Eco-authenticity: Advocating For A Low-Carbon World While Living A High-carbon Lifestyle

Much of the U.S. was built around the automobile, with greater distances to be covered than in places like Europe, making Americans' daily lifestyles higher in energy than elsewhere. johnkay/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Much of the U.S. was built around the automobile, with greater distances to be covered than in places like Europe, making Americans' daily lifestyles higher in energy than elsewhere.

Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.

This thought, by author E.B. White, captures the tension that every advocate for action on climate change should feel. This is especially true for those of us who do research and who are most knowledgeable about the problem and the role our lifestyles play in creating it.

George Marshall, in his book Don’t Even Think About It, describes the inner conflict, depression and guilt that many scientists feel “as they struggle to square what they know about the impacts of high-carbon lifestyles with the pressure to conform to a society where those lifestyles are not just encouraged but also often required as a mark of social belonging.”

This is a real concern for external legitimacy as well.

Wired magazine in 2015 reported that the Paris COP21 Climate Talks emitted about 300,000 tons of CO2. The irony is dripping from that statistic, which is not unlike the revelation in 2006 that Al Gore’s home consumed 191,000 kilowatt-hours, considerably more than 15,600 kilowatt-hours used by the typical Nashville house.

In both cases, the excessive emissions were offset by Certified Emission Reductions or renewable energy. And in both cases, the sarcastic snickering was not assuaged, feeding ongoing criticism for those whose actions do not seem to match the urgency of their words.

One need not look far to find the litany. “Hypocrites in the air” claims one blog post. The comments section of another article called “Climate activist: Flying to conferences lacks integrity” rips “any climate ‘activist’ who isn’t absolutely at home on Webex and GoToMeeting is a complete phony,” and “they should be living entirely ‘off the grid’ if they truly walked the talk.”

Now certainly, those who care about climate change need not live in caves and wear hair shirts before their message is taken seriously.

But there is a kernel of truth in the critique. If climate change is so serious, why are we not at least trying to change our lifestyles? We need some degree of authenticity that matches the urgency of what we know about this issue. Shouldn’t we be mindful about our lives and the ways in which they contribute to the problem, lest we be seen as arrogant (Our work is so important that it outweighs the impact of our lifestyles) or apathetic (We are scientists and our contribution is science, not politics or social change)?

As we consider this next step, we need to do it without judging others, without judging ourselves and with a clear awareness that individual action alone will not create the kinds of changes in technology, culture and behavior that will be at a scale necessary to address this global problem. And yet, we should still try.

Don’t judge others

We are all human, with our own ambitions and foibles, strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and constraints. And we all develop justifications for the decisions we make. We might tell ourselves that our individual actions don’t matter and that it is up to governments to solve this. Or we may tell ourselves that we need to do this; we’re not hurting anyone, everyone else does it or other people are far worse. We all have ways of developing self-serving narratives. No one is immune, especially when we don’t know how to easily live carbon-neutral lives.

Some use the analogy of addiction to describe our high-carbon lifestyles. We are addicted to oil, travel, consumption, etc. But I never liked this analogy as it can create judgments that make people defensive, setting up the problem as “us versus them.”

Americans consume many times more energy per capita than any other country. Large homes and a lot of driving help explain why. therefore/flickr, CC BY-NC-NDAmericans consume many times more energy per capita than any other country. Large homes and a lot of driving help explain why. therefore/flickr, CC BY-NC-NDAddiction (typically related to drugs or alcohol) is an illness that is an aberration from the norm. We know what is healthy behavior and we know what is not, because some people are addicts and some people are not. But on the issue of climate change, we are all faced with the same challenge. In a sense, we are all addicts with the same malady, and there are no healthy people we can look to in order to gauge normal behavior.

I think a better analogy is a collective of people who are lost on a terrain they thought they knew. We know what addiction looks like when it is cured, but a group of people who are lost do not know where to go. What we need are leaders who have a vision for where to go, can model behavior that gets us there, and display empathy for those who are unsure about following. That role falls to all of us.

There is no room for judgment here. In fact, I’ve found that some of the most self-righteous people on the environment tend to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable lifestyles right where they reside, usually in a scale for Western lifestyles. Might someone from India or Bangladesh agree that any Western lifestyle is a sustainable one? Who is to judge?

