The main environmental problem today is global warming. The fact that plastic takes millions of years to decompose won't kill you, but global warming might. Global warming is caused by greenhouse gases reflecting light and heat that is leaving the Earth back at the Earth. Greenhouse gases are found in nature, but mankind has increased some of them drastically since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The increased production of greenhouse gases by mankind is the main cause of global warming. 
Keep in mind that some greenhouse gases are necessary to keep the planet warm enough to support life. However, the levels of greenhouse gases now present are too much to maintain our current climate (or, rather, the climate we used to have; we've already changed the weather for the worse).
The main greenhouse gases (in order of decreasing effect) are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone. Water vapor has the greatest effect, but it exists in relatively stable amounts. If there gets to be too much water vapor, it turns into rain and falls out of the sky.
Carbon dioxide, methane, and tropospheric ozone have all been increased by human activity. Carbon dioxide is generated by burning fossil fuels. Methane is produced primarily by bacteria, which are present in anaerobic digestion of rotting materials. Methane-producing bacteria are also present in the intestines of some animals, including livestock (particularly cows, who belch methane) and humans (some humans produce flatulence containing methane).
Why do I list ozone here? It turns out that ozone that's relatively low in the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas. When ozone is in the stratosphere (yes, way up high) it blocks ultraviolet light from reaching the Earth, which is a good thing. Ozone depletion was caused by the use of CFCs in air conditioners and aerosol sprays, but CFCs are now illegal in civilized countries. Hence, there's nothing for ordinary people to do about ozone depletion except to hope that the CFCs remaining in the atmosphere don't cause too much more damage.
So far as normal people need to be concerned, tropospheric ozone is caused by car exhaust. Though cars don't emit ozone directly, they do emit gases that turn into ozone when hit by sunlight.
Carbon dioxide is the biggest contributor to manmade global warming. Methane is actually alot worse, but it doesn't stay in the atmosphere as long. Also, mankind hasn't generated as much of it. Tropospheric ozone doesn't last long and is thus a relatively minor concern for global warming (though it causes some other problems).
Though global warming gets blamed for just about everything, it seems clear that it is causing some problems. The extent of the problems is subject to debate. More information on this is available elsewhere. This article is not about the effects of global warming, only about how you can stop causing it as much within your own life.
Even though part of the problem is burning fossil fuels, there is more to it than that. Deforestation puts carbon dioxide that's stored in existing trees back into the atmosphere and prevents new trees from growing and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Every tree eliminated reduces the environment's ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Some may object that individuals aren't the ones generating greenhouse gases; big businesses are. This is partially true, but big businesses are controlled by consumers. And you are a consumer. If you don't buy a particular item, businesses will stop supplying it. For instance, if no one ate beef, drank milk, or ate cheese, farmers would stop raising cows.
Alot of people worry about minor things when they're trying to save the environment. Keeping your tires fully inflated helps save gas, but not driving an SUV would save even more gas. Most people have no idea how to save electricity, and they do stupid things. They turn off their laptop when they're not using it, but they leave their air conditioner or heater on when no one's home.
Stupid tricks don't work. You can only save a little bit by turning off your engine at a stop light or by taking a shower instead of a bath. You can save alot more by not having a car. And even if you stop bathing altogether, it won't make much difference. By doing even one thing that actually matters, you will help much more than by doing ten insignificant things.
This article tells you how to make lifestyle changes to help prevent global warming. Unfortunately, many of these ideas require sacrifice. If you want something, you must either work for it or give something else up. Wishes won't fix the environment any more than wishes can make you a sandwich. This article assumes that you want to avoid increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and it tells you how to do so. If you follow the advice given in this article, you will be able to say "I'm not the one who made the Earth uninhabitable" when everyone starts dying.
The things you can do are listed below with the most effective tips first.
(I apologize if anyone is offended by this section, but it's just common sense. Someone has to say this.)
