Why Do People Ignore a Catastrophe They Know Is Coming? This Book Explains and Provides Solutions

In his deeply researched and surprising book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, author George Marshall helps us understand the true nature of climate change and why it’s so hard for us to act on something that threatens to destroy us.

Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate ChangeHis points are surprising and force us to reframe our entire understanding of the issue. Here are a few examples, many of which don’t make sense until you get the benefit of Marshall’s full explanation:

  • Climate change is not a tame problem, but a “wicked” one.
  • Climate change is not an environmental problem.
  • Fossil fuel companies must be stopped, but they are not the enemy.
  • Polar bears and our grandchildren are not the ones who need to be saved.
  • Conservatives are not the enemies of climate change action, but essential allies.
  • Guilt over our personal contributions to climate change and fear of what will happen are our biggest opponents.
  • Climate change is not in any sense a religion, but evangelical churches may be our best models for learning how to communicate about it.

I had some anxiety as I read this book, not so much because it’s about climate change, but because for the first 40 chapters or so, Marshall tells us only how NOT to communicate about climate change: why politically loaded messages hurt the cause, how making the problem scarier encourages us to ignore it even more, and how the science isn’t going to convince much of anyone, for instance. I was afraid that I was going to get to the end of the book and find out that his conclusion was “So basically, we’re f***ed.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t. At the end of the book, Marshall revisits all his key points and turns them on their heads, showing how the things we’re doing wrong in communicating climate change can maybe be done differently and effectively. It’s not that those of us who are working to solve the climate change problem aren’t trying hard enough to communicate: it’s that there’s an entirely different and unexpected way for us to go about it that is likely, based on a great deal of research and investigation, to do a much, much better job.

We tend to understand climate change in limited ways, each of us confined to some extent by our peers and expectations. Marshall’s book helps us break out of those limited understandings to see the big picture, and in the process to find new resolve, new allies, and new hope for immediate change.

How to Talk With a Climate Dissenter

George Marshall has devoted his career to one perplexing question. As he puts it, “Why, when the evidence is so strong, and so many agree that this is our greatest problem, are we doing so little about climate change?” What he has discovered over time is that we’re practically built to ignore problems like climate change. He also has developed an understanding of dialog with people who don’t believe climate change is happening, or don’t believe that it’s humans who are causing it, that uncovers a much, much more effective way for we who are fighting climate change to engage in discussion with people who aren’t. Below is the quick summary, but if you want to know more, go to the source, where many other resources are available: http://www.climateaccess.org/resource/tip-sheet-george-marshall-how-talk-climate-change-dissenter .

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How Supermarkets Can Make Money on Ugly Produce

Ugly produce is a big problem. Why? Because depending on whom you ask, 30-50% of all food produced is wasted, thrown away … whether it’s tossed out because it’s not pretty enough to put on display, left over on your plate at a restaurant, or rotting in your crisper, all of this food has an enormous carbon footprint–by one estimate, 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions!

Because so much produce, when picked, is not beautiful, consciously choosing ugly produce can help reduce waste–because normally, other people will avoid it. However, French supermarket chain Intermarche launched this promotional campaign to help reduce food waste of “undesirable” fruits and vegetables. Rather than throw out ugly, deformed, or damaged produce, Intermarche instead sells them with a unique twist.

Thanks to my friend and fellow Sustainable Williston member Marie-Claude for passing this on to me.

Reduce Your Footprint, Increase Your Profits

A new car wash facility in my home town of Williston caught my eye recently. Look below: you can see why.

Eco Car Wash exterior

When I read up on the ecological details of the business, I was more deeply impressed. As you probably know, one of the dangers with a business like this is “greenwashing”–that is, adopting a couple of seemingly environmentally-friendly practices while running a deeply unsustainable business and calling it “green.” “Eco-friendly” products have proliferated in recent years that range from questionable to downright horrible in terms of environmental impact. In this case, however we appear to be looking at the real deal.

If the biggest environmental impacts of a car wash are water, energy, construction, and the gas people expend to drive there, Eco Car Wash seems to be a win on all four fronts. They gather rain and snow and process their water on site, relieving the municipal water system of a potentially large impact; their transparent design and high-efficiency equipment minimize electrical use; their building is constructed from recycled and reclaimed materials; and their location is on the commute and errand path of many local residents.

