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.