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    • Big problems seem enormous to solve to the point where anyone person’s efforts seem insignificant.  Or, the list of things you could do is so long that you die from inaction due to “paralysis by analysis.”

      I therefore wanted to focus in on a question that’s been on the periphery of many discussions of late, or that was part of the discussion but got overrun by topic drift.

      So I decided to assemble a panel of folks who seem to have much to say on this question:

      What’s one thing you could realistically do this year to save the planet?

      If you’d like, share what you’re currently doing/not doing, as well as what options you’re considering or have considered.  

      I’ll moderate as need be and chime in as appropriate.

      Audience questions.  If you have follow up questions for a specific panelist’s comments, please submit your question by clicking the floating pink “Ask a Question” button.  

    • Right out of the gate, I would like to point out Project Drawdown:

      If you're looking for a most effective way to apply your efforts in reversing climate change, peruse their list of proposed solutions and try to identify an area where you can make a contribution. Most of the solutions are industrial in scale, but many can be practical in nature so that a single individual can do it. Reducing food waste, recycling, reducing energy consumption.

      But, the one single area where we can have the greatest effect as individuals has to be political. Time is running out, the scale of needed solutions is such that we need to have strong political support in order to enact them. That's a force multiplier we're currently lacking in most parts of the world.

      So, what can you do? Vote. Be politically engaged. Support candidates that recognise the dire situation we find ourselves in. Challenge those that deny the problem and want status quo. Make sure people you know get out and vote. Support actions like Fridays For future that raise awareness and pressure upon politicians.

      Problems we face are great, but we've been known to do great things too.

    • For me its making the things I want or need.
      E.g. I needed a lamp to light my craft, so instead of going to the shop and buying one that was made in China and shipped all the way to New Zealand and might last a few years before braking, I made one from a branch the fell in a storm.
      I carve wooden spoons and saw this kiwifruit spoon on a Facebook group and thought what a brilliant idea! Now my kids have four of them and we'll never have a plastic in our home or rubbish again.
      Less consuming, more creating, more cherishing the things we have in our life, even the little things.

    • I live off grid, that is to say I do not use grid-supplied electricity or water. I collect rainwater (so the utility doesn't have to pump it to me way up on a mountain), and I have solar panels and batteries for my electrical needs. I grow some of my own food. These non-grid utilities engender some automatic conservation practices.

      However, I am still quite grid-dependent. I buy propane for cooking, diesel fuel for transportation, and all manner of commodities. I have internet by a wireless relay system in my area.

      Although I prefer, from a lifetime of habit, to eat many delectable imported goodies; I know that I could reduce my carbon emissions by eating more of what I grow myself. And if I have to go to the store, then I should at least try to buy a greater proportion of locally-produced food items. And speaking of going to the store, my local area has a chaotic and overcrowded and multi-mode public transportation system. To the uninitiated, it appears daunting; but in recent years my wife has determinedly figured it out and taken me along on an excursion or two. Now, if the store trip is not for bulky acquisitions, I am inclined to go public.

      If we were to stay at home and eat what we grow, and live more simply - eschewing various plastic products that inevitably break and require replacement, and cleaning house with a homemade broom (as is the practice of some of our poorer neighbors - so not as crazy as it sounds) and more elbow grease and less cleaning products; we'd practically be carbon neutral! No, no we wouldn't. We'd still be burning propane and buying replacement batteries at least.

      I think reducing carbon footprint is something the average person can approach on the "think globally, act locally" level to some extent; and we all should. But there is no local action individuals can choose that will change the infrastructure. It is simply more efficient to be grid-connected. The only reasons to be off grid, in my opinion, are to use more environmentally-friendly power sources than the grid is using, or because the grid is simply not available.

      I'd like to know what is the carbon footprint of a 6V lead-acid battery. The lead is probably recycled and the plastic case probably is not. The battery has been shipped internationally (by ship) and it weighs about 60 pounds, of which about 90% is lead and most of the rest is sulfuric acid. I sense that vast energy inputs were required to refine the lead and produce the acid, but I have no idea how much. I consume about three batteries per year on average.

