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Commentary: To Protect the Environment, Lifestyle Change Is Not Enough

By Walter Simpson

Buffalo, NY – I believe in living gently on the earth and lately have been feeling guilty about not owning a fuel efficient Toyota Prius. My car is a 15 year old Honda civic wagon. There is something to say for reusing something old and my car will still get 40 miles per gallon on a long trip if I am ever brave enough to drive it that far.

But still, shouldn't I own a Prius? A little voice keeps whispering in my ear, "Yes, Walter, you need a Prius, you should have a Prius. Go ... buy ... a ... Prius."

Of course, if you're going to have a car, making yours a sleek looking 55 mile per gallon hybrid makes a lot of sense. But I've hesitated. I have this nagging feeling that my getting a Prius won't stop the oil war in Iraq any more than it will affect the upcoming vote in Congress to begin oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The 35th anniversary of Earth Day has come and gone and, if you were paying attention, you were probably harangued about adopting a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Compost. Buy organic. Turn down your thermostat. Don't have more than two kids. I have argued for all of these things and sought to live accordingly. It really is difficult to find a table lamp or light fixture in our house that doesn't have a compact fluorescent light bulb in it. But should these things be our priority? I am having my doubts.

Last year, according to the League of Conservation Voters, local Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds' environmental record was a zero. In other words, he voted against environmental protection on every key environmental vote. Yet Earth Day came and went and there were no rallies or demonstrations. No one was seen picketing outside Tom Reynolds office. Unbelievable. With luck like this Tom must be thinking those extremist evangelists are right and God really is on their side.

How did our own Mr. Pollution escape Earth Day unscathed? Could it be because we have come to define our defense of the Earth too privately and quietly, as personal lifestyle acts? Put more simply: did Tom get a pass because Earth Day supporters were too busy recycling?

Allow me to step off the deep end. Maybe, just maybe, focusing on recycling, composting, and driving hybrids (or, better yet, bicycling) is part of the problem. Encouraging lifestyle change - while ignoring the need political action -- has become a fetish for much of the environmental movement. And that's dangerous. It's worse than missing the forest for the trees. We are going to lose the forest altogether if we stay on that path.

There are many local environmental issues which cry out for citizen involvement. For political action. And nationally, George W. Bush, Tom Reynolds, and their earth-wrecking team have created the worst environmental crisis in modern times. How do we respond to that? Reducing our own environmental footprints will do nothing to stop the Bush Administration from clear cutting ancient forests or abolishing environmental protections. The exploiters, polluters and destroyers are happy to burn Rome while we keep fiddling with our lifestyles.

Ross Gelbspan, expert on global warming, made the same point when he visited Buffalo last year. He said our condition is code is red and the clock is ticking. Under these circumstances, Gelbspan argued that we should not be expending our limited energies encouraging lifestyle measures to address the problem. The only hope is moving quickly to build a movement for political change to force new policies and leadership. Sure we need to better insulate our homes, but - and it pains me to say this -- a higher R-value won't change a single vote in Congress.

So if you care about the environment, and a great many people do, please challenge yourself to get involved politically. Express your concern by supporting national environmental organizations which are working for political change. Contact local environmental groups and ask them when's the next rally or demonstration and, if they don't have any on their calendar, then help them organize one - perhaps in front of Tom Reynolds' office. Make time for letter writing, petitioning, leafleting and lobbying. And if you really want to help the environment, become a community organizer.

If only we would use the power we have. Imagine if the millions of caring Americans who want Priuses donated the few thousand extra dollars they are willing to pay for that technological marvel to a multi-billion dollar national environmental action fund. If that happened, we would win.

"Reality Check" with Walter Simpson is a monthly feature of WBFO News.