6 Socially Conscious Actions That Only Look Like They Help

#3. Purchasing Reusable Bags

The Idea

Apart from depressed teenage dudes who like to give monologues about how beautiful they are, plastic bags have never had much of a fan club. Sure, they might get your groceries home, but they're also wasteful and harmful to marine life, and they seem to multiply of their own accord when you shove them all in a drawer somewhere. So we were all pretty happy when humanity finally came up with an alternative: the reusable bag. Instead of throwing away billions of single-use bags every year, consumers would buy or be given sturdy recyclable grocery bags. These bags could be washed and reused hundreds of times, and shoppers would bring them back to the store whenever they needed them. Disposable plastic bags would disappear, the environment would be much better off, and there would be no more monologues about stuff stupid teenagers mistakenly think is deep. Right?

Sometimes, there's just so much beauty in the world. This is not one of those times.

How We Half-Ass It

We forgot just one detail in our reusable bags plan: the "reusing them" part.

According to studies, only around 10 percent of consumers actually remember to take back their bags to the store on a regular basis. Even in San Francisco, which went as far as to ban plastic bags altogether, a survey revealed that nearly 60 percent of people "almost never" took their reusable bags back to the store. And those are just the ones who openly admitted that they were eco-conscious posers. This year, two major grocery store chains announced plans to end their reusable bag rebates after studies found that offering shoppers discounts to reuse their bags didn't affect how much they actually did it. We just keep amassing more and more new reusable bags in a shameful pile behind our unused exercise equipment and pristine copies of important novels, promising that next time we go to the grocery store, we won't forget.

"I can't use the bag for groceries -- it's holding my entire wax fruit collection!"

But hey, they're still better than those horrible disposable plastic bags, right? Yes, sometimes, but in most cases, no. Depending on the material they're made of, reusable bags require between 28 and 200 times as much energy to produce as the old, evil ones. To make up for the environmental damage, you might have to take that reusable bag on your weekly grocery run for about four straight years. And when we finally do get sick of wading through the knee-high piles of unused reusable bags in our homes and throw them out, the heavier material means that they'll take up more landfill space and take longer to decompose.

Above: Fighting garbage with garbage.

#2. Eating Local

The Idea

The object of the "local food" movement is simple: Eat only foods that have been grown close to where you live. By restricting "food miles," or the distance food has traveled before it reaches your belly, you can reduce pollution and carbon emissions from food transport as well as support your local community.

And yet, almost no homeowners associations allow you to raise dozens upon dozens of chickens in your backyard. It's lunacy.

This movement has gained some official acceptance in the United Kingdom, where the government has pledged to cut food miles by 20 percent by 2012. In 2007, several British grocery chains added a special "air freight" label to fresh food, warning green-conscious shoppers that it had been flown in from overseas. There was even a movement to get air-freighted food stripped of its organic label. In America, the "100-mile diet" has been popular among foodies since 2006, with devotees determined to eat only food that's produced within a 100-mile radius of their house.

We feel better knowing our meat was butchered in a slaughterhouse close by. Sometimes Tim fancies he can hear their cries for mercy.

How We Half-Ass It

Nobody wants to actually change what they eat. If our oranges come from Mexico and we decide we want to eat local instead, we don't just stop eating oranges. No, we instead insist that somebody start growing oranges nearby. And there's a reason they weren't already doing that.

The vast majority -- over 90 percent -- of food-related emissions don't come from transportation, but production. So if food is grown in a place where it can't be produced efficiently, like our hypothetical oranges, it'll end up being more harmful to the environment than food that's been efficiently grown and then flown in. Any non-native crop usually requires extra irrigation and stronger fertilizers, which add far more to a dish's carbon footprint than one lousy airplane trip.

Locations like the Pacific Northwest need more environment-harming fertilizer to produce the same amount of food grown in a sunnier place like New Zealand. Countries like the U.K., with limited open space, require more intensive farming techniques than those with bountiful space.

There is such a thing as a local diet that does more good than harm, of course: It just takes a lot of research, sacrifice, diligence, and careful planning ... which usually doesn't go hand-in-hand with that weed, regular co-op shopper. Long story short: Without reverting to an extremely well-researched native diet, which most 100-mile dieters don't do, we're better off just letting the foreigners feed us. Maybe we can do them a solid, though, and stop burning their food on our way to buy their stuff.

Or, alternatively, go freegan.

#1. Driving Energy-Efficient Cars

The Idea

So ethanol might suck, but at least people who drive hybrid cars have our back, right? The virtues of the Prius and similar hybrids are obvious: They use an electric motor alongside a gasoline one, making them more fuel-efficient, so driving one will help the environment and save money on gas. It's win-win!

Take that, terrorism!

How We Half-Ass It

Once again, consumers here forgot about a single important detail: actually saving fuel. A 2009 study found that hybrid drivers drive around 25 percent more than other drivers, even when they share similar commute times. In other words, they get so cocky that their cars are saving them so much fuel that they go out and burn more fuel. This kind of vehicular half-assedness isn't the exclusive domain of Prius owners, however: In the last 40 years, American cars have become about 50 percent more energy-efficient. Progress, right? Not really: At the same time, the distance driven by the average car owner has doubled.

Economists have even given it a name: the rebound effect.

Economists love basketball almost as much as they love spreadsheets.

As a piece of technology becomes more efficient, our use of it goes up, too. So if we invent new building materials that mean it takes less energy to heat a house, humans respond by building giant new homes -- hey, with the money you'll save on heating, you can afford it! It's a bit like what happens on the Internet: Your speed goes up, but Web pages don't load any faster because everyone just starts adding 16 new types of Flash animation. And it's not new, either: The effect was first noticed among coal consumers in the 19th century. In other words, half-assing it is a long, proud, and storied tradition amongst our peoples.

Many purely diesel-powered cars are already putting hybrids to shame in terms of MPG achieved, but really, anybody who keeps his normal driving habits and owns a car that gets at least 75 percent of the fuel efficiency of a Prius (or about 38MPG) is technically better for the environment. According to the British Department of Transport, that's every single passenger car in the U.K. today.

Yet we still keep these around, presumably because they're just so damn sexy.

The secrets don't stop here, learn more in the brand new Cracked.com book! And once you get that book, make sure you take a picture of yourself with it, then upload it to our Facebook fan page for a chance to win $250!

For more half-hearted environmental caring, check out The 6 Most Half Assed Attempts at Corporate Green Washing. Or see how we will save the Earth with shitty plans, in 6 Terrible Ideas That Science Says Will Save the Planet.

And stop by Linkstorm to see how Brockway plans to the save the world with scotch and dirty undies.

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