      The way to reduce everyone's fossil fuel carbon emissions is simply to tax all such carbon extraction as near as possible to the source, and tax it dearly - and then give that money right back to the public so they can pay some of that tax if necessary. If I imposed a $3/gallon gasoline tax on you, and then gave you that $3 so you could pay the tax, and you chose to continue business as usual then the tax would be cost-neutral to you. But you would not continue business as usual - you'd try to reduce your gasoline use and pocket some of the $3; and your gasoline consumption would decline. So it would go throughout the economy. Of course the tax rebate wouldn't cover everyone's carbon use - it would be tweaked in various ways and high carbon users would not have enough rebate to cover their desired consumption and they would scream. Well, we have to do something.

    • @apm, as you mentioned in your original post, it's such a huge problem that it feels like any individual lifestyle changes will have nearly no effect. With that in mind, I don't put a ton of effort into making those types of changes (although I'm very conscious of repairing rather than replacing, recycling whenever possible, and buying for longevity rather over price when I can).

      Instead, I'm trying to focus on getting to a point where I can make meaningful contributions to larger-scale efforts, whether they're technological or political. For instance, I'm trying to become an excellent programmer, and decent mechanical engineer, so that I can help with some of the projects in Project Drawdown (which @jpop linked earlier), or get involved with Tech for Campaigns, which is an organization that connects political candidates with programmers to create the digital infrastructure that's become a necessity for a successful campaign.

      I really do think that climate change is by far the biggest issue of my generation, and I don't mean to diminish anyone's efforts on an individual level. I just feel that I can make a bigger impact, and work on things I find interesting, by trying to help with some of these bigger problems.

      Full disclaimer, though -- I'm a bit of a hypocrite. Two of my biggest hobbies are motorcycles and traveling, neither of which are exactly low emissions. But I still think (and this view was partially influenced by another discussion on Cake) that my emissions as a result of those hobbies pale in comparison to the impact that is possible via larger projects that affect society as a whole.

    • I don't have enough data or, as it happens, hubris, to answer the question literally. I don't even know if we need to save the planet, and from what exactly. Now, before people get triggered, let me clarify - I am quite certain that to whichever limited extent we currently understand global processes, climate change is happening and its effects are incontrovertible. It is also very much probable that a significant portion of it is caused by anthropological influence.

      As callous as it may sound, the above doesn't actually mean the planet needs saving. I'm pretty sure it will do all right. Our place on the planet, and the comfort zone that we have built for many of us - now that is in danger. The problem thus formulated also doesn't have a single decision path - we may try to reverse the damage, stop or diminish dealing more of it, and/or we can (should?) try to adapt or be able to adapt to those changes that appear to be fully committed and unavoidable.

      And in practical terms, I do not think I personally, or any other single individual, can do anything within a year to noticeably move the needle on any of these issues. What I can do, however, is try and achieve force multipliers - I can influence other people, especially but not exclusively young ones, to accept worldviews and practical skills and the ability to adapt that would enable them to be better humans, make better decisions and actions and in turn, influence more people that way.

      And the direction of influence is not anything new. I would like to teach people (and especially kids) [self-]awareness, systemic thinking (which includes ecology, see quote below), rational thinking, kindness, self-sufficiency (Heinlein-style), understanding of consequences (see the same quote below) and healthy distrust of abstract authority.

      It is my somewhat idealistic belief that humans armed with such basic foundational views would then be able to perform individual but synergistic actions at various scale - from not littering and not using more stuff than needed to working on humanity-enhancing projects like Mr.Musk does, to name an example.

      In closing, here's a relevant quote from Dune:

      The thing the ecologically illiterate don’t realize about an ecosystem is that it’s a system. A system! A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams the flow, order collapses. The untrained might miss that collapse until it was too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.
      -- Pardot Kynes in "Appendix I: The Ecology of Dune"

    • @jpop , you have a sizeable knowledge on this subject and I’ve always been impressed with your knack for sharing resources that non-scientists can understand: your share in December of a Norwegian(?) broadcaster explaining nuclear waste containment was incredibly helpful.

      Offline, what’s your approach to educating family, friends, co-workers and random strangers? Any successes or major frustrations?

    • I agree with @mbravo that the term "Save the Planet" is a misnomer. Whatever the environment in the next thousand years, it will be somewhat less harsh for somewhat less time than a meteor impact or Snowball Earth--and that's the history which produced us. The Planet, being inanimate, literally and factually won't notice whether we (or any other species) survive climate change or not. This is a somewhat more selfish and less romantic notion than painting ourselves as the defender of the helpless. I suggest we own it and move on.

