Dear Umbra,

A lot of the questions people ask you ultimately involve pretty negligible results. When you are talking about the balance sheet of the world, does it really matter if I use a more or less environmentally responsible solution to wash my fruit? I’m wondering what three major concrete changes you’d recommend that people make, which might be more difficult to implement than using lower-energy lightbulbs but would really let us rest easy at night knowing we’d contributed?

New York, N.Y.

Dearest Cate,

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Take a ride on the clean air bus.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Photo: King County Metro Transit.

How did you know about the rash of fruit-washing questions? You’re right, I get gobs of questions from people basically looking for input on their grocery shopping list, or an OK for flushing used Kleenex tissues (I’m not kidding). My inbox is often a source of laughs and incredulity (I keep a “ridiculous” letters folder, and the Kleenex questions aren’t even stored there), but an equal number of letters reflect the maturity of the environmental movement. Readers have a strong grasp of the political and economic complexities that influence our use of natural resources, and I’m often baffled by missives whose content is far beyond my pathetic comprehension. People asking about used Kleenex will often poke fun at themselves for worrying about the “small stuff,” in the argot of our day.

I’ll tell you right away, my answer to the substance of your question is based on an excellent book from the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. Being scientists, the authors studied the answer to your question with alarming thoroughness, developed elaborate ways to calculate the effects an individual has on the environment, picked out the most fruitful possibilities for effective change, and presented opinionated answers in this informative book. Will it tell you which cleanser to purchase? Nyet.

Four general areas of effective action that improve beauty sleep are:

1. Transport
2. Food
3. The heavy parts of home
4. Activism

Making changes in these areas of your life has a guaranteed impact on water pollution, air quality, global warming, and habitat preservation — positive or negative depending on the sort of change you make.

The specifics here are not going to surprise you. Cut down on driving, live close to work, take mass transit when possible, walk or bike when you can, buy the smallest car for your needs, and advocate for transit alternatives in your area. Personal cars and trucks really do spew pollutants, from birth through death.

It turns out that food-purchasing choices are important as well as faddish. If we cut down our meat consumption and buy organic when possible, we will also be reducing our consumption of land and water and our contributions to the pollution of both. We can begin to implement positive daily food and transit changes now, in big or little steps.

Influential changes at home are going to be long-term projects, especially the decision about where we live — ideally in the smallest house for our needs, close to our work and shopping. Of course, if this is not your current situation, you’ll have to wait until it comes time to move. Your other foci at home should be energy efficiency in the home itself and large appliances within it.

Now, my personal thoughts about activism: It doesn’t necessarily mean picketing Shaw’s Supermarket. At its core it means magnifying our influence on public policy and our immediate community via whatever tactics are at our disposal. It is imperative to phone legislators, donate to environmental groups, plant school gardens, speak at the synagogue, do whatever we can to incorporate environmentalism as a permanent consideration in all decisions. Conscientious shopping is not equal to or a substitute for environmental activism.

This column is by necessity brief, with sorry little description of the thoughtful calculations behind the recommendations. I truly recommend the book, which is an easy read filled with interesting tidbits. Ironically, I bought it at a chain store in a sprawl mall.