The Consumer’s Guide
by Michael Brower
and Warren Leon
Three Rivers Press,
1999, 304 pages

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Michael Brower and Warren Leon aim to distinguish their book, The Consumer Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists, from other laundry-list-like enviro books by telling readers which purchasing and lifestyle choices pack the greatest environmental punch. In contrast to volumes that bombard readers with 50, 100, or 1001 steps that they can take to spare the earth, Brower and Leon lay out 11 “priority actions,” urging Americans to give careful consideration to, for example, the cars they drive, the appliances in their homes, and the amount of meat in their diets. At the same time, the authors tell readers to stop fretting over relatively minor issues such as the occasional disposable cup tossed in the trash and the paper-versus-plastic quandary.

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The authors base their assertions on extensive research and risk-assessment studies, which, though surely not indisputable, form a good basis for helping consumers prioritize their decisions. First, Brower and Leon identify what they consider to be the top four environmental problems related to consumption in the U.S.: air pollution, global warming, habitat alteration, and water pollution. Then they divide household activities into broad and narrow categories, and rank those categories according to their contributions to the big four environmental problems. The result is a short list of what consumers should pay the most attention to. (For readers curious about the minutiae of such calculations, a lengthy appendix provides details.)

At the start, the authors’ approach seems appealingly straightforward, but it goes a little awry because Brower and Leon don’t know when to stop. In addition to laying out their roster of “priority actions,” they muddy the waters a bit by listing seven general “rules for responsible consumption,” eight “high-impact activities” that should be avoided, and the seven most damaging general categories of consumer spending.

Still, the book is navigable and readers shouldn’t have much trouble finding the good, solid core information on which they can base good, sound spending decisions.