SUSTAINABILITY FORUM: What Individuals Can Do

Photo: Sweetie 187 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/58782395@N03/5624195464) CREDIT: Sweetie 187 (CC)

As part of our third annual SEPTEMBER SUSTAINABILITY MONTH, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs presents the last of three roundtables on sustainability.

Introduction

Forum Editor, Evan O'Neil

Climate change is a collective problem, the sum of millions of individual choices. The long-term and global scope of the issue can be intimidating, yet the moral imperative to act now is clear.

People are already perishing of extreme weather and drought-induced famine. Habitat loss, pollution, and over-harvesting threaten the ecosystems we depend upon and the species that share our Earth. Island nations are being swallowed by the sea.

What is the most important thing a person can do to have an impact? From consumer purchases to political action, how should we prioritize the solutions at our disposal?

Read the roundtable and add your comments. 

As Individuals We'll Lose

Bill McKibben

You simply can't make the math work to solve climate change one household at a time, or one campus, or one congregation, or one anything. You have to get organized.

Ever since we started building a big climate movement at 350.org, we've met people who meet the following description: They were aware of the problem, sometimes deeply. They had changed their light bulbs and bought a Prius. They understood that these actions were not really going to solve the problem. They felt so damned small against a problem so big.

 

And of course, they were essentially right. You simply can't make the math work to solve climate change one household at a time, or one campus, or one congregation, or one anything. It's important to get our lives in order: But if change is going to matter, it's going to have to come by multiplication, not addition.

That means: politics. It means banding together to fix the problem at a systemic level—almost certainly by putting a serious enough price on carbon that we can actually bend the trajectory of energy use on this planet.

People have been seeking a political solution for a long time, of course, but most of that period was spent thinking that if we could just convince some key world leaders of the severity of the problem, they would do something. That approach died in Copenhagen, and it died because it hadn't reckoned with the power of the fossil fuel industry, which has used its financial might to block real progress.

Since we'll never have as much money as Exxon, we need another currency—bodies, spirit, creativity. Solidarity. And we've shown it's possible—in the last three years 350.org has coordinated almost 15,000 demonstrations in every country on earth save North Korea. CNN called it the most widespread political activity in the planet's history. Consider it a beta test for a movement that hasn't won yet, but could.

So one way of answering this question is to say: As individuals we're powerless against climate change. If we act as individuals we'll lose. The only way we won't is if we join together.


Get Out Your Electric Bill, Then Get Out and Vote

David Biello

Do you have any idea how much energy you consume? It's pretty simple to get a sense of how much electricity you use via the monthly bill, but it's not so easy to track down the specific gadgets that are causing the total to rise or fall. It's pretty easy to understand how much gasoline you've burned, but it's harder to grasp how tire pressure affects the total.

 

If we can't even keep track of how many calories we eat on a daily basis (witness our expanding waistlines as a nation), we're definitely in the dark when it comes to keeping track of how many kilowatt-hours we need to sustain our lifestyles.

Just think of the embedded energy hidden in everything we touch. The clothes you wear bear the energy cost of the fertilizer used to grow the cotton, the sewing machines powered to stitch the latest fashions, and the bunker fuel burned to ship those clothes across the ocean.

The shampoo you rely on to ensure your luster is essentially crude oil, transformed with energy into a cleaning product. Your house required a literal boatload of fossil fuels to build—whether it was built last week or a century ago. And let's not forget those smartphones, which boast more mined precious metals than many a king had access to in medieval times.

Changing our energy intensive lifestyles is not the work of a moment. But the first step is understanding roughly how much energy you use—because it really does vary from person to person. Love your hair dryer? Then you probably use a lot of electricity. Love your hair shirt? Then you probably prefer candles handmade from beef tallow for your lighting needs.

The simplest way to understand your energy use is to start with your electric and fuel bills. (Prominent attempts at more detailed consumer analysis, such as Microsoft's Hohm and Google's PowerMeter, have gone defunct. It turns out there's not much interest in these things—we just want the lights to turn on when we flick the switch.) Add it all up and see where you stand: The average American uses 250 kilowatt-hours of energy per day. That's equivalent to 250 40-watt light bulbs switched on—all the time. Surely you can do better than that?

