How to make a personal impact on a global crisis

Last November, I was able to share the groundbreaking Attenborough film “A life on our planet” via LiveStorm.  I felt it was essential viewing, encapsulating the reality of the sustainability venture that all Oxygen House companies share.

Thanks to a personal introduction from filmmaker Colin Butfield, and a live Q&A at the end of the viewing, many of you brought up some great questions and I thank you for your valuable contribution. The questions can now be found on a new webpage here.

Since we showed the film, one question has arisen time and time again: just what can we personally do to help? Many people have said that their efforts feel insignificant against the scale of the global crisis.

I want to address that question here.  But first, let’s paint a picture of the future the planet is facing right now.

Whilst there are many ways in which human activity is damaging our world – all of which need addressing – the biggest and most urgent issue to tackle is that of greenhouse gases. The amount of greenhouse gases we emit as a population is represented in terms of CO2e: the carbon dioxide equivalent.

Currently, the world outputs 52 billion tonnes of CO2e a year.  If we are to survive on this planet, we need to reduce this to zero as soon as possible.

So – how does any individual (like you, reading this blog) hope to make a difference to this huge figure?

I find one answer to this challenge in the inspiring Mike Berners-Lee book “How bad are bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything”. He gives several reasons why individual effort is far from insignificant. The one I would particularly like to highlight is:

If we consciously live a low carbon life, we help create a “new normal”, showing others what’s possible, creating permission and, in time, pressure for others to do the same.

Far from being insignificant, the individual action we take now is putting the first holes in the dam. We become the trail blazers – and we are the people in the journey who have the biggest impact of all-the initiation of this new normal.

The personal journey to low carbon is not easy.  We should not beat ourselves up about failing to achieve perfection – or quit because we feel we have failed.  It’s about striving to understand our impact and be curious about the barriers to achieving a truly sustainable lifestyle. And to tell others when we find what works and what does not.

Another must read is Bill Gates’ book “How to avoid a climate disaster”.  His solution puts lifestyle choices alongside an emphasis on technical, product and policy solutions.

Whichever way you look at it, my view is that if all the people who cared took steps to fully understand their footprint and try to make change where it is not too painful, then we would create enough momentum to avert disaster.

 

So what do I mean by making change?

I think there are three core areas in which we must be more mindful of our own actions, and one specific action which will start the ball rolling.

1. Understanding our own CO2e emissions

2. Making informed decisions about carbon use in our own lifestyles

3. Disseminating everything we learn, and displaying our behaviours to others- creating the new normal. Making it okay for people to do what we are doing.

So let’s get started. Pick an action from this list, understand it, work out how to do it, how to optimise it and then monitor results.  If it succeeds, tell people about it, and encourage them to do the same.

If we do these things, change our lifestyle and share our experiences: what worked for us, what didn’t, what ideas we had to make things easier, and so on, then the snowball effect will happen, gathering pace with others who also care, and then, in time with those who will follow the new norms because that is what people tend to do.

It’s not an easy cause to take on – for example, there are huge complexities in assessing the CO2e of our actions or decisions.  Yet Berners-Lee takes a good guess at it in his book (go for the 2020 version, not the earlier edition) and my research shows his estimates are about right.  Reading just the introductions of his and Gates’ book will give you a feeling for how to assess the impact of how you live.

And finally, let me just leave you with a flavour of possible action you can take. Some of my favourites. Win-wins that feel like no-brainers once the initial difficulties have been overcome.  These help me to feel that change is achievable – and that some small actions can have big consequences.  Everyone will do this differently but each journey is valuable.  Good luck on yours.

 

A sample of the actions from this list.  

  • Buy second hand – or repair. If we want to avoid climate disaster, buying new has to be a rare luxury. Creating new “stuff” is the single biggest CO2e contributor.  I’m pleased to be able to say that The Dixon Foundation are seed funding the UKs first slow fashion surf shop, selling 100% used surf clothing, and opening early summer at Sideshore in Exmouth.  Use stores like this alongside the second hand section of eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree.  It takes more effort but as more people move to buying second hand, more people will sell, and a variety of marketplaces will make it easier as it becomes the norm.

 

  • Avoid dairy, beef and lamb. Cows (and sheep) emit a lot of methane which is many times worse than CO2.  Much land is needed to grow the animal feed, land which could otherwise be used for trees, a carbon sink. A great win-win example in reducing our dairy consumption is homemade oat milk. It is SO easy to make and has a tiny fraction of the footprint of other milks. It’s cheaper, there is no waste (bought oat milk comes in small tetra packs so has more waste). It is healthier (no saturates), can be made in 2 minutes, it’s nicer, and you can tweak it to your liking- creamy or ‘skimmed’. The only negative is that the initial switch over takes some getting used to – for me about 8 weeks before I liked it, and about 16 weeks before I much preferred it to cows milk.

 

  • Change the way you travel. The big impact swap is from car to ebike for routine journeys. It takes me willpower on most days, let alone a windy, rainy one, to leave the car and take the bike, but as you’ll see in the Berners-Lee book, ebikes are a revelation in terms of CO2e.  Having made the transition myself, I never regret the extra effort of getting on my bike.  I’m fitter, more alert, avoid traffic queues and emit almost no CO2e on my journey. My challenge again this year is to do do more bike than car miles– I narrowly missed it last year.

 

  • Switch energy providers. There is a small increase in cost, but a huge impact on your personal CO2e footprint.  I think it’s definitely one that is worth the ‘green premium’. Berners-Lee suggests Ecotricity and Good Energy are good choices.

 

  • Cancel all oil and gas. Heat pumps can be 3 to 5 times more efficient at converting energy into heat for your house and water. Cancel all gas and oil, switch appliances, and move to totally electric including air source or other heat pumps. This is a bigger project, but again one which i think is worth the green premium.