One person uses causes a certain amount of damage to the environment. Two people cause about twice as much. Granted, different people cause different amounts of damage, but every human damages the environment. No human alive has a net positive effect upon the environment. Aside from the fact that they output carbon dioxide with their breath (and sometimes methane with their flatulence), humans are the cause of all the industry and agriculture that is destroying the world with greenhouse gases.
I won't go so far as to suggest that you go on a bloody rampage and kill everyone in your neighborhood. This wouldn't be productive. You're killing productive members of society, who will be replaced by fresh new babies. These babies will have to go through school and so forth, consuming large amounts of resources before they do anything useful.
Forms of birth control include abstinence, condoms, spermicide, and sterilization. Methods such as the "rhythm" method and prayer are not technically forms of birth control because they don't prevent pregnancy.
If you absolutely must have children, only have one. Better yet, consider adoption. Adoption causes no damage to the environment.
Farmers burn alot of fossil fuels to make meat. Agriculture is all done by machine these days. This burns alot of fuel, emitting alot of carbon dioxide and causing alot of global warming. It also uses up alot of land and alot of water. In fact, the amount of water it takes to produce meat is absurdly large, though that isn't a main focus of this article.
Fruits and vegetables aren't that bad. Meat, however, is horrendously damaging to the environment. You might think that it's because the animals have to breathe, but that isn't the main problem. To feed the animals, farmers have to grow fields upon fields of grain. This requires the farmers to drive tractors and other machines all over the place. Moreover, alot of farms are on land that used to contain forests. Before the farmers can raise their livestock, they have to get rid of the trees that are in the way, which also contributes to global warming.
Cows are the worst kind of livestock. They eat a terrifying amount of food, all of which must be grown. And they burp enough methane that it actually matters. Growing a pound of beef creates as much as 200 times as much greenhouse gases as growing a pound of vegetables. If you have an human decency at all, please at least stop eating beef. Eat poultry and fish (or even pork) instead if you must have meat. Also, buying vegetable-based milk and cheese is almost as important.
Growing other kinds of meat is bad, but not nearly as bad as growing beef. Pork is less damaging than beef, and poultry is less damaging than pork. Producing fish also causes relatively little damage to the environment (though it still causes some), and fish are the best source of omega 3 fatty acid.
Though there are some potential nutritional problems with vegetarian diets, they can be avoided with relatively little effort. Even if these problems aren't avoided, Vegetarian diets are typically healthier than non-vegetarian diets anyways.
If you really like meat, you can buy fake meat that's made out of vegetables. You can buy milk that's made of soy beans, rice, or almonds. You can buy cheese and yogurt that are made out of soy beans as well.
Driving burns gasoline, which produces carbon dioxide (and tropospheric ozone, indirectly). Most people in the United States believe that they need to drive, but this simply isn't the case. People want to drive and convince themselves that they need to as a way to excuse their behavior. You only need to travel to your job. Anything can be shipped to you, which results in less driving than having you driving back and forth all the time.
There are several alternatives:
You might as well ignore electric-powered and hydrogen-powered cars because they're just generating greenhouse gases at a different place. In the case of hydrogen-powered cars, more greenhouse gases will be generated because more energy will have to be used to charge the cell. Electric cars would be fine if all electricity came from solar power, but it doesn't.
If you want to travel optimally, either walk or ride some kind of non-motorized machine (bicycle, scooter, whatever). At the very least, drive less.
Flying in an airplane burns fuel just like driving a car. Even though the plane's effects are divided by the number of passengers on the plane, it's still alot per passenger. Exactly how much damage this causes varies depending upon whom you ask. I place flying beneath driving only because not driving means that you don't even need to own a car. And manufacturing a car uses alot of energy.
You might complain that between not driving and not flying, you really can't go anywhere. This is true. Don't go anywhere.
Heating oil is probably the worst modern way to heat your home. It produces at least as much pollution as any other energy source (except possibly coal), plus it has to be trucked to your house before you can use it. This is all ignoring the risk of your house exploding.
Heating is the main culprit in home energy use. There is no silver bullet here. The way to reduce fossil fuels burned to heat your home is to heat it less. Insulating your home and installing windows that don't lose as much heat are essential.