Don’t judge ourselves

Just as blaming others for the problem of climate change is not productive, the same is true for self-blame. We must not fall into the trap of feeling inadequate or a fraud based on an expectation of perfection. There are serious limitations to taking individual action on climate change, and we can’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Climate change represents a challenge different from other environmental issues like litter or eating a threatened species. Where these are discrete choices, virtually every lifestyle activity (and virtually every manufacturing activity) entails the creation of some degree of greenhouses gases, whether it’s heating one’s home or driving to visit family. The simple truth is that, as Canadian academic and environmental activist David Suzuki points out, “We don’t have the infrastructure to be ecologically neutral.” But he continues,

Right now, the important thing is to share ideas and change minds, and the way I do that is by meeting with people or speaking. Unfortunately, in Canada, that means I have to fly, and flying generates a lot of greenhouse gases. Still, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need to try to minimize our ecological footprint. I did that by trying not to use a car, or when I needed to, I bought the first Prius sold in Canada. We have a rule in our household: if you’re going to work or school, you take a bus or walk. We’ve reduced our garbage output to about one green bag a month, and I think we can reduce it further. But every time I jump in a plane, it negates everything else I do to live sustainably…[We need to acknowledge] that these things matter. We have to at least try because we’re hoping to convince others that they all have to try, too. But there are different levels of contribution each person can make.

And that is the key: each of us has to begin the effort in a way that fits our knowledge, circumstances, convictions and possibilities. We must each start where we are and learn to become aware of our impact, the ways those impacts may be reduced or eliminated, and the challenges with taking action.

Take individual action

Start slow and start realistic. Real and lasting change has to be gradual and careful. Big grand changes, just like big grand New Year’s resolutions, have a habit of failing. Take that first step, not with the goal of changing the world. Instead, start your personal journey with no idea where it will take you.

First, educate yourself. Try a personal carbon calculator, such as this one from the EPA. Learn about your direct and indirect emissions and where they come from from a book or perhaps a class.

Second, explore ways to reduce those impacts in ways that fit your lifestyle demands. Go to the Going Green Checklist for 101 ways to get started, or the EPA’s web page on what you can do to address climate change. Insulate your home, screw in an LED light bulb, recycle your toilet paper roll, change your investment portfolio, change your career, volunteer for an environmental group, buy a programmable thermostat, buy a more fuel-efficient car, buy a bicycle, don’t buy anything at all, think about what you consume! Try giving up meat. If not permanently, try it for a short time, perhaps for Lent (if you are very ambitious, try giving up carbon for Lent). After all options are exhausted, learn about purchasing carbon offsets.

Eco-benefits of staying home

One activity that has garnered considerable attention for behavior change among researchers is to stop going to conferences. While few studies that quantify academic carbon emissions exist, one study in Ecological Indicators found that transportation accounts for 75 percent of the carbon footprint of a Ph.D. student and attending conferences accounts for 35 percent of that carbon footprint.

In response, Professor Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester took a train to a conference in China, convinced that this added to the legitimacy of his science. Professor Laurie Zoloth, who directs Northwestern’s Center for Bioethics, Science and Society, calls upon scholars to take a sabbatical from academic conference travel every seven years to allow the Earth to rest. In October 2015, a group of 56 scholars from more than a dozen countries launched a petition calling upon universities and academic professional organizations to greatly reduce their flying-related footprints as part of the effort to limit the destabilization of the climate system.

While this may be the answer for some, it may not be for others. For example, colleagues at some smaller colleges need conferences to make connections and gain access to the latest research. In the end, conferences are an important aspect of what researchers do for a living and simply stopping them seems, in my opinion, counterproductive. Instead, be mindful of which conferences you go to and how, and consider the carbon footprint of your lifestyle in its totality before deciding where to act.

In the end, we should not lose sight of what we do best. Do good research; share it with others; speak out on climate change; use that knowledge to vote for politicians who propose action on the issue. And, recognize that we need to also change the system.

How to change the system

Let’s face it; individual actions alone will not solve the problem. They will give us insights on the solutions and a sense of the magnitude of change that is necessary to change our culture of values and behavior. But, the necessary changes must come from a shift in societal norms and market rules. It will require a challenge to the dominant notions of consumerism, shifts in the rules of capitalism and a reexamination of the role of the corporation in society.

If designed properly, policies that address climate change will reduce or even eliminate the impact of individual behavior. For example, Dr. Grischa Perino from the University of East Anglia’s Centre for Behavioural and Experiment Social Science offered a provocative argument that green consumers who voluntarily choose not to take a flight within the EU for environmental reasons will, in fact, have “no impact on total emissions” due in large part to the offsetting of those emissions required by the EU Emissions Trading System. While some criticize the result as being too theoretical and not reflective of the implementation realities, this is what regulations are supposed to do: change the entire system, not just pieces of it.