      I think much of our difficulty arises from trying to keep things the same rather than adapting to what comes. The most productive thing which can be done is to keep our wits about us and our eyes open. At the same time, we've identified a few causes of change. This suggests some courses of action which can reduce the magnitude of change and the need to adapt. Limiting disruption while being ready to adapt to changes we can't prevent is going to be the balance we need to strike.

      Having said that, here's my approach to limiting disruption:

      An easy and cheap action which doesn't require a bunch of upfront investment or that you turn your life upside down is to plant trees. At scale. Perhaps replanting those which burned up in large climate-change-attributed wildfires. You'll get a better bang for your buck (and access to large swaths of public land) if you outsource:

      Approximately 50,000 miles back, I started commuting with an EV and used some of the savings to switch the house's (and hence the car's) electricity to wind power. There are probably as many ways to buy green power as there are electric companies. I'm using While this is not as direct as having the windmill in your yard or solar panels on your roof, this approach does aggregate individual contributions to support the long term deployment of greener resources at scale. Eventually, once the car's paid off, solar panels will be the next step. These actions are also consistent with the notion that a transition to something other than fossil fuels is coming, so if society doesn't want to hit a brick wall when that happens, we need to develop and get experience with some alternatives. Also note this paragraph describes two separable green techniques, not one. Switching to green power, switching to an EV, or both.

      I don't think my furnace has worked in ten years. My woodstove works, though. Some gas and diesel is required (for chainsaw and pickup), but much less than would be required if I was using the fuel directly for heating. My splitter is manually operated.

      Note that none of these suggestions will measurably move the needle in a single year. They all involve benefits which accumulate over time. One suggestion is a one-time thing which yields benefits over time. The other three change how I meet a need which isn't going away (heat, electricity and/or transportation). In general, these are both viable strategies which ultimately serve long term goals.

    • I have a little 650cc dual sport which gets 50-60MPG. Even the Harley gets upwards of 40. :) These are much better solutions for single person transport than a car...and they're more fun too! Being green doesn't have to be a sacrifice. :)

    • having lived on a tropical farm and spent much of each day in a wet-dry forest ecosystem for the last decade - I am struck by the beauty of the thousand different miraculously adapted species that cohabit the farm. I see their numbers wax and wane over the years in response to seemingly minute changes in rainfall and vegetation cover. It is an almost unspeakable tragedy that one of these species could disappear PERMANENTLY. And yet the climate disaster is imperiling a million species now. I think that is the sort of disastrous outcome that people mean when they say the Earth needs "saving". Aside from whatever collapse in ecosystems impacting our own survivability might ensue from the loss of even a tiny subset of those million species.

    • I just returned from a 5-day trip to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands (for a friend-of-a-friend’s destination wedding). It shocked me into thinking a bit differently than beforehand.

      St. Thomas was hit by two Category 5 storms (Irma and Maria) in quick succession a year-and-a-half ago. Today, the island is basically de-foliated. Gardeners and landscapers have nursed the vegetation at the resorts back to life, but the island itself is grey and battered. Short broken palm tree stumps line the main road. There are many construction zones across the island as re-building is very slow. We drove by many buildings that were still ripped open and damaged/gutted. Roads were in awful shape. Landmarks printed on the maps were missing and in their place were bulldozers moving dirt and refuse around.

      It was an eye-opener.

      When I came home to the high desert, everything looked lush and green (!). I’ve never seen it from quite this perspective before.

      What I gleaned from this trip is that anything I try to do to preserve the planet as we know it is basically futile. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to attempt to change—it just means I realize my efforts to change are more about how I can live with myself than how I can make an impact. (As an aside, I have two nephews who are climbing the corporate ladder at Chevron now. I think there may come a day when they decide to let that part of their resume drop off the back end because the tide of attitudes will surely turn against big oil companies in the next decade or so, just as the #metoo movement has had a huge impact on how certain actions taken for granted at the time are now demonized.)

