Deconstructing Your Carbon Footprint: Save Your Sanity, Be the Change (Even If It’s Just a Little Bit)

By Thomas Schueneman
Feb 9, 2018 4:15 PM ET
Blog

I saw that look. You read the title of this article and rolled your eyes. Maybe you didn’t mean to, it’s just a physical manifestation of cognitive overload. We’re all tired of feeling mostly powerless in the face of global forces, both human and environmental. Wishing, for a just a second, that it will all just go away, is certainly understandable.

Even if we care, how do we know if anything we can do makes any difference? How do we have positive impact to effect real change in far-reaching issues that we barely understand?

Take, for instance, our personal global carbon footprint.

Our what?

Specifically, it’s the total amount of greenhouse gases produced, directly and indirectly, to support human activities, usually expressed in equivalent tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). It’s a mouthful. Even so, the reality of a “global carbon footprint” is intangible in our daily lives, disconnected from cause and effect.

We may see the smog, as it were, but not fully appreciate our contribution to it. We must deconstruct our global carbon footprint to best understand it as individuals living our lives.

Breaking it down

With the help of Cool Effect, a non-profit committed to crowdsourcing solutions to climate change, let’s break down carbon footprint in two ways: Lifestyle and activity.

There are the things that most of us need or do, no matter our economic station in life:

  • Transportation (including air travel)
  • Electricity use
  • Heating and cooking
  • Consumption patterns (do you still have an iPhone 4 or all cutting-edge with your iPhone X?, for example)

Our impact in each of these five categories depends on our general lifestyle:

Each of these lifestyle distinctions is informed by three major aspects of daily living:

  • Annual miles flown
  • Annual miles driven
  • Living space (sq. ft.)

Whether a student or CEO, it may seem like there isn’t much we can do to offset our impact. We have to drive to work or school, fly on business or to visit family, feed our families, and keep a roof over our heads.

TriplePundit‘s Jan Lee and March for Science board member Valorie Aquino discuss the many choices we have to effect change within the framework of our daily lives. Through consistent effort and shared community, these small choices add up.

Knowledge is power

Those who saw Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth may remember the moment when he climbed into a lift to follow the nearly straight vertical line of a projected graph representing the rapid exponential rise in atmospheric CO2. The visual impact of the “hockey stick” graph with Gore hovering in the ceiling next to the upper tip of the graph was compelling.

Since then we’ve all seen many times similar graphs and heard warnings of our excessive carbon footprint, and rightly so. It may provoke a vague sense of unease as we sit in commute traffic, but really we just need to get to work, like everyone else.

Taken on its whole, grappling with existential crisis day in and day out can only be overwhelming to you and me. A first-world problem, to be sure, and critical. The aggregate lifestyle in which we are embedded is dangerous and unsustainable in its present form. While arguably true, it is the result of many contingent elements.

Our influence as individuals comes through the contingencies. Knowing what these contingencies are and how we can influence them in our own daily lives.

The Cool Effect of individual action

The team at Cool Effect offer some examples:

Dee Lawrence, Co-founder of Cool Effect:

“At home and the office we have switched to 100 percent renewable energy (wind and solar). I also make sure to recycle everything – and my colleagues at Cool Effect can attest that I am the helicopter ‘recycle’ mom around the office.”

Marisa de Belloy, CEO of Cool Effect:

“I have four children and that’s a lot of young hungry stomachs to feed. Collectively, we are making an effort reduce our intake of meat and have been seeking more sustainable meal options that can still feed our whole family.”

Jodi Manning, Director of Marketing for Cool Effect:

“It’s amazing how much America loves to add a straw to their drink. Our family is trying to reduce and (maybe!) eliminate our use of individual plastic straws. We try to request ‘no straw’ when out and about. And at home, we have a stash of reusable straws and cups. Just like we’re all becoming accustomed to traveling with our reusable water bottles, you can do the same with reusable cups and straws—they go with us on the road. Even with just four of us committing to this, we’re eliminating the waste from hundreds of plastic straws that litter our planet.”

Will any one of these actions “solve” global warming in and of themselves?  Of course not. But we’re looking at it backward. We should ask if we’ll ever solve global warming if Jodi, Marisa, Dee – and millions of other caring people – don’t take these little steps in their daily habits.

At the same time, I believe being too “judgy” about it is counter-productive. We all do what we are willing and able to do. Use a straw if you must, have a bucket of chicken wings if you think it’s best. You’ll come around in your own way. Or you won’t.

We lead by example, just like Jodi, Marisa, and Dee. From there, our influence flows outward.

Institutions of change

Large NGOs are set up to influence a series of ongoing issues related to some of the most intractable problems we face. They speak to a wide perspective: poverty; global warming; violence; oppression; tyranny.

Sometimes it takes an “institution” like NRDC (and many others) participating on the global stage to push forward sweeping change. There is value and real impact from a few million people donating five dollars every month to the NGO or advocacy group of their choice. Like they say on PBS, “…made possible from viewers like you. Thank you.” They really mean it.

Still, we seek a greater sense of agency, a feeling of our own direct impact on our greatest challenges.

With the institutional clout of a large NGO is some degree of impersonality. It’s difficult for us to feel a visceral connection to the impact our few dollars may have, but to see our lousy five bucks as a meaningless drop in the bucket is missing the point. The point is the drops, as anyone who’s watched a rain bucket fill can attest.

Choosing solutions and organizations where these individual “drops” are recognizable and tangible is the place to start, and Cool Effect is one of those non-profits more than aware of the power of the individual.

Photo credit: Adobe Stock / James Mattil