An easy way to reduce the amount of heat you're generating is to use space heaters only in the rooms you use. Some apartments have separate baseboard heaters in each room, which allow you to turn on whichever heaters you like. Even though electric heat is tremendously expensive, electric heat in one room is cheaper than any kind of heat in multiple rooms.
Wear a sweater, long underwear and 2-3 pairs of socks. You will still need to turn on the heat, but you won't need to turn it up as high. When you're not going to be home for several hours, shut off the heat. If it gets cold enough in your house to freeze the water in your pipes while you're gone, you should set the heat just high enough to keep the temperature above freezing.
You may have heard somewhere that you should leave the heat on whenever you leave to save electricity. This is wrong. When the heat is off, it doesn't use any energy at all. When you get home, your heater stays on longer to catch up, so it does use more energy for a while. Even so, it's less than you would have used heating your home the whole time. The caveat here is that you'll be cold when you get back home.
Oddly, ceiling fans can be used to make the part of your home that you live in warmer.
You can get by with ceiling fans instead of an air conditioner unless you live someplace hot. In this case, you can save energy by using a heat pump (preferably geothermal) instead. Heat pumps can both heat and cool your home, but air-based heat pumps don't work well in colder climates.
More drastically, you could also live in a smaller home. The last space there is, the last empty air you have to heat and cool. One nifty trick is to have a low roof so that you don't have to heat and cool air floating around uselessly above your head. This sort of thing may be impractical for most people, though people who live in mobile homes don't seem to have a problem having their roofs lowered.
In the winter, you should open your curtains during the day to let the sunlight in. In theory, you could put black carpets, blankets, etc. in your room to absorb more heat from the light coming in through the window, but it's dubious that would have any real effect. And the room would be darker. A better option would be to try to find some kind of insulation for your windows that you can add during the winter.
By "cooling", I primarily mean air conditioning. It's almost as bad as heating. Most of what is explained above applies for cooling as well, though with obvious differences. For instance, you'll want to close your curtains during the day to block out sunlight rather than open them to let sunlight in. Ideally, these curtains will be white so that they reflect the most light. The only problem with curtains is that then you won't be able to see because they'll block all the light.
If you live somewhere like Pennsylvania, you don't need to turn your air conditioner on at all. If used properly, fans are almost as good as air conditioners. If used improperly, fans can actually make you warmer.
Ceiling fans are even better than regular fans.
Electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, nuclear reactions, or solar/water/wind power. In the United States, most of it is generated from burning fossil fuels, which produces carbon dioxide. Nuclear reactions don't create greenhouse gases, but they create radioactive waste. Solar power is almost perfect. Water power screws up the ecology in the water generating it. Wind power may kill some birds, but it's still better than most of the alternatives.
Solar power seems to be relatively harmless. Even if you have solar power panels, they probably don't generate enough electricity for your needs in the winter (and maybe not even during the summer). It takes alot of solar power to run your air conditioner. The main problem is that people are using far too much electricity. The fact that most electricity generation produces greenhouse gases just determines the what the consequences of this excess will be.
Most people want to cut back on their electricity, but they don't know how to do it. The most important things to cut back on are heating and cooling. Most other appliances in a regular home don't use anywhere near as much electricity.
Refrigeration is also a concern, though a much smaller one. If you leave your refrigerator door open all year, you'll use less electricity than your air conditioner uses in two weeks.
Refrigerators and water heaters use alot of electricity, though not as much as cooling or heating your whole home. If you have an older refrigerator (pre-2001), you should replace it with a newer Energy Star refrigerator. Also, a smaller refrigerator may use less electricity than a larger one, even if the larger is more "efficient". Being efficient means that a refrigerator uses less energy per cubic area of air cooled, not that it uses less energy total. If your refrigerator is half-empty, you might as well have a smaller one so that you aren't cooling extra air for nothing.
You can turn your water heater down to save alot of electricity, and you can replace it with a tankless water heater to save even more (assuming you have a water heater with a tank).
