There’s this incredible leap in the American mind between personal responsibility, personal ability, and moral behavior. I notice it a lot because I talk a ton about climate justice. Here’s how a typical conversation goes:
Me: Le sigh. How I wish that our way of life were more conducive to a livable planet.
Rando: Well you can buy a hybrid or electric car, go vegan, stop flying, and have fewer kids!
Rando: Then you can go zero-waste! Buy only in bulk. Get solar panels. Have only electric appliances. Donate to climate-friendly politicians…
Eventually, I wander away because this conversation is unhelpful. First of all, I’m already doing a bunch of these things, and second of all, there’s no way I’d be able to afford some of them if I weren’t the lucky middle-class person I am. Five years ago, for example, I couldn’t afford a Prius. This year, I couldn’t afford an electric car, and anyway, where would I charge it?
Second, I think it’s very interesting how we look at individual responsibility in this scenario. Notice how all of the fixes for climate change that Rando suggests are individual ones for which I personally pay. This kind of follows on to the point that individual climate responsibility is expensive. When the solution to climate change is individual in nature, then it becomes incumbent upon every individual to be able to afford a hybrid, solar panels, a house for the panels to sit upon, all electric appliances for the house, and on and on. If you’re making minimum, you’re barely affording a crummy studio apartment even in the reasonable parts of the nation. If caring about future generations is moral, and you need money to take climate action and secure a future for those generations, then by extension, you need to be rich to be moral.
This is how climate action falls to the fallacious idea of the Gospel of Prosperity. If you can give money to personal climate action, then we’ll all go to species survival heaven. Poverty becomes more than just a personal misfortune, but a general burdon, or even an evil.
This is how people who are “doing their part” come to resent the poor. When it comes to traditional Prosperity Gospel Televangelism, the stakes aren’t nearly as high. Someone who fails to give money to the preacher won’t thrive on Earth or go to Heaven when they die, but that won’t affect everybody else. Climate action, on the other hand, affects everybody. It’s our collective habit of relying on gasoline-powered cars that’s tanking the planet. If only everybody would just man up and buy a Tesla, right?
The conundrum of poverty resentment seems inevitable in this model of climate action, so the system’s broken. We know that because it’s not just (or possible) to make everybody buy a $63,000 car that they can’t charge at their apartments anyway. So we need to go higher up the chain. Where does this logic go wrong?
Personal climate action is flawed from the point where we start thinking of climate action as a personal burden.
That’s when we come back to the American identity conundrum. Our national philosophy is to cowboy. In our minds, we’re all Teddy Roosevelt, rugged individualists (gloss over the failed ranching, bankruptcy, national parks protection, etc. for now) and we’d rather have fewer taxes and no government helping us because whatever it is, we can do it better ourselves, god damn it. (Many of us, anyway. Even if you’re a true blue Liberal, I’ll bet you have a few dregs of this. How do you feel about government surveillance, for example? Should police have assault rifles? There you go: you’re not 100% sanguine about the government either.)
Yet we’ve never had less agency over our lives. When’s the last time you harvested your own corn? Where do your clothes come from? With a few exceptions, we’re tended by a system. We live comfortable lives in the palm of a fossil-fuel god, and the only price is our ignorance. The idea that someone could buy their way out of our current situation is unfair at best, and at worst, it’s a way to shut down discussions about actual climate solutions.
Individual behavior change can only be powerful when taken in concert with a giant group of coordinated people, at which it’s no longer individual. If everybody agreed to only buy hybrids from now on, that would definitely prompt a change. But for reasons we’ve already discussed, the power of that kind of collective action is limited. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking. By all means, keep composting your kitchen scraps. But we’re not going to save the world unless everybody can compost. In fact, we’re not going to save it unless everybody has to compost.
That’s why we need to stop telling people to self-soothe with individual action and start working on our governments and corporations. These are the constituents of the fossil-fuel god that inescapably rules our lives. Our species is only going to have a chance of surviving climate change if that god changes first. Our lives are built on the back of highway programs and municipal waste treatment and Coca Cola. That’s good because once those change, everything changes. It’s bad because unless they change, there’s only so much that we can do.
Of course, corporations claim that they respond to consumer demands and our government, a body of wealthy, mostly white mostly men, essentially ignores the will of ordinary people unless it’s an election year. (And even then, they seem to go out of their way to gerrymand, bribe, and otherwise tweak the system in such a way that they can get any results that they want.) It’s frustrating to watch the wagon of our government careen downhill most of the time, only to have a moment now and then to give it a shove in an equally inscrutable, possibly no better direction. People get exhausted. As long as our system is set up like this, then getting Americans to be active in their government might be a big ask.
So what’s our solution?
Local involvement is a good option. People who want to see climate action happen can still get into their local governments and make this their main issue. Everybody else needs to vote for these guys because hyper-local elections for cities, towns, villages, etc. are probably the most direct form of government we still have available to us. People need to go to town council meetings, get involved in committees, and otherwise meddle in local affairs. The effect will percolate up to the rest of the government as climate-focused local pols move up the ladder and – this is critical – remain climate-focused.
