If everyone lived like I do, it’d take about five Earths to support the population.
I learned that disappointing fact last week while taking an online carbon footprint calculator in a poorly-insulated, overly lit office. It seemed simple enough, I don’t drive much (less than 10 miles per day). I recycle avidly. Maybe I could eat less bacon and take more public transit, but as far as American lifestyles go, I thought I lived pretty well for Ole Mother Earth. Then the results came and I realized how much work there is to do. The calculator let’s you play around with your answers. What would happen if I ate less meat? Carpooled? Even after making a number of changes, I could only reduce my footprint to about four Earths.
Individuals’ decisions have less of an impact on the climate than you’re actually led to believe, I learned over hot chocolate with local activists Abigail McHugh-Grifa and Sue Hughes-Smith. For example, most of the information on reducing your footprint and helping stave off climate change focuses on the need for shorter, cooler showers. Or swapping your car for a bike. However, these aren’t as effective as many (myself included) might think because we’ve reached the point where large-scale solutions are needed, they said.
“For every single one of us we are essentially part of the problem,” said McHugh-Grifa. “Even people who try their very, very hardest are contributing to this problem because the system in which we live is powered by fossil fuels…I don’t think anyone wants to, it’s hard to accept that responsibility. You know, that ‘This huge problem, I’ve contributed to creating it.'”
According to Orion Magazine, “Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption — changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much — and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.”
So while biking and shorter showers are a great start, it can’t be the end because, put simply, it’s not enough. As Hughes-Smith pointed out, sitting under the lights of the 1872 Cafe with it’s expansive windows and lofted ceiling, we have little control over how the buildings we work and play in are designed; are they insulated well enough? What energy and how much do they use?
However, McHugh-Grifa clarified that through the democratic process, voters can actually push for legislation that does require buildings, city parks and even streetlights in the city of Rochester to be more energy efficient. Policy can allow individuals to work together to make the change they want to see on a larger scale.
“The individual does play a role,” said Hughes-Smith, “So it’s not to say that you can only make systemic change because the way our system is, the individual has to play a role in the solution. It’s just that worrying about just your own impact won’t create the level of change we need.”
And she said that’s actually where the fight should be now. By focusing on individualistic efforts, the legislative fight has remained mostly in the arena of lobbyists and activists groups, when it should be trickling down to that of the voters, which would ensure they’re involved, more knowledgeable and more likely to make change. for example, she said, many people don’t know about community choice aggregation (CCA), which gives municipalities the right to secure cheaper, renewable energy.
Recently, County Legislator and mayoral candidate, James Sheppard, celebrated Earth Day by telling Rochester voters he supported CCA. From a statement: “’We are seeing the effects of climate change all over the world, including Rochester. Local governments can and must take the lead in protecting our residents, reducing our carbon emissions wherever we can, and adapting and changing to climate change conditions.’ Under community choice aggregation, municipalities can procure long-term, lower and fixed electric rates with a 100% renewable energy option. There is one CCA operating in New York State right now, Westchester Power, and many throughout the country. “’CCA is a way to bring sustainable, local energy to our community while allowing our citizens to save money…It’s clearly a win-win.’”
In addition to this more specific example, there are other larger legislative fights like carbon taxes, pipeline construction and reliance on coal. Simply by being more knowledgeable about the environment allows many people to vote more favorably for policy that will protect it. However, Aaron Mair, president of the National Sierra Club who spoke in Rochester last Wednesday on the importance of diversity in the climate movement, said it’s no surprise that people aren’t as knowledgeable. The reason this misinformation is able to stick around is because many lack what he calls “environmental IQ” or a full understanding of the environment and their role in it.
He used former NY Governor David Patterson as an example, pointing to his decision to close 41 state parks response to budget restraints. According to the New York Times, it was the first time state parks had been closed due to money. And he added that in Rochester we suffer from the same issue. As a city on the coast of one of the largest Great Lakes, there’s no reason we shouldn’t take advantage of that local resource to have different forms of energy available to the people, or entertainment or even simply use it to contribute to our local economy. Essentially, having a lake so polluted isn’t only an example of our lack of understanding of the environment’s value but even how that same value could be translated into financial worth. And an individualistic approach definitely won’t work to cleaning up the lake and making it attractive again.
And Hughes-McGrifa added that the individualistic approach may even be harmful because it allows people to get comfortable and believe they are making a change when they take a shorter shower, not even knowing that the majority of water is used in the nation’s agriculture industry and they’re making little to no change.
We’re too far gone for lowering your thermostat to work. This issue might demand more of us- more than the abandonment of simple luxuries but true political action, organization and of course the first step to any true democracy: the desire to learn, inform ourselves and think critically of our own actions, society’s and even internationally.
Interested in tracking your carbon footprint, check out this free, online calculator.