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Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of people across the country have left their banks in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. American citizens have suddenly become aware that, in the absence of a government that will protect us, we must shift market forces ourselves. The climate justice movement, clean energy, and protests on the streets are critical and must continue, but there’s a missing element. It has been neglected, or at best mentioned but minimized, because it is uncomfortable.
Here’s the unfortunate truth: the climate problem is us. Americans are the biggest driver of climate change, not only in terms of our individual practices but also in the globalized, comfort-centric market we support. DAPL is being drilled for us so we can take road trips and keep our houses at 75 degrees in January.
It is much easier to blame the rapacious practices of fossil fuel companies and to say that individual change does not amount to much. But we are the demand driving the market. We cannot expect the fossil fuel industry to paternalistically deny us oil for our own good and for the good of the planet. They will continue to drill for as long as we pay them to do so. While we must continue to divest from fossil fuel companies, we cannot absolve ourselves from our own participation in the fossil fuel demand chain. If we truly want them to keep it in the ground, we must drastically change our culture of consumption.
The average carbon footprint for Americans is 20 cubic tons per year (calculate yours here at carbonfootprint.com). The average for Europeans is 10. The worldwide average is 4. In order to decrease climate change, everyone’s individual carbon footprint must be 2. This demands not just rallies and protests in the public sphere, but radical fossil fuel divestment in the private sphere as well.
It was easy to be complacent under the Obama administration, to feel like “advocacy” and “awareness” were working and the government was making incremental but important progress. President Obama set carbon pollution standards for power plants, so it’s OK for me to fly four times a year or eat fruit from another hemisphere.
The new administration will not prioritize climate change. And fossil fuel companies are certainly not going to stop drilling of their own accord. The clean energy accord in Marrakesh is important, but we as global citizens must support these initiatives by bringing the principles of climate conservation into our own lives. We need a new environmental ethos along with new forms of energy.
In our globalized culture of consumption, we have unquestioningly accepted a comfort-centric view of our lives on this planet—that we can travel anywhere we want by airplane or car, that we can eat whatever food we desire at any time of year, that temperatures should always be pleasant, and that our own convenience is paramount. To continue believing this now is dangerous. You cannot use oranges from Chile and ginger from China in that recipe. You cannot fly to Thailand for your honeymoon. You cannot drive in a SUV alone across the country to protest oil drilling at Standing Rock. (Carpool, go to a local protest, or send money instead.)
What follows is a list ranked roughly in terms of carbon cost. A few items may seem like things that only the affluent can afford. If you truly can’t afford them, skip them. But people in developing countries and poor people in our own country already have a small carbon footprint. For the rest of us, there’s a tremendous amount we can and must do.
Let us be clear: climate change is causing massive loss of life, livelihood, and home, in most cases for the poorest communities. With this at stake, to be unwilling to make lifestyle changes is unconscionable. And just to take shorter showers or use green light bulbs is vastly insufficient.
The revolution is not just in the streets; it is in our homes. It is not always exciting or emotional. It is also tedious, cold, frustrating, and untasty. We need to shift how we live and we need to do it now. Individual change becomes collective action.
(Note: this list is neither perfect nor complete. I hope others will amend and add to it as we develop this new ethos together.)
1. Have fewer children.
Having children in a developed country is far and away the most harm you can do to the environment, no matter how good-hearted or brilliant your child may grow up to be. The climate crisis is in many ways a reproductive crisis. Slowing population growth could provide 16-29% of the necessary emissions reductions necessary by 2050 to avoid a climate catastrophe. By driving a hybrid car, being a vegan, and using clean power, you would save 488 metric tons of carbon dioxide in an 80-year lifetime. By having one fewer child, you save 9,441. This is a personal and complicated question for those who have always wanted children. Many couples have decided to opt for a “one and done” policy and for any further children to come through adoption.
2. Stop eating beef.
In terms of overall lifecycle greenhouse emissions, lamb, beef, and milk are the most harmful due to their production of methane gas (which is four times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). Pork, turkey, and farmed salmon are considerably better. Chicken and eggs are the animal products with the least environmental impact. Veganism remains the most ethical dietary choice. However, equally important is the role of food transport. The long-distance shipping of one pound of vegetarian food is more detrimental to the environment than one pound of local organic meat. Eating a piece of chicken from your state is better, environmentally, than eating acai berries from Brazil.
We must bring the fight to our local and state leaders. Make sure you’re electing officials who support renewable energy and clean jobs, oppose subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, and will work to increase restrictions on oil drilling, coal mining, and fracking. Consult endorsements from the Sierra Club or local environmental groups.
4. Severely limit or entirely cease air travel.
One transatlantic flight is equal to an average year’s worth of driving. Shorter flights don’t let you off the hook either, since most of the emissions take place during takeoff and landing, not while cruising. The globally affluent travel for work, for pleasure, to visit family and friends, and don’t think twice about it. Sometimes travel is necessary; most of the time it’s not. Consider the train when possible.