I'm not going to tell you to buy efficient light bulbs, insulate your attic, or even turn off the lights when you leave a room. You should be doing that already and, frankly, that's not going to get us where we need to go. No, the most important thing you can do to be sustainable about your energy use is: Vote.

I'll go further. You should be harassing your political representatives at the local, state, and national level to set aggressive clean energy and efficiency policies of some kind.

Why? Californians have managed to hold electricity use per person at the same level for the past couple of decades despite adding more and more gadgets and more and more people to the Golden State. How? They did it through government regulations like mandates for energy efficiency at power plants, and standards for appliances like refrigerators.

To reduce greenhouse gas pollution by at least 80 percent by 2050 while promoting energy security and, while we're at it, preserving the American economy, we're going to need every tool in the toolkit. We can and should all do our part, but it takes a government to really get a handle on energy.


Individual Responsibility is a Trick Question

Josh Lasky

Rather than focus on a single personal action to promote sustainability, I offer a concept which can advise personal decision-making, and thus, have a profound influence on our individual and collective environmental impact. The concept is something we learn early in life, and then unfortunately begin to forget as we grow older. I'm talking about sharing.

 

Sharing is a fundamental human virtue. Whether in action, word, or thought, sharing allows us to confront challenges and enjoy rewards together. Within the scope of sustainability, sharing provides immense opportunity.

For example, sharing is a guiding principle of sustainable transportation. Public transit allows you to share the bus or subway with others for a low fare. Car sharing provides a cost-efficient alternative to ownership. Bike sharing provides a convenient and hassle-free way to get around on two wheels. Car pooling and ride sharing connect empty seats with people that need rides.

The benefits to the environment and our quality of life are immense: reduced greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, less traffic and parking congestion, and improved public health. Moreover, investments in alternative transportation infrastructure (say, a new bike path, as opposed to highway expansion) go further in terms of job creation per dollar spent.

Sharing isn't just for hippies and communists. Collective action provides economies of scale in purchasing. Sharing a house drastically reduces cost of living, and sharing ownership of that house provides access for more people (and potentially people with lower incomes) to develop equity.

Sharing doesn't just have a place in formal contexts. You don't always need a membership to access a shared asset, or to share something of your own. Sharing is about service and civility. Think about giving your leftovers to someone who might be hungry or sharing directions with someone who looks lost. On a very basic level, it should be noted that the most special experiences we have in life tend not to be ones we experience alone, but rather those we share with others.

So, in a way, the question of the most important thing an individual can do is something of a trick question; whatever it is that we choose to do individually must also be done collectively and in a shared manner if real change is to occur.

Biodiversity loss, rising energy demand, deforestation, depleting natural resources, and climate change are shared threats to our common future. The obstacles we face are too great for any one person, and the responsibility to address them must be shared.

Ultimately, we need to keep in mind that despite the myriad challenges, we have the wonderful opportunity of sharing in the reward together—a balanced, sustainable, healthy, and prosperous world.


Understanding the Expanded Self

Mat McDermott

To paraphrase an oft-quoted maxim, we're not going to solve our current problems with the same ways of thinking that created them. This applies to climate change as much as to all the other environmental pressures humanity faces now. They are just symptoms of one greater problem—of humanity living out of balance with Earth and its ecosystems.

 

Changing our technologies is necessary, and should be done as quickly as possible, but without also changing our metaphysical perspective of the planet and our relation to it, technological change will bring only superficial results.

A chance at a more lasting solution resides in moving beyond the reductionist, utilitarian views that dominate both the mainstream environmental movement and modern capitalist society, and towards a holistic way of thinking rooted in science but also firmly rooted in spirit and expansive emotion.

Central to this will be an expansion of our sense of self to include something much broader, beyond even our immediate and extended families. What can rightly be called our extended self includes our neighbors, our cities, our nations, and all the animals and plants with which we share the planet. The air, water, rocks, and soil can also be included. It is the relationships between these elements, not the parts themselves, that allow it all to exist. We must begin identifying with that whole.