Some see something sinister in the focus on individual action. Author Murray Bookchin warns that “it is inaccurate and unfair to coerce people into believing that they are personally responsible for present-day ecological disasters because they consume too much or proliferate too readily. … If ‘simple living’ and militant recycling are the main solutions to the environmental crisis, the crisis will certainly continue and intensify.”

Culture and behavior change involves us all

In the end, the challenge of climate change, indeed the broader challenge of living in the Anthropocene, requires a broad-scale shift in our culture. This shift must take place from the bottom up and the top down.

Those of us who care about climate change must model a way, if not solely by action, at the very least by the effort of trying. We need to practice the art of being mindful, thinking and behaving differently than the dominant cultural norms of consumption tell us to think and behave.

We must strive to both advocate and embody a new worldview, one that moves from carbon constrained to carbon neutral to eventually carbon negative. Or, as scholar John Ehrenfeld describes it, shifting from being less unsustainable to being more sustainable. None of us knows how to do this yet.

But, as Pope Francis points out, any effort in the right direction, “however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment… [and] a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land.”

This is the essence of individual action, to strive for a new awareness. We can’t explore this new reality in the abstract. We have to strive for change at the larger scale while also experimenting with changes in our own everyday lifestyles. Eco-authenticity resides in both.

About The Author

hoffman andrewAndrew J. Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor at the Ross School of Business and Education Director at the Graham Sustainability Institute, University of Michigan. He has published twelve books, which have been translated into five languages. His work has been covered in numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, Scientific American, Time, the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation

Related Book:

InnerSelf Market



follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration


The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
by Super User
The climate crisis is forcing thousands around the world to flee as their homes become increasingly uninhabitable.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
by Toby Tyrrell
It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that…
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
by Brice Rea
The end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, was characterised by a final cold phase called the Younger Dryas.…
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
by Frank Wesselingh and Matteo Lattuada
Imagine you are on the coast, looking out to sea. In front of you lies 100 metres of barren sand that looks like a…
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
by Richard Ernst
We can learn a lot about climate change from Venus, our sister planet. Venus currently has a surface temperature of…
Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
The Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
by John Cook
This video is a crash course in climate misinformation, summarizing the key arguments used to cast doubt on the reality…
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
by Julie Brigham-Grette and Steve Petsch
Every year, sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrinks to a low point in mid-September. This year it measures just 1.44…


green energy2 3
Four Green Hydrogen Opportunities for the Midwest
by Christian Tae
To avert a climate crisis, the Midwest, like the rest of the country, will need to fully decarbonize its economy by…
Major Barrier to Demand Response Needs to End
by John Moore, On Earth
If federal regulators do the right thing, electricity customers across the Midwest may soon be able to earn money while…
trees to plant for climate2
Plant These Trees To Improve City Life
by Mike Williams-Rice
A new study establishes live oaks and American sycamores as champions among 17 “super trees” that will help make cities…
north sea sea bed
Why We Must Understand Seabed Geology To Harness The Winds
by Natasha Barlow, Associate Professor of Quaternary Environmental Change, University of Leeds
For any country blessed with easy access to the shallow and windy North Sea, offshore wind will be key to meeting net…
3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
3 wildfire lessons for forest towns as Dixie Fire destroys historic Greenville, California
by Bart Johnson, Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon
A wildfire burning in hot, dry mountain forest swept through the Gold Rush town of Greenville, California, on Aug. 4,…
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
China Can Meet Energy and Climate Goals Capping Coal Power
by Alvin Lin
At the Leader’s Climate Summit in April, Xi Jinping pledged that China will “strictly control coal-fired power…
Blue water surrounded by dead white grass
Map tracks 30 years of extreme snowmelt across US
by Mikayla Mace-Arizona
A new map of extreme snowmelt events over the last 30 years clarifies the processes that drive rapid melting.
A plane drops red fire retardant on to a forest fire as firefighters parked along a road look up into the orange sky
Model predicts 10-year burst of wildfire, then gradual decline
by Hannah Hickey-U. Washington
A look at the long-term future of wildfires predicts an initial roughly decade-long burst of wildfire activity,…

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

New Attitudes - New Possibilities | | | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.