The four things you should be focusing on this Earth Day.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
April 20 2010 10:08 AM

Earth Day Edicts

What to focus on if you really want to green your lifestyle.

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Lantern, I too have laid awake at night wondering whether dry-erase pens were better for the environment than blackboard chalk. But in honor of Earth Day, maybe you can get past the Green Lantern's this-vs.-that coverage of consumer products and offer some bigger-picture advice? Overall, what are the most important things for individual consumers to focus on?

It's true, you're not going to save the planet by choosing pleather jackets over leather ones, beer over wine, or MP3s over CDs. But each time we stage one of these cage matches, we're forced to consider just how complicated the idea of "eco-friendliness" can be. It doesn't just come down to greenhouse gas emissions or energy usage—though those are the two metrics people seem most interested in these days. A complete analysis would also weigh the potential effects of each choice on water pollution, land use, and biodiversity, among many other issues. Plus, studying life cycle analyses—no matter what answers they ultimately provide or how trivial the initial question—reminds us that the products we buy tend to have intricate back stories.

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Still, the Lantern is glad for the reminder to try to see the (rapidly diminishing) forest for the (carbon-sequestering) trees. She'll happily direct your attention to the most recent issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, which is devoted to the topic of sustainable consumption and production. In an introductory article, the issue's four co-editors lay out some of the key findings from the last several decades of research. The main point is that, when it comes to the environmental impacts of individual households, four areas dominate:transportation, diet, housing construction (i.e., the impacts of manufacturing, transporting, and assembling building materials), and energy-using products (which include appliances, lighting fixtures, and heating and cooling units). In industrialized countries, these categories collectively account for 70 percent to 80 percent of a household's environmental impacts.

The editors also describe several variables that are likely to determine whether your environmental footprint is going to be heavier than your neighbor's—or your cousin's on the other side of the country. For example,   urban living is generally greener than the suburban or rural variety, thanks to higher building densities, lower heating and cooling requirements, and less need for a car. Similarly, an increase in the number of people living in one home means decreased impacts, per-person. (Congratulations, recent college grads living six to an apartment: Your penury is a net gain for the planet.) Research has also shown that impacts tend to rise with household income. (Congratulations again, recent grads!)

The Industrial Ecology report is mostly concerned with the policy implications of these findings, so the Lantern asked the issue's editors what advice they'd offer individual consumers. Arnold Tukker of the Dutch research organization TNO laid out his top recommendations thusly: Insulate your home, choose energy-efficient appliances, drive a fuel-efficient car (if you must drive at all), moderate your meat and dairy consumption, eat what's in season, and avoid food that's been air-shipped.

But let's step back even further and consider another kind of big picture. Individual actions—no matter what kind of savings they produce—can't really be evaluated in isolation. In order to be environmentally meaningful, they need to be considered as part of a larger, holistic set of behaviors. For example, if you buy a fuel-efficient hybrid and then proceed to drive it twice as often, you've squandered your savings. (That's what's known in environmental circles as "the rebound effect.") Likewise, if you scrupulously buy nontoxic cleaners and 100 percent recycled toilet paper but fly once a month for work, you're really not doing Earth any favors.

Sustainable consumption isn't just about buying greener products—it's also about changing the way we think about consumption in the first place. As Tukker's co-editor, Maurie Cohen of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, noted, we won't save the planet by consuming differently: We need to learn how to consume less. That's a hard truth to swallow in this age of lazy environmentalism. But what better time to contemplate it than Earth Day?

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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