Somebody ought to write a book : The abyss of being green.

Somebody ought to write a book...

More often than not, this is a phrase that pops into my head about a given topic that I have conjured up. Possibly someone already has, more likely nobody bothered because, let’s face it, my pondering at the moment just isn’t that profound. But in that instant, in my tiny head, it is the thought of the century. It is much like my three-year-old nephew discovering how to open the automatic blinds in his grandmother’s bedroom. World rocked.

This particular “need for a book” has been bouncing around in my head for over a year. My buddy Joe has been kind enough to listen to me ramble on and on about it on our bike rides. Joe is one of the most patient guys I know and listens intently. I am not sure if he is being his normal kind self or if he is actually interested in my random ideas, but it is great to have an ear.

One day on one of our regular off road bike rides, I was going off about this topic and was getting frustrated trying to figure it out.  I suddenly ranted “Somebody ought to write a book!”.

Dramatic pause. Quiet. Gears shift. More quiet. Tires crunching on gravel.

“Well Steve…,” Joe replied in his usual calm and thoughtful way, “Why don’t you?”

So though I am not setting down the road to write a book, I figured this might be a great title for a series of random unrelated essays I have been meaning to write on this blog. Thanks for the support and insight Joe. I am a better person for having friends like you.

So here it is, essay #1 in the “Someone ought to write a book” series. Don’t expect answers. This is just food for thought. Maybe it is the start of a good conversation at your next dinner party, gathering over beers with your friends, or an overly intellectual Tinder date (God help you). I hope it gets you thinking.  I know this blog is not the instant gratification “Like” land of Facebook, but comments are strongly encouraged.

What is enough? – The abyss of being green and the sustainability effort.

 

titanic

You are on the Titanic. There are a bunch of people running around all over the place. Some are debating if we actually have even struck an iceberg or, even if we did, they aren’t confident that we are taking on water any more than the boat naturally gathers water in the bilge. Others are running around, screaming that it is the end of the world pushing and shoving their way to life boats. Others are working on saving the ship. First someone started with a bucket. Then someone started with a bucket line. Then someone got the bilge pump going. Someone closed sealed up hatches. But how much water is coming in? Does anybody really know? More importantly, have those that know the incoming water situation coordinated with the bucket bailers, the bucket lines, and the hatch sealers? What is effective? What is not worthwhile? Are we buying time? Are we saving the ship? Do we just blindly do this until the ship either sinks or floats?

 

So…you are an average person. You want to do better, but nobody is Superman. Maybe you recycle when you can or try to buy fewer packaged goods. Maybe you own a hybrid car, maybe your ride your bike. When you are feeling particularly helpless you at least try to get sustainably grown coffee at the grocery store. Maybe you think this is silly and don’t do anything.

Either way…its never ending.

The challenge is that, to my knowledge, few scientists or politicians are debating what is “enough”. Dire messages capture society’s attention. At some point though, dire messages are finite in their ability to move the ball forward. How far down do we have to go down the green road? When can we rest? Where on the spectrum from driving one day less a week to living in a hut and not having children do we have to be? What is enough?

I understand this is incredibly difficult to quantify. In addition, the downside of knowing the answers is that it might be so extreme and horrific that the conversation on a societal level comes to a dead stop. We might just give up and enjoy a last hurrah by driving to Vegas in our stretch Hummer. On the other hand, by not attempting to specifically quantify this, we are putting ourselves in severe danger on two significant fronts:

  • As I have alluded to above, by not articulating a clear lifestyle that would be required for a sustainable world, we run the risk of psychological exhaustion from running on a never ending “be greener” treadmill and loosing public interest. Psychologically, fear is an incentive in the short term. Demonstrated progress and sense of accomplishment will ultimately win the day.
  • By not having a metric for success, society runs the risk of a putting huge amount of effort and debate into issues that are not solving the problem. The public has to know the impact of an environmental effort in order to gauge the time, cost and level of debate that is worthwhile. Impact can’t be judged if we don’t really have an understanding of a goal and endpoint.

Some might argue, “doing anything is better than nothing”. I take strong disagreement with that. Circling back to the opening of this article, a good analogy that I have seen referred to is being on the Titanic after it has hit the iceberg. You have a number of options for action that all will “help”. You can bail water with a teacup, a bowl, or even a bucket. You could close off and seal hatches. You could start helping people into life boats. You could send an “S.O.S” call from the radio room. Hell, if you are super industrious you could build new lifeboats. All are good, but all can be evaluated based on their level of effort (you have limited time and resources) and associated impact. For example, bailing water with a teacup is clearly not worth the time or effort.

Without knowing what it would really take to change the climate situation, how does the individual citizen know if they are bailing water with a teacup? How do they know if they are debating and voting for government policies about teacup acquisition vs government programs that seal off hatches and/or build lifeboats for all on board?