This is easy to say. I myself don’t have time to accomplish much in the way of local meddling beyond casting my vote and attending CCL meetings when I can make it. I take as much personal action as I can, write letters to editors nationwide, and march when I can. But I acknowledge that this is more action than many people can take, while also being less than many people would accept as a minimum, and that’s OK. The same fossil-fueled system that drags us all onward by the hair makes sure that most of us are too busy to take labor-intensive action. But those of us who can, must. The rest of us need to be compassionate environmentalists. If we lose respect for each other, then we’ll never have the capacity for cooperation that we’ll need in order to win this. The Gospel of Prosperity conveniently excises the original bits about not judging others and removing logs from your own eye. If the eco-friendly movement makes the same mistake, we’ll guarantee our failure.
Welcome to 2019! If you found yourself daunted by the state of the environment in 2018, then now’s your chance to do something about it.
I could tell you that buying green will help – organic food, biodegradable soaps, electric vehicles, stuff like that – and it might, a little. But let’s face it: a lot of green consumer activism is only available to people who can afford it. What good is ethically sourced chocolate if your budget only has room for conventional beans?
Take that problem one step further. If only a few people can afford to buy solar panels and things like that, then there can be no change until everybody’s financially stable. As nice as that would be, economists have been working on total financial equality for thousands of years and we’re still not there. Since climate change is an immediate issue, the only real ground-level solutions attainable by individual people have to meet some qualifiers:
- The solution doesn’t require a huge up-front financial investment
- The solution doesn’t exclude any economic or cultural group
- The solution doesn’t make anybody rich
Tricky, right? Luckily, there are a few ways that you can effectively decrease your footprint without breaking the budget or excluding people with smaller purses than yours.
Share, donate, thrift, repair, and reuse
I recently wrote an article about consumerism and how it relates to climate change. Here’s a summary: you can’t have eternal stuff on a finite planet. In addition to disposable cutlery that’s basically made to be waste, even objects that we consider permanent fixtures in our lives tend to have short lifespans. For example, the electronics industry assumes that you’ll toss your smartphone every two years, partially because it thinks you’re going to want a fancier, flashier, hipper device.
The same goes for furniture. Nothing against Ikea, whose sustainability plan is laudable, but the presence of cheap chairs on the market makes periodic upgrades tempting. Manufacture of that stuff, from the screws that hold it together to the wood that gets logged and processed with diesel-powered equipment, is still generally carbon-heavy. That’s easy to overlook that when the company wants to soothe your concerns about its environmental friendliness.
So don’t buy it! I’m not saying you should abstain from buying everything – you can’t, please don’t try – but by reducing the amount you shop, you’ll reduce your footprint. If you can get a bunch of friends together and pledge to reduce unnecessary spending, you’ll be on your way.
Here’s where things get interesting. The amount of spending that’s really necessary for your life to remain happy and healthy is actually far smaller than you’d think. For example, think of your closet. You have all kinds of stuff in there that you don’t want to wear anymore, not because it’s worn out, but because you’re sick of looking at it. But you’re not sick of looking at your friends’ clothing.
They feel exactly the same way.
Websites like Freecycle and the Buy Nothing Project let you trade stuff you don’t want and get stuff you do. My hometown of Salem even holds regular clothing and book swaps that draw hundreds of people. It also supports a repair cafe where you can bring busted household gadgets. All of these projects are run by regular people who, as far as I know, get zero dollars and zero cents for this work. They do, however, end up with great wardrobes, regular turnover in literature, and some fully functional household gadgets that might otherwise have ended up in the trash. They save money and they save the Earth.
Repair and share operations also benefit low-income people. If you’re affluent and intend to organize an event like this, be sure and reach out to community centers and schools located in places where money is scarce. If you can forge relationships across economic boundaries, then you can start breaking those boundaries down. Together, we’re all more powerful.
When you simply must buy something, check your local thrift store. You’d be amazed at what appears there, and if you can extend the life of that merchandise, you make the manufacture and delivery of a new version a little less necessary.
Speaking of buying…
Buy local when possible
Nation-sized commercial operations don’t have a whole lot of incentive to change. They have an enormous base, powerful investors, and a directive to grow a certain amount every year. Converting to green supply chain technology or solar energy is a great idea in principle, but not what a conservative business manager steeped in traditionalist thinking would choose first. You and everyone you know can’t change their minds about that.
As the price of solar falls, companies like Walmart will start to default to renewable power anyway just because it’s cheaper than traditional sources. However, you don’t have time for every mega-retailer in the U.S. to come to Jesus. That’s why you need to buy local.
Local retailers are not necessarily interested in growing by the quarter. They want to be economically viable and sustainable within their communities. They’re thrifty and personally interested in what their customers want. If you and all your friends tell the owner of your corner store that you want that store to run on renewable power, they might just listen. Even if the business itself doesn’t have brick and mortar solar options, there are ways to buy renewable energy from solar and wind farms.