      My main take-away from this trip has been how stressful these climate catastrophes are on local residents. And THAT is where I may be able to make a difference. Rather than being consumed with performing extraordinary efforts to zero out my own carbon footprint, perhaps making reasonable decisions, being aware, making adjustments, and staying optimistic about the future is a more important service to my children and grandchildren than getting all frantic and militant...? The general stress level in St. Thomas 18 months after these climate catastrophes is palpable. Patience is thin. People are resigned to a new reality. Some feel trapped when before, they felt free.

      Quality of life issues.

      Trying to navigate one’s way through the doomsdayers, the scientists, the politicians, the industrialists, the conservationists, the insurers, et al. is a sure-fire way to become permanently frustrated. I think we may be headed into a future when kindness, patience, community, and selflessness are in shorter supply than plastics and petroleum products.

      But I may be wrong.

    • For me its making the things I want or need. E.g. I needed a lamp to light my craft, so instead of going to the shop and buying one that was made in China and shipped all the way to New Zealand and might last a few years before braking, I made one from a branch the fell in a storm.

      How does one make a lamp from a branch?

      I actually need a new lamp.

      And I’m curious what your finished lamp looks like.


    • This is extraordinary. I didn’t know about them. It’s fascinating to look at the top 10 things and see how large their impact is relative to the others. Food waste...

      Here they are:

    • Perspective matters. E.g. having one less kid DWARFS other methods by impact. But is it the way to go? For everyone? Really hard to say. Also, cascading consequences over time.

    • militant

      15 years ago when I caught the vegan bug it seemed like a miracle everyone would want to know about: you could reverse heart disease! Cure type II diabetes! Surely everyone would want to know, so we organized healthy eating groups & told our friends.

      And then... We began to understand how emotional food is, how some of our friends thought we were being judgy and militant. So we dropped it and minded our own business. I'd order the salmon when eating out with friends to avoid the social awkwardness even though I felt bad about the environmental impact.

      And then... Like podcasts catching on after a decade in obscurity, in the cities I travel to it became okay, even cool, to eat plants — SF, New York, Seattle, London, Paris. The mayor of Mountain View came to eat several times in SmugMug's lunchroom because we promoted plant-based options. He had me speak at Google about it. I ate at LinkedIn's lunchroom last week and they had tons of popular plant-based options.

      So yeah, I lost a few friends along the way from being too enthusiastic (militant) but I made a ton more, saved some lives (!!), and it's getting easier. Worth it.

    • I agree with you about voting. I try to be politically active on issues regarding the environment and meet with local politicians at their rallies and town halls.

      Way back in the 70s when I was a teenager and lake Eerie was dying we had huge environmental marches that resulted in creation of the EPA and major environmental cleanups from toxic mining refuse that poisoned our rivers, to saving the Columbia river basin.

      Industrial lobbies have succeeded in making the EPA into a caricature of government overreach and enemy of the economy, but when you become aware of the good that some politicians and ordinary people can do it is very inspiring.

      Aren't we glad these ordinary women saved The San Francisco Bay from filling with spare tires and junk way back in 1961?

    • So I decided to assemble a panel of folks who seem to have much to say on this question:

      What’s one thing you could realistically do this year to save the planet?

      If you’d like, share what you’re currently doing/not doing, as well as what options you’re considering or have considered.  


      Just a reminder, if you’ve joined the panel and haven’t provided your response to the above question please do so before replying to other comments.


      As moderator, I am applying a light hand to any topic drift as I don’t want to stifle the amazing engagement that’s been going on here. But I genuinely do want to hear everyone’s responses to the panel question. Thank you.


    • I know people have mentioned buying local, particularly food. This is typically associated with fresh and healthy eating as well as lower emissions. Except for harvest time, "fresh" doesn't seem to be the natural result though. Most of the year, local produce will be frozen or canned....Unless you live in the tropics.

      So just out of curiousity, is that part of the local food movement? Buying canned/frozen local food in the off-season instead of fresher food drop-shipped from Mexico or points South? What is the reality of a local-only food system which is not supplemented by imports? It seems more infrastructure is needed than just farmers markets.

      So I'll fess up: I only food shop at Costco and Walmart. I have no idea how either one sources food, but I know december tomatos aren't growing anywhere near me. I'm mainly curious because it seems intuitive that local food is a requirement of a mobility constrained society. How does a local food system North of the 40th parallel (North) produce my morning coffee?

