The Unexpected Follow-On Effects of Trimming My Carbon Footprint. Fatty McFatty Fat Edition.
You’re one of 7 billion people emitting too much carbon dioxide every hour of every day. Congrats. What do you, personally, do about it? For most, the answer is: nothing. There are various reasons for that choice, and before I began talking (and when forced to stop and breathe, listening) to people about climate change, I’d have guessed that the most common is the belief that the problem isn’t serious, or that it’s too far in the future.
To be sure, there are many who think so. I’ve learned, however, that there may be just as many who believe climate change is a grave, urgent problem, but who nonetheless have little interest in responding personally.
Further: of all the possible personal responses open to us, the one which garners perhaps the least enthusiasm is personal emissions reduction. Even those of us who actively speak out about climate change nonetheless often make little effort to cut our carbon footprints.
Even Al Gore, who’s freaking out as much as anyone, and who’s dedicated his life to the problem, mostly ignores his own emissions, as those who dislike him gleefully remind us.
Why do so many of us neglect our own emissions? In speaking with people, I hear one answer over and over: we think the costs far outweigh the benefit.
The costs are effort, time, and the abdication of comforts (like a big house kept toasty in winter). The benefit is that you bring the world less than a billionth of the way toward fixing the problem (since, to fully fix it, everyone on Earth, or at least those with big footprints, must reduce their footprints as well).
The return on investment seems terrible. It’s more pointless than voting.
I used to think so too, until I discovered I was wrong. The reason for my error (besides a general life-long proclivity for fucking up) is that my analysis failed to factor in 2 unexpected benefits that I couldn’t see until after I cut my footprint as an experiment.
The First Unexpected Benefit: A Welcome Disease
To explain this one I need to start with some context:
Researchers have recently been asking: how do cultural habits spread through social networks? Answer: like disease. Consider Fat. If you have fat friends, you’re more likely to gain weight than someone who doesn’t. Fat’s contagious.
The same effect undoubtedly holds for much of what we do. We live as those around us live, and we care about the things others do. It would be surprising if our habits affecting our carbon emissions were any different.
That means: by cutting your emissions, you influence those around you to do the same. Not everyone, but some. Some who may, in turn, influence others.
And that’s what’s happened to me since I began cutting my carbon footprint: a couple of my friends, along with my mom have started to reduce their footprints, family members have donated on my behalf to organizations that fight climate change, my brother’s looking for a green job, for my birthday a friend promised me she would commute by bike one day a week, and a bunch of friends are paying more attention to the subject than they otherwise would have. The reduction of my footprint is likely smaller than the reduction I’ve inspired in the world around me. And I just started doing this. *And* I’m kind of an idiot. *And* I’m just one person, which means I’m that crazy weirdo whose endless yelping makes him easy to ignore. The effect I’m having is only going to grow. If there were two or three people like me in each of my friends’ lives, we wouldn’t seem like weirdoes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it caused a snowball effect that transformed my whole social network.
My experience suggests two things:
- Cutting your carbon is more effective activism than it at first seems it should be.
- We’re closer to transformative change than anyone suspects. It won’t take but a small number of brave souls willing to cut their footprints to get the ball really rolling.
Note: the effect I’m having is due not solely to my footprint reductions, but rather to those reductions in combination with my enthusiasm for broadcasting them to the people I know. Carbon isn’t like fat. Everyone can see your fat. Not so much your emissions. Since realizing this, I’ve begun broadcasting systematically.
I posted an example a few days ago (The World’s Greenest RSVP): sometimes I’m invited to events which would require me to drive a long distance, and sometimes I decline to go, to limit my footprint. When I RSVP, I’m explicit about my reason. I try not to be lame.
I have many more ideas about how to do this kind of thing, which I’ll cover in future posts.
The Second Unexpected Benefit: my world is suddenly a happier, more interesting place.
In reducing my footprint I discovered an active way to explore the problem of climate change, and this has replaced my impotent anxiety about the problem with a sort of fascinated interest. You stop worrying when you start acting, and I was surprised about the extent to which cutting my footprint had this effect. Sure, climate change is still a huge black mindfuck, but now it’s also a source of deep engagement which has lit up my thoughts as nothing else has. To cut your footprint, you can’t help but become aware of the raft of otherwise hidden energy- and resource-flows and dependencies around you which make your life possible. Doing so has been, for me, like waking up from the Matrix. It’s afforded me a lot of “Woah”s. It’s made me smarter too – for example, all this “systems thinking” has given me insight into my business. It wouldn’t have happened had I not gone to the trouble of reducing my footprint.
It’s given me equanimity as well. The worst-case climate change scenario is the dissolution of civilization and a massive culling of human life, including possibly my own, before my natural life is over. Recent research suggests that the possibility isn’t as remote as most of us believe, which used to make me sad.
Now, my mind is ever-drawn to the old wish: “May you live in interesting times”. I’m living in interesting times, among the most interesting through which humanity has lived. Even if the worst happens, well, it’ll be way more fascinating than cancer or heart disease or whatever would otherwise nail me one day anyway. Again, these new feelings are the direct result of my engagement with the subject via the reduction of my own carbon footprint. A beautiful thing.
So there you have it. I was wrong. Big surprise.
-From the Sea