As a biology major, born and raised in Missoula, Montana, Climate Change is not new to me. Proud of our wide open spaces, I think I am aware of the impact I have on the world around me. Thats the goal of a holistic education right? Prompted by an environmental ethics class at Gonzaga, I underwent a personal experiment over the coarse of the semester with intention to account for my carbon footprint. The following is my reflection on this task, suggesting reasons to why simple obstacles remain in the path of mitigating the anthropocentric climate crisis.
One drop in the ocean counts. A carbon footprint, referring to the net weight of carbon released by an entity within a specific time, is a measurable contribution to climate change. With over seven billion people on this planet, these footprints leave a mark. That is not to say we are hopeless to scar the Earth. We are called to account for ourselves in this matter as moral agents. Climate change is a moral issue each and every one of us is wrapped in. Perhaps it is time for me to reassess my own participation in this issue.
Tons of carbon equivalent emissions, CO2e, rack up quickly through participation in polluting activities, consumer choices, and lifestyles. Most of these behaviors are programmed. They are a product of generalized social norms, expectations and practices. They are thoughtless action. The cost of these behaviors on the future is frightening. The effects of this programmed consumerism is not remotely considered in the line item pricing of what can be purchased (“Can Economics Save the Planet?”). In order to reconcile the disconnect between action and effect, proposed economic justifications such as carbon credit offsets, taxes and the sort have been put forth time and time again in a democratic fashion. Unsurprisingly they have been turned down. Unsurprisingly people don’t want to be inconvenienced in a measurable fashion in order to be held accountable for a free-rider problem. Unsurprisingly the majority of people choose the red pill and remain blind to their own power of choice. Unfortunately, the current mode of proposed mitigation is not firmly vested in actual behavioral patterns. The patterns which cumulate CO2e can easily be continued, slipping the recognition of their effect under the run by literally paying a middleman.
The dilemma of a reasonable carbon footprint is both personal and social. What is an acceptable footprint if the average is outside the box? It is essentially impossible not to have some sort of CO2e debit at the end of the year. We exhale carbon dioxide do we not? Even being somewhat conscious of my own contribution to climate change I expected my own account of my behaviors to be less than it was. As an avid outdoorswoman, a re-user of glass, a buy in bulk kind of gal, my carbon footprint measured at +10 tons CO2e each year, leaving me nine more years to live in my carbon budget. The current carbon budget for the next century allocates ~97 tons of CO2e per person for the climate to refrain from warming 2, over which highly devastating change will occur from this positive feedback loop (Hausfather). Prompted to acknowledge my own impact, I began an experiment. I was going to reduce my own carbon footprint, and that of my family in concentrated factual manner. How hard could it be?
Those who are aware of the threat of climate change often view personal habits like leaving the kitchen lights on at night or driving to work, to be central contributors of the footprint. However, this just isn’t so. The issue is much greater than this. The issue of personal involvement in climate change is much more wide reaching. An enormous factor of global CO2e emissions arise from agricultural sector which only accounts for 10% of the surface of the earth (Houghton, 187). Furthermore, this figure is specifically representative of the increased social demand for meat. Sheep and cattle are known to release methane gas due to their biology (enteric fermentation) and chickens and pigs release significant amounts of nitrous oxide (Houghton, 187). The chemical effect on the atmosphere from these gases is enormous. Carbon emissions from livestock production accounts for nearly 15% of the entire global contribution (Henning 165). The prospect of changing this figure is daunting and seems to be found far from the scenery of my own backyard. But this issue isn’t in my backyard at all: it’s in my kitchen, and my pantry, the very muscles that move my body. Choosing to take this challenge into my own hands, I decided my tact to reduce my footprint would be to decrease my meat consumption. “Earth has not evolved solely for our benefit, any changes we make to it at our risk. This way of thinking makes it clear that we have no special human rights; we are merely one of the partner species in the great enterprise of Gaia,” (Ruse 9).
The combination of conscious decision and choice describes the landscape of a moral decision. “You are the sole benefactor of your unjust act,” (Broome 91). While my wallet may afford me as much beef-jerky as my heart desires, my conscious will never be fully emptied of the highway-side feedlot I drove by in New Mexico. The smells stayed in the rental car for miles. The methane gas in the atmosphere for 23 years (Houghton 58). As my experiment preceded, I found myself thinking about the impact of my decisions regularly. I found myself over-intellectualizing my decisions. However, ironically I did not find myself changing my behaviors as much as I would have liked. Rather than falling, dumb and blind, into a pattern of vegetarianism, I seem to have fallen into some cognitive dissonance.