The practical outcome of this way of being is that for any action, the effect on the group is of similar concern as the effect on the individual. Harm to one part is harm to the whole, to varying degrees.

From this perspective how could it be possible to continue burning fossil fuels, using polluting industrial processes, and destroying forests? (Accounting for the majority of all human sources of greenhouse gas emissions) How could it be possible to continue raising animals in cramped, cruel, confined spaces for food? (Accounting for pretty much the rest of emissions)

Only when these actions are judged by utilitarian benefits brought about in the short-term for humans, and even then a small portion of humans, are such destructive actions possible.

Compared to some of the other climate solutions presented by other authors here, I admit this is a slow one. Though even if we were to just address the technological concerns, the dismantling of a massively polluting industrial system wouldn't happen overnight. A transition in both technology and mind is required.

During this time of transition, even when we are committed to minimizing harm to the expansive self, it won't be possible to fully achieve it all the time. But by expanding our sense of self as broadly as possible we ensure that our actions are rooted in compassion and reverence, and hopefully thereby minimize harm.

Expanding our sense of self helps us act with love—love of self, both narrow and expanded, love of nature that includes all life, human and non-human alike. It allows us to act with ease, in a sense of wonder, gazing wide-eyed at the amazing dance of our global relationships.

 

Start Building a Transition Ark

Christopher Mims

A friend of mine once asked, "If James Hansen is so scared of climate change, why hasn't he built a Jor-El style escape pod to protect his children from its coming wrath?" (In the Superman mythos, Jor-El is Superman's father; he sends his son to Earth because his home planet is dying.)

 

That stuck with me. The truth is we really aren't acting like climate change is the emergency that scientists tell us it is. If we want to do something about creating a livable future for our children, we need to start acting like climate change is an actual emergency.

What I'm talking about is "adaptation," the least appealing solution to climate change. As Obama's science advisor John Holdren put it, embracing adaptation means admitting that the primary consequence of climate change will be simple human misery.

Here's the thing. If we were dropping billions of dollars on a flood barrier around New York City, or evacuating farmers from a desert forming in the high plains of Texas, people would be taking climate change a lot more seriously.

But even today people like hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham are putting money into things like arable land, as is the Chinese government. What do they know that the rest of us don't? Nothing—they're just acting on that knowledge.

In the United States, we need to start borrowing more from the Transition movement, born in the UK, which combines adaptation to climate change with fears about the end of cheap oil. Until our practice as advocates of change includes behaviors aimed at coping with a concrete threat, no amount of trying to head off an abstract threat in a hypothetical future is going to move the needle on either adaptation or mitigation.

Psychologists have noted that adherents to a faith who make public sacrifices in the name of their belief can have a powerful effect on the strength of the beliefs of others. It's why religions have martyrs. (The flip side of this psychological tic explains why Al Gore's critics make such a big deal out of his personal energy use, even when their accusations fly in the face of logic.)

So I respect the willingness of Bill McKibben and James Hansen to get arrested for their beliefs. And as much as personal sacrifice isn't a scalable model for coping with the climate crisis, I think "green living" has consciousness-raising value that's probably underestimated.

But that isn't nearly enough. Until governments at every level are confronting their citizens with the ugly truth—that their coastal homes are uninsurable, that drought and flooding are the new norm, and that the primary impact of climate change is that we're all going to be that much poorer, now and in the future—how can concerns about the environment possibly rise above the din of fears about our economy and national security?

For example: I believe that living close to mass transit isn't just a nice way to raise my standard of living and reduce my reliance on fossil fuels—it's also a way to future-proof any investment I make in my neighborhood, and I don't hesitate to talk about it in those terms. What does your ark look like?

 

Tap the Power of Local Motion

Paul Steely White

"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."
–H. G. Wells            

 

With Washington under the sway of climate change deniers, it is easy to feel despondent. The cure is to focus on local progress—to reclaim momentum and win real results.

In fact, New York City is stoking a revolution in its streets with very little help from Washington. Mayor Bloomberg and his innovative transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, are making clean transportation a much more attractive option simply by giving more space and priority to bicycling and walking.

Biking in New York has doubled in recent years, and mass transit and walking are also on the rise. Bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, while just a part of the Mayor's larger climate change initiative, are now the most powerful and popular symbol of our greening city.

