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MAY 2010 (links updated 2012): You can't undo the damage, but you can help make future disasters less likely—from spills to catastrophic climate change.

Oil Spill Got You Down?
Don't fret, seize the opportunity

In 1968, when I learned about the population bomb in biology class, I was overwhelmed. The planet was heading for disaster and there was nothing I could do to stop it. In the 70s, it was nuclear weapons; in the 80s, the ozone hole. This spring, it's the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But these days I know something I didn't know then. There is always something I/you/we can do.

I don't mean we can erase the disaster that has already occurred. That's oil under the bridge—and if we're unlucky, into the Gulf Stream. What we can do is help prevent recurrence. For recurrence is not only likely but inevitable as long as we allow offshore drilling, depend on oil and, indeed, continue to consume energy as if there were an unlimited supply.

Therefore, this is the time—when we are sick at the thought of the workers killed, sea turtles and other endangered species harmed, fisheries ruined, coastline polluted and coral reefs destroyed—to change our lives.

To begin, we must change our mindset.

We are running on borrowed energy. Oil is just one part of the problem—and oil spills just one of the risks. The trouble is our whole fossil fuel driven way of life. There is not a big enough store of fossil fuels on earth to sustain it, and if there were, it would only make matters worse. Prices would go down and use would go up. The environmental costs of extraction would rise and the climate would be wrecked that much sooner and more completely, perhaps irretrievably so.

We who care need to follow Gandhi's dictum and "be the change we wish to see in the world."

Here's how.

Step 1: Drive less. Do you hop in the car whenever you need something? Zigzag across the landscape to perform errands in opposite directions? Drive where you could easily walk? Join the club.

Americans burn up gas so freely because it hardly seems to cost them anything. The price at the pump is deceptively low and the true price—environmental destruction—is hard to recognize.

But for this brief moment in time, thanks to the oil spill, we can connect the dots. Use the opportunity to change the way—and amount—you drive. Plan your trips. Carpool. Walk. Bike. Give public transportation a chance.

Step 2: Care and repair. Cars and appliances, along with virtually everything else in our consumer culture, are considered more or less disposable nowadays. Since we expect to replace them, we don't keep them in good working order. Thus, they continue to operate, but grow less and less efficient, eating up energy unnecessarily when they run.

So take your car for regular tune-ups, keep the tires inflated, change your air conditioner filters, lubricate the moving parts of motors and do all those other pesky maintenance tasks recommended in the manuals.

Step 3: Get energy-efficient equipment. The difference between conventional products and energy-efficient ones can be quite staggering. For instance, an incandescent bulb uses four times as much energy to produce a given quantity of light as a compact fluorescent bulb—and 10 times as much as an LED. Yes, the energy-efficient alternatives cost more to buy, but they also cost less to operate. Besides, becoming the change you want to see in the world includes paying more for a cleaner, safer future. So, shop for Energy Star appliances and factor fuel economy into your choice of car.

Step 4: Go local—and not just with food. It's simple: goods need to be transported to market. The shorter the distance, the less energy required. Therefore, look for products made close to home.

Step 5: Change your habits. Today's norm is to live wastefully, but you don' t have to go along. To save energy:

• Turn off lights when not in use.
• Wash full loads of dishes and laundry.
• Air dry both.
• Change your clothes before the thermostat.
• Unplug chargers and always-on appliances.
• Reuse and recycle.
• Eat less meat.

Step 6: Buy less stuff. It takes energy to produce goods. Think twice before you throw it away on things you do not need.

Whatever you do, don't let this moment pass without some step toward change.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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On This Topic


Exxon Valdez clean-up
SPEAK OUT FOR CHANGE. More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, we're facing an even worse disaster. Say "No!" to new offshore drilling.


Wind turbines
CONTRIBUTE TO CHANGE. America needs to move beyond oil. Support NRDC's work in Washington to pass clean energy legislation now.


Mohandas Gandhi
BE THE CHANGE. What does this oft-quoted saying of Mahatma Gandhi really mean? According to his grandson, Arun Gandhi, "he said this when he was speaking after prayer service and he mentioned this because people kept saying to him that the world has to change for us to change. He said, 'No, the world will not change if we don't change.' So we have to make the beginning ourselves."


Resources


The New York Times
Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill News

U.S. Department of Energy
Driving and Car Maintenance
Tips on Saving Money and Energy at Home
Rebates for Energy Star Appliances

American Council for an Energy-Efficent Economy
Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings

Union of Concerned Scientists
Hybrid Center Scorecard

WikiHow
How to Buy Nothing



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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.