Appreciating the power of personal decision and individual action, I realize how cutting out meat products reduces my impact on the environment. However, I could not give into this simplicity. Changing my very behavior takes a lot more than desire. Perhaps this takes incentive, substitutions or punishment? This is a psychological question that deepens the moral conundrum I felt trapped with. Forgoing something consciously was much more difficult than relinquishing something by accident. Perhaps this is why voluntary simplicity is so beautiful? This was my unconscious aim when I set the goal of reducing my meat intake. “The voluntary simplicity invites us, as a choice, to acknowledge what was there all along,” (Elgin 18). Rather that simplifying my lifestyle, in the way of consumptive choices, I made my life much more psychologically complex. Suddenly acknowledging my ethical position and moral actions within climate change brought a gravity to my actions that paralyzed me. This is embarrassing to admit.
When calculating my annual carbon footprint, I noticed a deficit in individual measurability. The preset assumptions in the EPA, and Berkley calculators may be important to balance out the overall carbon usages of an individual, but small individual efforts like grocery bags—which make a difference—were not factored in. These calculators, even after repetitive use, seem superficial. This makes big technical changes, like installing solar panels, extremely appealing to concerned moral agents. My family seriously discussed installing solar panels at the beginning of this experiment. We guesstimated the size of our roof, averaged the number of hours of light we get every day and talked to neighbors who recently installed solar panels. As life has it, as quickly as the chatter for solar panels began, it dissipated. Winter has set in, and re-roofing the house as well as installing solar panels is definitely off the table.
Given the outcomes, has my experiment been a total failure? I think not. Somehow, my efforts have transcended beyond my own focus. My family, intense meat lovers, a clan that is never soon to give up meat, has had incredible success implementing vegetarian dishes to regular rotation. I am surprised when I call home and hear of a bean dish, or a veggie slow roast on the menu. A major factor to my family’s footprint is the higher than average meat consumption. Leveling out this dietary plan, even mildly, decreased our carbon footprint my one-ton CO2e (“Footprint Calculator”). Along with modifying our family’s habits, I have noticed a deeper appreciation for what is served. My thirteen-year-old brother can sure be a brat, but after breaking up the habituation of what is served for dinner, it seems like he notices what is in front of him. It might be the time of year but “thank you’s” have more sincerity. I see the virtue volunteer simplicity growing at home. “Simplicity is a virtue, we claim, because it furthers human and nonhuman flourishing,” (Gambrel & Cafaro 95). In fact, my family seems to be recalibrating itself. Letting go of physical items, clearing out old junk and making space. Room to celebrate, to live and to breathe.
My own recalculation may have showed no change, but my experience brought about valuable reflection that exceeds numbers. This experiment has led me to question my own code towards environmental ethics. Behaviors and habits don’t change easily overnight. I am surprised by my difficulty in adopting lifestyle changes that reflect my own moral values. This may indicate just how deeply my culture incorporates consumerism and environmentally taxing habits. On a positive note, this project has increased my awareness of the technical solutions at hand that I can employ daily to account for my moral character. Most importantly, I realize that each step I take to lighten my carbon footprint makes a difference. While the free-rider problem was an obstacle at the beginning of this project, I am beginning to see how my drop of water belongs to the sea.
Broome, John. “Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World.” W.W. Norton. Pp85-96.2012.
“Can Economics Save the Planet.” Yes on I631, Clean Air and Clean Energy Initiative,
Clean talk I-1631. 9, Wolff Auditorium, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA. September 9, 2018.
Elgin, Duane. “Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich.” Harper,2. 2010.
“Footprint Calculator.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. July 14, 2016. https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/
Gambrel, Joshua C., Cafaro, Philip. “The Virtue of Simplicity.” Journal of Agricultural Environmental Ethics 23:85—108. 2009
Hausfather, Zeke. “How much ‘carbon budget is left to limit warming to 1.5C?”. CarbonBrief on Climate. 9 April 2018. https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-how-much-carbon-budget-is-left-to-limit-global-warming-to-1-5c
Henning, Brian G. Riders in the Storm: Ethics in an Age of Climate Change. Anselm Academic. 2015.
Houghton, John. Global Warming: The Complete Edition.5thed. Cambridge University Press. 2015.