Why Trimming Your Carbon Footprint and Talking About it is Way More Impactful Than You Think

Though my convictions tend to buckle and die under the weight of a thousand caveats, once in a while I have a one which gets stronger in time. Like this:

One of the most effective things you can do to fight climate change is to cut your carbon footprint and tell others about it.

When I make this claim, without explaining why (because it’s such an effective rhetorical strategy), most people retort with something like: “I’m one person. There are 7 billion of us. Cutting my footprint’s useless.”

I don’t blame anyone for thinking so. I used to think so. When I first cut my footprint, it wasn’t because I thought it would have a big effect but rather as a palliative against my own impotence. I felt immoral doing nothing. Like watching a murder and not calling the police.

But then a miracle happened. I’ve written about it before, but I’m returning with more evidence, because it’s transformative.

In assessing the effects of cutting our footprints, we tend to consider only our own emissions, which are small potatoes. We overlook the real effect: our effect on the people around us.

I see it over and over again in my life, but since you might doubt the anecdotes of a bleating stranger, I’ll argue from some compelling social psychology experiments.

They come from a book called “Join the club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World,” by Tina Rosenberg. The whole book in a sentence: more than we know, people around us determine our actions, words, and beliefs. Here we go:

Permission to Talk

The power of the group was demonstrated in the 1950’s in a series of classic experiments carried out by Swarthmore College social psychologist Solomon Asch. A small group of people – one experimental subject and a varying number of secret confederates – were seated in a room and given charts of lines to look at. They were then asked questions about the lengths of the lines. The questions were to be answered out loud, and the confederates always went first. The questions were easy to get right, but after hearing all the confederates answer a question incorrectly, the lone experimental subject usually joined their opinion. The effect was the strongest when there were at least three confederates and they all gave the same wrong answer. In the face of strong public pressure to conform, most people conform. The classic joke from the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup – ‘Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?’ – would seem to have been answered.

Whether the subject believed his own answer or just pretended to doesn’t matter. The point is that what we say influences what people around us say, or are even willing to consider saying.

Maybe you’ve read an article about climate change, and it alarms you, and you want to talk about it. But then in your daily life no one does, or when they do, it’s in the context of a joke, or it’s mentioned only in passing, or in any case it’s never discussed in a holy-crap-let’s-do-something-because-this-is-an-emergency type-way. It might occur to you that you should talk about it that way, and maybe you want to, but you hold back because it feels weird. It feels weird because no one else does. So instead you talk about what happened on 30 Rock last night.

Nothing changes unless this cycle of not-talking changes. Luckily, it’s not hard to break the cycle. Just start talking about climate change, frequently, as you think it should be discussed (but by god don’t be boring and don’t drone). The mere act of talking, consistently, without trying to convince others, will effect what others think and say. The experiment described above and many others like it prove as much. If we don’t get talking, we’ll go on pretending there’s no emergency until were screwed beyond screwed.

Permission to Act

The goal isn’t just to talk, but to influence those around you to act. Thankfully, we have just as much influence over what people do as what they say. To illustrate, I refer to some famous experiments by Stanley Milgram. First, here’s the core experiment:

While teaching at Yale University, Milgram recruited groups of forty people into what he told them was an experiment testing the effects of punishment on learning. They were assigned to administer electric shocks in escalating doses to a subject sitting in the next room when he gave a wrong answer to a question. In reality, the subject was a confederate and there were no shocks; a tape of a person in pain would play when the ‘shock’ was administered. The results were chilling: twenty-six of forty participants administered ‘shocks’ up to the maximum 450-volt level. Not a single participant demanded that the experiment be stopped.

The important result for my argument isn’t the main experiment but one of the variations:

One of the variations Milgram tried (variation 17) included two other confederates supposedly administering shocks alongside the real subject. When the confederates pretended to have had enough and refused to administer the shocks, only four of the forty participants continued to administer shocks up to the maximum level. Milgram carried out at least nineteen variations on the basic experiment, testing such things as whether people were more likely to defy the authority figure if they were physically closer to the victim, if they were in a less fancy setting, or if they were women. The most defiance was produced by variation 17, the revolt of the peer group. The peer groups’ creation of a social norm of human kindness was the most effective way to encourage defiance to an immoral order.

