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Shades of Green

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Healing the environment demands both top-down and bottom-up effort. Only government is big enough to force the huge, necessary shifts in how we use resources. But unless everyday people push for such changes, they probably won't happen.

And our individualistic consumer culture poses big challenges. People won't change voluntarily unless change seems easy, or there's some immediate benefit. Whether such change is sufficient to actually aid the planet is another story: We imagine we can "do our bit" by bagging recyclables or buying reusable shopping bags. Meanwhile, the insatiable, growth-first, fossil-fueled global economy keeps bonfiring away, melting glaciers, poisoning rivers, bulldozing forests.

A new project of the Pittsburgh Climate Initiative illustrates the trouble: It's both a positive step and a possible distraction.

The civic coalition's campaign, announced March 17 at Downtown's Regional Enterprise Tower, is called The Black and Gold City Goes Green. It asks Pittsburghers to engage in a series of monthly "actions" to reduce energy usage, and hence the city's output of climate-altering greenhouse gasses. PennFuture, the environmental group coordinating the project, calls it the nation's first citywide citizen-action climate campaign.

In March, we're asked to change a single light bulb from old-school incandescent to compact fluorescent. A CFL uses one-fourth the energy of an incandescent, and is estimated to save $35 of electricity over its lifespan of up to eight years.

In April, we're to lower our water-heaters to 120 degrees; in May, to check our cars' tire pressure and drive the speed limit.

Expert help is available for each action; nonprofit Conservation Consultants, Inc. offers CFL advice, for instance. Each action also has a "greener" and "greenest" level: More ambitious participants can change three bulbs, or every bulb in the house.

Such actions -- reported by mail or at www.pittsburghclimate.org -- will be tallied to determine how much less carbon we're emitting. The Climate Initiative's goal is to document measurable results by January ... and, ultimately, to reduce citywide greenhouse-gas emissions 20 percent below 2003 levels by 2023.

To encourage participation, the basic actions are designed to be low-cost, and even save money. And PennFuture regional outreach coordinator Joylette Portlock is recruiting participants through channels they trust, like civic groups and churches.

Overall, the project's approach is smart: People want to help. They also don't want to feel like oddballs, so group-recruiting is good. The day after the press conference, Portlock said that 70 people had already created online accounts.

Then again, one conservation move the press conference could have targeted was the Regional Enterprise Tower's array of flat-screen TVs, which play identical cable news programming in the lobby all day long. Unplugging, say, nine of the 10 would probably save enough to power an Ethiopian village.

Which points to the problem. Too many power-suckers lie outside the home -- ranging from our workplaces to the globalized network that grows and delivers our food. Moreover, initiatives like "Goes Green" do little to alter our main source of energy: dirty, nonrenewable resources like coal and oil.

Changing just one bulb in each Pittsburgh household, says the Climate Initiative, would prevent as much global-warming pollution as is emitted by 800,000 cars. Of course, by that same estimate the other two dozen light bulbs or so in the average house would continue causing as much global warming pollution as 19 million cars. And preventing 12,000 tons of greenhouse gases seems scanty when worldwide, humans crank out some 7 billion tons.

"Goes Green" does suggest bigger lifestyle changes like buying local and trading your car for a bike. It also touts buying "green energy." But such changes won't become large-scale as long as fossil fuels are cheap. And that won't change until government creates incentives to phase out nonrenewable energy. The risk of focusing on individual reduction efforts is that we'll lose sight of the urgency of getting off fossil fuels entirely.

Of course, we have to start somewhere. But even as we start projects like "Goes Green," we have to keep going -- into the sort of collective action that will quickly transform the economy that's eating the planet alive.

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