The previous chapter took on the affluent. So am I suggesting that we all roam around half-naked and forage for berries? Obviously not (note: I am not opposed to berries).
What am I suggesting is a balance—one where we allocate excess income, to use a term beloved by economists, in ways that don't involve the acquisition of things that disproportionately damage the environment.
Yes, it is better for the planet if you have solar panels on your house. What is even better is to not thirst for a 50 percent bigger home. Do you really need that giant SUV? Do you really need all the clothes in your closet? Do you really need a new iPhone every year? We know the answers.
Things don't buy you happiness
The 2017 World Happiness Report found that Americans are the unhappiest they've been since 2005. Despite our consumption steadily rising along with our GDP during that time, we are still no more content with our lives. If we're not actually deriving any joy from our overconsumption, then cutting back may not be as much of a sacrifice as it's made out to be.
I am not suggesting we all wear hair shirts and live like monks, nor am I proposing any kind of self-flagellation to repent for the damage our consumption has caused. What I am proposing is balance: getting comfortable with desiring only what we really need.
Despite living in a world with plentiful sustainable products up for grabs, the notion of sustainable consumption is almost always an oxymoron. So how can we as consumers use our buying power in a way that lessens the environment's destruction? This chapter should help you find out.
You have options!
It's certainly unrealistic to expect that we will all dramatically reduce our carbon emissions overnight—even if we did in the pandemic—but being intentional about a smaller carbon footprint can and will make a huge impact. For your convenience, I'll outline six methods of cutting your emissions — there are countless more, but think of this as inspiration.
As I outlined previously in Hope In Faraway Lands, manufacturing electronics is hardly environmentally friendly. 58kg is emitted from the production of each new iPhone, and the power required to charge the device over its lifetime adds a further 12kg of to the atmosphere. On average, we only keep these phones for two years, meaning that every time we buy a new phone, we release as much into the atmosphere as we would if we kept our previous device for a whole decade. Why is upgrading so much more emissions-intensive? Because the majority of emissions produced during manufacturing comes from mining the elements needed to create a new device.
Don't fret, there's a really simple solution: keep your phone for longer! Consumers can help the planet by holding on to their devices for four years instead of the average two, which could decrease a phone's environmental impact by up to 40 percent.
As much as this solution makes sense, it isn't possible for many of us whose smartphones are victims of planned obsolescence. By designing phones that aren't meant to last, technology companies encourage consumers to continue buying brand-new devices. But there's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater—certain parts of a phone can be replaced if they are no longer working correctly, and it costs both our wallets and the environment much less to repair than it does to renew.
The average person in the United States will drive enough to circle the planet at least once during the next three years, spending an average of 6 percent of their waking day inside their car. It's no surprise, then, that Americans drive the most out of anyone in the world. Since driving has become such an integral part of life in the US, car manufacturers have designed larger, more comfortable—and therefore less fuel-efficient—cars.
The sad truth is that unless you live in a few lucky urban centers where access to public transport is widespread, you most likely have to drive everywhere. It's not your fault that the US places a high cultural value on cars, and that there is likely no other option but to own an automobile. My point is not to eulogize public transport infrastructure but to explain that despite its demise we can—and should—make personal choices that lessen our carbon footprint caused by driving.
So should you immediately send your car off to be destroyed? Not exactly, and not just because only a certain portion of an automobile can be recycled—but in a country where the population of cars increased 50 percent more than the population of people in 2017, we have a big challenge ahead of us if we want to limit our carbon footprint. Specifically, we must stop buying so many SUVs, or Sport Utility Vehicles.
In the last ten years, SUV sales have skyrocketed—there were only 35 million SUVs on the road in 2010, and now there are 200 million. Most of these SUVs are neither particularly sporty or especially utile, unfortunately. Instead, they are filled to the brim with luxurious features, are heavier than they have ever been, and are more fuel-hungry than ever. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, SUVs are second only to the power industry in increasing the US's CO2 emissions between the years 2010 and 2018.
While 2020 saw a higher number of people buying electric cars, the sad reality is that the fuel emissions saved by using electric cars have been unable to neutralize the heavy emissions of SUVs. Which, if any, actions can we all take if we want to make a personal change?
