Dear Umbra,

What are some everyday things I could do to protect the environment? Like choosing plastic or paper, that kind of thing.

Spokane, Wash.

Dearest Dominick,

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Your good question has a surprising answer, and it’s one I’m happy to repeat as often as necessary: None of the important things has to do with paper or plastic, or any of the daily choices most of us spend lots of time pondering. We need to think bigger.

Think outside the bag.

I’ve compared and contrasted a random pile of “Top Ten Things You Can Do” lists — to see how my own Consumption Manifesto stacks up, and to see if there are any looming battles over What’s Important. Nope. The pool includes: Sierra Club [PDF], Population Connection [PDF], U.S. PIRG, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (mwah!).

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There are two items on which all agree: buy the most fuel-efficient vehicle possible, and use it as little as possible. Instead, use mass transit, your feet, your bicycle, etc. You know this, but do you do it every day? The only people who do are those who don’t own cars — and even they sometimes borrow mine. So we all can improve here.

Two other areas of harmony: light bulbs and letter writing. Compact fluorescent bulbs should be at the top of your shopping list until you run out of sockets. Then, under their soothing (and long-lasting) glow, sit and write your representatives (you can find their addresses online or in your phone book).

But wait! More agreement to agree: make your home, including your appliances, as efficient as possible. Some lists give this as multiple tasks, some as one, but all want you to determine where your dwelling loses energy — an audit may help — and then fix the leaks. Also, when you have extra cash, or experience tragic appliance death, replace large appliances with Energy Star versions.

I think that is plenty to keep you busy, what with licking stamps and caulking windows. But in case your home is already weatherproofed and your hand is cramped, here are the things vying to round out the lists: Plant trees in your neighborhood, yard, or vicinity. Choose clean power if it is available in your community. Reduce your water usage. Have a meat-free day once a week, and buy locally produced foods. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Have a small family and teach them to tend the planet. And, finally, get involved by joining, supporting, or starting an environmental organization.

There you are. Nothing to do with paper or plastic, but I’m positive you can find something to do each day from this list. I know I can.


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