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Originally published April 21, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified April 22, 2010 at 6:43 PM

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Earth Day at 40: Time to 'think big'

Matt Moreno wanted to cut expenses on his commute from southern Snohomish County to Redmond. So in 1999 he bought a truck fueled by biodiesel. Then he bought a biodiesel car.

Seattle Times environment reporter

It started with a truck.

Matt Moreno wanted to cut expenses on his commute from southern Snohomish County to Redmond. So in 1999 he bought a truck fueled by biodiesel. Then he bought a biodiesel car.

Soon he moved to an electric-powered Ford pickup, which made the biodiesels "look like energy hogs." Moreno was just warming up.

To a suburban home loaded with energy-efficient appliances, he added a massive fan that cools the house without air conditioning. He covered his roof with solar panels.

This spring he finally saw a reward: Instead of a $125 monthly utility bill, Moreno made $32 — "and that's for making solar power during the rainiest months," the giddy computer-systems engineer said.

Forty years after the nation's first Earth Day, Moreno's transformation is a testament to how individuals have stepped up in the fight for a clean environment. But it's a testament, too, of how much more is left to do. If the goal is tackling the planet's biggest environmental problems, experts say, individual actions are essential but won't by themselves be enough.

In 1970 Earth Day campaigners faced clear foes. Industries spewed toxic chemicals into the air and water. Industrial-scale logging drove wildlife from ancient forests. In the years after that first Earth Day came the Clean Water Act, changes to the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal laws that reined in the worst abuses.

But the modern world is more complicated. More culprits, including us, play a role in its ecological disarray. Our entertainment-rich, power-guzzling, water-intensive lifestyles help drive everything from climate change to overfishing.

Locally, shoreline development and subdivisions far upstream, copper dust from car brakes and stormwater runoff all contribute to declines in Puget Sound chinook and in turn a factor in the failing health of killer whales.

Yet opportunities to live green are numerous and popular. And sustainability can prove fiscally sound. Moreno, in fact, wasn't out to fix the planet. He was taking a personal stand against reliance on foreign oil, and trying to pocket some cash, too. He's convinced the money he invested in solar will pay for itself in less than 10 years.

"The decision was more socioeconomic than environmental," he said. "I'm concerned about pollution and clean water and clean air, but I'm more concerned with saving money and not funding evil empires."

But when it comes to cutting global carbon-dioxide emissions, or trying to reduce dependence on foreign oil — or even eliminating fish-killing plastics or Styrofoam from the oceans — individual actions are merely one step.

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Focus has changed

Forty years ago, Earth Day participants focused on natural resources — protecting wild animals and wild places. Attention today has moved literally to the streets, to the cities, where most people live.

Denis Hayes, one of the organizers of Earth Day events in 1970, today runs the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle nonprofit, that is shifting some of its focus to retooling urban areas. It funds work on urban-neighborhood density and groups that hunt for ways to better manage the rainwater that flushes pollutants off streets and into streams.

"We're trying to empower smart people to better understand how human communities can occupy the planet in a sustainable way," said Steve Whitney, a foundation-program officer. "If it can be done anywhere on the planet, it can be done right here."

But moving to sustainability isn't simple. Provocateur David MacKay, science adviser to the British Department of Energy and Climate Change, is the author of the free online book, "Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air," which has been praised by Science magazine and Bill Gates.

"Let's be clear about scale," MacKay said. "In the modern lifestyle a whole lot of energy is consumed on our behalf, by buildings and militaries and things largely beyond our control. If we're interested in having the same sort of lifestyle ... the scale of what we need to change is quite large."

Want real change? Put a price on carbon dioxide and other pollutants sufficient enough to drive down use, he said.

It's not that MacKay doesn't support personal action. People can drive less, fly less, buy less from abroad and change how they heat and cool their homes, he said. Simply watching the thermostat can save a bundle: "We have this amazing technology called the eyeball," he said. "In my house back in Cambridge, I could actually halve my heating consumption by tinkering with the thermostat."

But he said few people grasp the distinction between minor and significant change.

For example, the energy saved over the course of a year by not leaving a cellphone in the charger too long — a common suggestion to save energy — is the equivalent of cutting out a single hot bath a year. But the energy used by one passenger to fly round trip from Seattle to London is equal to driving a car 31 miles a day, every day, for a year.

MacKay encourages "country-sized" approaches to environmental action. And he wants the debate to be smarter. For Britain to provide a quarter of its energy with biofuels, energy crops would take up three-quarters of the country, he said. To power the whole of Massachusetts with wind, he said, turbines would take up half the state's land.

He's not advocating or criticizing any source or mix of renewable power, he said. He just wants people to understand the numbers. "I'm pro-arithmetic," he said.

But he does dismiss the notion that "every little bit helps." Instead, he said, people should think big.

Community action

Doris Estabrooks did just that.

The San Juan Island resident, now 88, kept reading about trash in the ocean and the damage it did to fish and birds. Rather than simply stop using Styrofoam, Estabrooks, in 2004, started lobbying her community.

The former antiques appraiser — "she's a genius when it comes to research," friend Stephanie Buffum said — found out other communities had banned Styrofoam outright and testified repeatedly before her town and county leaders.

Officials told her a ban wasn't possible — too hard to enforce — "but she was relentless," Buffum said.

Estabrooks talked restaurants into using biodegradable food containers. She brought in experts and guest speakers. She promised, if she must, to enforce a ban herself.

"I said I'll go to the restaurant — and I'm on a cane — and I'm going to talk to them very nice and explain to them how important it is that they do their share," Estabrooks said.

Earlier this year the county voted to ban most uses of Styrofoam by local businesses.

"I'm real proud of what I did," Estabrooks said this week.

The new ban starts today.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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