The Easiest Climate Wins in the World

When we look at how much we use planetary resources, most of the uses are inelastic. It’s hard to stop commuting to work or give up seeing family and friends. It can be dangerous not to heat and cool our houses. These are damn hard problems. But there’s two places where small changes in behavior can significantly impact our resource use — not just in CO2 emissions, but the health of the land, air and water pollution, modern day slavery, habitat loss, etc.

These are: slow down fashion, and make eating meat a special occasion.

Both meat and clothing impact land use, CO2 emissions, pollution, and ecosystems (land and marine) more than you think if you don’t follow this stuff closely. Both are labor nightmares, too. But neither high levels of meat consumption nor quasi-disposable clothing do much to enhance anyone’s life or well-being. They’re often thought of, rightly, as mild vices.

Vices sure, but pleasurable ones. Asking everyone to give up treasured vices has never worked. But cutting back on our guilty pleasures is not only possible, it often makes them more fun. If you eat meat once a week or once a month, it’s a special occasion, something to treasure. You can get the best and savor it. You make an occasion of it with friends and family. Consuming meat can go from a thing you do mindlessly to stop being hungry to a centerpiece occasion. In doing that, you not only enjoy your food more in the moment, but seriously reduce your impact on the planet.

Discarded clothing, University of Queensland via

Clothes buying is often aspirational and fantastical. If we go to a store to fantasize and impress, rather than to make sure we can get dressed, we risk waste and disappointment. If we make a list and buy what we will wear, rather than looking for some kind of fabric-based wish fulfillment, we just won’t buy ourselves that many clothes.

We should buy clothes we’re happy to wear 30 or more times. Shop and wear our clothes mindfully, getting a few things that fit comfortably, look good, and are worth keeping. Also buy thrift and second-hand, and donate your still-wearable clothes. Taking the waste out of that part of our lives makes living richer overall.

Many people have the perception that daily meat is somehow required for health, but that’s simply not true. Hundreds of millions of healthy vegetarians around the world attest to that. Also meat consumption at our current rate is a product of marketing and politics. It’s almost entirely modern. No one ate meat like this in history besides fat kings and the occasional isolated culture without easy access to edible plant life. We’re omnivores, not carnivores, and we can do fine with little to no meat. Right now, meat is such a burden on our planetary system that it makes no sense to eat it the way we do.

The deforestation of the Amazon, shown here, is largely driven by the market for beef. Amazônia Real from Manaus AM, Brasil, CC BY 2.0

We don’t lose much by sacrificing some meat meals and outfits, and at scale, the gain in our planetary condition would be immense.

I can hear you out there already shouting at me that individual actions don’t matter, and talking about this stuff lets the real offenders off the hook. But that’s at least incomplete, if not incorrect.

The whole idea of individual action to address climate change and environment destruction is definitely fraught, because we all know the biggest offenders are governments and giant corporations. Except, they’re also not the biggest offenders. The way they expend most of their energy and destroy land and communities is by providing us what we want.

The bad environmental actors are bad because they give us what we ask for. Yes, they also push us with marketing, but they’re responding to a desire to consume the rich world embraced wholeheartedly.

Environmental destruction is synergistic with both power and populations. The powerful give us the means to destroy our home, and we do it. If governments want to disincentivize the abuses of the meat industry and fast fashion, they can at any moment through taxation and regulation on those industries. Our leaders could make excess consumption expensive enough that we’d protect the planet in an effort to protect our wallets. The tools are right there, our leaders just need to pick them up and use them.

But there’s the rub — in order for them to do that, you have to support the government taxing and regulating your lifestyle. If it’s harder and more expensive to buy meat and clothes, are you going to welcome that? If not, are you asking others, including future generations, to pay the price of what you want now? If you would answer yes to government action that would regulate your consumption, but you’re not doing that now, why not?

Why the hell not?

Personal and political actions aren’t opposed: your life reflects your politics. In fact, the personal and the political are reinforcing and synergistic. The lifestyle you choose is your vote as much as anything you do at a ballot box. There is no politics that isn’t personal, and no personal habits that aren’t political.

If your stance, either implicitly or explicitly, is other people should give up these things in order to preserve our common home but not you, I’d suggest some hard self-reflection is due. You’re being a jerk, and you should stop. You might not feel like you’re being a jerk because you’re perfectly normal; you’re in a society or place where your level of consumption is average, even though that society or place are consuming far more than its fair share of planetary resources. But you can be a jerk globally without being a jerk relative to your neighbors.

Like the world itself, ethics don’t stop at the end of the street you live on.

We need the lights to stay on, we need to water crops and get around. Not many of us can afford electric cars and buying high-priced organic everything. There’s too many people and most of them want the better life that you probably have if you’re reading this with your own computer and stable electricity.

One of the tasks of this century is making the better life one that is attainable for everyone in a way that replenishes natural systems as much as it takes out of them. We’ve found we can’t pollute the world without polluting ourselves. We can’t take more out of natural systems without eating our own children, and their children, still consuming them long after we’re nothing but dust.

It’s often an overwhelming project. But slowing fashion and making meat a special occasion are things you can do easily and right now. You can also support your politicians in creating better incentives for everyone, including corporations, to use up less of the Earth. In a small but important way, what you eat and wear speaks to power.

It’s a start.

Thanks to my Patrons, who make this possible. If you’d like to support this work, head over to my Patreon account.



Writing on how we humans should manage the bit of galactic dust we call home

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Quinn Norton

A journalist, essayist, and sometimes photographer of Technology, Science, Hackers, Internets, and Civil Unrest.