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The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices

Michael Brower, Ph.D.
Warren Leon, Ph.D.

New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999

 

Go Green Guidance is based in Phoenix, Arizona

The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices

Michael Brower, Ph.D., and Warren Leon, Ph.D

Operating on the premise that consumers are overwhelmed by the multitude of environmental issues they are exposed to, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices attempts to help readers focus on the big stuff. While I do agree with the premise, they frequently say that people “don’t need to worry” about some fairly major issues. It is clear that the Union of Concerned Scientists was attempting to reach the most consumers possible, and their motives are transparent when you read some of their insights. While discussing the public campaign against CFC containing spray cans, Brower and Leon note that few consumers were willing to sacrifice other, more desirable CFC products such as air conditioners. Their conclusion is relatively dismal: “We can see that individual consumer action works best when it does not require significant consumer sacrifice.” The entire book is based on that assumption – there are some things that people just aren’t willing to give up.

It is also relevant to note that Brower and Leon were writing for a target audience that was more concerned about Y2K than about global warming. Environmental issues and concerns have changed significantly in the last nine years, and they will continue to do so. Some of the things the authors suggest are not worth worrying about – like the use of plastic bags, paper cups, and Styrofoam – are now incredibly simple to avoid, and are widely viewed as being more damaging now than they were then. When discussing the debate over which kinds of clothing materials are most environmental, for example, Brower and Leon suggest that it is a waste of time to worry about finding environmental alternatives like organic cotton or recycled-plastic fleece since clothing made from such fabrics is rare. If more people had worried about trying to find such “green” clothing, however, it would be much more prevalent now, nearly a decade after the publication of this book.

What this text is particularly useful for, however, is analyzing which activities are the most environmentally destructive and the priority actions Americans can take to limit them. The research that went into this document was extensive, and their facts seem trustworthy. In 1999, the Union of Concerned Scientists suggested that the most harmful consumer activities related to:

  1. Cars and light trucks
  2. Meat and poultry
  3. Fruit, vegetables and grains
  4. Home heating, hot water, and air conditioning
  5. Household appliances and lighting
  6. Home construction
  7. Household water and sewage (50)

Other extremely detrimental activities are also included, although the Union somewhat dismisses their impact because fewer people indulge in them, or indulge in them less frequently. These include:

  1. Powerboats
  2. Pesticides and fertilizers
  3. Gasoline-powered yard equipment
  4. Fireplaces and wood stoves
  5. Recreational off-road driving
  6. Hazardous cleaners and paints
  7. Products made from endangered or threatened species (109)

This section is worth reading, if only for some extremely alarming pieces of information. The authors assert, for example, that “an hour of water skiing can create nearly as much smog as driving from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Florida” (110).

What I particularly like about this book is that instead of just alarming the readers with a list of devastating practices, the author’s give practical advice about how to minimize their impact. While none of their suggestions could be considered groundbreaking or insightful, they are well organized and prioritized. Their list of priority actions for American consumers is as follows:

TRANSPORTATION

  1. Choose a place to live that reduces the need to drive.
  2. Think twice before purchasing another car.
  3. Choose a fuel-efficient, low-polluting car.
  4. Set concrete goals for reducing your travel.
  5. Whenever practical, walk, bicycle, or take public transportation.

FOOD

  1. Eat less meat.
  2. Buy certified organic produce.

HOUSEHOLD OPERATIONS

  1. Choose your home carefully.
  2. Reduce the environmental costs of heating and hot water.
  3. Install efficient lighting and appliances.
  4. Choose an electricity supplier offering renewable energy. (85)

While I wholeheartedly agree with all of the actions this book recommends, I suggest adding to it with some very simple behavioral shifts. For example – choose to purchase vintage clothing or new clothing made from sustainable fabrics, bring cloth bags to the grocery store, bring your own water bottle and travel mug with you and avoid disposable cutlery/dishware, and recycle faithfully, following your town’s recycling guidelines. It is absolutely true that consumers are bombarded by products that tout themselves as being green, and there are only so many things you can do without completely altering your way of life. What Brower and Leon ignore is that our current way of life has been proven, repeatedly, as one that is unsustainable.

— RACHEL TAVARES