If saving planet Earth were as easy as switching off a light, Americans would no doubt get the hang of it. Most of them. Before it was too late.

Trouble is, it's not that simple.

Once the original sin of household energy consumption, turning off light switches when leaving a room hardly holds a candle to today's urgency-fueled, Green-Think agenda of chores that begin in our own backyards -- ordinary, human-scale tasks meant to defuse such sinister and bigger-than-life threats as global warming, depleted ozone, acid rain, environmental toxicity, overloaded landfills, devastated rain forests, not to mention gluttonous waste of energy.

Yet, a publishing wave of environmentally conscious books that accompanied the 20th anniversary hype of Earth Day last April, while packed with erstwhile tips, would have you believe the right and righteous things to do are largely easy things to do. Which may explain why so many save-the-Earth books now are collecting more dust than converts.

Some scientists who have examined the American public's response to menacing energy and environmental quandaries of late suspect those books would have better been titled something like "A Few Not-So-Easy but Effective Things To Do to Save Money Now and Your Grandchildren Later." That would come closer to pushing the right buttons, they say, to motivate energy conservation and clean up the planet.

"That is a better title," says Willett Kempton, an anthropologist at the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, at Princeton University. He has studied consumer attitude and behavior regarding energy and the environment for the past decade. Despite a virtual turnabout in available information and growing public awareness, Americans haven't yet grasped the realities of the predicament, nor have they acted responsibly, he and others contend. And the reasons why defy simple solution.

"I think people do care about it," says Kempton, who is currently analyzing public opinion on the Greenhouse Effect. "I think there's a lot of interest."

That rising interest has been charted by pollsters. In 1980, a year after near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island, a Roper Poll found 45 percent of Americans favored assuring adequate energy supplies, even if it posed some risk to the environment; 36 percent said they favored protecting the environment first. Last year, repeating the survey, Roper discovered a reversal: 57 percent favored environmental protection and 24 percent wanted the energy supplies.

"Like any phenomenon of that kind, you find that when the concern has peaked in the public arena, that's when consciousness is most heightened in each home," says Jeremy Rifkin, who is optimistic the big message is becoming engrained in the American way -- though gradually. The editor of "Green Lifestyle Handbook: 1001 Ways You Can Heal The Earth" and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, Rifkin says, "You always find in the aftermath, a certain number of people became very committed and maintain their commitment ... and then there are others for whom this juncture is a passing thing."

Even if Americans have turned the corner on environmental and energy awareness, they still aren't certain of the best way to proceed or why. "This is not just something nice for having a few extra green trees; it's global environmental disruption. It involves the future for our grandchildren," says Kempton. "Blue skies and your grandchildren can be a tough stretch to make. Energy efficiency and protecting the environment is a tough connection. People do care about their grandchildren ... But there are several problems" that derail good intentions from producing effective action, even the simplest of actions.

One typical problem?

"There is no feedback," says Kempton. "How do people know when they are saving energy? They set down their thermostat. They turn out the lights. Then they get the electric bill the next month, but grandma was visiting one week and it is a little colder outside the next and the bill is $20 higher anyway."

On the other hand, says Kempton, conservation at the gas pumps provides immediate feedback. "You know how many miles you've driven and how much gas you bought," he says. "All you have to do is divide miles by gallons and it makes sense. There are no comparable measures for home energy use, no analog for miles traveled. You just can't keep track. It comes in monthly statements in kilowatt-hours or Ccfs, things people can't even pronounce."

To track home energy behavior, Kempton has interviewed more than 100 people about what they do to conserve. He has equipped study-houses with instruments that record energy use every two minutes. Another barrier to home conservation he has uncovered is that people generally think first in terms of the most conspicuous and "behaviorally determined" conservation actions -- even if they aren't the most effective.

"Things that are hidden away tend to be invisible," he says. "A water heater is the opposite of lights, for instance. It's in the basement, you don't directly turn it on, it's unheard, it's not bright, it's invisible. But it turns out the water heater is a major energy user. People tend to be perceptually incorrect in ranking stuff that's important in the house in terms of energy use."

Surveys consistently find that the most likely conservation action taken in homes and the first mentioned when people are asked what steps they can take to save household energy is turning off the lights. "People think of that as a major conservation action," says Kempton. "They don't have to invest anything or know anything technical. It is the kind of thing people can do. Actually, it's a moderate action that people overestimate. The average person doesn't really have a clue what's best to do."

Apparently the next generation of energy consumers don't either. In March, the National Energy Education Development Project (NEED), in Reston, reported the results of a survey of 25,000 U.S. students showing that conservation is enigmatic for them as well. Although the students said they thought of themselves as "energy savers," few of them demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the scientific or economic fundamentals of energy use to make informed choices.