Here are some other hints from Mr. Electricity's website:
In 2014, most incandescent light bulbs will no longer be manufactured or sold in the United States, so you might as well switch to compact fluorescents now. They fit in the same fixtures as incandescent bulbs.
And here's his "aggressive" strategies :
These are enough ways to save electricity to start out with. Mr. Electricity's website is an excellent source for more information.
Generating electricity from solar or wind power reduces the amount of fossil fuels burned to generate the electricity you need. If you generate more electricity than you use and are connected to the grid, your electricity distributor is required by federal law to buy it from you. In this case, you're actually preventing the burning of fossil fuels to generate someone else's electricity.
If you're going to generate wind power, you need to have some empty land. If you're going to generate solar power, all you need is the roof of your house and alot of money. In fact, you can do it without the money if you sign up for a solar rental program. The details vary, but they'll put solar power panels on your roof and sell you the electricity at a reasonable rate.
If you want to offset your carbon footprint somehow, you should do it by generating solar or wind power, rather than by giving money to a carbon offset program. You never know what your money will actually be used for when you give it away.
This is almost the same as conserving electricity. I rank this lower because natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, and less natural gas should be lost during transmission.
There are other problems with natural gas, like when you carelessly blow up your house. That sort of thing has nothing to do with this article.
As a tree grows, it takes alot of carbon dioxide out of the air. For this reason, planting a tree helps combat global warming. Obviously, you can only do this if you have some land to plant tress on. Planting 30 leafy trees a year is enough to offset the carbon footprint of one average American. Of course, this doesn't work if the trees get chopped down a few years later.
Conserving existing trees is beneficial in the same way as planting trees, but trees remove more carbon dioxide when they're growing than when they're fully grown. When trees decompose or are burned, they release most of this carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Planting and conserving trees go hand-in-hand.
Buy as few manufactured goods as possible. Books, images, music, movies, and video games should all be downloaded legally on the Internet. Many such products are now available in this fashion, though they are sometimes (not always) more expensive than their manufactured counterparts. The day is coming where most information will be transmitted electronically.
Instead of writing on paper, type on your computer. Instead of driving around to stores to look for bargains, search the Internet. Your computer is a useful tool, and it can help you prevent the burning of fossil fuels.
There are some goods that you must be manufactured, such as appliances. In particular, you can't email yourself a computer. If you buy these goods less often, you prevent the use of the energy that would be used to manufacture them more often. In fact, some estimates indicate that it takes more energy to manufacture a computer than it does to use it for the lifetime of the computer. 
Bottled water is a wasteful good that is particularly useless. Just drink tap water. Purchase a filtration system if you like, but don't buy bottled water. Water flows to your house through pipes, so you don't need to make bottles to put it in and then have it shipped to you in trucks.
When you buy something that's already been used, nothing new has to be manufactured. It may still have to be shipped to you, but that uses alot less energy than manufacturing a new one and then shipping it to you.
Also, you can sell or give away your old stuff when you're done with it. You don't wind up with more stuff this way, but someone somewhere doesn't need to buy something. That means that less energy is being used to make the stuff they would buy otherwise. If you don't know anyone who wants your junk, you can give it to www.goodwill.org/ or another similar organization.
Avoid eating predators because every step through the food chain wastes 90% of the energy available. Additionally, eating predators is unhealthy because they tend to accumulate all the pesticides, mercury, etc. that their prey accumulated.
This tends to only be an issue if you eat fish because regular livestock are all herbivores. Predatory fish include swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and shark.
When you recycle, manufactured goods are generated with less energy input than it would take to manufacture them otherwise. This is helpful, though not as significant as the previous entries in this list.
This probably makes some difference, but to really make a difference, you have to stop eating meat.
This is the last suggestion on the list because it only reduces greenhouse gases significantly if your water is produced by desalinization, which is uncommon throughout most of the English-speaking part of the world.
You can actually save more water by not eating meat than by using less water anyways.
Copyright (C) 2009-2011 Steven Fletcher. All rights reserved.