      But answer the panel question first. :)

    • Realistically, there are a number of things I could do that would help, including

      1. Improving my home infrastructure - installing new insulation to reduce heat loss, installing a water barrel to use stored water for gardening, and so on. These things are on my list, but I won't be doing them right away because I have more pressing problems in a leaky basement that needs to be dealt with, first. Installing solar panels on the roof fit into this category already.

      2. Buying an electric car. Having no car would be better, but I need a car for work. As it is, though, I live very close to my office, so I can walk or bike to work, which cuts down on the driving significantly. I drive a fuel-efficient car and only fill up about once a month on average, even with the driving I need to do for work and the occasional road trip. When I next buy a car, chances are it will be electric. But I don't need to buy a car right now.

      3. Fly less. Realistically, I don't need to take vacations to exotic places. But I love to explore the world. My motives are selfish, but I'm not quite ready to take this step. But seriously, there's nothing really preventing me from taking this step apart from making a mental adjustment. This is a difficult one.

      Already doing:

      Low consumer goods consumption, and willing to spend more on products that last, rather than products that are cheap.

      Eat locally grown produce, generally.

      Moving to vegetarianism. Not fully vegan yet, but have greatly reduced meat and by-products intake.

      Live close to work for no emissions commute.

      No A/C.

      Live somewhere that's still below its carrying capacity (though I wonder if were getting close).

      But I frankly wonder if anything I do will really make a difference. My footprint is already pretty small - that's obvious when I drive around and see fleets of commercial vehicles, transport trucks, malls, warehouses, light industry. All that stuff is owned by someone, and those are the people that most need to effect change. I don't see it happening in any hurry.

      The conservative party is back in power in the Province of Ontario and fighting the federal, Liberal, government all the way on climate change. In spite of what we read, there just isn't enough broad support for climate action across the province. Most of the climate oriented thought seems to be coming from the cities, but the cities aren't enough to swing the vote. In the last election, Toronto and most other urban ridings voted for Liberal (the centre party) or NDP (the leftmost major party), but all the rural ridings went Conservative, and they wone the vote. There's little we can do to in cities to swing their votes - for years, we've been discredited for being 'urban elites', our ideas, education, and yes, research, made worthless. There's too much ready belief that environmental policy exists only to 'buy votes' and is a waste of money tax-payer money. I think change will come, but it will take the swing of another generation, which as we all know may be too late. Many of the big ideas (like getting rid of GDP as a measure of economic health, and hence of policy-making) have been around since I was a student in the early 90s. Now, nearly 30 years later, nothing has changed. What hope do we have for rapid change in the next ten? It'll take something big for that to happen - something big and obvious. Or maybe there will be a sea change with the next generation.

      I see the future as a kind of bus station, and there are a bunch of busses hurtling toward the station at the same time. There's the electrification bus, which will greatly reduce emissions. There's the technological singularity bus, which will allow us to leave our physical selves behind for good. There's the anti-aging bus, which will see us live longer, perhaps at the expense of children. There's the automation bus, which will put many of us out of work - it might be a boon or a disaster - maybe both, one after the other. There's the climate change bus, which will bring mass migrations from the poorer countries (already started). And there's the extinction bus, which threatens to destroy our systems in ways we can really understand. Which bus will get here first, I'm not sure. And hopefully some of the busses will get here before the others, so at least we can tell the climate change and the extinction busses we already have a ride, and they can turn around and go back where they came from. Or maybe all the busses will arrive, but most of us will have left the station by the time they do.

    • First of all, thank you APM for inviting me to this panel discussion. Much appreciated. The following is not an attack on your use of the words but an observation on the general use of the words "Saving the Earth".

      The one thing I would do is change the conversation from saving the planet to cleaning it as I believe this would have a net effect of bringing more people into the cause of living on a cleaner planet. I would imagine even the most conservative person would have to pause if you asked them if they would like to live on a clean planet versus if they wanted to save the planet. How many times have semantics or the way we articulate an issue create a problem or affected the ability to solve a problem? This is where I feel we are with the climate change debate. Posturing and positioning on both sides of the isle. Climate Deniers and Tree Huggers called out to elevate a point.