Eco Car Wash interior

Washing your car at an ecologically-minded commercial car wash can save large amounts of water compared to doing so at home. Unfortunately, the total calculation of impact has to take a lot more elements into account: in terms of carbon footprint, energy usage and production of equipment and buildings have a much greater footprint than cold water (though if you’re in an area with serious water problems, carbon footprint may not be your top ecological concern). A car wash facility certainly does involve a substantial amount of energy and materials, compared to a garden hose. Since a facility like Eco Car Wash washes on average 45,750 cars per year, however, managing energy well seems like the total environmental impact is well justified, especially taking into account the importance of preventing rust on cars in terms of preventing cars from having to be junked (adding to the waste stream and requiring huge resources to manufacture new units) unnecessarily.

Eco Car Wash charges $8-$21 for a wash, which makes its pricing about average for the industry (for in-tunnel washes) despite the ecological advantages, according to StatisticBrain.com.

It makes sense that their prices should be normal even though they have presumably spent much more than the usual amount on constructing the facility, because their energy and water management practices should save them a bundle over time. While a car wash is an unusually obvious example for this kind of practice, it’s an approach virtually any business can take to be more profitable, as demonstrated by the massive energy retrofit done at the Empire State Building a few years ago: see Empire State Building’s Energy Savings Beat Forecast.

If I sound like an advertisement for this business, you’ll have to pardon me: it’s rare that I see a strictly commercial operation that takes sustainability to these lengths.

The Hidden Climate Benefits of eBooks

Paper books vs eBooks

I’m reading a book by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) called Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, and by and large I recommend it. They start with the biggest impacts and work their way down to less important ones, offering a lot of sound advice on the way.

However, there are some errors and oversights in the book, and one of these underscores how eBooks can be much more climate-friendly than paper books. It’s important to stop here and mention that book-buying accounts for only a tiny proportion of our individual carbon footprints, but enough people changing their book-buying habits can have a significant impact.

Here’s what UCS has to say about eReaders versus paper books:

When analysts crunch the numbers, they estimate that the emissions caused in manufacturing an electronic reader are about the same as those caused in manufacturing 20 to 40 books … What the debate obscures, however, is that a standard paperback book is responsible for around five and one-half pounds of carbon emissions in its manufacture and transport to your local bookstore. But we are each responsible for more carbon emissions than that when we drive six miles round-trip alone in a typical car to the bookstore [emphasis theirs]. The point is this: don’t waste time worrying about the carbon footprint of the way you read.

OK, raise your hand as soon as you see their mistake. Yes, you got it: buying an eBook doesn’t require any travel. Of course, you can also order your paper books to be delivered to your door, and in most cases that’s likely to save emissions compared to you driving a car to the bookstore, but there’s still a noticeable impact for the transportation of the book from the store to your door–not to mention from the pulp source to the paper mill, the paper mill to the printer, the printer to the publisher, the publisher to the distributor, the distributor to the retail hub, and the retail hub to the retail store. Additionally, any book that ends up in a landfill is all set to add yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as it decomposes, probably anaerobically (without access to air) and therefore producing methane, a greenhouse gas 20-25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

I may be objecting too much about too small a thing, but I’ve seen enough poorly-reasoned claims that eBooks are worse for the climate than paper books that it seemed worth taking up.

Of course, using an eReader or tablet requires electricity, but the amounts are quite small and aren’t likely to have nearly the impact of the manufacturing or transport. If I wanted to be snarky, I could also point that reading a paper book often requires electricity too, but since it’s possible to read by sunlight, and since people usually don’t read eBooks in dark rooms, I’m going to try to leave that one alone.

One more point that was missed about eBooks: often people read them on devices they purchased for other purposes. If you would have a smartphone or tablet regardless of whether you read eBooks on it, then it’s really inaccurate to count the emissions from manufacturing that device as being due to the eBooks that are incidentally being read on it. If you are buying one a tablet or eReader, though, please consider a used model rather than the latest, greatest thing. A tablet that’s saved from gathering dust or being dumped into the landfill and that thereby prevents a new one being manufactured reduces your carbon footprint by (depending on the tablet) around 130 k-coes, according to this article. Since a sustainable individual footprint is only about 2,000 k-coes per year (compared to the average American footprint of 28,000 k-coes!), that 130 really counts.