Two-thirds of those polled didn't know that heating and cooling homes consumes more energy than heating water, lighting or refrigeration. Most had no idea how much electricity costs (only a tenth came close to the 8 cents a kilowatt hour average, while a third thought energy costs 8-to-20 times more). Only a third were able to define why solar power is a renewable resource. "This isn't just the kids," says NEED project spokesman George Chacon, suggesting the results reflect the energy naivety of the American populace. "The only time adults worry is when they've got to pay more. ... But it's people's responsibility to know about this stuff."

Students involved in conservation course work that NEED has introduced into about 4,000 schools nationwide have run into another problem many people face when trying to take effective action. "Our students are highly motivated to get things done in a correct way," says Chacon. "They set up recycling drives in their communities. ... The problem with recycling drives is that about the only material that is effectively recycled right now is aluminum. A lot of these kids do newspaper and bottle recycling, and they find out later that most of this stuff gets thrown into a landfill anyway."

Disappointment over results regularly dashes good motives -- and preempts future conservation behavior. "They get disappointed when they go around turning off lights, and then it doesn't save more energy than it actually does," says Elliot Aronson, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His studies indicate that messages about efficient conservation often are too vague, boring, complex and misdirected to provide consumers with clear expectations.

The main things most people can do to save energy aren't the most simple things, Aronson argues. "Turning off lights is not useless, but it is a very small step compared to insulation, weatherstripping, maintaining furnaces properly," he says. "A brick in the toilet is nice, but it makes a very small inroad in water conservation."

Findings by the Potomac Electric and Power Co. seem to indicate another problem in unrealistic expectations. Although PEPCO boasts 100,000 participants in its 'Kilowatchers Club' (participating air conditioners are turned off via radio control during high-demand hours in exchange for a modest rebate), and sponsors energy conservation programs and free home energy audits, energy use has remained steady or increased in comparable months this spring and summer -- including a 7 percent (weather adjusted) increase this May.

"We are now tracking an interesting phenomenon that when people purchase appliances, they are buying energy-saving ones more often," says PEPCO spokeswoman Dana Grabiner. "But they are then using those devices more. They get a brand new energy-efficient air conditioner, and they say, 'Great, this is going to be energy efficient. So I'm going to use it at a colder setting.' One of our company goals is to convince people to conserve. It's a slow process of educating people."

Richard Winett, professor of psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg and director of the Center for Research in Health Behavior, is convinced it can only be accomplished through economic determinism. "The only way that people get interested in this is money. Period," he says. "As long as things are cheap, including gas, heating, air conditioning and running your car, you're not going to get people to do much."

Kempton wishes motivating conservation and environmental action were even that simple. He says even the prospect of saving substantial money using available technology hasn't caught on. A telling example, he says, is when people continue to think that by turning off lights they are saving significant dollars and energy, when the alternative of replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs provides twice the savings and five times the energy conservation is seldom considered.

"Basically the compact fluorescent is a screw-in replacement for a regular light bulb, but uses about 20 percent of the energy," says Kempton. "If you really wanted to save energy and money for lighting in your house, you would replace all of the light bulbs you use more than four hours a day with these compact fluorescents."

The reasons why so few people do are complicated, says Kempton. Initial investment is one problem: Instant-on compact fluorescents bulbs can cost as much as $29.95 each, while G.E. Miser bulbs are priced regularly under a dollar. Convenience is another: The fluorescent bulbs aren't as easily available as incandescent bulbs, though hardware stores are starting to stock them more often and environmentally conscious catalogues such as Seventh Generation, based in Colchester, Vt., promote them.

Few people get beyond the initial price to discover that the fluorescent bulbs are designed to last 9,000 hours compared with the 750 hours of the Miser bulbs. "To get the same lifetime from these bulbs, you have to buy 12 Misers for every fluorescent," says Kempton. That means equivalent investment comes to the $29 (fluorescent) versus $10 or so for a dozen Misers. Still not a good deal -- until the power bill over the length of the bulbs is factored in. Using 20 percent less energy to achieve the same 100-watts of lighting power, the compact fluorescent bulb costs about $24 in electricity over its lifetime (using a 10 cent per kilowatt-hour average) versus $85.50 for the incandescent. Total costs: $53.95 for the compact fluorescent; $95.50 for the incandescent.

"The fluorescent comes out ahead by a good margin," says Kempton. "What at first looks like a crazy and insane thing to do turns out to cost about $41 less -- and saves energy. This is something that consumers can do right now. It saves you from having to replace 11 light bulbs in your house. These bulbs are good. People should use them.

"But it's a hard sell. How do you convince the public? That's exactly what's going on with energy right now. That's the problem."