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50 Simple Things We Did that Saved the Earth

Remember that late 1980s gem of a bestseller, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth? I was feeling nostalgic the other day, so I cracked open the slightly yellowed pages of my copy and fell into a time warp. Written by a collective of environmental activists calling itself the Earthworks Group, the book became a true “power to the people” manual that didn’t require you to chain yourself to a tree or chase down whaling ships off the coast of Antarctica in order to become an environmentalist. Never would you need to rappel down a smokestack to unfurl a banner emblazoned with a skull and crossbones—you could quietly change the way you shopped or did things in your own home.



More than 25 years since the book suggested we turn the water off while we brush our teeth, much of the book’s advice seems positively quaint. That’s because good environmental habits have become a part of daily life for so many of us, due in no small part to this book.

Let’s consider 1989, when the book was published: Climate change was a new-fangled topic that Sen. Al Gore had just begun giving talks about with the aid of an old-fashioned flip chart. His famed PowerPoint slide show didn’t get off the ground until the following year, when PowerPoint was actually invented.



In fact, while climate change was just starting to be discussed in scientific circles, the more popular issues of the day were those of the hole in the ozone layer and Carl Sagan’s warnings about a global nuclear winter:


Following the first Earth Day in 1970, we learned to stop littering and to be wary of industrial and governmental interests that brought us the disasters of Love Canal and Three Mile Island. DDT had already been banned thanks to Rachel Carson, and the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, enforced by the nascent Environmental Protection Agency, were doing great work. Environmentalism seemed poised to become a defining issue of the 1990s.

As the United States celebrated its victory in the Cold War and the last panels of the Berlin Wall were carted away to museums around the world, we turned our attention to the damage we had done to Mother Earth during the economic boom years of the 1980s, thanks to rampant consumerism, economic growth, cheap oil, and lax regulations.

Tech disruption, circa 1980s.

Tech disruption, circa 1980s.

The time was right for a handbook for concerned citizens who knew they had little power over the military industrial complex but still wanted to make good choices. Enter 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Thanks to it’s news-bitey format and Americans’ increasingly short attention spans, many of us made its suggested small changes to our ways of living that have snowballed into major cultural changes.

Here’s a list of some of the habits that have become mainstream thanks to the book:


recycling_iStock_000019128774XSmall (2)

Recycling: The year this book was published, no one had curbside recycling. We also didn’t reduce and reuse. Those days seem positively primitive! When I was in college I hauled all my family’s waste paper, cardboard, glass bottles, empty cans, and plastic containers to a recycling center several miles away. This, by far, is one of the things for which we can pat ourselves on the back. Community recycling programs and participation rates are one of the biggest changes we’ve all made in the past generation, next to dolefully taking off our shoes at the airport security checkpoint. Living proof that a society can change for the better without recall elections, mass protests, and politicized controversy.



Snip six-pack rings so marine birds and animals don’t get plastic wrapped around their beaks or shells and starve to death. Millions of us now make a habit of this, but even better is the fact that six-pack rings simple are not as common as they once were. All it took was a few pictures like this one, and we never tossed our unsnipped plastic six-pack rings away again.



Use laundry detergents without phosphates that can cause algal blooms in lakes and oceans. Phosphates cause marine plants and algae to reproduce exponentially, which chokes out the oxygen marine life needs to survive. Once we started reading labels, manufacturers responded by catering to our desires. Now most detergents for laundry and dishwashers are phosphate-free. Many states have passed legislation demanding that they are. Algal blooms are still a huge problem, however, especially at the mouth of the Mississippi River, but that’s largely because of Big Agriculture.



Use latex paint instead of oil-based paint and dispose of paint properly. You only need to use oil-based paint when painting wood, and maybe not even then. In fact, oil-based paint has been taken off the market in many states. Latex works great, dries faster, and doesn’t smell like oil-based paint. As for disposing of unused paint properly, we would never pour it down a storm drain like our fathers did in the old days. We wait until our county sponsors its annual Household Hazardous Waste day and drop it off then. Or, we let it harden first and throw it out with the regular trash.




Use unleaded gasoline and allow the plastic vapor recovery hoods to do their job to prevent ozone-causing vapors to escape into the atmosphere. Done and done!


Rechargeable Battery


Recharge your batteries. Instead of using disposable batteries, which leach heavy metals into soil and groundwater if disposed of improperly (which they nearly always are), use rechargeable batteries. This was helpful as we all slogged through the Sony Discman days and the era of the digital point-and-shoot camera. But now we have smartphones so it’s not as much of an issue anymore.



Bag the plastic bag. Some of you insist on accepting those infernal plastic bags when you are out and about in Consumerland. I get it—you need it for when you walk the dog—but honestly. Take your reusable shopping bags to Trader Joe’s, people. All the cool kids have been doing it since 2003. California has passed a law banning plastic bags for certain uses. So has Washington, D.C., and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s the wave of the future.


Lawn Be Gone Pic


Let your lawn go dormant during the heat of the summer. Or better yet, if you live in a drought-prone state (I’m looking at you, California), your lawn should not be a lawn, it should be a xeriscape, like this. Sprinkler systems haven’t exactly gone out of style, but more and more people are taking the easy and cheap way out by easing off the irrigation in July and August.

The list goes on: Install low flow shower heads and toilets, use compact fluorescent light bulbs. Both of these have been enshrined in national laws, because energy efficiency is close to an American religion.



Don’t release helium balloons into the atmosphere. Plant a tree. Use natural pest control. Compost. Drive less. Eat low on the food chain. In 1989 each of these ideas would be met with a quizzical looks, but now they are mainstream.

Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come and realize that most of these changes were pretty close to painless. Next up: Transitioning our oil-based economy to a renewable-energy economy. As an optimistic member of Generation X, I dutifully hand the reins over to you, Millennials. Make us proud.

Posted on: January 14, 2016, 12:14 pm Category: Admin

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