5. Use public transportation.
If you live in a city, you can do this easily. It will take slightly longer to get where you’re going, but this is part of the new ethos. Leave your house a little earlier. If public transportation is not an option, carpool. Every time you get behind the wheel, consider whether you actually need to go where you’re going right now.
6. Never drink bottled water again.
It takes 1.5 millions barrels of oil each year to produce the plastic for bottled water. The water is often extracted from desertifying states, and it takes 3 liters of water to package 1 liter of bottled water. For nearly all Americans, bottled water is an unnecessary luxury. If you’re concerned about the quality of your tap water, buy a water filter.
7. Eat local and seasonal foods.
This does not mean “it’s autumn, time to enjoy a sweet potato every once in a while.” This means finding out what fruits and vegetables are in season where you live and letting these be the bulk of what you eat. You do not eat apples in March. Depending on where you live, you might not eat bananas or avocados ever. The carbon cost of shipping food across the country for the whims of our palates is inexcusable. Farmer’s markets, community gardens, CSAs, and food co-ops are the best way to have access to local produce, eggs, and meat. The next level is to look for food from your state or region in grocery stores. We shouldn’t be eating anything from other countries, especially not from across oceans. It’s true that local foods cannot be the entirety of everyone’s diet. There will be some gaps that need to be filled, but we cannot fill them with coconut water from the Philippines or almonds from drought-ridden California.
8. Eat organic produce.
Organic is not perfect and, yes, has in many cases become corporate. However, corporations have turned to organic because consumers are buying it. Agrochemicals require massive amounts of fossil fuels to produce and pollute our air and water. By refusing to buy products grown with these chemicals, our collective purchasing power forces corporations to shift their practices. There’s no middle ground here: to buy non-organic Big Food is an investment in agrochemicals and fossil fuels.
9. Cease support for environmentally unfriendly corporations.
Your dollar is your vote. Every time you spend a dollar at a Shell station or on a Coca-Cola or Nestle product, you are voting for ignored oil spills, draining of aquifers, and increased pollution. Corporations follow the dollar. Do your research and invest accordingly.
10. Decrease energy usage in your home.
Turn your thermostat up ten degrees in summer and down ten degrees in winter. There’s no reason to be wearing a t-shirt indoors in February. Put up double-paned glass and insulate drafty windows with blankets or sheets. Turn off lights when you’re not in the room. Take shorter showers. Unplug appliances when not in use. Use the top shelf of the oven. Buy energy-efficient appliances. Hang dry your clothes.
11. Invest in clean energy.
If you own your home, install solar panels. Buy renewable energy credits to offset your carbon emissions. Urge your legislators to support investment in green energy infrastructure.
12. Don’t buy new.
Buy used furniture, clothes, books, etc. in order to decrease dependence on factories and transcontinental shipping. Share what you have.
13. Cease use of disposable items.
This includes paper towels, napkins, to-go coffee cups, paper plates, plastic silverware, plastic and paper bags, all of which require fossil fuels to be produced and are completely unnecessary. Bring your own bag to the store and your own reusable coffee cup.
14. Plant a garden.
This is the easiest way to get cheap local organic produce. You can grow most vegetables and herbs in pots in even the most cramped city apartment. Plant flowers and herbs outside that feed bees; colony collapse (as a result of monoculture and neonicotinoid pesticides) is a crisis that threatens our food supply.
This list was personally difficult to write. I love to travel, want children, eat a variety of foods from around the world, own a car and live in a cold place where I’d really quite like to have the heat on right now. I calculated my carbon footprint at 16 metric tons per year. This is not acceptable and I can no longer pretend like it is.
We’re in a new era. As Bill McKibben has warned us, World War III is already happening. It’s not against terrorism, ethno-nationalism, or illegal immigrants. It’s against carbon and methane. They threaten our lives in a way that no other enemy ever has. Complacency is not neutrality. Continuing in your current consumption of fossil fuels is actively allying with the enemy.
But unlike the last world war, there’s no massive government mobilization coming, at least not in a Trump administration. So the responsibility falls to each of us individually, and collectively as communities: to plant our own victory gardens and set our own rations.
There are upsides to the new ethos. More of your life will take place in your immediate community and you’ll get to know your neighbors. Because you’re driving less, you’re exercising more by walking and biking. You’re eating more vegetables and less processed foods, so your health will probably improve. You’re saving money on electrical bills, air travel, and gas. Your life is aligned with your values.
We cannot trust either the government or corporate self-interest to protect the climate. Nor will these individual actions alone be enough. But we can no longer pretend that fossil fuel companies are not intimately entwined with the way we live our day-to-day lives. We are all shareholders in this crisis. We cannot stomp our feet in outrage at fossil fuels while also ravenously consuming them. The list above won’t solve the climate crisis, but it must become the new baseline.
For more from Samara Reigh, visitLiving Off the Grid in Earthship, New Mexico.