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Earth Day Mythbusting

Today is Earth Day, and if your hype-filter is on the fritz, you'd better go some place quiet, where the big green machine can't find you. Otherwise you're likely to encounter a cacophony of well-intentioned greenness.

Today is Earth Day, and if your hype-filter is on the fritz, you'd better go some place quiet, where the big green machine can't find you. Otherwise you're likely to encounter a cacophony of well-intentioned greenness.MYTH: Technology will save us.

Busted: It's up to each of us to reduce consumption and waste, and to choose to live and work more responsibly. Technological solutions are a big part of the movement toward a cleaner existence. But individual choices must lead the way.

Much of the time technology addresses the symptoms of a problem, rather than the roots of a problem. Take biofuels. Clamoring to get off oil, we've stepped into another slick mess, and the backlash has been swift.

Ethanol made from plants was hailed as a cleaner and cheaper replacement for gasoline and diesel. Turns out, it's not as efficient as scientists (and governments) thought. In fact, "ethanol appears to come with a higher greenhouse-gas price tag than previously thought -- higher, indeed, than fossil fuel," if you believe the Wall Street Journal.

And if you don't, how about the British government's top environmental scientist, Robert Watson, who told the BBC that "It would obviously be totally insane if we had a policy to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the use of biofuels that's actually leading to an increase in the greenhouse gases from biofuels."

The kernel of the matter is that cheaper fuel should not be the goal -- less consumption should be the goal. We should be after more efficient cars, computers, and data centers -- not cheaper juice to run them. (I realize that it is technology that makes cars, computers, and data centers more efficient.)

Michael Pollan writes in the New York Times: "Al Gore asks us to change the light bulbs [to more energy-efficient CFLs] because he probably can't imagine us doing anything much more challenging, like, say, growing some portion of our own food. We can't imagine it, either, which is probably why we prefer to cross our fingers and talk about the promise of ethanol and nuclear power -- new liquids and electrons to power the same old cars and houses and lives."

MYTH: Nothing you can do will be enough to make a difference.

Busted: Big changes often start with tiny steps, which may lead to bigger commitments like driving less, consuming more carefully, and even growing some of our own food. For most of us, food gardening (I call it "farming") -- even on a small scale -- isn't feasible. But taking small actions to reduce waste and consumption is.

Today, Earth Day, is a good time to begin taking those baby steps. Start by being more conscious of wasteful habits. Tonight, as you leave your desk, shut down your computer, your display(s), and the office lights. Instead of walking past the humming copier and printer, turn them off. Then go home and read the rest of Michael Pollan's Why Bother?.

Happy Earth Day.

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