There are other ways of buying local that get even more creative. CSAs, for example, are often very economical – I use Farm Direct Coop and spend less than $500 on food for the entire summer. There are usually aid programs in case you can’t afford the membership price and backup systems if you can’t pick up your food on a certain day. Best of all, the food you get from a CSA is usually locally sourced and seasonal.
The same goes for farmer’s markets. These are often fairly expensive, but many accept SNAP.
Share a ride
Unless you live in New York City, you probably need a car. What a pain! In addition to being expensive, bulky wallet vampires, they’re contributing to the death of the environment. Luckily, the humble carpool mitigates this. You don’t have to get an expensive Tesla to green your commute, you just have to get some buddies! There are some great ways to find carpools online. Rideshare.org and iCarpool.com are a couple of good ones. However, if you really can’t corner anyone to ride with…
Support public transportation
People complain a lot about public transportation. It’s always late, it’s dirty, it’s slow, it’s not classy, there aren’t enough trains, the service area is limited. Know how to change all of these factors? Mass usage. If everyone rides the train, train service will improve. If residents demand a bus route along the boulevard, then that will happen. These are voteable issues, and if everyone piles onto public transit at the same time as they scream for better service, then the people in charge will have an incentive to make busses and trains more pleasant experiences.
Garden and share
Did you know that you only need a space of about 100 feet by 80 feet to support one vegetarian for a year? That’s less space than most families will consent to live in. In a lot of places, that’s the size of a backyard.
If you live in a city, like me, you’ll have a hard time finding your 800 square feet, but growing is still possible. This year, I myself rented a space of 4 feet by 6 feet for my garden from a community garden. Check out Food Not Lawns for starters on how to turn your available space into something nutritious. If it’s property value you’re worried about, then consider the beauty of the edible landscape.
Combined with our CSA, my wife and I ended up with too much produce, despite the fact that a couple of my agricultural experiments went a little haywire. We ended up giving away a ton of summer squash and we’ve still got more carrots than we know what to do with.
There’s another option too: garden on your neighbors’ lawns. I wish I could find the link that talked about this project, but a few years back, some intrepid gardeners had the bright idea of turning their neighbors’ lawns into food paradises. The neighbors were happy to get some veggies in payment and the gardeners got to grow a ton of produce for charity. If any of my readers can find the news report on these guys, comment!
Growing a Victory Garden can ease the pressure on your wallet and the Earth. A $1.75 packet of 20 tomato plant seeds is absolutely more economical than buying thirty tomatoes that had to be shipped from California. Community gardens often have donation plots that you can use if you can’t pay, and even if you don’t have time to water and weed constantly, there are tasty crops that will essentially take care of themselves until harvest time.
Become an activist
Environmental damage and disaster disproportionately affect the poor. When toxic waste is to be dumped, that doesn’t happen in gated communities. When asthma-causing coal-fired power plants are planned, they’re not placed in the heart of the University district. Companies who dump chemicals into the water of poor towns would never dream of doing so in rich areas. In fact, the effects of climate change will broadly affect people who live in cheap, low-lying housing, can’t afford home insurance or emergency relocation costs, and haven’t got the political pull to make towns repair infrastructures like levees and seawalls.
If you’ve got the privilege, then becoming politically active for the environment is a great way to share that with your fellow human beings. I’ve got a post on becoming active here.
Change doesn’t just happen. It takes a collective clamor to start it and sustained, share effort to keep it going. 2019 is a fresh chance to make that change. Let’s make this a green year together.
Climate change is political. Not because the science of global warming is up for scientific debate – it isn’t – but because the means by which the world will need to address the problem is tied up with economics, social systems, employment, taxes, trade, lifestyle…
You get the idea. Dealing with climate change is going to require a complete overhaul of our current system. Individuals can do a lot, but the system that builds roads and manufactures medicine still currently uses fossil fuels for those necessary activities. Businesses have no incentive to change the way things are going because they’re most concerned with next quarter’s profits. Governments are made to take a longer view. The only way we’ll get ourselves out of the carbon quicksand we’re in is through coordinated government action. Once a government mobilizes on a public concern, they really move – just look at the effort that saw the U.S. out of the Great Depression and through World War II! Better yet, you can direct government somewhat through political action.
If the thought of getting political makes you cringe, then rest assured that you’re not alone. There seem to be two kinds of people in this world: people who can’t get enough politics, and people who avoid it like lava. However, politics is how climate change action will happen. And, believe it or not, it doesn’t have to hurt. Your action can be as minor as volunteering to take notes. Here’s what to do.
1. Join up!
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: the best way to act is to act in a group! You’ll make friends, find moral support, and see your cause gain real momentum. An action group will almost always include people with more political experience and instinct than you, and they’ll be happy to do the politicking. Let them take that lead. There’s a good chance they won’t be as adept at, say, calling bus companies and pricing out transportation costs for an action or conference. When you do that for a climate change action group, you’re fighting climate change!
