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