Editor’s note: Peterson started this year-long series of commentaries in January to encourage readers to cut carbon emissions each year for the next decade, in line with achieving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommendations of a 50-percent emissions cut by 2030.
With the end of semester, it’s time for assessment. In my case, I’m assessing this series and how I reduced my footprint.
To paraphrase Gregory Bateson, who worked in a number of fields including cybernetics, the meaning of this series is the change that it made. A number of readers have shared appreciation for these pieces, but I’m not sure they made plans to shrink their carbon footprints.
I have several data points to help assess my own reduction success.
First, I have suggested that you focus on carbon you buy and burn, for example, gasoline or natural gas. In contrast, carbon emissions elsewhere in the economy (a truck bringing groceries to your store) should not be your first worry.
My reasoning is that only you are in a position to stop your direct emissions while others might reduce emissions done in your name.
By that measure, I’ve had success because I finished a multi-year effort to eliminate natural gas from the Peterson Barn Guesthouse.
My plan is to replace gas appliances as they reach end-of-life but before they fail. That is, if I wake up one morning and have no hot water, I might prefer to call a plumber to put in new gas hot water than start with an electrician to rewire part of my house to make an electric heater possible.
Second, I have suggested we need to cut emissions 7 percent per year for a decade to make a 50 percent reduction by 2030. I failed to cut my carbon emissions 7 percent during 2019.
The biggest backslide has been in transportation. Our daughter turned 18 and we each seem to “need” to drive a vehicle. I’ve ended up with the 25 mpg pickup.
I wrote about driving in September and I remain convinced that the solution is a lifestyle change (living closer to work, using transit) rather than driving electric.
Third, writing has forced me to reflect. During November I visited Kenton Bird’s freshman Integrated Seminar. The title for the class was Climate Change: Science and Myth. The syllabus included this quote from Robert Caisley “(Myths) attempt to explain the harsh realities of human experience – death, crippling disease, bad luck, forces of nature – by framing them in poetic/epic terms, lending sacred order to the seeming chaos of life.”
I found the idea of myth an interesting frame and it clarified my struggles.
I’m concluding that a solution to carbon emissions within our growth-oriented economic system is a myth.
Not in the climate denier sense, I understand that human activity is increasing carbon dioxide which changes global temperature, ocean acidity and a host of other things.
Rather, myth in Caisley’s sense, the emissions problem attempts to explain a harsh reality, and frame an epic battle, but the myth is deflecting attention from something more fundamental.
I think the real problem was well articulated by the Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome. Published in 1972, the computer simulations suggested that economic growth could not continue indefinitely because of resource depletion. The study also modelled “pollution.” We now know that carbon dioxide is one, but not the only, problematic pollutant our economic engine is emitting.
There is a growing body of literature around the idea of “degrowth,” an ecological approach to economics. A key premise of degrowth is that reducing consumption does not require a decrease in well-being.
I’m finding evidence that premise is true. Consider transportation related energy use per capita: car-oriented cities like Phoenix or Houston use 4-5 times more energy than European cities developed “pre-car” like Paris or London.
In 2014 the U.S. used three times as much energy per person as Italy, yet the Italians had a slightly longer life expectancy.
The United Kingdom uses about half the energy per person as the U.S., but they have a smaller percentage of people in extreme poverty.
We’re accustomed to how we organize energy in our world and fear cutting back would be negative. Perhaps the myth is that “more” makes a better life. Maybe, like Bhutan, we should focus on increasing our national happiness, not GDP.
Wishing you success in the coming year acting on science, not myth.
Nils Peterson is executive director of the Moscow Affordable Housing Trust and former chair of the city Planning and Zoning Commission.