Individual carbon footprints or collective systemic change? Both!

March 4, 2019

Some of the most interesting writing nowadays appears on Twitter.  I was struck by this Tweet-stream a few days ago and asked Dr. Sawin if we could re-post it. She kindly agreed and here it is.  The 280-character limit on individual Tweets makes the piece more direct and spontaneous than your typical essay. So, a new literary form!
– Bart Anderson, Resilience co-editor

For as long as I’ve been working on climate change, now and again, a big, heated debate will arise up:  What is most important, to live with as small a carbon footprint as possible or to prioritize collective action to change laws, rules, and incentives? This month on Twitter the conversation popped back up again, and in two separate threads I explored why, for me, this is not the right question to ask.

Part I

Long ago I had a doctor friend who cautioned about one of the less well studied consequences of aging: hardening of the categories.

As I get older, I think I’m escaping that, luckily. In fact, I feel more uncertain year by year, less sure that I know what’s right, or what everyone else ought to do, or even, sometimes what’s the best, most ethical, most effective thing for me to do.

(Apparently, I’ve discovered the cure for hardening of the categories: 20+ years working in teams, parenting, living in community, gardening, writing, and being in a relationship will do the trick, if you’d like to sign up for my secret program instructions not included)

Here I sit, in middle age, bowing down in submission to the complexity of the world, the climate, the biosphere, the economy, politics, the human mind, how we learn, how we change, how we influence each other, how interconnected, non-linear chains of causation actually work.

And so, I’m a little impatient with the debate in a certain corner of climate twitter today.

Apparently, if we are serious about climate change, if we really care about it, we should (a) drive our personal carbon footprint to near zero & keep quiet until we have or (b) keep living as we always have & focus only on collective structural change.

Well, for pretty much all of my adult life, I’ve chosen option (c) thank you very much. Trying however inexpertly, failing more than succeeding, always falling short of perfection, to do both. And I know hundreds of people who are doing the same, as best they can.

I know a brilliant professor who has briefed top policy leaders around the world about the highest leverage policy options who also commutes by bike and moved out of his home for half a year to have it retrofitted to be net zero energy.

My mentor Donella Meadows chose not to have children, turned her home into a shared house, started a small farm to feed herself, wrote papers, wrote newspaper columns, wrote books, influenced policy, wrote gleefully about her satisfaction in driving one of the first hybrid cars.

I live in an energy efficient house, grow as much of my own food as I can, live closely with 20 other families in part so we can share stuff and use less. And I try to wield influence at the UN, with top leaders, and also by supporting local communities as best I can.

Sometimes I fly to do this work, but I try not to if I can avoid it.

Some of my presentations probably would have been stronger if I hadn’t stayed up late canning tomatoes the night before.

Some years our bean harvest might have been bigger if I’d planted them on time, instead of delayed for a week by a big a push on a climate report.

In other words, my carbon footprint could definitely be lower with more single-minded focus, and my climate impact could potentially be higher if I didn’t fiddle around with greenhouses and community meetings and solar hot water systems.

But, going forward, I’m still choosing the messy complexity and the compromises of trying to unite these two parts of myself. I’d recommend the attempt, knowing that for you it may look wholly different than it has for me.

I recommend it very humbly, aware of the privilege represented by having such choices to make in the first place, among which I’d include access to land, the ability to afford clean energy systems, and access to an education that opened doors to a climate policy career.

That privilege is part of why it’s not satisfying to just focus on the family scale, without also pushing for the policy change that would make it feasible for everyone who wanted to live with a lower carbon footprint.

But, even recognizing that, I think there are reasons to try, at whatever scale is feasible, to live a personal and family life that is as congruent as I can make it with the world I’d like to see.

Set aside that it’s fun and interesting and that those tomatoes taste really good. Why else is this congruency worth thinking about and striving for?

It feeds the imagination. This little moment (my hot shower this morning is solar powered, my birthday pie is made of raspberries from right behind the house, my computer runs on electricity from a dairy farm’s methane digester) is a snapshot of a lower carbon future.

Trying to live this way also challenges one of the mindsets most in the way of addressing climate change. That’s the idea that we live in the best possible way today and action to protect the climate is a sacrifice.

Shaking up my own acculturated mindset is probably worth more than any pounds of CO2 I’ve squeezed out of my life, and given the subtle ways we influence each other every bike commuter, home food preserver, and joyful downsizer influences the collective consciousness.

Here’s another reason: our experiments in sustainable living have taught me more about how people, communities & ecosystems work and change than I’ve learned in school, in policy analysis, in computer modeling.

It hasn’t always been easy, but I can say with confidence that learning how to make decisions by consensus with forty neighbors is good practice for thinking about policy making nationally or globally (and vice versa).