If you’re at a loss as to where to find like-minded, politically savvy people, then start with 350.org. They function in regional chapters and like to partner with more local organizations. This lets them make a whopping difference in comparison to their size. (I recently wrote a profile on them for In Kind, which is just an amazing site. Go look!)
Other national groups include the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an organization of which I’m a member, and Mothers Out Front. Local organizations are crucial, too. My hometown of Salem supports Salem Alliance for the Environment and Coastwatch. Google your town’s name and the word “environment” to see who’s active. You might be surprised at what you find!
If you’re tentative, I’ve noticed that one way to get into these kinds of groups is to volunteer to take notes at meetings. Simple as that. People rarely want to take notes and you can provide a valuable service if you cheerfully offer to eat that frog.
2. Write letters to editors
There’s an art to writing letters to the editor. I ought to know – I’ve written over 200. About 30 have gotten published. That’s an excellent return that may indicate how interested papers are in this issue right now. The offices of your political representatives keep a weather eye on the press. LTEs can do a lot to raise awareness.
Here’s exactly how to write a good LTE.
First, find an article to which you’d like to respond. It’s quite important that you respond to a specific, recent article. If it’s more than three days old, find another one. If you’re starved for fresh material, try setting up a Google alert (here’s how) or signing up for the excellent Climate Nexus newsletter.
Read your chosen piece and make note of its main points. You’ll need to address those in 200 words or less – usually, that’s all the space papers will give to an LTE. Be informative, concise, and polite. Thank the editor at the end. Include your full name, real address, and phone number, too, because the editor may have to get in touch with you to confirm your identity.
Finding the editor’s email can be a little bit of a trick, but it’s often something like editor@[paper’sdomain].com or letters@[paper’sdomain].com. Some papers also have submission forms on their websites.
Your local papers love to print LTEs from area residents. Major papers get a larger volume, so your rate of success per letter will be lower, but you can still safely bet on at least one in twenty making the cut. Don’t be afraid to submit to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other big outlets even if you don’t happen to live in New York, Washington, or wherever those papers happen to be located. They own their status as national (and even world) media companies and acknowledge that their readership transcends geographical boundaries.
You can also take a chance on local papers that aren’t local specifically to you. Once again, some of these will accept that the Internet has made the world their readership. For example, I’ve been published in the Deseret News, even though I’ve never been to Utah in my life. Some papers, however, won’t be as generous with your out-of-towner opinion. I once submitted an LTE to a local paper and had an editor accidentally reply all to complain that I wasn’t even a townie! Needless to say, that LTE did not see publication. I did, however, place many letters after that, and several of those were in local papers.
Finally, if you want to get serious about this, keep track of your LTEs, both submitted and published, on a spreadsheet. This is partly to track your submission frequency. No paper will publish you if you email them more than once every two weeks or so. More importantly, you need to bask in your successes every once in a while. This is a great way to take action on your own time, all by yourself, and feel like a hero when you see your name in print and climate change out front. Just don’t ever, ever read the comments.
3. Make phone calls
You may already be familiar with the 5 Calls app. The reason I like this free service (aside from the fact that it’s free) it that it focuses on a few key issues and then explains them thoroughly before sending you into the fray. That’s a good jumping-off place for someone who’s not usually political. There’s no need for you to stick to the script, of course, but a lot of people like to do exactly that, and it’s totally OK and legitimate to read a prepared statement.
You may also find that individual politicians’ actions on climate change are worth addressing in a phone call. In my home state of Massachusetts, for example, there’s a carbon tax being batted around on the state level, and Paul Tucker, one of my county’s representatives, petitioned for it. Badgering him to do more on climate change without acknowledging that he already did a good thing is only going to irritate the man and make him feel unappreciated. I might want to call him up just to encourage him and tell him that I think he’s doing an awesome job. And oh, by the way, would he like to visit the Salem Sustainability Committee on Wednesday?
5 Calls will cycle you through politicians automatically. Every time you hang up, it’ll bounce you to the next number on its list. You’ll end up leaving messages or sometimes talking to an aide. Always give your full name and address and be polite. Remember, each office may field hundreds of calls per day. They don’t have time for a drawn-out discussion.
I’m not as good at calling politicians as I am at writing letters. However, experts on the subject say that you should call your representatives every day and ask specifically for the staffer in charge of your issue, in this case, climate change. U.S. PIRG has a really great summary on how to effectively badger your politicians.
When you’re using 5 Calls, keep in mind that it is something of a mill. It will eventually cycle you away from your local and state representatives and into the mailboxes of politicians from other states. Since you cannot affect those individuals’ re-elections, your call will not be well received there. Save your energy for people who are interested in your vote.
There are a lot of ways to show up for climate change. The easiest is probably to attend a protest. You can find these by watching 350.org’s social media. However, this is by no means the only – or necessarily the best – way to move your local politician.
