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NY Climate Week – The Power of Imperfection

Change the politics not the climate protest sign

In observing Climate Week we’re sharing excerpts from some of our climate-related titles. Today’s comes from Sami Grover’s We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now, discussing the imperfection of our efforts, and why that can be an amazingly powerful tool in the struggle for climate justice.

Excerpted from We're All Climate Hypocrites Now

The Power of Imperfection

Recognizing that our behaviors are shaped by the structures we inhabit isn’t about passing the buck. And accepting our imperfections isn’t about assuaging our guilt or giving ourselves excuses to keep on doing as we please.

It’s simply about becoming more effective as activists. By embracing our supposed hypocrisies, we undermine the arguments of our opponents — those who would use our shortcomings as an excuse for doing nothing. More importantly, in doing so, we are also able to get a better handle on exactly what the path to society-wide decarbonization might look like. The point is not to ignore what we can and should be doing in our personal lives.

Instead, it’s to see those actions within the true context that gives them both meaning and power — and that’s in how they help shape the world around us.

Finnish social innovation experts Jussi Impiö, Satu Lähteenoja, and Annina Orasmaa, of the think tank Demos, have coined the term “carbon handprint” to help conceptualize the idea of measuring not just our negative impact, but also the positive influence that each of us has in moving toward society-wide decarbonization. It’s a powerful idea that’s worth repeating: rather than just measuring our success in terms of being less bad, we can start to think about our impact in more positive terms.

Here are some of the ways that I’ve tried to do that in my life, and what a similar approach might look like for yours (I have included a list of recommended resources, organizations, and actions at the end of the book for those wanting more).

Lead From Where You Stand

My suggestion for anyone looking to make a difference is to start not with a generic top ten list of How to Cut Your Carbon. It’s not even to focus on your own carbon footprint at all. Instead, take a frank and honest look at where you have the greatest opportunity to create wider-scale change:

  • What does your social network look like, and how can you have an influence over those you love?
  • What issues, organizations, or activist groups are you drawn to, and how could you get more involved?
  • What opportunities do you have at work, at school, or in your community?
  • What power, privilege, or advantages do you enjoy that you could leverage in service of the movement?
  • What strengths, skills, or knowledge do you bring to the climate fight?
  • What do you love doing? What sustains and motivates you over the long term?
  • And, crucially, what forces stand in your way, and what needs to happen for those forces to go away?

You’ll have plenty of time to learn about how you currently cause harm. Yet I believe you should start with an expansive and ambitious view of where your unique power lies.

Yes, Your Footprint Does Still Matter

Once you have that understanding of where you find yourself in the world, there is indeed value in understanding the nature of your carbon footprint. Not only will it allow you to identify some specific ways that you can meaningfully reduce it, but it may also help you get a better understanding of where the system gets in your way. When I calculated my carbon footprint for the first time, for example, I was shocked by how much my work-related travel contributed. This realization led me to have conversations that changed my employer’s travel policies. The trick is to think about a low-carbon footprint not as an end goal in itself — after all, your carbon footprint is infinitesimally small when looked at in isolation. Instead, the calculation becomes a useful metric for identifying which behavior changes are significant enough to really put pressure on the wider system, and which behavior changes are onerously hard or unattractive and therefore may require a systems-level intervention.

Think you can give up flying? Go ahead and do it. But even if you can’t, consider cutting back on the number of flights you take or — if you happen to be privileged enough for this to be relevant — switching even some of your journeys from business class to economy.

Think you can live without a car? All power to you. But even if you can’t, find ways to use your car less, or switch to a greener model. Remember, your goal is not to get your own footprint to zero so you can feel better about yourself. It’s to do what you can to put pressure on the system, and in doing so to reach tipping points that ignite change, eventually making it easier for everyone to do the right thing. Whatever you do though, be careful not to take it too far.

Focus on Your Net Impact — And Make It Positive

For a brief moment in my early twenties, I found myself living alone in a tiny, practically windowless apartment on the outskirts of Bristol, England. Already worried about the impact of climate change, I started a rather depressing personal habit: once darkness fell, I would turn out the lights and spend the evening listening to my hand-crank solar radio in the dark.

Meg Ruttan Walker — the Canadian activist I spoke to about baby-shaming in Chapter 5 — has described extreme efforts to eliminate our own footprint as being somewhat reminiscent of an eating disorder, a condition with which she herself has struggled. We can become so obsessed with our own complicity, or our disgust at the state of the world, that we focus almost exclusively on purifying ourselves of the ills we see around us, rather than actually fixing those ills on a societal level. Such extreme asceticism is difficult to sustain for most of us. Instead, I personally have chosen to measure my progress based on three simple questions:

  • Firstly, where can I have the biggest positive impact on the climate fight?
  • Secondly, how and where can I meaningfully reduce my carbon footprint within the societal context I inhabit?
  • And thirdly, on balance, am I doing more good than harm in moving our society forward?

