How many simple things does it really take to save the earth?

The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. By Michael Brower and Warren Leon.

Review by John Dalbey

Most of us certainly don't have time to do 50 things as advocated by one popular book. Even the simple task of sorting out household recycleable items is too cumbersome for many people.

Today's consumer is faced with overwhelming number of choices and trying to consider environmental impacts can be stupefying. Paper bags or plastic? Disposable diapers or cloth? Faced with so many choices and so little time we are tempted to throw up our hands. Does it really make a difference anyway?

Yes, it does.

The authors of this new book are convinced there truly are clear, unambiguous choices that ordinary consumers make that will actually benefit the environment. Also, there are many choices that really don't matter at all. This book helps you prioritize your consumer choices so you can put your effort into decisions that make a difference. Simultaneously it will help you stop worrying (and feeling guilty about) insignificant issues.

The majority of Americans believe that environmental issues are important, and many call themselves "environmentalists". Two-thirds of Americans acknowledge that we are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the world's evironmental problems. 88 percent acknowledge that some dramatic change in lifestyle will be necessary in order to protect the environment. But few have really examined the implications of their own lifestyle and don't know precisely what they should change.

The authors admit that lifestyles are very resistant to change and most people are not going to suddenly become granola eating, worm bin feeding, voluntary simplicity nazis. The authors recommend a targeted strategy as more palatable to the majority of consumers. They want us to focus on just a few, especially damaging aspects of our consumption.

After an extensive examination of American's consumption habits, the authors conclude that not all consumption has equal impact. Some consumption is much worse than others. In response to this the authors offer a very pragmatic, workable approach to environmentally conscious consumerism. The authors often downplay many topics that have received a lot of publicity, such as Styrofoam cups or the paper versus plastic bag dilemma. Instead we are encouraged to give our attention to choices we make that have the most impact.

This easy to read little book is based on extensive research and analysis by The Union of Concerned Scientists, a well known and respected public interest organization. The book is very well organized and you don't have to read it cover to cover. If you just want the bottom line, they've got the capsule summary of what are the most effective actions you can take. They provide detailed guidance about consumer choices if you need advice about the issues. If you want to understand the bigger picture of how consumer choices effect the environment, they provide a ranking of the real impacts of American's lifestyle and household consumption. Importantly the authors concede that there is a limit to consumer choice, in many cases, simply because alternatives are not available. There is a chapter that offers suggestions about how to pressure corporate, institutional, and governmental agencies to make environmentally sound options available. The authors include a lengthy appendix describing their research methods and an extensive list of resources for concerned consumers.

Every American consumer needs to read this book. I give it my highest recommendation.

Top Priority Actions for American Consumers



1. Choose a place to live that reduces the need to drive.
2. Think twice before purchasing another car.
3. Choose a fuel-efficient, low-polluting car.
4. Set concrete goals for reducing your travel.
5. Whenever practical use alternative transportation.



6. Eat less meat.
7. Buy certified organic produce.



8. Choose your home carefully.
9. Reduce the environmental costs of heating and hot water.
10. Install efficient lighting and appliances.
11. Choose an electricity supplier offering renewable energy.

This article first appeared in HopeDance Magazine, March/April 2001.
Reprinted here by permission.