Lasting change starts at the bottom. Get to know your councilpeople, local representatives, and state senators. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter and pay attention to where they’ll be doing events. Townhall discussions are great places to show up and hold their feet to the fire about climate change. During election season, you and your friends can punch above your weight by showing up to debates and open forums. Do your research about candidates’ actions related to climate change and press them about specific points. Livetweet the answers. Make climate change an immediate issue with your persistence.
You can also show up to sustainability committees and town council meetings. Sometimes, activist groups will show environmental movies, like Tomorrow, to the public for free. Go enjoy that free movie! You’ve heard of voting with your dollars – now vote with your presence. This is also a great way to network and find out what small environmental groups are operating in your area.
Speaking of voting…
Vote vote vote. It really does make a difference. You don’t have to vote Democrat. You don’t have to vote for the candidate most likely to win. Vote for the climate. Vote in concert with your group, friend, and/or family, and make the environment Your Thing.
If you and your friends focus on this issue, you can chip out a noticeable bloc in small local races. Never let anyone tell you that participating in politics is pointless or that your vote is wasted. In some hyperlocal elections, such as those for town mayors, as few as 15% of residents may vote! In a town of 1,000 people, that’s 150 folks deciding who runs that town for the forseeable future. If another 50 people care that climate change is causing flooding on their street, then you’d better believe your mayoral candidates will pay attention to that issue. You just need to show them that you’re a clear and present voting bloc.
At its smallest, politics is street-level. Leverage that. There is no difference too small to make.
You’ve watched David Attenborough’s speech. You’ve followed the Washington Post’s dark and dire coverage of the 24th U.N. Conference. I’m glad these things happened. Realizing the extent of a problem is the first step in cleaning it up. Make no mistake, my friend: we’re cleaning it up.
These cities are making an awesome start. Greening cities is critical to the defeat of climate change, and as Bloomberg points out, it’s potentially a fantastic investment. Some people have already realized this and taken action. So when things seem bleak and your first attempt at composting fails, Google these forward-thinking bergs and take heart. You’re not in this alone!
1. Dale Ross has greened Georgetown, Texas
Want to live on a 100% green grid? Georgetown, Texas has you covered. The Republican governor says that coal can’t compete with wind and solar on cost. The city also composts and plans to expand electric car charging and rooftop solar.
Georgetown is solid red Trump territory and Ross is as practical a guy as any Republican. So what’s the difference? Personally, I think it’s because Ross is a CPA. He’s trained to look at numbers, not politics.
In 2016, students at Southwestern were looking into having a green campus at the same time as a major energy portfolio contract was ending. Ross, then a councilman, and his fellow city leaders sent proposals to both fossil fuel and renewable energy companies. The math on renewables made sense, and once they saw that, the partisan rancor attached to energy went right out the window. A deal is a deal.
When they pitched the idea to the conservative-leaning public, the city of Georgetown tweaked their lexicon to avoid politicized language. “progressive” became “innovative.” An “environmental decision” became a “business decision.” They also made it clear that nobody’s energy bill was going up.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, they stayed the course. There was blowback from constituents, but once people tried renewable energy, they found that it worked just like fossil fuel always had. Ross got promoted and Georgetown became the first of what I hope are many conservative environmentalist strongholds.
The article includes an interview with Ross, who seems to be a thoughtful guy. Go read!
2. Aspen embraces the water and wind
Aspen, Colorado doesn’t just get 100% of its energy from renewables. It was one of the first cities to do so, fitting dams for power generation in the ’90s and opting for wind power in 2005. Today, according to the city’s website, it gets about half of its power from wind and half from hydroelectric dams, with a tiny bit coming from solar panels. That’s way beyond original expectations – visionary Randy Udall, who tragically died before Aspen went renewable, set high hopes that the city would eventually get 30% of its energy from wind power.
There are environmental issues with hydroelectric power, of course, and in a truly sustainable system, any impact on wildlife needs to be taken into account. However, in a situation where the excess carbon in the atmosphere is the most pressing and immediate concern, there’s no question that hydropower is an important bridge to sustainability. A 2016 review in the open access, peer-reviewed journal Engineering is a nice piece of light reading for anyone doing their homework about hydro.
According to Aspen’s local newspaper, the popular ski destination was the third city to reach 100% renewable status after Burlington, Vermont and Greensburg Kansas. Speaking of which…
3. Greensburg, Kansas is actually a green burg
In 2007, an F5 tornado destroyed Greensburg, Kansas. When I say destroyed, I mean that Greensburg had nothing left. Here is a picture of Greensburg in 2007.
Faced with what Nature could do, the citizens of Greensburg decided, in a series of meetings with Mayor Bob Dixon, that they wanted to rebuild to green standards. Nobody originally planned to go 100% renewable, but, as Dixon tells it, support grew organically. The city built a wind farm, owned municipally, that provided all of the power for its citizens. People started coming back to the city and it began to thrive.
Here’s a picture of Greensburg today.
It’s growing and thriving. Young people are steadily moving there, possibly because of its reputation as a resilient green city. They did such a good job that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory used Greensburg as a case study in 2009.