We will eventually all have to find our way down to zero emissions within the next couple of decades. But decarbonization is a society-wide undertaking. It’s not incumbent on any one of us to get too far out in front.

Double Down Before Diversifying

Because the climate crisis is all encompassing, it can quickly become overwhelming. Instead of trying to tackle all aspects of your own lifestyle at once, I recommend first looking to deepen the impact of whatever part of the fight you have chosen to focus on.

  • Passionate about composting? Look for ways you can take that passion and spread your influence to others — by starting a composting program at your kids’ school, for example, or teaching co-workers how to make a worm bin.
  • Started biking to work? Look for other cyclists you can connect with, join a bike advocacy group, or engage with your elected representatives about cycling policy.
  • Cutting back on conference travel? Talk to conference organizers about developing virtual alternatives, create tips and resources for co-workers who would like to do the same, and work with your employer or professional affinity groups to create permission structures for everyone to travel less.

Above all, remember that our behaviors and our decisions are governed by structures and influences that are bigger than any one of us can control. That’s why it’s important to calibrate your efforts so that they put pressure on those structures and help pave the way for others to follow. (And don’t forget to get out there and vote!)

Connect the Dots

Even as we specialize in our own particular area of focus, we can and must learn to connect the dots with what others are doing too. More focused on cutting your own carbon footprint? Great — but try to show up to a protest or two and support those who are fighting Big Oil. More interested in direct action or community organizing? Chances are you can find a little time in your life to also set up a composting system, or use your car less. The point in concentrating your effort into one or two areas of intense focus is not to suggest that other areas do not matter. Instead, it’s to start seeing yourself as one part of a much bigger movement, and to trust that others are working on this too.

Be Kind to Yourself

When Naomi Klein addressed the students at the College of the Atlantic during their commencement address in 2015 (referenced in Chapter 2), she took a moment to explore one of the thorniest challenges of the climate crisis:

“One of the real dangers of being brilliant, sensitive young people who hear the climate clock ticking loudly is the danger of taking on too much. Which is another manifestation of that inflated sense of our own importance.”

As an example, she referenced a recent phone call she had had with a young protester who, during that very call, was suspended from a bridge, blockading an oncoming oil drilling vessel. While most of us would look up to that protester as a hero, this young woman was — according to Klein — in tears. She just wasn’t sure if she was really doing enough. While the example may be extreme, the principle behind it is widely and deeply felt: “Am I ever doing enough?”

On the one hand, this is a valuable question. This is, after all, an emergency. Yet unlike a house fire — where the decisions we make might literally mean immediate life or death for ourselves and those around us — we must recognize what is, and what is not, in our power. The climate crisis is going to last a very, very long time. We’re going to be living in it for the rest of our lives. I strongly recommend picking your battles carefully.

Don’t Judge (Except for the Real Assholes)

If we’re going to be kind to ourselves, then we need to extend that courtesy to others too. As we’ve already seen, there is much power to be had in choosing not to fly — and in teaming up with others to encourage wiser travel choices. Yet I believe we need to be careful about blanket pronouncements or divisive attempts at claiming the higher ground. Likewise, the act of going vegan or living car-free can be liberating and incredibly meaningful. Yet we need to recognize that berating others is unlikely to get them on our side. There is just no way we can build a movement on the scale that is needed if we are going to spend our time policing each other for perceived, personal transgressions that are largely accepted and even actively encouraged by the wider world around us. Instead, channel your energies into understanding the barriers that prevent others from acting — and then fight like hell to abolish them. And yes, that does include shaming the hell out of the powerful entities that have profited from business as usual.

Remember, this isn’t simply a moral calculation about who is actually “guilty.” It is primarily a tactical decision about deploying judgment where it will be most effective. As Jennifer Jacquet explained to me in Chapter 5, shame is a limited resource. So remember to use it wisely.

Author Sami Grover

Sami Grover is a green lifestyle blogger and self-confessed eco-hypocrite. He has spent most of his life trying to live a greener lifestyle and has written more than 2,000 articles covering everything from electric bike ownership to peeing on your compost heap. Yet he has only been marginally successful in reducing his own environmental impact. Active in the sphere of good-for-the-world business, he has developed branding projects for clients including Burt's Bees, Dogwood Alliance, and Jada Pinkett Smith. He believes that, in order to make a difference, each of us has to identify our greatest point of leverage and focus our efforts there. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and kids. CA.

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