Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why the little things matter, or the paradox of green

Who hasn't bought a cup of coffee on their way to somewhere, only to feel a little twinge of guilt when it comes time to toss the cup? Of course, some people do bring their own coffee mugs--but I don't buy coffee nearly often enough to justify lugging a thermos around. It's a rare morning that I need an extra boost.

OK, so it's one little cup. Big deal. Right?

One little cup.

It matters because nobody makes one little cup at a time. Companies buy huge stacks of (hopefully recycled) paper and roll, glue, and print hundreds of thousands of these at a time. You'd have to swear off paper cups for the rest of your life in order to make any sort of dent in their profits--and they probably wouldn't even notice.

This is why everybody has to do something to help the cause, whatever that may be. One vegetarian meal a week. Bringing your own mug to Starbucks--if there's still one around. Buying something organic once a week.

But the paradox is--the easier you make it for people to go green, the harder it is for society as a whole to become green. Someone may decide that once a week, they'll have a vegetarian meal. Which is a great start--I'm not questioning that. But what if they decide, too, that that's the end?

We make a big deal of little changes--it's hard for people to change dramatically, if you make them feel guilty about it they'll just turn away. This is true. But we also have to realize that when it comes to environmental impact, scale matters. One person committing himself to an lacto-ovo vegetarian lifestyle removes meat from fourteen meals a week (assuming that two meals a day have some kind of dead animal tissue in it). It would take fourteen people to commit themselves to one vegetarian meal a week to make that same impact. Has anybody done the math to see just how many partial-vegetarians it would take to equal the effect of one vegetarian? Because I'm almost certain that the number is higher than we would like to think it is...

Little things matter, but do they also make it more difficult for society as a whole to become more green? We'd have to slash emssions by 80% to keep the atmosphere below 450 ppb CO2. I'm sorry, but you're not slashing emissions 80% by turning your lights off, or even by hypermiling your car (unless you're insanely good at it). Yet we keep hearing that such things are enough, that if enough people could do just that one thing, it'll be okay.

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