How many environmentalists does it take to change a lightbulb?

There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth.  We are all crew.  -Marshall McLuhan, 1964

Like most of us, I have wanted to do my part to help make our planet more green.  I once even chased down and confronted a litterbug in my old neighborhood over a discarded donut wrapper.  Rawr!

Yet I've wanted to go beyond the "compact fluorescent bulb" stage of environmentalism.  I use that term because whenever I read pamphlets that discuss what we can do for the environment, switching to compact fluorescent bulbs is usually at the top of the list.  But it's an easy choice: we save money in the long run, and it involves no more investment than the initial cost of the lightbulb and the time it takes to screw it in place.  (Of course, a broken bulb with mercury can be a problem when it comes to disposal, but that's another story altogether.)  It's a great start, but environmental solutions need to come with harder lifestyle choices.  How many of us turn up the heat rather than put on a sweater?

I thought about all of the major, radical things that we human beings can do to help our environment, and my list immediately consisted of this:

1. Consume much less.  This means buying only what is needed, buying used whenever possible, and reusing things until they can no longer be used.
2. Become a vegan.  Animal farms cause water pollution and require major land resources, for starters.
3. Don't have more than one child.  Overpopulation taxes limited resources.  Not to mention, diapers are awful for the environment, no matter what kind you use.
4. Rarely drive a car or take an airplane.  The pollution caused by carbon emissions from countless cars and airplanes is extreme, as is the junk that comes from manufacturing and getting rid of them.  This doesn't even begin to include the impact of fossil fuel drilling and oil spills.
5. Don't support any businesses and government systems that hurt the environment.  Take a stand against the worst polluters.  This is where people can make the greatest global impact.

Okay, let's admit it: if I do/had done all of the above things, my environmental footprint would get much smaller.  I mean, are we really environmentally minded if we commute far distances, have three kids, and eat meat every day?  (That was a rhetorical question.)  We need to acknowledge that it's not enough for people to put their cans in the recycling bin and call it a day.  We all need to do more.  We cannot be lulled into ecological apathy.  We need to consider ourselves environmentalists; we have no choice if we are to have a future.

That said, are the above radical actions desirable or even realistic for most people?  How many people would assent to one or the other, but then balk at the rest?  How many people can be persuaded to change their lifestyles to that degree?

The fact remains that we all have choices, but we don't have to be ideal environmentalists in order to be good environmentalists.  I would rather everyone in the world make moderate lifestyle changes to help the earth than for just a few people to make radical changes while others do nothing. 

So what can we do?  Well, perhaps it might help to do a mental inventory of what we already do to help the environment, and what we could do better.  For me, a short list would look like this:

What I already do:
1. Recycle all paper, cans, jars, and bottles that come from our house;
2. Have a low-maintenance yard with no fertilizers and no watering, mowed with a handpowered lawnmower;
3. Share a smaller family car, and walk when possible;
4. Buy mostly used clothes, shoes, toys, furniture, and books;
5. Don't eat land-based animals;
6. Turn off lights, turn off water when not using;
7. Don't buy too much stuff.

I am okay with this list, but not satisfied.  There is so much more that I could be doing, including:

1. Reuse more household products, especially paper;
2. Use less toxic cleaning supplies, wash less laundry, use less bathwater;
3. Drive an electric or hybrid car, and use public transportation more;
4. Buy more environmentally friendly products, from clothes to furniture;
5. Buy organic, locally grown foods more often;
6. Adjust our thermostat to seasonal levels and put insulation in the walls of our house;
7. Buy much less stuff, still.

That's not even going into environmental activism, which can begin with a simple boycott or a letter written to a politician or company president. 

Then there's the matter of me and all my kids, of course... I do have a defense when it comes to having children, even as I admit that new human beings make a huge impact on the environment.  It is that a child who is knowledgeable about helping the earth and who can be taught to persuade others to do the same is worth a million compact fluorescent bulbs or recycled cans.  Today's baby could be tomorrow's Sierra Club member, after all. 
The bottom line is that while we need to make many choices to help the environment, those choices need to be comfortable enough so that they are easy for most of us to implement - and we need to talk about it as if it's a problem to which we can all be a part of the solution.


  1. Well said Mel! I've been thinking a lot about the impact of having a bunch of kids like I have. I know it's pretty much just a rationalization, but it occurs to me that if you buy everything secondhand, and don't eat much meat and things like that, that the 'number of kids' factor might be way less important than actual behavior in terms of the footprint.
    I could see adopting as a solution to this - that way you get a) more kids to have fun raising that are possible future sierra club members and b) no greater impact on world resources since the kid was there anyway.

  2. YAY Melinda! Congrats on starting a blog. Now comes the hard part, continuing to write! At least that was the hard part for me. Love your first post and look forward to reading more from your wonderful mind!

  3. Melinda, this is the first blog I've ever read. Don't know if I fit your recommended lifestyle, but will say where I am. I am in the process of moving, hopefully soon. By so doing, I am trying to rid myself of 26+ years of stuff. I haven't bought "new" clothes in forever - use Goodwill usually. Wear clothes until they wear out. Recycle what can be recycled. Don't buy much except enjoy eating out(no fast food and no expensive places), don't drive much, have no inclination to fly ever again, my 2001 car still works fine, the library has many uses for me (heaven must be a sort of library).

  4. For those fellow students out there (or anybody who constantly has to print out large quantities), don't forget to print double-sided!!! :-)


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