So it’s true that if you only read a few books a year and you purchase a brand new tablet or eReader primarily to replace paper books, you are probably pissing Mother Nature off. If you’re a heavy reader and/or already have a tablet or smartphone (or buy one used), however, the advantage is strongly on the side of eBooks.

To be responsible about this post, I need to bring it back in the end to the very solid point UCS brings up in their book (which I bought as an eBook and read on my 5-year-old Kindle Keyboard, by the way). The most important climate change choices and actions have to do with the biggest areas of emissions: travel, home heating and cooling, electricity, and food (in that order). In the grand scheme of things, books–e or otherwise–make only a small difference. Now that you know, though, why not make that difference in the right direction?

12 Ways to Reduce Carbon Footprint and Have More Cash

Christopher Jones and Daniel Kammen of U.C. Berkeley produced a very useful paper in 2011 that outlines ways for households and communities to lower their climate change impacts. A lot of good information is crammed into that report, but one of the most immediately helpful pieces is this graph:

Money and Carbon Saving Options

From Jones & Kammen (2011), “Quantifying Carbon Footprint Reduction Opportunities for U.S. Households and Communities

The height of each block in the graph shows how much money would be saved by that activity in a year, while the width shows how much it can reduce your carbon footprint. Jones and Kammen estimate the average footprint of an individual in the U.S. at about 20,000 k-coes/year (though there are different estimates from various sources based on different guidelines), or about 48,000 k-coes for a typical household.

If you can do a particular item more than the amount they use for their calculations, of course, your savings could be even bigger.

The authors have created a Web site called the CoolClimate network that offers free calculators for businesses and individuals to find ways to lower carbon footprint, along with other tools.

Climate Change: One Person Makes No Difference (but …)

I had been reading some climate change materials on Quora recently, and in with some great information, there was someone who had asked whether people are overly concerned with their personal carbon footprints. There had been only one response so far, and it was from someone who said, essentially “Yes, they are: an individual person’s contribution to climate change is a drop in the ocean.” This may have been a troll, admittedly, because late in his post he says “… it is not rational to worry about one’s personal footprint. A far more reasonable and productive approach would be to worry about other people’s.” Is it just me, or is the error there really easy to spot? So I’d like to suggest a way of looking at this question that I think might make the answer clear. I think that we can agree that governments, businesses, and other people could at least in theory make a lot more difference in climate change than any one of us can individually.

capitol

Governments

Democractic governments are only successful in pursuing policies that their constitutents support. If you and I and all the other voters aren’t minding our own carbon footprints, we’re giving our governments a clear message that lowering carbon footprint isn’t important. Virtue generally does not originate with politicians, unfortunately, and when it does, it is often voted out of office unless it has a lot of supporters out in the populace.

factory

Businesses

Some businesses, certainly, try to lower their carbon footprints, but you can only do so much of this before it starts costing more money than you get out of it, and most businesses can’t afford to put themselves at a competitive disadvantage in this way. Corporations are actually required by law to pursue profitable approaches, and would run afoul of the law and/or shareholders if they spent too much money being environmentally friendly.

The only way to change businesses is for customers to demand something different. As long as people are happy with buying goods and services that come from businesses with an unnecessarily huge carbon footprint, those goods and services will continue to be offered–and usually more cheaply than sustainable alternatives.

People like you and I, by purchasing in a sustainable way, can contribute to growing sustainable businesses and encourage more businesses to change. Without us voting with our wallets, this change will not happen.

crowd

Everybody else

Sure, we’d like everybody else to lower their carbon footprint–but why should they, if we don’t? By doing everything we can to lower our personal contributions to climate change, we can be the trail-blazers. It’s true, no one may follow us–but if we wait for somebody else to lead the way, we’re unlikely to ever get anywhere.

So yes, individual carbon footprints are a somewhat piddling amount of overall greenhouse gas emissions, but without reducing them, none of the larger sources are likely to budge. Lead by example; be the change you want to see in the world.