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How to Lead Our Leaders

  En español
By Javier Sierra

For the past four years, we have fought hard against the Bush Administration's irresponsible environmental policies. I say irresponsible because protecting the country's worst polluters in exchange for campaign contributions at the expense of public health deserves that word.

But it's difficult to be heard by someone who's turning a deaf ear to you. And it seems clear that the assault on the environment will only intensify in the next four years.

Perhaps, then, in order to get the attention of this selectively deaf administration, we should all lead by example —demonstrate, through our everyday actions, how we can enjoy nature's resources without destroying them. With a little effort each day, we can achieve huge results.

Each year, the United States generates 200 billion tons of garbage. If the rest of the world lived and consumed the same way Americans do, we would need five planets to survive. But a large portion of this Mt. Everest-sized pile of junk is recyclable products, like newspapers, cardboards, glass, aluminum and plastic bottles. Sort these items into special containers and find out the pick-up days for recyclables in your community.

Unless we pay attention, our homes can turn into individual sources of chemical pollution with a boomerang effect. Too often, household cleaners, insecticides, drug prescriptions, solvents, fertilizers, car fluids and other toxics are discarded in the garbage, toilet or sewage system. Sooner or later, these poisons find their way back to us through the water, air and food we consume. Find out what safe disposal alternatives are available in your community.

But perhaps the best way we can show our respect for the environment —and ourselves— is by conserving energy. The US, with only 6 percent of the world's population, consumes one fourth of the Earth's resources. Each year, Americans spend 3.5 billion hours and 5.6 billion gallons of fuel while sitting idle in traffic.

Public transportation provides us with a greener way to get around. Biking is another option, increasingly popular among Latino workers. The healthiest alternative is walking, which should be used whenever possible. If a car is the only option, choose a hybrid instead of a gas-guzzling SUV. Hybrids are high-efficiency automobiles capable of generating their own energy that can yield 45 miles per gallon or more.

If your home is not weatherized, the energy wasted can become a hole in your pocket. In wintertime, especially in the coldest parts of the country, keep your thermostat adjustments to a minimum. If you set your unit to 68 degrees, each one-degree increase raises your energy bill by 3 percent. Insulate windows and doors, change the heater filter regularly, use warm clothing at home, turn off the lights when not in use and try to conduct most of your indoor activities in the warmest part of the house.

We are not alone in this effort to save energy and leave our children a healthy environment. An ever-growing international trend is taming the world's biggest energy gulpers, commercial buildings.

There is a brilliant example in Santa Monica, California. The headquarters of the National Resources Defense Council consumes half the energy and 60 percent less water than a standard commercial building, thanks to its environmentally and economically smart design. Solar panels generate 20 percent of its energy needs, and a processing system funnels rainwater to the toilets and plants in the building. All the materials used in construction are either recycled, recyclable or easily renewable. And to top it all off, the building itself is the recycled form of a previously existing structure.

In London, a residential and commercial complex built on a cleaned-up site of an old sewage plant generates all its energy, recycles all its water and conditions all its air with minimum environmental impact.

All these are examples of how we all can lead our leaders. And maybe, with a little luck, the Bush administration will soon start turning a deaf ear to polluters.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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