Learning that you can’t push a plant in the garden or a child in the family to grow faster or be different than their own nature has built my store of patience and fortitude for working with communities or leaders on new ideas or technologies or policies.

If you think that addressing climate change is about CO2 and CO2 alone then maybe lower footprint vs policy change is a good debate to have.

If you think CO2 is key, but who we are, how we think, and how we related matters too, then maybe that question doesn’t make so much sense.

And luckily, lest this thread get even longer, I’m off on my lunch break to a meeting of my community’s energy committee where the topic is whether to invest more collective money and time in more PV. Local, global, personal policy, it really is all connected.

Part II

Despite a weekend break from the debate, my attention keeps getting pulled back to the threads arguing that personal action to lower one’s carbon footprint is ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst toward the goal of climate protection.

This is still not sitting well with me. I think the effort to address climate is a systems change process and over the years, from change processes I’ve been involved in, I’ve come to feel that change is fractal.

Ferns are my mental image of fractal, where the shape of the whole fern is similar to the shape of a frond, is similar to the shape of the tiny bumps on the fronds. (Trees, river deltas, capillary networks, neurons are all are good images too).

I believe that systems shift most effectively when change is happening at multiple levels with some sort of loose congruence.

I also think that change is held back when a preponderance of effort is focused at a single layer of a system and other layers are frozen in place or even changing in an opposing direction.

Though I am no expert on the mathematics of fractals, one idea about them has stuck with me. As I understand it, fractal patterns appear where ‘simple rules’ are repeated at multiple scales.

For a tree a simple rule is ‘grow a little, and then branch’. For a society a simple rule could be ‘take whatever you can get’ or it could be ‘share what you have.’ Those different rules give different patterns.

Think of my family as a little bump on the frond, my state as a frond, my country as the whole fern branch, all countries as a collection of branches. Powerful changes happen when the rules that give rise to patterns change at all of those levels, in parallel.

The levels interact, too. Strong climate policy makes it easier for me to lower my footprint as an individual. Many individuals, less locked into high carbon living, weaken the resistance to policy change.

Another thing I believe to be true about fractals is that similar simple rules apply across different parts of the system.

In this regard, I think about violence against women, the earth treated as a source of resources to extract, racism, genocide, ecocide. Similar simple rules at play in different contexts, create patterns we recognize as somehow similar.

Many people talk about simple rules without using that phrase, of course. I think of Riane Eisler and the “dominator” vs “partnership” worldviews she describes.

Think of the dominator simple rules that play out at so many different scales and issues. Interpersonal violence. Systemic sexism and racism within institutions. Some of those same institutions dedicated to ‘extracting’ from the earth.

If I shed some internalized sexism, or some unconscious habits of white supremacy, that likely changes how I see and I relate to other non-human beings and the planetary system as well.

George Lakoff talks about how the frames we learn about one type of system early in life (for instance the family) influence how we see others, like the government, or an ecosystem. Breaking out of any harmful frame, it seems to me, makes it easier to break out of other ones.

So, the fractal simple rules that lead to health and balance and sustainability and equity and thriving interest me much more than arguments about what level we should be acting on.

“Use only your fair share of the remaining carbon budget” is a simple rule that can apply at all scales. I can work on it in my own life, in my voting, in my advocacy, in my teaching.

“Find a way to ask for consent before taking something” is another. Don’t take from other beings without asking, and don’t take from future generations.

“Be useful & try to create conditions for others to thrive” could be a third. I can practice and work towards this simple rule in how I treat the soil in my garden, the other residents of my town, and matters of national policy.

I know one idea in the ‘individual action is counterproductive’ train of thought is to build awareness about being ‘preachy’ or ‘scolding’ about our individual action. I agree about the importance of that.

But, I suspect if we were intentional about acting out of different simple rules, like seeking consent, taking only our share, and creating conditions for others to thrive, preaching and scolding might well be less of a problem to begin with.

Finally, there are people & cultures around the world already operating out of different simple rules that are more adaptive than the ones I was raised with. This article is a good example. You may enjoy reading it, with an eye towards simple rules.

Another simple rule might be, ‘follow the leadership of the cultures with simple rules that are more suited for living in a world of complexity, interconnection, and limits.”

Photo: Fractal shape form of a Romanesco broccoli (2004). Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fractal_Broccoli.jpg

Elizabeth Sawin

Dr. Elizabeth Sawin is  Co-Director of Climate Interactive. Her work focuses on helping leaders find ways to protect the climate for the long-term that also improve people’s lives today. You can follow her on Twitter (@bethsawin) and to learn more about multisolving you can watch her TEDx talk.

Tags: carbon footprint, political action