Three things you can do to stop climate change

The advice we get is too simplistic

When I was a kid, I remember being told that what I can do to “save the environment” was to turn the water off when I brush my teeth and to turn off the lights when leaving a room. This advice seemed a laughably inadequate response to the factories, trucks, planes, roads, and buildings I saw spewing pollution all around. The idea was: small, simple actions can make a difference if everyone does it. This is true, but it isn’t working.

Most of the advice we hear about how to stop global warming is too simplistic. They all fall into the these categories:

Do your (little) part:

Unplug when done, fix leaks, turn off the water, use cold water instead of hot, drive less, carpool, don’t idle, etc, etc.. The problem with this approach is that it makes “doing your part” overwhelming. Imagine all the individual decisions that you’d have make every day to make an dent in you footprint. Now imagine doing that everyday, for the rest of your life. It is exhausting. Again, the logic is that the little actions all add up to a big impact. I agree. But…

Imagine all of the decisions that would have to be made on a global scale under this approach? Would five billion decisions a day to turn off water be enough? The cumulative impact of a collective action at that scale, may tip the balance towards environmental recovery, but it is unrealistic at best.

Relying on the “little things drive big change” approach attempts to empower individuals who are not in the driver’s seat of economies or industries. It gives them easy, yet low impact, actions they can make to “do their part”.

Here’s the problem: it is not working. Most of the decisions that people make at this level (simple, little things) are not rational. People do not leave their cars idling because they want to cause climate change, they do not leave the water running because they hate the environment. Relying on little stuff to make the difference distracts us from the bigger issues.

Buy expensive green gadgets:

Buy a Tesla, get solar panels, upgrade your appliances, invest in this or that new green technology. That’s all fine, but this isn’t working either. Here’s why:

For those of you that did not take environmental science 101, let me introduce you to the IPAT equation:

This is a hugely simplistic equation that is meant to illustrate what contributes to environmental impact (I). I want you to notice one thing about this equation: Technology is a multiplier. Not dividing or even subtracting; multiplying. The more technology a society has, the higher the impact it has on the environment.

Technology is, on the other hand, the most controllable factor in this equation. Changing a country’s population is very difficult and takes many, many years. Affluence (a measure of how much non-essential stuff you have), is controllable, but only under dictatorships and the like. To say to people: you need to be less comfortable, have less fun, and buy less stuff, is very anti-democratic and more importantly, in opposition to natural tendency to strive for abundance and success.

Technology is a good place to focus, but there are very few technologies that actually make things better. All of the green technologies are only incrementally less-bad than what they replaced. A Tesla is a bit better than a BMW, for sure, but they are both having a negative impact.

Is it possible to make technologies that actually improve the environment? Yes. Can we design cars that remove air pollution as they drive? Yes. Can we build buildings that remove water and air pollution while producing more energy than they consume. Yes. These have all been done.

Until there are viable, cost-competitive alternatives to the old technology we have now, technology (T) will remain a multiplier in our impact equation.

The problem with asking people replace their old technology with stuff that is only slightly less-bad, is it asks the individual to make the choice, again. Some of us have the luxury (or care enough) to spend more on the green tech. But most can’t.

I’ve tried three separate times to have companies put solar panels on our home. Each time, it fails to be cost-competitive with the grid-powered system we inherited with the house. It would cost my family more, we would be tied to another loan on the house, and it may not increase the house’s value. The value of solar power differs from person to person. Reagan took solar panels off of the White House when he moved in.

That is why Tesla will never make a difference. The few that can opt into the green tech club, usually have much more extravagant (affluent) lifestyles and their green tech bling is just for show.

What then, should you do?

Here are the three things you can do that can make a big difference:

Think in systems:

When you consider the systems that create the options before you, opportunities to make an impact are revealed. Simple actions, like making decisions about what you buy, can drive big changes.