So how do we go about assessing what is enough for the typical American? What is true “sustainable” living? First off, this is HARD and I am definitely not qualified to do this. But, as I have argued, there could be huge benefits for giving the average American a clearer sense and scope of the problem and better empower them to make life choices.

I submit that a very understandable metric for the typical citizen is spending and consumption. Speaking in rough terms, the more you buy, the of a bigger carbon foot print one has. Yes, I know this is not perfect and this definitely falls apart at the extremes of income. Also, one can definitely spend more or less wisely, but we are shooting for approximations here. If needed, C02 reductions could be conveyed to citizens in terms of dollars spent (i.e. If you lived off of “x” amount less and had “y” fewer things). This might lead to a much more sophisticated perspective for the populous.

So with the caveated that I am a total hack at this, let me walk you through my back of the napkin approach for this. Excuse any logic errors here. Remember this is food for discussion over your nerdy Tinder date. Good luck with that.

For the sake of argument, lets assume an American’s carbon footprint is directly tied to their consumption. Yes, this does not cover all of the country’s C02 emissions, but it does do a good job of covering what the average American can control.

Also, lets hold variables constant and for this analysis let’s assume we are talking about today’s technological situation for production. Let’s not muck up the waters with guesses about future technologies. This is an attempt to demonstrate, based on what is TODAY, what you would have to change in terms of consumption. An added benefit for can be that it may also help consumers evaluate new technologies. (e.g. If the metric shows that you need to consume 90% less gas per year, your perspective on a Prius that saves your 30% on gas now has context)

So how to calculate this, let me take a rough swipe at it.  Smarter people out there, please chime in:

  1. Using the market basket similar to what is used to determine the Consumer Price Index, one can roughly determine what an average American consumes in a year. ( I am sure there are much better data sources that an expert knows of , but forgive me for going with “what I got”. That’s all I got…I am not economic policy powerhouse.)
  2. Build a basic model/set of assumptions of the carbon foot print of this market basket. This will take into account the emissions of other countries means of production and environmental standards as you can make assumptions in your model of where items are sourced (e.g. items bought at Target made in China).

    Note: For those of you not familiar with how things like the Consumer Price Index or the GDP are calculated, items #1and #2 might seem ridiculous or impossible to do. Actually, it is not impossible and this type of modeling is used to calculate both of these metrics. Currently there are a number of software applications that can take into account CO2 foot prints of a number of consumer items.  Autodesk’s Inventor application even has tools that incorporates the carbon footprint of the materials incorporated into the design of a product. (Yep, LOTS of cool stuff out there folks!)

  3. Do this calculation for all countries.
  4. Then determine what level of world wide CO2 emissions is sustainable (Again this is just a guess and highly debatable, but that is the point of models. You plug in assumptions and see how it plays out, then try other assumptions. Its called science! OK…well know, I guess this is just data modeling. Not scientific hypothesis testing. See, yep, I ain’t no expert. I am just the annoying kid on the playground who asks “Why?” but has no answers)
  5. Given this needed C02 level, determine how that averages out per human being on the planet. Again, you can always weigh different directions for different countries, but for illustrative purposes I’d start with and “if we were all equal” model. Lets be fair and kind for starters.  Optimism people, optimism!
  6. Take that number and compare it to the C02 output for consumption determined per person for a given country (items 2 and 3)
  7. The % difference will tell you how much % less purchasing a person would have to do in the given country .

I hope that makes sense. Yeah it is a rough model. I might have made a logic error here, but I hope you get my point. But again, the problem we are addressing here is not the determining the perfect number but finding a better way to present information to shape thinking and action. This is key to the problem at hand. In the end, imagine you could illustrate the problem to Americans by saying:

“Given the current pollution of the types of items purchased in America, for the world to be sustainable (and everyone pollute equally) you, Mr./Ms. American would have to limit your spending to $10,000 dollars a year.”

Or whatever number ends up coming out of the calculation. Hopefully the number would not be that low or we are going to have some serious panic and more Vegas trips. (But then again…it easily could be. Yep, you are going to be a downer of a Tinder date).

Regardless of the actual number, having a hard number that people can relate to their lives (and theoretically can control) is very powerful and perspective building. It gives a sense of what they would have to do to really change and also gives a sense of how different they are compared to the rest of the world. For example, it might turn out, and likely is the case, that the average person in India could actually consumer more if we put our sustainable consumption pollution on a level playing field. (Again, hoping this world remains kind. We are all friends right?) Even if the number is almost impossible for one to comply with, it gives someone a clear sense of the gravity of the situation. Keep in mind, while the determination of the environmental problem is scientific, the solution (making populations change) is ultimately a psychological behavior shift.

Technology alone will not solve the problem. Even the very development of technology to solve environmental problems require first some sort of shift in psychology and sense of urgency.

So…that is today’s thought. I am certainly no expert. Someone else can do a much better argument and analysis than I can. Hopefully though, this makes you think and makes beers with your friends less of a “play with your phone” event. Come one folks, its just a phone! Let it go.

Somebody ought to write a book…

 

 

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