When a peer does something, we give ourselves permission to do the same. Returning the discussion to climate change: not many of us are cutting our carbon footprints (or even measuring them), so it doesn’t occur to the people around us to do it either. But if I cut my footprint and make sure that my peers know about it, they’ll have an example. They’ll have mental permission to do the same. This is how widespread change happens.

Again, for me, this isn’t hypothetical. It’s happening in my own life. As Rosenberg says of the Milgram Experiment:

…every human being gets to participate, every minute of every day, in the real-world version of essentially the same experiment: we live in a group culture… people typically measure themselves and set their own rules by looking at the social norms of a handful of peers.

Ideas spread like disease and disease is non-linear. One person can start an epidemic. Like Typhoid Mary. We should all try to be the Typhoid Mary’s of climate change action. Change is at our fingertips.

In my next post, I’ll offer thoughts about how to talk about climate change such that your listeners won’t throttle you and dump your body into the east river.

From the Sea

Posted April 06, 2011 in Random Thoughts | 9 Comments on Why Trimming Your Carbon Footprint and Talking About it is Way More Impactful Than You Think


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  1. Nate says:

    As Nick’s brother and having conversed with him numerous times about climate change, I now think twice about anything that might greatly increase my carbon footprint. While I’m not exactly a convert since I have always believed global climate change is a problem, I am now much more aware of my own actions simply just by talking to someone so passionate about it.

    I could go without some of the fear-mongering however. Just sayin’.

  2. Nick B. says:

    Thanks handsome brother,

    RE fear mongering: as you know, I struggle with this. The dilemma I face every time I write about Climate Change: I agree that fear-mongering is bad, but I also believe in accurate, truthful representation of the problem. But an accurate representation of the threats of climate change are scary, and instill fear. I’ve got no good answer.

    I think about MLK’s I have a dream speech as a possible solution: he spoke so vividly about what the world could be, that by implication, he also made us aware of how far short we were.

    On the other hand, the MLK approach is easier to pull off when the problem is already upon you. With climate change, the really horrible stuff hasn’t happened yet. How to make people aware that really horrible stuff may be on the way without scaring them?

    Alternatively, is it possible to convince people to act without first convincing them that really horrible stuff is on the way?

  3. Nate says:

    The way I see it, I think there should be something like optimistically realistic.

  4. Nick B. says:


  5. Andy says:

    Whenever a campaign is accused of being hypocritical or paradoxical (pamphlets urging the subject to save trees, recycling operations using energy to save energy, etc.), I point to the info-spreading benefit, as you have here. Much mockery is made of environmentalists trying to save the world by jetting all over the world to urge leaders, inform communities, and create campaigns to combat climate change. It may not be easily measurable, but I think the effect is almost always worth it. Of course, the deniers pointing out the hypocritical fault will gain traction with that idea among their followers, but the target audience is not those folks. The target is the middle; the much more significant average citizen.
    Just like a single weather event can’t prove anything about climate, a single person’s climate impact can’t be applied as the total, but it can still impact the total. Its impact is much more than the sum, it is rather its influence that is significant.

  6. Nick B. says:

    Agreed. My own entry into full time climate activism started with scientists, writers, and speakers who jet all over the place trying to communicate about the problem. I probably would not have dedicated my life to responding to climate change without them, so that’s pretty good evidence for your point. That said, I think it’s worth looking for ways to spread the message in ways consistent with our ultimate behavioral goals. 350.org’s big world wide action days are a good example: rather than congregate in a single place, people undertake actions wherever they happen to be.

  7. Nate says:

    I think it is about telling the truth…things are looking grim. BUT they don’t have to. There are still things we can do but we need to do them quickly. I mean, a lot of your posts are “optimistically realistic”. Every once in awhile though a post will sound hell-in-a-hand basket. I think people instinctively deny such huge claims, even if they might be true.

  8. Nick B. says:

    I concur. In fact the tone of this blog has been set largely according to my conversations with you (except when I screw up and release the occasional existential howl.)

This site is about one total amateur’s half-cocked attempts to do something about Climate Change.
Why is it here?

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