I've been thoroughly convinced that any individual conservation, recycling, etc efforts are bullshit
The more I think about this, the more I disagree with it. One of your examples, recycling, is a significant part of that disagreement. Recycling is one of the great conservation success stories. It went from largely nonexistent to immensely supported (and subscribed to) at multiple levels of society. While there are some communities that still have no recycling options -- not even a recycling center where you can take your recyclables -- most if not all big cities, and an awful lot of smaller cities and towns, offer comprehensive curbside recycling.
Individual recycling is, as you point out, a tiny fraction. However, those tiny fractions add up. The EPA reports the US having a 34.3% recycling rate
; that's a whole lot of tiny fractions stuck together into something much bigger.
The tiny fractions can, and in most cases must, add up for other conservation. Even the largest coal-fired power plants, with capacity in excess of 2 gigawatts, are less than 0.1% of the 24,000 terawatt-hours
(warning: extremely large PDF; you want page 24) of energy production worldwide. While their tiny fraction is substantially larger than our tiny fraction, it's still tiny, and has to be added to a whole bunch of others to add up. Further, reductions in individual power consumption will help determine when and whether new plants get built, or if existing plants get run on fewer generators.
The single biggest energy consumer under the individual control of most people in their house is heat
. Turning the heat down in the winter, as well as closing up leaks and insulating, produce big wins. Air conditioning, while nowhere near as large, will also benefit from that insulation, and altering your AC setting is a nontrivial single-point savings.
The other big energy consumer under individual control is a vehicle. The average US household uses just under 11,000 kWh per year
. A gallon of gasoline is 33.7 kWh
. Driving a 30 mpg car 10,000 miles a year consumes just over 11,000 kWh per year. If you're really looking to reduce energy consumption, drive as little as you can.
With enough people making changes, such as we've achieved with recycling, we need not wait for the commercial regulations to see significant results.
 A 2 gigawatt plant, if run at that capacity for a year, would produce 17.5 terawatt-hours of electricity.Edited at 2016-08-11 01:45 pm (UTC)