MY 8-YEAR-OLD daughter and I have been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie." To that say Ma, Pa, Laura, Mary and baby Carrie, homesteaders on the Midwestern plains in the 1880s, make do with very little is an understatement. The two girls, having long shared a single drinking vessel, setting it between them at every meal, are overjoyed one Christmas when their parents present each of them with her own tin drinking cup.

My daughter and I have been talking about Laura and Mary, comparing their lives to ours. And I've also been thinking about the current economic slowdown and the rising cost of food and gasoline (over $4.50 a gallon last week in Alameda) and how those covered-wagon pioneers generated the smallest of environmental footprints. Their impact looks especially light when compared to our perpetually high-gear consumer culture.

Not a day goes by when there's not some bit of alarming environmental news, like the enormous plastic mass, by some estimates the size of Texas, swirling in the Pacific Ocean 500 miles off the coast of California.

I have been mulling not just the life described by Wilder — as my daughter said, "I'd like to try living in a covered wagon. For about a day!" — but reflecting as well on the values of my parents. Instead of criticizing — as I confess that I did as a teen — I have been emulating their habits: turning off lights in empty rooms, washing out plastic bags for reuse, eating that last brown banana and hanging the wash out on the line.

While some people reject environmental ethics as radical or hippie or just plain crazy, it seems to me that they're just a return to old-fashioned American ideas about how to get along in this world, and think not just of the present moment, but of the future.

"Waste not, want not," my mother used to say. "A penny saved is a penny earned."

I can only imagine what Laura and her family would make of the comparative decadence of our lives: all the things we possess and all the potentially useful things we habitually discard.

Many Alamedans already embrace these new/traditional values. BikeAlameda has been a leader in reminding us that ours is a great town for cycling. Bikes are good for the environment, the pocketbook and the body. And Alameda's Freecycle an e-mail group — on which members can post things they need (an office chair, size 10 child's soccer cleats), as well as things they'd like to give away (chicken wire, a pile of bricks) — boasts almost 3,000 members.

"I started it because I had a pile of stuff in my garage that I didn't want to go to the landfill," says Chantal Currid, who launched Alameda's Freecycle in 2005.

And Alameda's new slow food group is focused on growing and eating foods produced close to home in environmentally-friendly ways. Think about the fuel consumed bringing us grapes from Chile!

Alamedan Erin Barrett, a self-described urban conservationist, says that making conscious choices about what she buys and uses helps her feel better despite bad environmental news.

"I'm one person, one family, but every little thing we do helps," she said. "And, the truth is, our consciousness is shifting. And as a group we'll start to make a difference."

Prices rise, the economy falters and the voices denying the reality of our habits' destructive impact on the environment grow ever fainter. And it makes nothing but all the sense in the world to reflect on our daily choices. Often, a slight change in habits can lead to a double — or even triple — benefit: drive less and you save money, pollute less and get more exercise.

We are on the edge of a cultural shift back to our nation's core values that will leave us all — and our planet — better for it.

Eve Pearlman also writes the Alameda Journal Blog, look for news, impressions and opinion at www.ibabuz.com/alamedajournal

Eve Pearlman also writes the Alameda Journal Blog, look for news, impressions and opinion at www.ibabuz.com/alamedajournal