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:

  1. Cutting your carbon is more effective activism than it at first seems it should be.
  2. 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

Posted January 07, 2011 in Actually Acting | 13 Comments on The Unexpected Follow-On Effects of Trimming My Carbon Footprint. Fatty McFatty Fat Edition.

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  1. sandcanyongal says:

    Hi. Very nice! You’re right. Al Gore, as has been mentioned lives in a huge mansion. Here are a few of my ideas:
    Pleasure boats, “love” boats and the 500 ft plus boats: ground them permanently. Some of those boats take thousands of gallons of diesel fuel for 1 trip.
    Golf courses: a golf course uses as much water in 1 day as a residential household uses in 1 year.
    Shut off all water features nationwide, like Vegas and others.
    For energy conservation, cut the lights nationwide at midnight. Zero outdoor street lighting, Vegas type lights, commercial lighting and anything polluting the night sky.
    Household energy efficiency is in it’s infancy when it should be at the forefront. In the Nov/Dec issue of Audubon they feature geothermal heating/air. It should be mandatory in every new building.
    ** People need to turn off prime time TV. It’s a serious form of brainwashing and promotion of consumerism.
    Nationalize all foreign interests in the U.S. and make them citizen owned, operated and profit shared; place a 50% tariff on all imported goods, vehicles, etc.
    Perform public polygraphs on all legislators, city, county, federal, judges monthly. Violators will be sent to Guantanimo (sp) and waterboarded until they confess.
    End lobbying.

    This is a good start at balancing our country out, lowering pollution and getting the elected people back on track.

    I’m not joking. I demand my country back like many posting on Grist.

  2. anna says:

    it’s heartening to hear that your efforts have helped others reduce their footprint. your daily postings on fb are good reminders for me, too.

    also nick i think you need to make more friends with fat people

  3. Mary Wildfire says:

    interesting–my own experience has been a bit different. I didn’t expect my efforts to be useless, nor a sacrifice, and I did expect to influence others. To me, it seems the main thing it cost was money: $9070 for an off-grid solar system for our house. Since I live in WV, this means we displaced electric power produced by burning coal, a filthy endeavor in more ways than you know. We already had, not a Prius but an old 1995 Ford Aspire which gets 43 mpg, and are driving it less and less (this, and the embedded energy costs in things we buy, are where I expect to make most future reductions). We had built a 1200 square foot octagonal house up against tall trees on the west side, so we rarely need even fans in the summer, heated with wood, plenty of glass on the south and east sides. I have been expanding my gardens each year, we have chickens, ultimately expect to get goats, and plan to build an attached greenhouse and a root cellar/garden shed in the next couple of years. All of these things are intended to make us independent of a failing civilization, as well as to display a model of sustainable living. But since we live out in the country, we don’t influence many people (we did get several TV/radio/newspaper interviews soon after we got the solar power operational). I do want to mention that in the last job I had, I brought my sandwiches on homemade bread, and fruit, etc to the lunchroom without comment, and my coworkers started eating healthier meals–I thought it was because I DIDN’T say anything about it. It’s important not to come on preachy because then people instinctively resist.
    Part of the importance of creating these models is to show that living sustainably is NOT a sacrifice, engaged in due to moral fiber–it’s potentially healthier, more fun, more satisfying and less stressful than the lifestyle that has become the American norm.

  4. Nick B. says:

    Anna,

    I’m so glad you don’t mind all the fb posts. It feels a little weird to post there all the time like that.

    Re Fat Friends: I know I know. My body won’t cooperate with me.

  5. Nick B. says:

    Mary,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. As renters we haven’t been able to escape from fossil-derived electricity, but we have gone to comical lengths to reduce our use of it, including spending much of last winter without any heat. That *was* a sacrifice (though an instructive one), but I agree with you that in general the upside’s bigger than the downside, and I can only imagine how much better it would be if it such efforts were more widespread. If I could consult with my neighbors, exchange tips, cooperate on projects, the efforts would go from really cool to totally delicious.

    Your suggestion to say nothing about what you’re doing is an interesting one, but I think it only works in certain situations, where the fruits of your actions are obviously visible to those around you. I also believe that there is *always* a way to talk about what you’re doing without being preachy, so, rather than remain silent, my goal is to be as loud and as non-preachy as possible. Not to say I’ve mastered the art, but that’s what I’m shooting for.

  6. Nick B. says:

    sandcanyongirl,

    I’d love many of those things too. The question that burns through me always is: what can I do right now to make some of that stuff happen?

  7. Anna Haynes says:

    > there is *always* a way to talk about what you’re doing without being preachy, so, rather than remain silent, my goal is to be as loud and as non-preachy as possible.

    This is cool, if possible. How?