According to cultural anthropologist Julian Vigo, car drivers should be asking themselves not which model of car they need but rather if they need one at all. If you are able, then getting rid of your car altogether is the most environmentally friendly way to reduce your emissions. If you can't go without a car, then an electric vehicle (EV) is your best option. If the sticker price of an EV is prohibitive, then a smaller, fuel-efficient car is your next best bet—and only under very rare circumstances should you decide to purchase an SUV.
In The Rich Must Change, I mentioned the environmental impact of powering large homes. Unless you own a 15,000 square foot mansion, you don't have to worry about emitting 190 tons of annually just by living in your house. But no matter the size of your home, you can still significantly lower its carbon footprint.
In the past forty years, the average home in the US has increased in size by 1000 sq. ft. Paradoxically, American families have reduced in size, so the space that each of us occupies is growing. The energy we consume when we live in these large spaces is also rising. Dr. Maria Saxton, whose Ph.D. research focused on the ecological benefits of downsizing, claims that reducing the square footage of one's home not only improves domestic energy consumption but also improves one's overall sustainability; by reducing the amount of space we live in—even by a thousand sq. ft.—Saxton claims that our shopping, eating, social, and hygiene habits could be completely reconceptualized. The answer to living greener could be as simple as living smaller!
A radical version of Dr. Saxton's recommended lifestyle has developed in the past decade in the form of the Tiny House Movement. While there are no hard rules, tiny homes usually range in size from 100–400 sq. ft., and many are towable. Dr. Saxton's research into the movement actually verified that living in a tiny home almost halves a person's ecological footprint — emissions produced by powering the home alone could drop from 28,000 lbs of per year to just 2,000. Additionally, Dr. Saxton determined that 366 million acres of "biologically productive land" could be preserved if just 10 percent of Americans opted to live in a tiny home.
Given the massive amounts of energy and resources it takes to build a house, it would be ridiculous to tear them all down and replace them with smaller, energy-efficient homes—this is not what I'm proposing. If you do live in a home that's on the larger side and you want to reduce emissions, there is another option: installing smart devices.
By welcoming interconnected smart devices into our homes, we could optimize consumption. We can schedule our lights and TVs to switch off at a certain time, arrange our heat to go off at a specific temperature, or ensure our air conditioning switches off when we're not at home.
The cumulative effect of these small energy savings is sizable: users of a particular energy-saving smart product were found to save 11.3 percent of air-conditioning-related energy demand each day in California.
The full potential of smart devices on energy efficiency is still being realized, and soon we will be able to rely on smart devices for much more than energy optimization. But, if you want to reduce your emissions in the meantime, there's another very easy way: leave your thermostat alone — if we learn to live with a slightly colder home in the winter and a slightly balmier one in the summer, we could reduce our domestic energy consumption by up to half.
The environmental destruction caused by aviation is a recurring theme in this book, so let me provide some alternatives to reduce the emissions we produce from flying.
A physical handshake seems to hold a lot of weight in the business world—a majority of the increase in flights throughout the past decade has been due to business. In The Story of More, environmental scientist Hope Jahren writes that Americans are boarding two million more flights than they were in 2003, an increase that is almost entirely driven by business travel.
In place of physically traveling to a meeting location, teleconferencing can substitute for many in-person meetings. While previously it was thought of as a poor replacement for physical presence, COVID-19 has forced many businesses to rely on teleconferencing and adopt infrastructural changes that encourage its continuation far past the pandemic—these measures could be up to sixty-six times less carbon-intensive than a face-to-face meeting!
Not all meetings can be done digitally, of course. For short distances, traveling by train presents a more energy-efficient alternative to air travel. But ultimately, as I said, I'm not advocating that we never set foot on an airplane again, just that we are more thoughtful about how often we do it.
