the store will remember to take their bags on their next trip to the store. That way, in a pay-it-forward manner, demand for plastic bags (made with petroleum) or paper bags (the result of clearing forests) will decline.
And beyond this, research has shown that small acts can make a big different.
In a presentation at the National Council for Science and Environment's conference held earlier this year, Dr. Thomas Dietz, Director, Environmental Science and Policy Program, Michigan State University, displayed a pie chart with seven wedges-just like the ones you may have seen in Al Gore's presentation featured in "An Inconvenient Truth." But unlike Gore's wedges, which represented measures that could be taken on a governmental level to lower greenhouse gas emissions, Dr. Dietz's wedges represented measures that could be easily taken by individuals. These were steps such as turning the thermostat down two degrees in the winter and up two degrees in the summer, maintaining the proper air pressure in your car's tires, changing the car's air filter at the appropriate intervals, and substituting compact fluorescent light bulbs for incandescent bulbs. If only one tenth to one third of Americans did these things, the amount of emissions that would be cut would be vast-and could be achieved so cheaply.
All of this is not to say that if you have the resources and will to take your home off the grid, or to bicycle to get all of your errands done, you shouldn't. It's just a reminder that when you're pondering a future of solar and nuclear power, don't forget to turn off the television.

Katherine Unger writes from Bethesda, Maryland. This commentary was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.