SHIFT: Save the planet? It's on you

By the time we have Earth Day in 2010, California will be generating 20% of its energy from renewable resources. Other states and countries are joining them, too; in most cases, that’s a huge increase from what they were doing only a couple of years ago. With fossil fuel prices climbing into the stratosphere and glaciers crumbling around us, it sounds great. If it's a war, it feels like we’re winning.

Except the math still sucks. Because even if California hits that 20% target, that means 80% of our energy needs will still be coming from nonrenewable fossil fuels. And between now and then, everything we like to do, and the things we buy to do it, will only make that energy use surge upward. Now it seems like a losing battle.

But there is a path to victory. And it's all laid out for you after the jump.

Big Decisions, Little Decisions
What makes this battle so hard is that there’s no simple, singular answer. There’s no green Fat Boy that will bring our problem to its knees. Real change will involve you putting a little more thought into the few hundred small decisions you make every day of your life.

Get informed and make those decisions in the greenest way you can, right now. A lot of information is out there, and a lot of it is conflicting, too, so remember this to keep from thinking yourself into inaction: No single decision you’ll make will be “perfect.” You live, you consume, you create waste. But the goal should be lessening that footprint a little every time. Practice this simple mantra, courtesy of Jon Gelbard at Conservation Value — avoid, reduce and offset.

Understand the “Real” Rules
Since you’ve made your peace with having some kind of impact, boning up on the rules that apply to you and your community will help you reduce it. Curbside recycling is the most visible reduction effort most of us see regularly, but recycling options tend to be very local, and not always what they seem. It’s not as easy as chucking everything in a box or bag and sticking it out on garbage day.

An executive at Starbucks once told me about letters he’d receive from earnest customers at one of the coffee giant’s stores, demanding to know why they didn’t recycle the glass juice bottles sold in the store. Never mind that the store in question diverted more than 70% of its solid waste already (again, not perfect, but better than doing nothing) — those few dozen glass bottles sold weekly, to the letter writers themselves no doubt, were the thorn in their side. We can put glass out in our curbside recycling program, they’d ask, why can’t you?

And the answer was the dirty secret — despite the prominent curbside recycling program in the store’s community, the city wouldn’t pick up glass from businesses because there was too much glass already from residents… and most of that was actually going to landfill. Glass is heavy, and unless you have a glass plant nearby, it’s not economical for some cash-strapped municipalities to truck it long distances.

And let me ask these letter writers what the Starbucks exec couldn’t — why the hell didn’t you either: a) Not buy the juice there, or anywhere and b) If you did, why not take the bottle home with you and stick it in your own damn recycling box? Too messy? Too lazy? Not your problem? Clearly you have the spare time, so take some responsibility for your own actions.

Breaking The Habit(s)
Like those Starbucks customers, we need to wonder more about why we buy what we buy, before we buy it. Retailers and industry offer up a lot of small catchy ways to avoid unnecessary consumption — reusable shopping bags, rechargeable batteries, CFL bulbs and so on. And that’s great, but step back and analyze a bigger set of your consumption patterns.

Take books, for example. How many books to do you read a year? Enough to get a Kindle? Enough to justify the resources that it takes to make and ship you a Kindle, instead of buying the hard copies? Advertising trains us to always want to trade up, to add the newest thing to our collection, but clearly that has an impact on resources. We’re also told that trading down is a hairshirt virtue — but if you’re consuming for the sake of consuming, not trading at all may be the answer.

You could get a jump on Earth Day 2009 by looking at a few things you do every day — your breakfast, your commute, your workday, your night out — picking them apart, and figuring out the greenest way to get the same level of activity now. Is it mass transit? A reusable coffee mug? Printing on both sides of paper? Not printing at all? Then start cutting back. Do I need to travel to that meeting? Do I really need that latte and muffin at all? Do I need the paper or could I read it on my PDA?

This is just a start. And it will be hard work. You want a silver bullet? Buy a six-pack of Coors. Or maybe just one can, if that’s all you need. And recycle that can, too.