The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


New Year, New Habit

Every year around this time, TV and radio shows about how to change one’s habits get popular. I’m hereby jumping on the bandwagon.

I don’t like New Year’s resolutions, especially not with respect to the climate. They are too often focused on self-improvement projects, an attempt to make ourselves feel better by escaping guilt or shame–quit smoking, lose ten pounds, whatever we feel bad about. Climate change is not about feeling bad. The sky doesn’t care whether we are good people. We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball and not get distracted by our feelings. But doing something about climate change means making lifestyle changes and getting involved politically–in other words, changing habits. So, any advice that works for making New Year’s resolutions stick should help here as well.

I’m working off of two interviews from previous years with the author of Habits: How They Form and How to Break Them, Charles Duhigg, one on Talk of the Nation, the other on Fresh Air. My intention is not particularly to endorse this book, though it does sound good, but rather to endorse the approach that the author claims to have used; first research how humans establish habits and then use that information to develop ways to establish better habits. The more common method, as far as I can tell, is for a self-styled expert to develop a technique that makes intuitive sense based on his or her preconceived ideas. Some of these techniques work, at least for some people, but it’s kind of hit-or-miss.

Mr. Duhigg says that habits are essentially automatic behaviors–the brain saves energy by putting some tasks on autopilot. This is why it’s possible to drive to work and not remember anything about the trip and why it’s possible to watch oneself eat an entire package of cookies without actually wanting to eat any of them–habitual behaviors, like getting ready for work or pulling cookies out of a box while watching TV, are not directed by the part of the brain that makes conscious decisions. Habits automatically engage whenever triggered by a pre-arranged trigger, like the morning alarm-clock. The more times a habit is repeated, the stronger the neurological connections that make it grow, and the more fully automatic the behavior becomes.

Forming habits is not bad–our conscious decision power has better things to do than ponder every possible decision point in our day over and over again (when you brush your teeth, which tooth do you start with? Which shoe do you put on first? Do you put the cereal or the milk in the bowl first?). The objective isn’t to do away with habits but to make sure that the habitual behaviors are actually things you want to do.

Mr. Duhigg’s advice for forming new habits centers around avoiding the triggers for the old habits and creating triggers for new habits. I’ve done this–my trigger for exercising first thing in the morning is an alarm that goes off at six in the morning. If I sleep in, however, that triggers my old morning habit instead, one that doesn’t involve exercise. There is no magic time-frame for forming a new habit (any that you may hear, like 21 days, is made-up), but the longer you pair a behavior sequence with a trigger, the stronger the association will be in your brain.

In my experience, it is important to treat good habits as a thing one has to keep, not a thing that keeps itself. It’s like tending a small fire that might go out if not fed–the new habit has some momentum, so over time it begins to get easier to do, but you still have to work on it.  Think in terms of protecting the new-born habit by pairing the new activity with its trigger every single time. Do not try to break the old habit by an act of will–that won’t work, because habits are what we do when the will turns off. Instead, apply the will towards building the new habit.

Places where building new habits might be relevant to climate change:

  • Turning off unneeded lights
  • Planning car trips so as to minimize gas use
  • Planning meals so as to eat locally, seasonally, and largely vegetarian
  • Turning off the water heater and other household heating and cooling units before overnight trips
  • Doing laundry three days before you need the clothes so as to be able to line-dry
  • Reading about climate issues regularly
  • Writing letters to Congress-people regularly.

Of course, different people’s circumstances generate different lists–if you can’t afford a car, for example, then minimizing gas use might not be an issue….

But the point is that if you’re looking at changing your behavior, a good place to start is to learn about how human behavior works–how habits work and how decisions work. I’ve often noticed that many self-described environmentalists simply neglect seemingly obvious steps. For example, I was at an event this morning where the organizers provided refreshments complete with disposable Styrofoam cups. Why not recyclable paper cups? Why not encourage participants to bring their own? Maybe the foam cups are just an unexamined habit?

I started this discussion with a single book–but there are others. It’s that time of year, so you should have no trouble finding additional advice.