There are others, of course, who are planning the transition to renewables. From St. Louis, Missouri to Ithaca, New York, the mayors of cities across the U.S. are stepping up. Need more? The Sierra Club has a full list.
In a time when bad news rolls in every day, it can be easy to forget that change begins as a groundswell. That groundswell is already underway.
If you’re anything like me, then you occasionally battle a sense of helplessness when faced with climate news. Not only is climate change becoming more urgent, but some world leaders seem incapable of taking swift action. You may feel like a twig in a current, rushing toward a waterfall with no hope of changing course.
There are a couple illusions at work here. The first is that you’re just one lonely person floating along all by yourself. In fact, you’re an active part of a large system. Far from being a twig, you’re a member of a 7.5 billion-strong canoe team! (It’s a really big canoe.)
Yes, we’re heading toward a waterfall. But if you start paddling for shore, people will notice. They don’t want to go over the waterfall either. They’ll join you. Soon, you can’t help but make headway toward safety, and it doesn’t matter what the boat’s captains are saying or not saying. YOU can change this – you and your seven billion friends.
The second illusion is subtler. It’s that paddling for shore will be nothing but difficult, miserable, and exhausting. That you might as well just give up because changing course would be way too hard.
It’s understandable that people would think this way. After all, carbon-fueled electricity has revolutionized the way civilization runs. If you stop using it, goes the logic, you won’t just be giving up luxuries like your electric juicer. You’ll be tossing your CPAP machine and refrigerator and heading off to eat bugs in a cave for the rest of your life.
Allow me to assure you that you are not going to have to eat bugs. Unless they’re gourmet, obviously.
There’s a process to changing course. Its first step is to take a great, big, deep breath. Join me in breathing. In…Out. Now repeat after me:
Contemplate that mantra. Panic is an evolutionary reaction that is useful for two things: making you freeze or making you run. In this case, neither of those reactions is helpful, and nor are their advanced human equivalents, catastrophizing and despairing. We’re going to have to do away with the panic for now. It’s not useful to us, and more importantly, it’s not providing us with a good representation of our circumstances.
Now that we’ve calmed down, it’s easier to look at our problem logically. Whether massive numbers of individuals opt to make changes in their carbon usage, the market pulls entire populations into new behavioral patterns, or governments legislate and enforce change, there will need to be a large shift in lifestyle in the near future. Any psychiatrist will tell you that the larger the change, the more gradually it has to happen. That’s why so many people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. They’re literally trying to make an overnight change. Human beings don’t work that way.
Instead, we’ve got to apply our changes incrementally, giving ourselves time to get used to the new status quo. Research suggests that the average person adjusts to a new routine after about two weeks. That tells us how to successfully make changes in our carbon footprints. You can do it in just four easy steps.
1. Plan, plan plan
Do you really know how much carbon you’re using? Figure it out! There are carbon footprint calculators here, here, and here. Determine where in your lifestyle there is room to trim your energy budget. Make a list of everything you’d have to do to get yourself to a sustainable level of carbon use.
This may take some research. Give yourself the gift of a nice, thorough fact-finding session. Don’t settle for Internet polemics and blogs that shame you. Look for constructive ideas and lifestyle examples.
Then, decide what you can do. Start with small, immediate steps and plan to implement larger changes when possible. Do you want solar on your house? Set up a year-long savings plan for the down payment on an array. Are you driving too far to work? Give yourself options: a carpool for now, a closer job for later.
Be conservative. Be realistic. You can try fancy green lifestyle tricks later, after you’ve accomplished the goal you’ve set out for yourself and are comfortable with your new routine. For example, if you’re currently a dedicated carnivore, don’t go vegan overnight. Instead, cut down your meat intake. Then see where you can go from there.
2. Use a calendar
It can be digital or it can go on the wall. The main thing about this calendar is that it tells you when you’ll start implementing your changes. Here’s an example:
January 1: Change all the lights to high-efficiency bulbs.
February 1: Cut meat consumption down to weekends.
March 1: Order seeds and plan a backyard or community garden.
April 1: Run one weekly chore by bicycle.
May 1: Start composting.
Follow the calendar to the best of your ability and assess your progress every month. If you have a family, get them involved. Any change is best tackled as a group.
3. Find your people
Your friends might be reluctant to embark upon your green journey with you. If nothing else, they may worry about how it’ll impact your existing relationship. Don’t worry about trying to draw them into your quest. Evangelism will entrench and threaten them. Instead, go out and find support in existing communities.
Meetup.com is a good place to find like-minded people. There are Facebook groups for zero-waste lifestyles, bicycling, and home gardening that are good resources and good fun. Remember, cutting carbon isn’t a lonely experience – you’re in a canoe with seven billion other people! Find others who are committed to paddling for shore.
When you’re secure in your actions and living well in a green avenue, you’ll naturally attract your friends and family because they’ll be curious about your changes. There’s still no guarantee that they’ll convert to sustainability, but it’ll at least get them thinking.
