Sweat the Small Stuff

Americans could reduce their annual CO2 emissions by 7 percent with 17 relatively painless actions


Gwenda Kaczor / www.gwenda.com

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It’s become fashionable for cynics and contrarians to point out the relative uselessness of “personal solutions” to environmental concerns. Change your lightbulbs? A drop in the bucket. Drive one less trip? Try getting rid of your car, jerk. A year ago, we pointed readers to a piece in Orion by Derrick Jensen in which the firebrand prodded readers to think beyond “simple living as a political act” and confront the larger consequences of an environmentally destructive industrial economy.  

Jensen’s point remains relevant, if only because the systemic status quo is still an environmental nightmare. But some new numbers make it clear that sweating the small stuff can pay dividends. Conservation(April-June 2010) reports that Americans could reduce the country’s annual CO2 emissions by 7 percent—roughly the total emissions of France—just by taking 17 relatively painless environmental actions.  

Some of the changes are ambitious, such as weatherizing attics and replacing inefficient HVAC systems. Others are more basic: reducing laundry water temperature and line drying, regular vehicle maintenance, eliminating standby electricity. Making an extra effort to silence the skeptics, the researchers who ran the numbers figured that not everyone would be persuaded to fall in line, so they adjusted adoption rates based on previous recorded responses to environmental interventions. For a link to the research and the complete list of 17 actions, visit Utne.com/SmallGreen.

5/18/2011 5:56:55 AM

I agree with the last three comments. Though I think that we should all do what's on the list and more, I don't think it's enough. The problem is systemic. When oil companies can unflinchingly destroy entire indigenous nations and lands that don't belong to them for oil, when big agriculture can destroy land and lives of farmers all over the world in an attempt to control food for the entire human race, when children are being exploited all over the world for cheap junk and sex, and when governments won't step in to help, there is a huge systemic problem, and it would be immoral to not do anything about it. And insulating our attics won't help this.

5/17/2011 7:57:29 PM

The article that mentions these 17 personal lifestyle changes states that "National implementation could save an estimated 123 million metric tons of carbon per year in year 10, which is 20% of household direct emissions or 7.4% of US national emissions, with little or no reduction in household well-being." I agree that all of us should make lifestyle changes in order to help the environment, but a 7.4% reduction is not going to be enough, not even close. We need to do more than just make personal lifestyle choices. This culture is killing the planet. 7.4% reduction will not save our planet, we need to look at bigger changes, not just in our personal life. We need big changes in the way we live, not just better efficiencies and recycling. I am glad to see someone trying to do something about this mess. If we don't "save the world", who will? I'm not going to wait around for someone else to do it. If anyone really cares, they will look into this Deep Green Resistance.

5/17/2011 7:30:54 PM

Ken Balmes - you can't possibly save a piece of the world without saving all of it. No matter what you do to protect your square mile, it is affected by climate change, pollution, acid rain, animal extinctions and storms just as is every other place. Revo and Derrick Jensen are correct. The world is being systematically destroyed and there is no way to fix it - or to eve preserve your corner of it - except by changing the system. It is great you are working on protecting one place and I applaud you, however that work, while necessary, isn't sufficient. We have to do more. We all have to do more.

5/17/2011 5:12:36 PM

Even if everyone in America recycled and bought fancy lightbulbs and sealed their windows - which won't happen - we would still be living in a culture that sees the natural world as a field of resources to be exploited, and it won't stop until all of these resources are exploited. Everything from trees to rivers to genes to outer space is under attack by industrial civilization. If you're like me, you're sick of this. And you're sick of being told that buying different crap is going to save the planet. Thankfully, there's a resistance moving that is just now getting started. Deep Green Resistance (http://www.deepgreenresistance.org/) starts where the environmental movement leaves off: industrial civilization is incompatible with life. Technology can't fix it, and shopping-no matter how green-won't stop it. Those who profit from the death of the planet won't cease voluntarily. We are out of time. Another two hundred species went extinct today. And catastrophic climate change has begun. If we really accept the seriousness of our situation, what would that mean for our strategy & tactics? Deep Green Resistance has an answer, a plan of action for anyone determined to fight for this planet-and win... AND WE ARE GOING TO WIN! Visit http://www.deepgreenresistance.org/ to learn more and get involved.

ken balmes
12/12/2010 10:04:27 AM

I know I can't "save the World", but if I can save a few square feet I feel I've done my part.

susan troy
12/10/2010 9:58:51 AM

I think individual acts of conscience are vitally important at this time in many areas, including our external and internal environments. As I look at the world and see a national debate which appears like some kind of adolescent gang war, I am inspired to go into my personal environment and look for ways to help whoever is in front of my face. I have no "proof" that this accomplishes much, but I believe it does. Picking up the trash, thinking about the people who really get you through the day and acknowledging them, smiling because you are aware of the beauty of the turning leaves even in the face of the ugliness of greed, somehow I imagine this helps. Small steps are never dramatic but taking them at least puts your feet on a path away from selfishness.