Umbra, hi,

With Honda having just released its gas-electric hybrid Civic in the U.S., many enviros are scrambling to buy one. But one question that hasn’t been answered to my knowledge is whether the total amount of energy, pollution, mining, etc. involved in making a new car — even a hybrid — constitutes a greater overall environmental impact than the added emissions and fossil-fuel consumption of a huge old second-hand clunker that would cost less and, with one of those hoods that extends for approximately 1/4 mile, probably be just as safe.

Thompson Smith

Dearest Thompson,

Hi. No.

The manufacture of cars certainly contributes to air pollution, global warming, and other damage to the natural world, but those negative effects can’t hold a candle to the impact of actually driving cars. (I’ve seen a 15 percent manufacturing/85 percent driving environmental impact breakdown). So if you have the money, and you absolutely must own a car, join the crowd at the alternative car lot. Consult the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the Department of Energy, or even more fun, the Car Talk guys for more info on the environmentally sound way to evaluate your current car or choose a new one.

What if you don’t have the money? Spend some time and energy instead. You can use your current car more efficiently by servicing it regularly, driving slow and steady, keeping your tires at the correct pressure, and never idling. Better, of course, would be to use the car less or not at all — through biking, walking, using public transit, bundling car errands, moving closer to work, or simply not making plans that involve driving.

Yeah, you’ve heard it all before. But the trick is to actually do it. May I return to my incredible metaphor, that distracting plastic bag? Recycling and trash reduction are lulling us into a haze of soporific self-satisfaction. Fretting about tiny objects like plastic bags or Styrofoam cups wastes our limited environmentalist energy on very low-priority issues. The most important choices the individual consumer can make in terms of air and water pollution, global climate change, and ecosystem destruction are those that relate to transportation, household efficiency, and food consumption.

Choosing an eco-friendly large appliance outweighs choosing eco-friendly soda containers. Reducing the amount of meat we eat is more important than reducing the number of paper towels we use. How we get from restaurant to bar matters more than whether our shoes are made of leather or synthetics. These can be harder habits to change, but they are simpler choices because the benefits are obvious and indisputable. If you don’t believe me, or want more information, check out the highly recommended Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices,, by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

I’m intrigued by what would happen if folks stopped recycling at home for a few months. Threw the yogurt containers in the trash. Stopped flattening the soy milk boxes. Tossed the tin cans. And then took all that energy, guilt, and love, and used it to rearrange another part of their lives to help the planet. That is to say, let’s stop looking at the bag and keep our eyes on the road.

Yours truly,
Umbra