4. Reward yourself
At the end of a year, you’ve successfully made nine of your twelve changes. That’s huge! Celebrate. Treat yourself. Treat your family, if they’re on this journey with you. Head back to the footprint calculators and bask in how far you’ve come.
Notice, in particular, the things you feel best about. Many people who go green report a higher level of satisfaction with their life afterward. It’s not clear why this is, but I think it may have to do with finding a community. Gardening and exercise, including walking and bicycling, are also mood boosters.
Once you’ve assessed, bolstered by how effective you’ve been, continue upon your journey. There’s a long way to go, but you’re not alone on this trek. Together, we can start turning this canoe.
You live in a bubble. I do, too. The bubble is called my apartment, where I cook vegetarian locavore farm share food and turn off the lights when I leave the room. Here in our little rented castle, it’s very easy to be an energy warrior. My wife and cats are in total agreement with me over climate change. Everything’s perfect…as long as I stay inside.
Once I go outside and start to talk to people about this issue, I run into some serious uphill. If you’re anything like me, you, too, went through a phase where you tried to play Cassandra to the Troy of our fuel-guzzling society. Maybe you’re in the midst of that phase right now. How’s the prophet life treating you?
Ecologists, who I am beginning to think are just right about everything, have been complaining for years about how hard it is to have an actual conversation about climate change. Personally, I’ve noticed that people tend to fall into one of about five categories when I talk climate to them. Full disclosure: I don’t usually get them out of those categories and onto my side. But if I successfully start an ongoing conversation, I do see movement in their point of view. It’s slow, but so is a rock when you start rolling it toward a downward slope.
Notice that qualifying word: ongoing. It turns out that people only care about your concerns if you care about theirs first. Have a climate convo, but build a relationship, too. Figure them out and lead by example. Otherwise, you’re just another rando screaming about Judgment Day.
These tips are what I’ve gotten out of personal interactions and research. Am I a professional negotiator? Nope! And I fudge plenty of climate conversations. But in my experience, yelling doom at people does nothing but entrench them and convince them that you’re nuts.
Here are the five people I meet when I talk about the climate.
1. The Accuser
This person demands to know if you drive, eat bananas, or wear clothes made of cotton. When you admit that you do own a non-hybrid vehicle, the reaction of the accuser is triumphant. What right do you have to promote climate action? What right? WHAT RIGHT? They have unmasked a hypocrite and will accept nothing less than your tears of humiliation and pleas for mercy.
This position grows from a place of deep shame. The climate Cassandra’s actions, however introductory, remind the accuser that they themselves are doing nothing to stop our slippery-slope slide toward the yawning mouth of destruction. They may be fighting you to your face, but inside, they’re a jangling ball of climate anxiety. They’re striking out at you because you happen to be the lucky winner that poked the ball with your words.
Respond to the accuser by pointing out that change doesn’t happen overnight. Your personal drawdown has to be gradual or it won’t stick. Seriously. Ask a psychiatrist. You’ll tire yourself out trying to be the Marie Kondo of fossil fuels.
You’re not perfect. The accuser doesn’t have to be perfect, either. You’re both stuck in the same fossil fuel-reliant system together. Understand the accuser to disarm them. That means listen, ask questions, and let them talk. You won’t get anywhere by ramming your opinion down their throat, but you might make a friend by letting them vent for a while. A friend can observe your drawdown and take heart because they’ve learned to trust you.
2. The Faithful
The faithful believe in the ability of technology and science to get us out of this mess. I’ve met faithful excited about algae, carbon filters, and plastics made from airborne pollution, but by far the greatest number belong to the Church of Elon.
The tricky thing about the faithful is that they’re not necessarily wrong, but they may ignore achievable or individual-level action in favor of a concept. Pairing a Tesla with a solar roof, for example, is a fantastic idea that is wholly out of financial reach for most Americans. You will be tempted to argue about this.
Technology may save us. It could happen! Ten years ago, smartphones were toys for rich technophiles. Now they’re a solution for cheap Internet. That’s a hell of a turnaround and almost nobody saw it coming. You don’t know that tech won’t be the key to solving climate change, just as the faithful don’t know that it will be. Don’t argue about what hasn’t happened yet because there is no way to win.
Instead, engage with the faithful. Send them articles about air filters and bicycle shares while making it clear that you’re not waiting around for Elon to come through. Remember that the faithful are outside of your ability to convince because they’ve got Musk in their eyes. They may join your crunchy climate change collective activism when they become disillusioned. They may maintain their blind trust in technology forever. Either way, your ability to argue with them probably won’t have much bearing on the outcome.
3. The Bright Side Seer
This person tends to be older. They remember a time when rivers were flammable, smog suffocated London, and the ozone featured oozing wounds. They’ll tell you horror stories about lead in gasoline and paint, eventually coming around to the conclusion that history is arcing in the right direction. Finally, they’ll say that the U.S. is cleaner than China. As far as they are concerned, this will end the argument.
The difference between you and the bright sider is that you want to help the Earth, and the bright sider wants to help you. If a bright sider corners you with descriptions of how much better things are, it’s usually not because they believe that things are now perfect. It’s because you’ve been coming on too strong. They are worried about you because you seem anxious and depressed. They aren’t trying to shut you down – they are trying to talk you down.