Food production accounts for thirty percent of the world's total global emissions. The farming of livestock is a particularly high generator of greenhouse gas emissions, whereas growing vegetables produces a relatively small amount. Americans are particularly voracious meat-eaters, but there's hope: according to a Yale School of Public Health report, a majority of Americans claim they would consider following a more sustainable diet, and I've already mentioned in Changing Behavior Works that plant-based diets are becoming mainstream. But how do we start? Two simple steps: eat less meat, and consume less altogether!
For many, going completely meat-free is a non-starter, but according to The Story of More, if every American cut their red meat and poultry intake by half (from four to two pounds per week—still much more than most other countries), it would free up 150 million tons of grain currently being used to feed livestock. In turn, this could increase the world's grain supply by up to fifteen percent and allow for a more equal distribution of grain globally. Opting instead to consume plant-based protein alternatives like legumes, pulses, nuts, and beans is much less carbon-intensive.
Overall food consumption is also a problem, specifically in the US where almost 40 percent of the food supply goes to waste each year. Most of this food waste is caused by oversized meal portions and over-purchasing of goods. Overconsumption has also contributed to the US's obesity epidemic, which currently affects almost half of all Americans. In fact, the average American eats 15 percent more food by mass than they did in just 1980—it's no wonder that the energy needed to produce the huge amounts of food we require is so carbon-intensive. But, by consuming less of it—especially at the grocery store before purchasing—and relying less on meat products, we can dramatically reduce our food-related emissions.
As suggested by the idiom "one man's trash is another man's treasure," one successful method of reducing our consumption is to give away the items that no longer serve us. One recent iteration of this method is the Buy Nothing movement, a community-oriented initiative in which members list their unwanted items on social media and can claim what they need from the group's pool. The practice ensures that more than one person gets the full benefit of a product before it reaches the end of its life, hence increasing its sustainability. Over one million people participate in this practice in twenty-five countries, particularly in urban centers, and the movement is expected to grow as people become more conscious of their environmental impacts.
But not all of us have access to a community gift economy. One option is to "buy green," which usually includes purchasing items at a premium price with the knowledge that the supply chain is less carbon-intensive. If you really need something—no one is telling you that you can't buy it. But don't buy just to feel something. As I mentioned before, our habit of consumption doesn't actually make us happy. In fact, the opposite is true: when we abstain from purchasing, we feel more content with what we have. In short, "buying green" isn't necessarily good for your wellbeing, nor is it much better for the planet. Not buying at all, if possible, is the way forward!
Does this actually work?!
In theory, a life of modest consumption sounds ideal for the environment—but is it practical? When I interviewed Kevin Ummel, a research affiliate at the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of Just Frugality, he argued that this way of life was both practical and more fulfilling.
Ummel's own life is a good example of "efficient use of resources to maximize happiness." He lives in Colorado and considers himself and his wife "semi-retired," with each working up to twenty hours per week. They bring in $70k per year and save $40k of it. Excluding their housing costs, they spend a total of $22k per year and live comfortably with their son and dog.
While overall wellbeing does rise with income, to paraphrase Ummel, that relationship sees diminishing returns at about the $80k income mark. Past a certain point, consumption becomes "low quality"—it’s still carbon-intensive but does not actually increase happiness. Reducing this low-quality consumption, especially by the wealthy, could reduce emissions, but it also signals to those in lower-income brackets that there is a ceiling to the amount of happiness that can be "purchased."
The ability to live well on less, says Ummel, must be modeled by those who define societal aspirations. In other words, as we've already discussed, the rich have to change.
Setting the model
In The Story of More, Hope Jahren ends her narrative of climate change by telling the reader: “Do not be seduced by lazy nihilism. It is precisely because no single solution will save us that everything we do matters.”
Not all of these solutions will apply to you, nor will they be practical for your situation. The point remains: you can still dramatically change your consumption habits without entering a life of monkhood.
Of course, if you want to be a monk, that is also your prerogative!
Regardless of individual environmental impact—imagined or real—our sustainable actions can also inspire our peers. I've alluded repeatedly in this book to Girard's mimetic desire theory, and its relevance applies here too: if you can be the behavioral model for your peer group, you can change how they think about their consumption.
- Study | Redefining Scope: The True Environmental Impact of Smartphones?
- Report | Guide to Greener Electronics