Why taking small steps might not be such a bad thing
In most of the talks I do, I try to spend a good portion of our time together highlighting household level responses to the climate crisis. I found this to be what gets most people excited and a big part of why they show up in the first place. Paradoxically, it's also the part of the conversation that causes me the most angst.
My apprehension is not unfounded.
In my earlier research exploring how schools teach about global climate change I noted that most curricular resources positioned simple, individual conservation efforts to be the appropriate response to this massive problem. I worried that this approach sent the wrong message to students on several levels.
First, I was afraid that people would come to think that if they just turned off the lights, rode their bike a bit more, turned down the thermostat, etc., they could rest easy believing that they had done their part to respond to the climate crisis. The trouble with this is that the scale of the suggested actions doesn’t come close to matching the scale of the problem. Even if done collectively, these simple energy conservation choices don't get us to where we need to be.
Consider the results of a class project recently completed by students at MIT. Students conducted detailed analyses of 18 lifestyles in the U.S., from the ultra-rich to the homeless, and found that even the greenest lifestyle in the United States leads to a carbon footprint that is more than double the world average. From their report:
"Regardless of income, there is a certain floor below which the individual carbon footprint of a person in the U.S. will not drop," says Timothy Gutowski, professor of mechanical engineering, who taught the class that calculated the rates of carbon emissions...
While it may seem surprising that even people whose lifestyles don't appear extravagant--the homeless, monks, children--are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions, one major factor is the array of government services that are available to everyone in the United States. These basic services--including police, roads, libraries, the court system and the military--were allocated equally to everyone in the country in this study. Other services that are more specific, such as education or Medicare, were allocated only to those who actually make use of them."
In other words, as Americans, most of our carbon footprint is embedded within the systems we've designed over the past 100 years. The global warming mitigation resulting from all of us turning turning off our lights, it seems, pales in comparison to simply existing in our current incarnation of a developed, industrialized society.
The second reason the ten-simple-things-you-can-do approach bothered me is that I felt it would eventually engender bitterness and hopelessness in any efforts to respond to the crisis. I reasoned--and this was purely conjecture--that if students who tried to do their part by following the laundry list of simple steps and yet still saw the impacts of the climate crisis worsening might throw their hands up in the air and surrender to our fate.
Although I still stand by my general wariness of the “simple steps” approach, I also have come to realize that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
In my time outside academia, I’ve come to appreciate, grudgingly, that not everyone wants or is in the privileged position to be a climate activist, even though the world needs many more activists if we are to bring about the massive transformation needed to keep warming at or below 1.5°C. However, while most may not be eco-warriors, increasing numbers of Americans want to see action on climate change.
Here, it turns out, there is a pretty good case to be made for encouraging people to take small steps.
Taking a small step creates a sense of efficacy and increases the likelihood that one will take taking larger steps, like installing solar panels, in the future. Small steps also serve as a tangible reminder of what one values. Moreover, because humans are social creatures, our friends and neighbors are more likely to take climate action if they see others engaging in that action.
In a world where people have limited time, resources, and energy, to devote to taking climate action, the trick becomes steering them towards simple actions that have the most benefit. We are long past the time when we need only worry about mitigating global warming by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. As the recent California wildfires, Caribbean hurricanes, South African water crisis, and Australian heatwaves have demonstrated, climate change is here now. Therefore, I try to inspire others to take actions that serve the multiple goals of mitigating global warming and building our capacity to thrive throughout the changes now underway.
Reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is vital if we are to avoid the worst case scenarios, so by all means change your light bulbs to LEDs and lower your thermostat. Understand, though, that doing only these actions is simply acting “less bad” for the world, not necessarily doing anything proactive to bring about a thriving community.
Let's instead expand our work to encompass actions that move beyond "less bad” by acting, too, in ways that build our capacity to adapt to the new world we have created. For example, planting a wide-range of native species of trees, especially in urban settings provides both mitigation and builds our community’s capacity to thrive. As trees grow they sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, but they also promote thriving by reducing the urban heat-island effect, absorbing excess water, providing habitat that promotes the rich biodiversity necessary for healthy ecosystems, promoting mental health benefits, and—planted in the right spots—reducing costs to heat and cool buildings.
Let’s rethink how we consume food in the U.S., drastically reducing the amount we waste. The 33% or so of food that ends up in the trash is a major driver of global warming. Instead of it winding up in landfills, composting would at least turn this waste into useful soil, but better yet would be to reconsider what —and how—we determine expiration dates so that perfectly suitable food isn’t wasted, nor are the myriad resources used to grow the food in the first place. This is especially vital considering there are over 815 million food insecure people worldwide, including an estimated 40 million Americans.
I harbor no illusions that planting trees and composting food is a suitable response to the climate crisis. As I noted above, we need immediate and profound transformation on an unprecedented global scale if we are to remain within the relatively safe zone of change indicated by the best available science. Still, I have come to believe that encouraging households and organizations to take smaller actions, especially those that address mitigation and adaptation, can be powerful first steps to moving us towards the narrative we want.
Feeling inspired? For more empirically-vetted ideas concerning the most impactful strategies you or your organization can take to respond to global warming, check out Project Drawdown.