To whatever you might find, I add a piece from my own experience;

What you plan to change your behavior, plan what to do if you do the old behavior instead. For example, if you want to switch to re-usable shopping bags, establish a trigger for your new habit of grabbing the bags on your way out–but also plan what you are going to do if you do not grab your bags. What I do is awkwardly carry my groceries out in my hands, with no bags at all. Do that a few times and you will stop forgetting!

Some people agree to pay friends money if they slip up or otherwise establish some concrete motivator.

But do whatever works for you.




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A Modest Proposal

The Climate Action Network (CAN) has publicly said we need to phase out fossil fuels entirely, and soon. I’ve been saying the same in this blog since its inception. The recent climate march in New York City may have made the media sit up and take notice, and might possibly have encouraged our political leaders to take some meaningful steps, but most of those steps are still babyish.

As individuals, we can reduce our carbon footprint–and many of us have. But realistically, individual lifestyle change is a luxury of the relatively well-off. A person who is busy struggling to feed three kids and keep the heat on can’t buy a Prius or demand a job accessible by bicycle. It’s also true that even among those who are able, radical lifestyle change seldom appeals to more than a small minority of people. Individual change is therefore not enough. National and international leadership is necessary, but it isn’t enough, either. We need community-level change–towns, counties, states, and regions.

There is the Transition Movement, which I’ve written about before, but it is a fairly distinct thing–it has its own priorities and philosophy that might not appeal to everybody and might not be the best way to approach every community’s situation. I’d like to see a lot of transition movements, a lot of different interrelating approaches to the ultimate goal of getting communities off fossil fuel.

I suggest that such efforts work towards the following goals:

Oil-free Food

Modern food production has a huge carbon footprint, from agriculture itself to transportation to processing. Some people have access to gardens or farmers’ markets, but even where these options exists they don’t necessarily have the capacity to feed everybody in the area. If oil vanished tomorrow, a lot of people would starve.

A transition community can consider part of its goal met when it has the capacity to feed its entire population locally, sustainably, and without the use of factory farming or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. That doesn’t mean individuals can’t buy “imported” food. I’m not talking about a dictatorship, I’m talking about creating options.

Oil-free Transportation

A town should be walkable/bikeable, should have functional public transportation powered by something other than oil, and should have an economic structure such that people can live and work and shop within the town. Again, that doesn’t mean people can’t drive off, it just means they shouldn’t have to.

A Place to Call Home

A town ready for the post-petroleum age should have post-petroleum housing available. This is important, because the structure of a person’s dwelling has a huge impact on his or her lifestyle choices. For example, in a home with small, shaded windows, you can’t rely on daylight for lighting, even if you want to. In a hot, stuffy building, air conditioning might be a medical necessity in the summer. And so on.

Post-petroleum housing need not be reserved for eco-conscious people. Rather, just as building codes reflect the demands of fire safety (whether or not the people in the building care a bit about the issue), new residential buildings should make living with a small carbon footprint possible.

Besides the building materials and so forth, issues to consider include:

  • Heating and cooling; well-insulated buildings stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter with less energy. By using shade, sun exposure, and air flow properly, an architect can adjust a building to its climate and minimize the amount of extra heating and cooling residents need. Let’s shoot for buildings that can stay between 40° and 80° by themselves. If you want it warmer in the winter you can turn on the heat, but if you’ll never have to worry about the pipes freezing.
  • Lighting; lots of big windows, please. No house should need electric light on a sunny day.
  • Food storage; if a building has a root cellar, a refrigerator is a luxury, not a necessity. Refrigerators suck up electricity, since they run 24/7, and use chemicals that are also greenhouse gases.
  • Resource production; let’s put solar cells on the roof, or put them on walls between windows and put a vegetable garden on the roof. Green roofs are great for insulation.

A Vision for a Community

So, that’s my proposal; that communities work together on issues relating to food, transportation, local jobs, and affordable housing. Notice that these issues are interconnected–local food production and processing supports a more vibrant local economy, which means more jobs. Notice also these these things are all within the grasp of either local government or independent community groups.

