As an American, I’m disturbed by how much of an impact we make on our environment. Our excessive consumption is taking a serious toll on our planet, and we’re showing very few signs of doing anything about it. I’m happy to see our school and my fellow students recycling, but with the way that Americans buy gas-guzzling cars and big homes, I don’t see how we can keep going this way much longer without wrecking our planet beyond repair.

I’m frustrated, and I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I feel like moving out into the woods and living out there alone (I know, I know, I’m a real hippie). Other times, I feel like I can live in society in a way that minimizes my environmental impact. And still other times, I think that no matter what I do, it won’t change the big picture. Experts, what should I do?

You’re right: we Americans take a very serious toll on our environment. America’s population has doubled since 1950, but our consumption has grown even more quickly: energy consumption, for instance, has nearly tripled in that same time period. Americans gobble up significantly more energy on a per capita basis than many other major countries, including France and Germany, the statistics show. Other countries that approach American levels of energy consumption tend to be exceptional cases (for instance, very cold countries that must use a lot of energy to keep their living spaces warm).

And, depressingly, many Americans just don’t seem to care. Polls suggest that Americans care less about the environment now than they did in the 1980s and 1990s. Even our concern with global warming isn’t an exception: polls show us no more worried now than we were decades ago, despite increasingly dire warnings from scientists.

Still, not all Americans are making the planet a worse place. One in five Americans “always try to show environmental concern in their daily lives,” according to the Pew Research Center. And daily decisions–like the choice to recycle that you mention–can make an impact if enough people make them.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine an affordable, sustainable, and enjoyable lifestyle in society that makes no environmental impact at all. That’s okay–you have a right to your own life! The key, then, is to limit our effect on the environment, not to erase it entirely. If we properly limit how much we tax our Earth with our presence, then we can create a sustainable situation in which the Earth is able to constantly recover. We see this with sustainable logging practices, for instance, which allow us to use wood without permanently depleting our supply of trees. The same principles can be used in your own life: by limiting your environmental footprint, you can enjoy your life and consume the things you need in moderation while knowing that you’re not destroying our planet.

The most effective ways to limit your impact on the environment are the big-picture ones, so let’s talk about your lifestyle–specifically, where and how you live. You don’t need to run off into the woods to live in a space that is in tune with the environment!

Modern homes can–and should–be built with the environment in mind, say trusted home builders in Calfont, PA. In fact, homeowner goals and environmental goals can often align. Take energy consumption, for instance. You don’t have to live without heating or air conditioning in order to be kind to our planet–you just need to limit how much energy you’re using and, above all, avoid waste. And, of course, that’s a goal you’d probably have even if you didn’t care about the environment–after all, why would you want to waste energy (and, therefore, money)? That’s why you’ll want a well-insulated home, say experts in home improvement in Randolph, NJ: quality siding and windows, good in-wall insulation, and plenty of preventative maintenance and speedy repairs to keep everything up to snuff. Americans waste a striking amount of energy by allowing their air-conditioned or heated air to escape from their homes–which is part of the reason that we lead the world in energy waste. Can you imagine how much we could improve our energy consumption numbers if we simply stopped wasting so much of it?

You don’t have to live in the woods–you just have to use potentially wasteful things efficiently. We can apply the same lessons to transit, too. Modern vehicles are designed to be efficient with their gas, explain pros at a car dealership in Tuscaloosa, AL. So, just as you don’t have to live in the woods, you also don’t have to walk everywhere you go–but you should be cognizant of your gas usage. Buy a vehicle that is efficient (perhaps you should consider a hybrid). Invest in regular maintenance and repairs, because a poorly-maintained car is an inefficient one, which would be bad news for the environment (and for your wallet, too).

Your driving habits matter, too. You can actually drive in more efficient ways to save gas and stay green. Carpooling with friends will give you more bang for your buck, increasing efficiency and reducing each of your environmental footprints. Better still, you could–if possible–use public transit instead of driving around on your own. It’s clear to scientists that public transit is far more efficient with its energy use than personal cars could ever be.

We’ve focused on hard-and-fast stuff like your house and your car so far, but don’t forget about the ways in which your lifestyle decisions will affect the environment: everything from what you wear and eat to what you do on vacation has an impact! Getting out in nature on your vacations and enjoying the natural world is incredibly rewarding, say the pros behind surfing lessons in Waikiki, HI. And by spending time in outdoor spaces, you’ll be spending your vacation fund in areas that are focused on nature and the outdoors. When you pay admission to a National Park or rent a campsite, your money is supporting people and organizations who care about conservation, environmentalism, and our planet in general.

Will all of this solve our environmental problems? Unfortunately, it won’t. But that’s not a reason to get depressed and give up. Your individual decisions matter, and–together with those of others–can make a real difference. And while it’s true that policy decisions, laws, and the actions of corporations make huge impacts relative to your personal habits, it’s important to remember that we can’t change society unless we participate in it. So lead by example, lower your impact, and then focus your energies on things that will help change the bigger picture. You can’t lobby Congress if you’re living in the woods, so take heart and live sustainably in our society.

“The Earth will not continue to offer its harvest, except with faithful stewardship. We cannot say we love the land and then take steps to destroy it for use by future generations.” —John Paul II