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By Sherry Listgarten

Can Americans Be Green?

Uploaded: Feb 9, 2019

If you think the online comments in this paper can get snarky, you should read some of the popular climate authors. For example: “Rich people emit more carbon, even when they recycle and buy canvas tote bags full of organic veggies.” (1) Reading about climate is hard enough without the smack talk.

But the statement is essentially true. Historically the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions have come from wealthy countries. (2) And even today, the wealthiest 10% in the world generate 50% of emissions, while the poorest 50% generate only 10% of emissions. (3) Which begs the question: Can Americans be green?

There are basically two schools of thought on that: Yes and No. To add a bit more context… The “Yes” school of thought says it is perfectly possible for us to be green, because we are increasingly decoupling lifestyle from emissions. Technologies like electric vehicles and renewable energy and bio-engineered meat are here now, and many more are on the way. With the wealthy as early and eager adopters, emissions will get to where they need to be without much change in lifestyle needed. The “No” camp, on the other hand, refers to this as “magical thinking”, and warns that emissions are too pervasive and heterogeneous to be waved away by a technical magic wand. We are under too much time pressure to wait for new innovations, let alone proven ones without unintended consequences. Hope is not a strategy. Hair shirts all around, and Cut. Back. Now.

Not that there’s any real disagreement or anything...

My two cents: Of course Americans can be green, and even spectacularly green. But it helps to be smart about where we put our “green” effort, and we should extend a hand to others.

On that first part, our efforts to be planet-friendly are not always effective. As David Roberts of Vox puts it: “Study after study finds that the primary determinant of a person’s actual ecological footprint is income. After that is geography (rural versus urban), various socioeconomic indicators (age, education level, etc.), and household size. Self-identification as “green” is toward the bottom of the list, with mostly marginal effects.” (1)

That is easy enough to change. You can be (really, truly) green by focusing on just a few things: gas-powered car travel, air travel, diet (especially beef consumption), and home heating. Some may be easier to lower than others, but they are all significant. To simplify and magnify your emission reductions, tackle those things first.

But there’s also a next step. As Naomi Klein writes: “Plenty of people are attempting to change their daily lives in ways that do reduce consumption. But if these sorts of demand-side emissions reductions are to take place on anything like the scale required, they cannot be left to the lifestyle decisions of earnest urbanites who like going to farmers’ markets on Saturday afternoons and wearing upcycled clothing. We will need comprehensive policies and programs that make low-carbon choices easy and convenient for everyone.” (4)

So, in between contemplating your home heating, think about how to amplify your impact. Vote! Donate. Advocate at work. Talk with your neighbors. Realign your investments. Lobby your politicians. Whatever you can figure out.

Kermit was right -- it’s not easy being green. Especially in this area, where carbon-intensive activities are often taken for granted, be it how we live, vacation, raise our kids, or even feed our dogs (5). It can feel complicated and stressful. But if you are able to reduce just the top four or five sources of emissions to near zero, it will have a tremendous impact. And you don’t have to do it all at once. I haven’t figured out how to swap our home heating to electric yet, so I’ve adjusted the thermostat and will learn about my options. I’m not sure what to do about flights, besides offsetting. But I’m thinking about it, and will do better next year.

And that’s okay. The point is, anyone can make a real start at this -- American or not, rich or poor -- and keep at it. This blog is called “A New Shade of Green” in part because “green” needs to lose its sense of being an optional do-gooder luxury, and become more a mundane part of everyone’s life. Maybe it helps to think of it as being about planetary health. Or population safety. Or good citizenship. Maybe for you it’s all of the above. One thing it is, for sure, is doable.

Coming up next week: All about methane

References and notes

1. A 2017 article in Vox by David Roberts:

2. Over half the historical emissions (through 2011) have come from the US and EU: Today, developing nations, especially China, are having more of an impact, though the US and EU continue to be among the top few contributors.

3. A 2015 Oxfam report on carbon inequality:

4. Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”, chapter 2.

5. Pet food has a surprisingly large (and growing) footprint. As always, there are many good options to reduce the emissions, starting with local sourcing, not overfeeding, and avoiding beef and lamb.

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