Activism is making a comeback, even among ordinarily inactive Americans.

Well, kind of. Like the way democracy is rehabilitating the Soviet Union: So far the prospect outshines the reality. A lot of people are just warming up to the idea that they might take personally such seemingly distant problems as ozone depletion and rain forest destruction.

Last summer, the Roper Organization reported that more than three-quarters of the American people now believe that we (presumably meaning all of us) should be making a major effort to improve environmental quality. But the same poll also reflected the downside of '90s activism: passivity. Put simply, most Americans aren't acting on their beliefs. Only 22 percent polled by Roper said they actually were doing much of anything -- not even a third of those who insisted we all should be doing more.

This is not surprising. Spouting off one's beliefs is one thing, taking action another. "How to Make the World a Better Place: A Guide to Doing Good" (Morrow, $22.95), one of a caboodle of such "quick and easy" activist books published last year to satisfy what was perceived to be a growing public desire "to make a difference," identifies the usual pitfalls to activism. Among them, misguided thinking such as: Don't worry because someone else knows what to do and is in control; or, if I can't commit totally, I won't do anything; or, technology and the free market will straighten out everything in time.

Inhibitions like these paint the profile of the 26 percent of respondents the Roper folks label "Sprouts." Not as apathetic as stick-in-the-sludge "Basic Browns" (28 percent), nor as paranoid as "Grousers" (24 percent, who do nothing because they're sure no one else is), Sprouts are concerned about the environment but aren't convinced individuals can make a difference.

The remaining 22 percent? Equally divided between "True-Blue Greens," who are community activists, real leaders whose lives are filled with commitment and involvement and environmentally appropriate activities; and the politically correct "Greenback Greens," who drag their feet on involvement but are willing to foot more of the bill for a cleaner environment than the average American.

A tidy bit of pigeonholing. But common sense says there's another category out there, one that's not so neatly tabulated in opinion polls, because it consists of people who would never complete a survey and therefore never be reflected in one.

Somewhere among the Sprouts and Grousers and Greenback Greens is a group of would-be activists whose reluctance in such matters has more to do with inertia than ignorance or misconception. Unlike Sprouts, individual empowerment isn't the issue for this group. Effort is. Gumption is. They comprehend the consequences of unrestrained appetites converging with limited resources, all right. They know that the planet needs rescue, that "there's no way to peace because peace is the way," that baby seals deserve a better fate than a bloody whack on the noggin, that tea pickers in India get rooked and babies in Africa starve. But before they can move on any of these issues, they first must contend with the forces of gravity. For Reluctant Activists (as we shall call them) to take a stand requires first that they stand up -- which may be asking too much.

No grand revelation, this. They are the reason why the overwhelming majority of how-to activism books emphasize "easy things you can do" on their covers, meant to encourage couch potatoes of social consciousness. But these activist authors overestimate the Reluctant Activists. Easy isn't good enough. "How to Save Mother Earth Without Lifting a Finger" is a title that might get their attention.

Fortunately for Reluctant Activists, and for the future of the planet, low-energy, minimal-demand tasks do exist that produce decent payoffs. Gleaning them from the pages of pro-environment chores and from the long lists of recommended actions is a bigger challenge than doing them.

Instant Ecology

Take the book "Two Minutes a Day for a Greener Planet" (Harper San Francisco, $7.95), promoted as "the easiest 235 steps everyone can take to save the Earth." This would seem tailor-made for effortless activism; two minutes a day, arguably, isn't much.

Marjorie Lamb, the Canadian environmental adviser who wrote the book, suggests, for instance, that people "fill the coffee pot with water the night before." Logic: The water warms overnight to room temperature, reducing the energy needed the next morning to crank out a hot cup of joe. A small gain? Yes. But this suits Reluctant Activists nicely, inasmuch as it requires only a few extra memory cells and absolutely no extra effort. Yet it scores a big plus on surveys, such as the Roper poll, as "regular activity at home to conserve energy."

Using biodegradable laundry soap instead of detergent is another do-nothing doable. The price is right and it saves water resources from dangerous pollutants. And even if the laundry doesn't come out smelling like a chemist's rendition of springtime fresh, the clothes get clean enough.

The No-Action Action

Probably the most effortless of the recommended actions are the ones that require doing nothing -- the modus operandi of Reluctant Activists. Enter the boycott, a powerful tool in the hands of passive personalities, yet a strategy time-honored by the most active of activists.

