A down-to-Earth guide

On The Bay

Decisions: A new book for consumers offers some sound, provocative advice on how to best preserve the planet.

March 31, 2000|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

ARE YOU WORRIED about whether it's better for the environment to use paper bags or plastic at the supermarket, or disposables vs. cloth diapers?

And how about plastic vs. reusable cups, and newspaper vs. polystyrene peanuts for packing fragile items?

And shouldn't you get more serious about recycling?

Before giving another thought to the above, or to a long list of other actions frequently prescribed to save the Earth, read physicist and energy expert Michael Brower's book.

For anyone who has asked, "What can I do to help the earth (or the bay)?" "The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices" (Three Rivers Press, 1999) offers the best scientific documentation I have seen on which individual actions have impact.

It also dispels a lot of guilt and confusion, caused in part by the laundry lists of 100, and even 1,000, "things you can do" published in recent years.

For example, to every choice but one listed above, Brower and co-author Warren Leon, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, would say, "Don't sweat it, the differences are marginal."

Even the exception, recycling, while worth doing, is not as urgently needed or as superior to trash disposal as it is often billed. "A single-minded emphasis [on recycling] may distract consumers from other, possibly more effective strategies," the two scientists conclude.

(However, I'd argue that some activities, like recycling, are such good entryways to engage the public in hands-on environmentalism, they deserve priority even if their pluses are not overwhelming.)

For the bay, "The Consumer's Guide" is particularly timely, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently had Brower address its environmental education staff.

About 15 million people live in the bay's watershed, and millions more are coming. The impact of our collective lifestyle choices on the air, land and water has become as critical as the actions of industry, government and agriculture.

"Conspicuous consumption" was a phrase invented -- in 1899 -- to describe American lifestyles. Today, our 5 percent of the world's population slurps 25 percent of the world's oil, 33 percent of its paper, 23 percent of its coal and 27 percent of its aluminum. Americans use more than twice the amount of fossil fuels per capita as Europe and Japan.

If the new global economy does succeed in making the world's other 5.7 billion people as prosperous and profligate as Americans, imagine to what price they will bid a gallon of gasoline.

While acknowledging this, "The Consumer's Guide" cautions that railing generally about "over-consumption" offers no useful guidance and generates guilt and even backlash.

An across-the-board, 10 percent cut in Americans' consumption of all goods and services would not do much to stop current environmental impacts, the book concludes.

But a few areas of consumer behavior -- seven of 50 categories examined by the authors -- count big-time. They are where groups like the bay foundation might focus with effect.

These include, in descending order of importance: what we drive and how much, what we eat, how we build our homes and use energy to run them.

The breakdowns of these categories in the guide are intriguing. Take transportation. Flying is relatively benign, on a per-passenger basis. Rail travel causes surprising amounts of per capita air pollution because Amtrak diesels have few emissions controls and don't carry enough passengers.

Cars, especially sport utility vehicles and light trucks, which are nearly half the new-vehicle market, have the greatest impacts, and not just on air quality. Land use (for roads and parking) and water pollution from atmospheric fallout of nitrogen, the bay's biggest pollution, are substantial, too.

In our food choices, the message is clear: Eating less beef, poultry and pork, in that order, is the most environmentally sound choice consumers can make.

Animal waste generated in America equals about 20 tons a year per household, and it is a huge source of water pollution. Beef and chicken, respectively, cause 17 and 11 times the water pollution of growing wheat for pasta.

Dairy farming, surprisingly, causes much less of a problem, despite a per capita consumption of 10 times the pounds of dairy products each year as beef.

Here is a case where, as the guide acknowledges, local priorities may differ from national ones. Poultry and dairy would undoubtedly rank higher as environmental problems around the bay than beef and pork.

The guide goes on to discuss a range of common-sense, effective actions consumers can take that will make a significant difference.

While tackling the tough individual choices, from how many cars to how many kids, it does not preach: "It is important to recognize that protecting the environment is only one of many factors people must weigh."

While environmental groups can't ignore the effects of consumer choices, they are in relatively uncharted waters in telling people how to behave.

The public would rather back them in battling steel plants and poultry companies than seriously think about driving cars that use less steel or eating less chicken.

That can change if people know the connections between their consumption and the environment and focus on changes that will make a real difference.

"The Consumer's Guide," clearly written, well-researched and rich in detail, is a good place to start.

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