Dear Umbra,

I have been changing my way of living in the past year or so to become more environmentally friendly. I have been recycling (my city recycles almost everything) and I started composting. I have been cutting meat out of my life, and I have been surrounding my home with plants and herbs. I buy biodegradable, organic products that haven’t been tested on animals. I’ve also signed online petitions and became a member of Greenpeace. I carpool with someone and reuse everything. I even make art from recyclable items. I am planning to build an environmentally friendly home, too. But what else can I do? What would be another step? I don’t wish to be the one sitting in a tree to save it. (I’m not much of an activist.)

Thanks a bunch,

Genevieve
Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Dearest Genevieve,

You are doing great. You’ve taken action on two of the major consumption fronts: food and transportation. Eating less meat and buying organic foods are key planet-lovin’ habits. And of course, reducing your driving is the single best way to cut down on pollution, climate change, and general environmental degradation.

Home is where the environmental impact is.

The next major step to warm the cockles of Earth’s molten heart is to make your current home as efficient as you can. The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, a great book which I have recommended in the past and will continue to plug until my carpal tunnels collapse (I’ll get the miners out first), suggests setting environmental priorities by weight. Generally, the heavier something is, the more resources are needed to make and maintain it. Homes are obviously near the top of this list.

Whether you rent or own, there are steps you can take to reduce your use of non-renewable resources in heating and cooling your house and running your appliances. If you own your home, it might be time to replace an old furnace or water heater with a newer, more efficient model. Ditto your fridge and clothes washer. Wash clothes in cold water, and use a drying rack instead of an electric dryer. Install a programmable thermostat and set the day temperature at 68 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Get storm windows, or shrink-wrap plastic, or use caulk to close gaps in the sashes. Insulate the house. Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. All this will pay for itself in electricity-bill savings, not to mention in how good you feel about yourself and the planet.

Speaking of which, I think it’s a mistake to say you are not an activist. Who wants to live in a tree in New Brunswick? You have plenty of opportunities, and apparently plenty of desire, to take action in ways that are true to your personality and interests. Look at the concerns of your community and see what piques your curiosity. Maybe you want to learn more about trees, or you are irate about the pesticides they use on the elementary school grounds. Maybe the potluck meetings for the local chapter of the Audubon Society sound fun. There are all kinds of ways to get involved with environmental change: indoors, outdoors, behind the scenes, leading a group, with a team, alone in your room. Getting involved entitles us to call ourselves activists, but having fun while doing so amplifies and feeds our excitement about contributing a Valentine’s Day card to the Earth.

And you were wondering what this answer had to do with Valentine’s Day. If you think that was a stretch, wait until you see my Maundy Thursday column.

Kisses,
Umbra