Simply by not buying a particular product manufactured by a company whose policies or practices are unfair or endanger people or abuse the planet, one can all at once make a statement of principle, affect the coffers of major corporations, improve the world in a small way, and do so with no cost, no sacrifice and no effort. All that's required is to find out what products or companies to boycott -- and hard-core activists are hard at work compiling those lists already.

Consider the recent boycott that forced canners to market "dolphin-safe" tuna. Or the simple aside at a party: "I don't buy ivory products." That positions a Reluctant Activist in the middle of a worldwide Save-the-Elephants action that began more than a year ago and has practically closed down ivory-carving factories in Beijing and Canton, according to the Animals' Agenda magazine. Boycotts can offer an added dividend: When the spouse says, "Time to dig peat moss into the flower beds," Reluctant Activists can answer, "Sorry, not buying peat moss anymore. The international boycott to save the Irish bogs, you know."

War machine makers? Racist governments? Global polluters? Whatever the offense or issue, boycotts are probably underway. One easy and cheap (about $10) source of information on the status of dozens of such boycotts is the Nation Boycott Newsletter (NBN), in Seattle. (Phone: 206-523-0421.)

Spreading the Word

Activism, no matter how passive, includes some evangelism -- spreading the word, gaining new allies. Because propagation requires at least some exertion and more than a superficial understanding of an issue, this can be a real problem for Reluctant Activists. But there are ways. Promoted as "the Green gift of the '90s," the Earth Basket is an alternative to sending flowers or fruits-and-cheeses on special occasions. Besides bolstering one's activist self-esteem, it painlessly encourages others to energetic levels of activism.

The basket is lined with Eco-pack, an environment-friendly packing material, and stuffed with an assortment of consciousness-raising products, including a copy of "The Recycler's Handbook"; a nondisposable shopping tote; a vegetable scrubber to remove pesticides; a cedar sachet to substitute for mothballs; a tire gauge to help save on gas mileage; "Save the Whale" soap; and a box of Rainforest Crunch candies, among other pro-planet stuff.

"Designed to make the transition to an ecological lifestyle attractive, convenient and enjoyable," says the promo. And it can be delivered anywhere in the country. Prices range upward from $39.99 -- no more expensive than a dozen long-stems that would wilt in a week anyway. To order, call 1-800-EARTH 49.

Speaking of rain forests, this is one more cause that poses some low-exertion possibilities for Reluctant Activists. Start with "The Rainforest Book: How You Can Save the World's Rainforests" (Living Planet Press, $5.95), a nice little volume that wedges plenty of suitable tasks between the more demanding ones. Skim past hard-core suggestions such as "Organize a 'Rainforest Awareness Week' at your children's school" and "Build a back-yard wildlife refuge," both of which require getting out of the recliner.

Instead, adopt an acre of rain forest through the Adopt-an-Acre program of the Nature Conservancy (1815 Lynn St., Arlington, Va. 22209). This helps to pay for protection of threatened territory and supports the acquisition of these drippy but ecologically beneficial jungles for safekeeping. And the honorary land deed the Conservancy folks send can be displayed prominently, all this for only $30.

Too much? For $5 less, Reluctant Activists can add "Guardian of the Amazon" to their credentials, via the World Wildlife Fund (60 St. Clair Ave. E., Suite 201, Toronto, Ontario M4T 1N5). The money goes toward guarding the land and teaching locals how to harvest without destroying it. But no deed to hang on the wall.

Other cheap ways to make sure the rain stays mainly in the rain forest: Disposable chopsticks, this book informs us, are made from tropical timber -- much of it from these very rain forests. So for home use, Reluctant Activists eat with reusable chopsticks -- and know why. And when carrying out Chinese, they say "no thanks" to the throw-away sticks, and wink at the person in line behind them, adding, "To save the rain forests, you know."

There are brands of commonly purchased products that help to support the rain forests -- and environmentalism in general -- either through contributions from profits or by being produced in a nondestructive manner. Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream, for example, features one flavor called Rain Forest Buttercrunch, made from Brazil nuts harvested properly in the Amazon. And The Body Shop cosmetics chain is developing a line of products made from rain forest flora. More expensive? Perhaps. But spending a little extra for "environmentally friendly products" would promote Reluctant Activists to what Roper calls the Green minority.

Saving Their Skins

Animal rights isn't everybody's pet project. But you don't have to wear a "Rats Have Rights" T-shirt (for $15 plus $2 shipping from RAGE Products of Protest, P.O. Box 86837, Portland, Ore. 97206) to acknowledge that some animals are getting a raw deal these days.