Alternately, a bright sider may be trying to justify their own inaction a la the accuser, using their experience to shut you up rather than aggressive verbal attacks. This is pretty subtle emotional jiu jitsu, though. My experience suggests that bright siders are often just concerned for your mental health. If you’re the type to pop a blood vessel thinking about deforestation – twinsies! – then you’ll encounter a lot of bright siders in your family and friend groups. They believe in the problem. They just don’t want you to have a medical event over it.
You can make a big impression on these folks by staying calm. Take action in your life and talk about that. When you notice your word rate speeding up, your face getting hot, and your thoughts spilling over themselves on their way to your mouth, stop and take a breath. Your ability to express your feelings about climate change is not going to make or break the future of the world, much less the sentiments of the person standing in front of you. If talking hypes you up, stick to action. Arrive at family dinner on a bicycle or by train.
4. The Passive Sigh-er
This person believes. Your heart will leap upon meeting them. They actually believe! You’re off to the races…and then you realize that they’re looking woozy. They try to change the subject. They sure do believe, and they’re desperate to talk about anything else. They don’t think there’s anything they can do to stop doom from descending upon us all.
Humans are funny. We can ignore the fact that we’re not solving a problem if we recognize that the problem exists and should be solved, especially if it’s not immediately threatening us. That’s what the passive sigh-er is doing. They acknowledge that climate change is real, but balk at action because it’s just too much. If everyone doesn’t give up their commute, we’re still in trouble, so why bother with personal action? At worst, they think that we’re already headed for that brick wall too fast and that nothing will stop the human species from going extinct. Why not just enjoy life meanwhile?
I haven’t determined whether it’s possible to reach sigh-ers or not. Some seem open to rallying cries – It’s not over ’till it’s over! We yet live! Go down swinging! We shot the moon and we can shoot this too! Others react to the entire conversation with passive aggression. I spoke to a woman recently who went from “Oh, the climate is in terrible shape” to “It’s OK, I’ll kill myself if it gets that bad” in sixty seconds. YIKES. You’d better believe that redirected the conversation!
I’m a huge advocate of attraction rather than promotion. If you live the change, that can be a powerful statement. Better yet, it is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, energy-efficient. You’ll expend a ton of effort trying to get a single passive sigh-er to move their ass, and you may well end up with nothing to show for it.
Groups can help, too. Passive sigh-ers may get swept up in collective sentiment if they’re exposed to it for long enough, and they may be susceptible to fads and trends. If you can get together with an enviro group – or even start one of your own – draw them into something fun, like a bake-off or film festival. A lot of people resist activating because they’re afraid they’ll lose their normal, unpolarized, moderate social life. Try getting them into a new friend group to show them that there’s life on the other side.
5. The Political Line-Holder
Now we come to the deniers. I’m grouping them all into line-holders because the social demarcations of disbelievers seem to fall closely along political lines, at least, in the States. That’s not statistically likely unless a large chunk of those deniers are denying because of the group they’re in rather than what they actually believe.
That’s why bludgeoning deniers with the science generally doesn’t work. Their denial isn’t about information, logic, or fact. It’s about social cohesion. For these folks, climate change is just a liberal talking point. The reasons that liberals want to talk about climate change are nebulous – I’ve heard Fox pundits say that climate change is a foreign plot, a tax plot, a grant funding plot, and a re-election plot – but there doesn’t need to be a reason. Climate change is liberal. That’s that the line-holder really cares about. Liberals believe in climate change, not conservatives like them.
In this case, it can help to have a few conservative names handy. Bob Inglis comes to mind immediately, although keep in mind that his belief in climate change cost him his South Carolina seat in the House of Representatives. The U.S. military believes in climate change very, very much. Conservatives in other countries don’t have the same weird hang-ups about this phenomenon that Americans do.
Then ask questions. Why do we trust the science behind GPS, but not the science behind climate change? What’s inherently liberal about climate change action? Don’t debate at first. Just keep asking and listening. Then, gradually, and without rancor, panic, or aggression, suggest that maybe we’re looking at climate the wrong way. Wouldn’t it be better for your town to make its own energy rather than being dependent on Saudi Arabia? Wind turbines and solar panels require a ton of permanent maintenance jobs that can’t be outsourced. Better yet, those jobs require factory-adjacent skills – why wouldn’t that make America great?
Don’t hammer on climate change like you’re ringing a bell. The line-holder knows that bell too well. Instead, touch lightly upon the many points around climate change and try to introduce something new to the conversation. Don’t push and don’t make it an unpleasant experience for them. Expect to leave the dialogue having not convinced the line-holder of your position. Have more conversations in the future, and as always, follow up your words with action.
Today’s Climate Change Bat Signal: Start a climate convo and remain calm, cool, collected, and un-evangelical throughout. Be the environmentalist you thought was cool in high school. Attraction, not promotion.