It’s true, you’re not going to save the planet by choosing pleather jackets over leather ones, beer over wine, or MP3s over CDs. But each time we stage one of these cage matches, we’re forced to consider just how complicated the idea of “eco-friendliness” can be. It doesn’t just come down to greenhouse gas emissions or energy usage—though those are the two metrics people seem most interested in these days. A complete analysis would also weigh the potential effects of each choice on water pollution, land use, and biodiversity, among many other issues. Plus, studying life cycle analyses—no matter what answers they ultimately provide or how trivial the initial question—reminds us that the products we buy tend to have intricate back stories.
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Still, the Lantern is glad for the reminder to try to see the (rapidly diminishing) forest for the (carbon-sequestering) trees. She’ll happily direct your attention to the most recent issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, which is devoted to the topic of sustainable consumption and production. In an introductory article, the issue’s four co-editors lay out some of the key findings from the last several decades of research. The main point is that, when it comes to the environmental impacts of individual households, four areas dominate: transportation, diet, housing construction (i.e., the impacts of manufacturing, transporting, and assembling building materials), and energy-using products (which include appliances, lighting fixtures, and heating and cooling units). In industrialized countries, these categories collectively account for 70 percent to 80 percent of a household’s environmental impacts.
The editors also describe several variables that are likely to determine whether your environmental footprint is going to be heavier than your neighbor’s—or your cousin’s on the other side of the country. For example, urban living is generally greener than the suburban or rural variety, thanks to higher building densities, lower heating and cooling requirements, and less need for a car. Similarly, an increase in the number of people living in one home means decreased impacts, per-person. (Congratulations, recent college grads living six to an apartment: Your penury is a net gain for the planet.) Research has also shown that impacts tend to rise with household income. (Congratulations again, recent grads!)