Refusing to buy a high-ticket chinchilla is one convenient way to join forces with the animal liberation front -- and save big bucks as well. But to make it a principled decision, the Reluctant Activist needs to bone up a little on some facts and philosophy. "Animal Liberation" by Peter Singer has been the primer on this for 15 years and is a real conversation-provoker for your bookshelf. The new, second printing is updated and priced at $19.95 -- a substantial discount over a visit to the furrier's and a much better karmic deal.

For other low-impact ways of breaking into the animal lib movement, consult "Save the Animals: 101 Easy Things You Can Do" (Warner Books, $4.95). Though the Reluctant Activists will probably have to haul out the Webster's to look up "vivisection," it does contain a few ideas on helping animal friends by doing virtually nothing.

For example, for a self-addressed and stamped envelope, the D.C.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA, P.O. Box 42516, Washington, D.C. 20015) will send you a handy wallet-size, cruelty-free shopping guide that separates companies into those that hurt animals to make their products and those that don't. And for that child in Reluctant Activists' lives, the "I Love Animals and Broccoli Coloring Book" is free for two first-class stamps from the Vegetarian Resource Group (P.O. Box 1463, Baltimore, Md. 21203).

Animal rights is territory where expressing the right opinion at the right moment goes a long way. Again, this doesn't take much effort but does require basic knowledge. But even that can be minimized by expressing opinions to those who really don't want to hear more about it: "Save the Animals!" has a chapter titled "Dial 1-800 ...", which provides easy-chair activists the toll-free numbers of major corporations that use animal experiments to test products, and companies that sponsor rodeos or promote hunting and furs. A few minutes spent provoking them might make a difference.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The argument itself is too taxing for Reluctant Activists, but as it turns out, doing something to save both the chicken and the egg isn't. In his book "How to Make the World a Better Place," Jeffrey Hollender proposes that people eat brown-shelled eggs. "Protect the diversity of a species and fight reduction of the gene pool at breakfast," he declares, explaining that 95 percent of people in the United States who eat eggs eat white ones -- those laid by White Leghorn hens -- creating the possibility of a genetic catastrophe should that species ever be attacked by disease.

"If you're a passionate or even occasional egg lover there's no reason to quit your job and launch a 24-hour-a-day vigil outside the nearest chicken farm," he writes. "The problem of a declining egg gene pool can be addressed simply by buying brown eggs ... If a fair number of people were to make just one small adjustment in their lives and buy brown eggs, they could drastically alter the gene pool {and} create a new market that justifies farmers raising another breed."

Eating as a political act is a Reluctant Activist's cup of tea, which, by the way, is one of many Third World grocery products that can be purchased through alternative trade organizations. These are groups that try to minimize economic and environmental rape of Third World producers and support socially responsible companies. One such organization is Co-op America, which will send a free catalogue on request (locally call 202-872-5307; long distance call 1-800-424-2667). This group makes responsible consumerism a breeze by locating and marketing such products as organic cashews that help to reforest Honduras, coffee that helps support farmers' cooperatives in Nicaragua, and wool hats that provide income for a cooperative of women in Nepal.

Dial-a-Cause

As in most things today, the telephone has made the activist world so much smaller and manageable. Enter the era of 900-number activism. USA-EARTH (1-900-872-3278) mails out boilerplate letters of protest to designated government officials and corporate heads on a variety of issues. Cost: $1.99 the first minute and 99 cents each subsequent minute. And for 99 cents a minute, GreenLine (1-900-446-4761) provides daily updates on environmental topics.

Another company targeting the Reluctant Activist is The Write Cause (P.O. Box 751328, Petaluma, Calif. 94975). For $35 annually, Reluctant Activists receive a monthly newsletter summarizing the hottest issues relating to animal treatment and environmental protection. They check off the issues that get them hot, return the form to The Write Cause in the stamped and addressed envelope provided, and within two weeks, get "personalized" letters, pre-addressed to the offending corporations or agency, awaiting a signature.

Almost as easy is a new product called "EarthCards" (Conari Press, $6.95), which includes 32 postcards with preprinted messages on a range of environmental issues: rain forest preservation, global warming, toxic waste. They are pre-addressed to movers and shakers, CEOs and politicians, who are in positions to make a difference. All one need do is choose the message, sign a name, lick a stamp and drop a card in the mailbox. As the "EarthCards" booklet says, to be an effective activist "you don't have to research the issues in depth ... or write a whole letter or look up any addresses." In fact, you don't have to do much at all.