Many communities are working along these lines already. Good for them. What I offer is a clearly articulated end-point to work for–the basic principle that the infrastructure of life should make it easier, not harder, for individuals to do the right thing.

Then more people would choose to get off fossil fuel.


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A Way Forward

It’s hard to get someplace if you don’t know where you’re going.

Sometimes I think that part of the reason that so many people are doing so little about global warming is that we don’t have a clear idea of what the post-petroleum world will be like. We know what the climate-change apocalypse might look like, but the alternatives seem vague, blank, or even scary.

Of course, the future is impossible to predict for certain, but some clear thinking might make our options seem a bit more manageable.

A World without Fossil Fuel

I have said before that we need to stop using fossil fuel. In this, the Climate Action Network (CAN) agrees with me. As the old saying goes, if you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, the first step is to stop digging.

I will even go a step farther; it is time for an end to the Age of Cheap Energy. That is, while we certainly have a lot of alternatives to fossil fuel, we should not look for another source of energy as abundant and as cheap (in the short-term). Renewables may or may not have that much potential. Cold fusion and other such possibilities may or may not be real. But if we did discover some new source of abundant energy and used it, we’d end up back in another version of the same fix we are now.

Anthropogenic climate change is one symptom of biosphere-scale entropy. Mass extinction is another. Human activity has removed more energy from the system than it can afford and it is destabilizing. An ecosystem, an organism, or any other complex system will do exactly the same thing—become simpler and less stable–if its energy balance goes negative. It doesn’t matter why or how the energy is lost, the result is the same. And it’s a result we really don’t want.

Of course, if enough people read this blog, somebody is probably going to accuse me of “wanting to bring us back to the stone age.” Or, with more historical accuracy, back to the 1700’s.

We don’t have to worry about this. The cultural and scientific progress of the past two hundred years is not going to vanish just because fossil fuel does. We won’t forget about antibiotics, reinstate chattel slavery, or spend the rest of eternity limited only to ideas and technologies that existed prior to 1800.

We will learn to live within a different set of limitations and we will use our brilliance as a species to live well.

Thinking about Specifics

We’re looking at a world with less energy. We will still have cars and trucks and so forth. Engines will burn ethanol or biodiesel, or run on electricity generated by sun, wind, and water. But running such engines will likely be expensive, something not done lightly. Two-week vacations to the other side of the country will become a luxury of the super-rich. The high cost of transportation will make exotic foods and many other goods unprofitable. Society and commerce will be, once again, mostly local or regional.

We can look at this as an inconvenience, and indeed it probably will be, but there will also be advantages. We could see our communities grow stronger, our local businesses grow more diverse and more successful. National and transnational corporations will not be quite so powerful. And yet we need not fear the shadow-side of localism. We won’t be culturally isolated, because we will still have the internet in some form.

Obviously, petroleum-derived products such as plastics will get hard to come by, except for what we can make from recycled plastic. Asphalt is a petroleum product. Cement is not, but it has a very high carbon footprint anyway. We’ll see less of both. Cities of the future might look very different. Metal might get more expensive, too, since processing it requires a lot of heat and that energy must come from somewhere and can no longer come from either coal or the vast quantities of wood burned to make charcoal for metalwork in the past. From this challenge might rise an unexpected benefit; the end of planned obsolescence. You’ll be able to buy electronic devices that last twenty years.

I do not know how much energy we’ll have or exactly how much energy each technology or activity needs. Even if I did, this kind of prognostication is rarely precisely accurate. But we’re probably looking at doing some prioritizing. We’ll give up some luxuries and conveniences so we can have enough energy for the really important things. Imagine a farmer taking crops to market by ox-cart–and while she’s in town, she stops at the clinic for a routine check-up of her artificial lungs.

What Are Our Alternatives?

The issue is that keeping the world we have isn’t an option. We can have some version of climate change apocalypse, or we can have something else. We need to start imagining what that something else is and how we can get there from here.