Systems thinking is an approach to understanding decisions by considering the structures that provide each option. A simplistic example is: if you have a job offer that has 20% higher salary but the commute is 50% longer, the wage alone does not reflect the difference in earnings. You will have less time, have to spend more on transportation, and potentially be more at risk of having a car accented, which would significantly impact your ability to earn in the future. You may have less time for family, exercise, and fun. So does the increase in salary make things better?

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When you think in systems, you quickly see that not all options are equal. Some have much higher embodied costs. The scientific concept of embodied energy is quite similar. How much energy (now, fossil fuels) did it take to produce that thing?

Take the example of the two organic green peppers on a plastic tray, wrapped in plastic. They are more expensive than the pile of unwrapped non-organic ones down the isle. You may be starting to think in systems when you look at these options. These are more expensive, but they are organic, so that is good. Maybe they taste a little better (not likely), or you feel better about avoiding pesticides and chemicals. So that justifies the higher cost.

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Why you should never buy produce wrapped in plastic

Digging deeper into the system here shows you a bit more about the impacts of this decision. Does the plastic extend the shelf life, eliminating some food waste? Does the environmental footprint of the plastic try and wrapping outweigh the benefit of being organic?

This type of thinking cannot be done for every decision. It would be exhausting. But, as you consider systems, your field of view expands to understand where you can be most effective. What choices you make are most impactful? If we were all to do this, things like plastic straws would have vanished many years ago.

This brings up the second way you can make a big difference:

Find your power

Some of my neighbors take this quite literally, pulling trees from the woods to heat their houses for the winter. They go out and find their power to heat the house with. What I mean by “find your power”, is to find where you have the most leverage. Not all of us are billionaires with the ability to finance nonprofits, or even able to install solar panels on our homes or buy a Tesla, but we do have power in different areas.

It wouldn’t be realistic for someone in NYC to try to heat their own apartment from the forest. But they do have more power of their choices about where to shop and eat out. Something my rural neighbors do little of.

For some of us, our power is in our daily purchasing habits, for others it is what we say to the people around us. Your sphere of influence is can be used for the better. You are powerful. Use it.

Embrace photosynthesis

Plants absorb Carbon Dioxide, the greenhouse gas we are warming the planet with. Plants use photosynthesis to make leaves, wood, bark and roots from Carbon Dioxide, trapping it. The chemical reaction of photosynthesis is the opposite of burning fossil fuels. Literally the antidote. Remember that fossil fuels are made from really old plants.

Everything you can do to let plants grow will be an act of climate healing. Fill your house with plants. Let the yard grow tall. Plant trees. Most importantly, become tolerant of nature. What many consider unkempt must become “natural”. Those weeds struggling for a toehold in our concrete deserts are pulling your greenhouse gases out of the air. When we begin to design-in a place for plants in our homes and cities, we will be re-connecting the two halves of the carbon cycle.

Having more plants in our lives, kicks off positive feedback loops that accelerates our progression towards solving climate change. Many studies have shown a strong benefits plants and nature provide for us. Quality of life, mental health, property values, healing from injury and disease, are all improved, all the while removing greenhouse gases, purifying water, reducing urban heat, reducing flooding, etc, etc.

Bringing plants back into our lives on a massive scale is planetary healing. Our individual choices, in this case, will have a huge difference, as the accumulate. In part because they make us feel better, reconnecting us to nature, which ultimately will be how we solve this mess. Unlike the shame-you-into-submission, approach of turn it off, shut it down, do less, buy less, embracing our natural desire to be connected to nature will is make us feel better, while solving global warming.

The green technology of today is only incrementally better than the dirty tech we inherited. Adopting nature’s technology, on the other hand, can actually restore the planet, while making you healthier and happier. Embracing photosynthesis is the most direct way to reduce greenhouse gases. As we integrate plants into the processes and infrastructure of our modern world, we bring balance back to the planetary carbon cycle.

Thinking in systems, finding your power to change these systems, and designing nature into our modern lives may not be as easy as turning off the water when you brush your teeth but they are much more impactful.

Father, partner, teacher, student of Nature, scientist, and writer.

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