Credit is scarce, the layaway is back and conservation is suddenly king. Here’s why the environmental movement was right all along.

A funny thing happened on the way to the economic downturn. As our iPods were getting smaller and smaller (along with our home values and 401Ks), people began to worry about all they’ve been consuming. Somewhere along the way people actually started to recognize that less can indeed mean more. It’s something I’ve practiced for many years — and I couldn’t be happier that the nation seems to be joining in.

I have always been inspired by the lessons I learned from my sensible, thrifty parents — and spurred by my desire to see those values embraced universally. From my parents’ Depression-era perspective, buying and using only what you need, turning off lights and re-using everyday items just made people better citizens. Back then, they called it “common sense.” We didn’t know how important these actions were to the environment. But we knew what they meant to our pocketbooks — and we understood the idea that using less ensured that our neighbors would also benefit.

And that’s the example that I’ve always tried to set in my own life and share with others. When it comes to the environment, take the baby steps first. Of course, today I drive an electric car powered by the sun, my home is highly energy efficient and I contribute precious little to landfills. But I’ve had 40 years of time to work toward these goals.

The average household can start with a single compact fluorescent light bulb or a solitary recycling bin — and the benefits of these actions will become apparent almost immediately. What’s good for the environment is also good for the bottom line.

Today, due to the current economic climate, Americans are re-discovering the most basic of environmental lessons. We’re recognizing that less is the new “more.” New limits on credit may have forced us to lower consumer spending habits, but we’re discovering that our lives can become enriched through less consumption. If “stuff” really made us happy, then there would be nothing but happy people living in Beverly Hills and unhappy people living in the bush. Which is not to say that I live a life of compromise — far from it.

I have a home, a computer, a fax machine, a cell phone. As I tell friends who ask, “I can still give you a cool beverage and a warm shower; I’m just going to do it more efficiently.” That is the heart of a “less is more” approach.

If the past 40 years have taught us anything, it’s that opponents of environmental policy didn’t see the connection between a healthy environment and a healthy economy. Policies and protections put in place to preserve our world have not crippled business, destroyed entrepreneurial motivation or damaged the nation’s economic vitality. In fact, just the opposite has occurred.

There are four times the amount of cars in Los Angeles today than in 1970, yet we have half the smog.

And we didn’t go broke doing it. Today, there are more rising companies, developing technologies and burgeoning businesses focused on environmental concerns than at any time in our history.

It may feel like it’s been a long four decades, but now we really are witnessing a convergence of environmental, business, social and political trends that was only a fleeting hope in 1970. As evidence, I point to a fantastic new effort I was privileged with helping to launch earlier this month.

Announced on April 8, San Diego’s “Stand for Less” campaign creates an unprecedented public-private partnership. Organized by the California Department of Conservation, the collaboration includes the city of San Diego, the San Diego Association of Governments, the California Energy Commission, the California Air Resources Board, the California Public Utilities Commission, the Center for Sustainable Energy California, the San Diego Water Authority, San Diego Gas & Electric and others.

A focused effort to educate San Diego citizens on how to lead more sustainable lifestyles, “Stand for Less” creates a holistic resource for the community to learn how to increase energy efficiency, protect and conserve water resources, engage in recycling and preserve clean air. Surveying the launch event on a crystal blue San Diego day, I couldn’t help but think of how far we have come.

Though we face many challenges today, I am filled with hope that by “Standing for Less” we are all learning to live larger. In that sense, “less” has truly become the new “more.”

Ed Begley, Jr. is an actor and longtime environmentalist. To learn more about the “Stand for Less” campaign, visit www.standforless.com.

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