      A staunch republican, Rick Perry in Texas, broke the mold and found wind could be a viable alternative to help power his state regardless of the fact that his was a state rich in fossil fuels. How many others are in the trenches working on technologies to create new forms of clean energy and biodegradable materials in the most unlikely of places? Yes, many are held back by the powers that be but some squeak through. Actually more are squeaking through every day, aren’t they?

      But the only argument to have in my view is what clean technologies could be built to replace dirty ones. Oil, Gas, Plastics. You name it. Find a better way that is affordable and the cream will rise to the top.  Maybe less about removing the old as this just seems to cement a position and more about inviting all sides to the table to get the work done on alternatives that will generate a profit. Yes, those at the very top have a position to hold but there are so many outliers who don’t have a dog in the fight who don’t like to be called out as ones who do not want to save the earth. How many of these people are innovators, engineers, scientists? People who could make a difference who are felt to believe they don’t care. Use dollars to create messaging around inviting these people to the table to partner together to provide a clean place for their children to grow up in. Put people to work on something they can sink their teeth into not just a statement in my humble opinion.

    • But I frankly wonder if anything I do will really make a difference. My
      footprint is already pretty small - that's obvious when I drive around
      and see fleets of commercial vehicles, transport trucks, malls,
      warehouses, light industry. All that stuff is owned by someone, and
      those are the people that most need to effect change.

      I suspect this whole conversation has an element of "preaching to the choir". If someone was likely to upgrade their commuting rig from a little econobox car to a $70k luxury one ton pickup, it seems unlikely that they'd be invited to the panel.

      Summarizing the relevant bits of the conversation so far: We're all responsible for ourselves, and we're not responsible for coercing others to adopt our beliefs or practices. Concurrently, the realization that no matter what, we'll be adapting to residual climate effects which are not mitigated, gives us a little more breathing space (compared to the Chicken Little approach of "we all have to change right now or we're all going to die horrible deaths"). And finally, no matter what the topic--food, "saving the planet", politics, religion--militant coersion actively pushes people away; undermining the core objective of accomplishing change. No one likes to be told what to do.

      It may be beneficial to consider that certain actions could be motivated by more than one reason; then exploiting all of those reasons to appeal to more than one group and accomplish change more broadly. For instance, the disaster preparedness crowd (preppers) pursue green energy mostly from the perspective of self-reliance. It seems that electrification of transportation could be accelerated by appealing to this same perspective (make your own gas!) Assuming most of those inclined towards self-reliance are on the right, you're then talking about advocating the same change from the right and the left.

      But pigeonholing people too quickly ("right"/"left") may lead to other problems. My EV, for instance, has a "Friends of the NRA" license plate. Probably best to learn about the person and figure out how the desired change can serve their needs.

      But back to the main point. In @lidja 's words:

      Rather than being consumed with performing extraordinary efforts to zero
      out my own carbon footprint, perhaps making reasonable decisions, being
      aware, making adjustments, and staying optimistic about the future is a
      more important service to my children and grandchildren than getting
      all frantic and militant...?

    • Offline (and online too), it's very hard to influence people without coming across as preachy, which usually has the exact opposite effect (people dig in their heels when they feel confronted). Instead just presenting a different option with your actions might be much more effective. I drive a 40mpg car, cycle to work (or use public transportation), live in a relatively small apartment, use efficient lighting, try to recycle. I rarely fly more than a couple of times a year. But as far as having a real influence, I'm not sure. Most of my friends and people around me already are pretty similar in their habits.

      Incidentally, just yesterday I came across an article which seems to answer exactly what we're trying to talk about here. Lots of practical and useful advice here:

    • Yep. If there's one thing that anyone should really strive for, its reducing food waste. Besides being literally throwing money away, it's probably the highest-impact change we can individually attain. Food production is incredibly energy and carbon-intensive. Couple less food waste with reduced meat intake and then you're really making a difference.

    • What’s one thing you could realistically do this year to save the planet?

      After mulling for 24's a great question but it was hard for me because I felt there was an implied that you're not doing on the end. I care so deeply about this miraculous blue orb I already do what I believe to be the #1 thing: avoiding animal foods.

      So that brings me to what I'm trying to do this year: avoid single-use plastics. It's hard because they have become such a part of life.