Next year the revolution will kick into high gear with the launch of North America's largest public bicycle-share system: 10,000 bikes spread over 600 stations in the first phase alone. Funded entirely by private investment, catalyzed by a small group of committed environmentalists, and supported by local community groups, this local initiative will make zero-emission transportation an easy and obvious choice for millions of New Yorkers.

Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and other cities are taking similar steps to make clean transportation more attractive than driving.

Just as the carrots of easier biking, walking, and mass transit are being deployed in more and more cities, so are the sticks. Local policies where the "polluter pays" can encourage cleaner choices in energy and transportation.

Many cities and towns have raised parking fees in cooperation with neighborhood business improvement districts, and drivers generally support these higher fees so long as the revenue pays for local walking, biking, and transit enhancements. On the energy front, Maryland's Montgomery County took the bold step last year of introducing the nation's first local carbon tax.

While these revolutions in local transportation and energy policy will certainly reduce carbon emissions, they are not enough. To slow and ultimately stop climate change we need a much larger revolution in the form of a national carbon tax that would, across the board, make cleaner options like solar, wind, and geothermal more cost competitive with oil, natural gas, and coal.

So long as Washington remains deadlocked, your limited time and money are best spent working to support change at the local level. Compared to what it takes to move the needle on national or global policy, it's much easier to tip the balance on your own street, in your own neighborhood, and for your own city.

My recommendation is to work with your local bike advocacy group to win a new bike lane, or support parking reforms and streetscape beautification with your local business improvement district. Work with your local Sierra Club chapter to convince your elected officials to explore local driving and parking fees and taxes on dirty fuels that can subsidize green alternatives.

All the local actions do add up, influencing other cities, and, ultimately, national policy. Check out www.peoplepoweredmovement.org to plug into the local biking and walking advocacy group nearest you.


What You Measure Is what You Desire

Eric Zencey

As I see it, there is no one magic bullet, no one single thing that everyone MUST do immediately. And yet action must be taken and taken right now. It's a problem.

 

I think of this problem in terms of Archimedean levers, and places in the system that are fulcrum points: places where a bit of concentrated effort can have an amplified effect. What those fulcrum points are for each of us depends on where we are, what our skills and strengths are, and which levers of power and influence we can get our hands on.

That said, we still face choices. I think that one of the strongest, most powerful leverage points is changing the basic indicators we use to measure progress and well-being. We have to start counting the costs of climate change and other ecological degradation as costs when we sum up our economic accounts.

This is accomplished in any number of alternative indicators, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator that is gaining increasing use. (See the version implemented in Maryland.)

From business comes the truism, "You get what you measure," and for years we've been using GDP, a measure of the commotion of money in the economy, as the value we seek to maximize. So, no surprise: We have an economy in which the money goes around faster and faster in bigger and bigger amounts, but the average quality of life doesn't improve or even declines.

It has become abundantly clear that increasing the commotion of money no longer necessarily improves our standard of living. We need to maximize not GDP but the economy's sustainable delivered well-being. Before we can maximize it, we need to measure it.

This is a strategic change, and once it's implemented it will make the battle over climate change, and every other particular struggle over ecological degradation, much easier to win. The effort to implement a new indicator may not appear to be immediately productive, but it is absolutely necessary.

Foresters have a saying that applies here: The best time to develop a better indicator, like the best time to plant a tree, is 20 years ago; but the second best time is right now.

So, my counsel: Inform yourself about alternative indicators like the GPI and Gross National Happiness. Join the movement. Contact local and state and federal officials to educate them about the need for a better indicator, one that counts all costs and all benefits of economic activity, instead of counting just the dollars that change hands.

Talk to your neighbors and friends and get them aboard. Work to demand, develop, and implement quality of life surveys in your community, surveys that take account of the benefits that come from a stable climate and other ecosystem services. Work to get the results of these surveys used by policy makers.

When we begin to measure what matters instead of the commotion of money, we will have taken a strong firm step toward a sustainable, livable world.

Read More: Energy, Oil, Climate Change, Environment/Sustainable Development, Extractive Industries, Global

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