    (one way might be to wear a button/bumpersticker that does your communicating for you)

    Greg Craven: “You do: everything you can to increase public demand for significant and immediate policy action to combat global climate change.”

  8. Nick B. says:

    Interesting idea regarding buttons and bumper stickers. One principle I have is to present the information in an unexpected way, to make it more noticeable. For this reason I think a button (which few people wear these days) is better than the bumber sticker (we’re used to bumper stickers and most of us just filter them out). Rather than having a normal sized button, you could go around wearing a button the size of a dinner plate. *That* would be a conversation piece. You’d get serious traction with that.

    Here’s another one, which I’ll write about in a future post:
    A shirt with your carbon footprint on it, presented such that you can change it over time (like the shirt has transparent holders for cards with numbers on them) the shirt could also present the average american’s footprint, along with your goal footprint. I plan to get some made for myself and wear the bejeesus out of them. If you’d like one too, let me know.

    I have sooooooooooooooo very many ideas about how to creatively raise awareness, and sharing them is the foremost motivation for starting this blog. I’ve got a notebook with something like 104 different ideas I like (among thousands of others which are probably terrible). I can only post about twice a week for the next month or two, given my other schedule constraints, but after that I’ll be able to post more frequently. That time can’t come soon enough.

  9. anna says:

    just wondering, how did you keep warm in your house? any tips? my house is freaking cold, even if we attempt to heat it… the only reason I light up the stove is if I want to take some layers off my baby so that one day she might learn to crawl (otherwise her clothes are too bulky)

  10. Nick B. says:

    Hey Anna,

    If your house is cold even when you try to heat it, then getting better insulation and finding/pluggling leaks is a high priority. Getting better insulation installed is usually said to be one of the most important, if not the most important, thing you can do to reduce your footprint. But it’s also expensive.

    If you can’t afford a home energy audit to find the leaks, you can use an incense stick to find them. You can watch the smoke get sucked toward the leaks. But it’s easy to miss leaks this way, because leaks often happen where you don’t even think to look. Here’s an article discussing this method

    Once you find the leaks, you’ve got to find ways to plug them. What you do depends on the leak, but silicone caulk is a big help (also discussed in article above)

    Plastic window sealers help too. Windows are a big source of heat escape, and the layer of air that gets trapped between the window and the plastic sheet is an effective insulator.

    A more left field idea: heated clothing. I know that ski-gear manufacturers make clothes with built-in heating systems. These are undoubtedly pretty high footprint, but trying to regularly heat a poorly insulated house is way worse.

    A little about what we do: we have electric baseboard heat, which is one of the more efficient ways to heat a space. More important: because we spend 90% of our time in two rooms (kitchen + living room), we only heat those, and we seal off the other rooms from them. There’s enormous savings to be had that way.

    If you choose to heat only one or two rooms, you can be even more effective by doing it strategically: figure out which room is the best insulated/least leaky, and then arrange things so that you’ll spend most of your time in that room. Over course, if your heat comes from a non-portable woodstove, then you’re stuck using that room. But then at least you can focus on insulating/sealing that room if you heat only that one. Also of course, the smaller the room is, the more efficient you can be.

    Also, this might seem basic, but drinking hot tea throughout the day (especially if water is heated in an efficient electric water kettle) helps to a surprising extent. I’m sure I’ll think of more after I click submit, but that’s what I’ve got for now.

  11. anna says:

    ah, the joys of living in a 150 year old Japanese farmhouse…. no need for incense, I can see the sunlight come through the cracks in the wall.

    The interesting thing is, to any modern person this house seems inconceivably cold (especially to Americans who happen to be visiting during winter), but originally, the house had even less insulation and 150 years ago, the house was heated only by hibachi and many of the doors were made out of paper or were open to the outside anyway. The Japanese preferred to have a house that breathed so that in the summer time they could remove the doors and have the breeze throughout. So for them, heat trumped cold. Maybe they were too busy moving around and working, getting warm that way, to worry about heating.

    Those of us living here have gotten somewhat used to the temperature (take Mio for example– she NEVER cries about the cold– even when I’m changing her diaper in an unheated bedroom and she’s kicked off all her blankets and her little hands are like icicles but she still goes on sleeping peacefully…) and don’t mind it so much, we’re just used to wearing our down jackets in the house….

    Hot water bottles are amazing, at least the kind used in Japan. They stay warm until morning. And yes, drinking tea (or just hot water) is great if just for warming your hands.

  12. Nick B. says:

    Anna,

    You allude to an option rarely mentioned (at least here in the US), but which works well: just be cold. If you hang out in the cold long enough you get increasingly used to it. The body has capacity for adaptation of which many modern people are unaware because we rarely exercise it. Last winter I went without heat for month and by the end temperatures that had once felt frigid had become tolerable.

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