As the White House climate page goes dark, replaced with a pledge to maximize fossil fuel production and consumption, these times challenge one’s personal commitment to live sustainably. After all, if your electoral system just installed a leader and legislature whose platform is a rejection of climate science and the emphatic rejection of any measures to avoid disasterous climate change, why bother taking individual measures to reduce your carbon footprint to a sustainable level, when your actions will be swamped by national policy changes?
But I plan to keep living on my 4-ton annual carbon budget, despite the inconsequentialism argument against it. For me, it’s a matter of personal ethics, not consequentialist ethics — just an internalization of the basic rule that one should not harm other people for one’s own gain, and a variation of the golden rule – live with an environmental footprint that you would have the rest of the world live with. In my small way I want to help redefine the “good life” in a small carbon footprint, non-consumerist way. Think of it as conspicuous non-consumption.
Despite the Trumpification of America, not much has changed to the inconsequentialism of individual climate action. Individual carbon reductions still won’t forestall global catastrophe unless enough individuals take action. We still live in a nation in which 1) a majority of voters support the candidate who takes climate change seriously; 2) our government and regulatory system does not take climate change seriously enough to adopt effective mitigation measures (even the Paris Accord and Clean Power Plan fall short); 3) it’s going to take some serious social change to develop the political consensus we need to move away from fossil fuels and mitigate climate change.
The best way to avoid smoking-induced lung cancers is to stop smoking. The best way to avoid fossil fuel induced climate disaster is to stop buying and burning fossil fuels. I am living a great life on a 4-ton carbon budget – I get to work every day, sleep warm every night, travel to beautiful places, eat well, stay fit. I don’t have to live in a hole in the ground to live sustainably. It is part of who I am.
To paraphrase MLK, the arc of the energy economy bends towards renewability. Like the moral arc, it may not be a straight line, and for two steps forward we may take half a step back. It is up to each of us individually to help bend the arc in every small way we can.
Meanwhile, this clock keeps ticking. And I spent time this week downloading and saving my favorite EPA and EIA pages on greenhouse gas emissions of individual activities.