Eco-authenticity – Promoting a low-carbon environment while maintaining a high-carbon lifestyle

E.B. White wrote this thought. This thought, by E.B. White, captures what every advocate for climate change action should feel. This is especially true for those who conduct research and are the most informed about the problem and how our lives contribute.

In his book Do Not Even Think About it, George Marshall describes the inner conflict, guilt, and depression that scientists feel as they try to reconcile what they know about high-carbon lifestyles with the pressure of conforming to a society in which such lifestyles are encouraged, but often also required to be a sign of social belonging.

External legitimacy is also a concern.

Wired magazine reported in 2015 that the Paris COP21 climate talks emitted 300,000.0 tons of CO2. Irony drips from this statistic. It is similar to the 2006 revelation that Al Gore’s house consumed 191,000 kilowatt-hours, significantly more than the 15,600 kilowatts used by a typical Nashville house.

Both cases saw excessive emissions offset by certified emission reductions or renewable energy. The sarcastic snickering wasn’t stopped in both cases, fueling criticism of those who don’t act with the same urgency as their words.

The litany is easily found. One blog post claims that Hypocrites are flying to conferences. Another article titled Climate activist – Flying to conferences is not integrity” claims that “any climate activist’ who doesn’t feel at home on Webex or GoToMeeting would be a complete fraud.”

Don’t judge other people

All of us are human with our ambitions, foibles, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and constraints. We all have reasons for why we make the decisions that we do. Sometimes we believe that individual actions are irrelevant and that government should solve the problem. We might tell ourselves, “We’re not harming anyone,” or that everyone does it. Or that other people are worse. All of us have our ways of creating self-serving narratives. There is no one immune to the temptation of creating self-serving narratives, particularly when living carbon-neutral lives.

To describe high-carbon lifestyles, some use the analogy of addiction. We are addicted to oil and travel, as well as consumption. This analogy is not something I like. It can lead to judgments that make people defensive and create a “us versus them” problem.

Addiction is a condition that is out of the norm. Because some people are addicted, we know what healthy behavior is and what isn’t. We all face the same problem when it comes to climate change. We are all addicted to the same disease, and we don’t have any healthy people to help us assess our normal behavior.

A group of people lost on the terrain they thought familiar with is a better metaphor. While we know what addiction looks like when it is treated, a group of people struggling to find their way can’t be trusted. Leaders who can see the future, model behavior that will get us there and show empathy for those who may be unsure are what we need. All of us share this role.

This is not a place for judgment. I have found that even the most self-righteous individuals tend to draw the line where they live, often using a scale appropriate for Western lifestyles. Would someone from or agree with me that any Western lifestyle can be sustainable.

Don’t be critical of yourself

Blaming others for climate change isn’t productive. The same goes for self-blaming. It is not acceptable to feel inadequate or like a fraud when we expect perfection. Individual action on climate change is not possible without serious limitations. The perfect cannot be an enemy of the good.

Climate change is a problem that is different than other environmental issues such as littering or eating endangered species. These are not discrete choices. Virtually every lifestyle (and almost every manufacturing activity) involves the creation of greenhouse gases. As Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki explains, the simple truth is that “we don’t have enough infrastructure to be ecologically-neutral.”

That is the key. Each person must start the effort according to their knowledge, circumstances, convictions, and potential. Each of us must start from where we are and learn to recognize our impact and how it can be reduced or eliminated. Also, learn the challenges and ways that you can take action.

Individual action

Be patient and realistic. Real, lasting change must be slow and steady. Great grand changes tend to fail like big, grand New Year’s Resolutions. Do not set out to change the world. Instead, take the first step. Start your journey without knowing where it will lead you.

First, you need to educate yourself. Use a personal carbon calculator such as the one by the EPA. Find out about your direct, indirect and emissions. You can also find out where they came from, either through text or a class.

Second, find ways to reduce these impacts in ways that suit your lifestyle. For 101 ways to start, visit the Going Green checklist or the EPA’s page about what you can do to combat climate change. You can insulate your home, install an LED lightbulb, recycle your toilet paper roll, and change your investment portfolio. Give up meat. Try it temporarily, if not for life, then for Lent. If you’re ambitious, give up carbon for Lent. Learn more about carbon offsets after you have exhausted all other options.

Staying at home has eco-benefits

Researchers have been very interested in behavior change activities like quitting attending conferences. Although there are not many studies that quantify carbon emissions from academics, one study published in Ecological Indicators concluded that transportation accounts for 75 percent and that attending conferences accounts for 35%.

Professor from the University of Manchester decided to travel by train to China to prove his science’s legitimacy. Northwestern’s Center for Bioethics, Science and Society director calls on scholars to stop attending academic conferences once a year to let the Earth rest. A group of 56 scholars representing more than a dozen nations launched a petition in October 2022 calling on universities, academic, and professional associations to reduce their flying-related footprints to help limit climate change significantly.

This may work for some people, but it might not for all. Some colleagues from smaller colleges also need conferences to connect and get the most recent research. Conferences are an integral part of what researchers do for their living. Trying to stop them is counterproductive, I believe. Be mindful of the conferences you attend and how they are conducted. You can lobby conference organizers for alternatives to paper programs and plastic water bottles. Before you decide where to go, consider the entire carbon footprint of your life.

We should never lose sight of our strengths. Please do your research well, share it with others, speak out about climate change, and use that knowledge to vote for politicians who will take action. Recognize that the system must be changed.

How to make the system work better?

We have to admit that individual actions will not solve the problem. These will provide us with insight into the problem and understand the scale of the change required to change culture and behavior. The necessary changes will require a shift in the market and societal norms. It will require a challenge of dominant notions about consumerism, changes in the rules and capitalist laws, as well as a reexamination of the role of corporations in society.

Policies that address climate change can reduce or eliminate the effects of individual behavior if they are designed correctly.  presented a provocative argument from the University of East Anglia’s Centre for Behavioural and Experiment Social Science. She argued that green consumers who choose not to fly within the EU for environmental reasons would have “no effect on total emissions”. This was due to the EU Emissions Trading System offsetting the emissions. Although some people criticize the results as too abstract and not reflecting the actual implementation realities, it is exactly what regulations are supposed to do: to change the whole system, not just parts of it.

Some people see the danger in focusing on individual actions. Author cautions that it is unfair and inaccurate to force people into believing they are responsible for the current-day ecological disasters. The environmental crisis will only worsen if militant recycling and simple living are the main solutions.

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