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Chapter 1 | Understanding the problem

and being the solution

Section 1 – Our Climate Problems

Part 1 – Our inner struggle

If you’ve picked up this book, you already know that there’s a tsunami coming at us in the form of climate change. It’s threatening to wash over the face of the globe and leave nothing, and no one, untouched.

If you’re like most people who are engaged in the climate change issue, you know – on some level – that we all have a responsibility to avert this disaster, and you want to participate. You want to live in a way that respects the severity of the issue, and which demonstrates a suitable response. It’s that you just don’t know where, or how, to begin.

Whilst researching this book, I’ve come across many concepts and theories. Books, organisations, and charities talk mainly about political change, with only a small number giving guidance on what individuals can do. I’ve not seen anything that gives practical guidance on making both manageable and realistic lifestyle changes, all the while juggling other priorities in our busy lives.

We need practical solutions that can pull us back from the brink of catastrophic climate change. But we also need direction, a method, and a goal to reach the lifestyle changes required. The purpose of this book is to help you navigate to the lifestyle changes with the biggest impact. And, to successfully reach the goal that can really make a difference.

The problem - Part 2 - Our external surroundings

The aim of this book isn’t to go into detail about what the climate models predict for our future. There are lots of papers, books, and articles out there – not to mention YouTube videos from climate scientists – who will tell you first-hand what we have in store. 


However, the stakes are so hard to swallow that it is worth reiterating what is at risk; because we want the reality of the situation to be at the forefront of our minds. It will prevent us from mentally logging it as something we ought to give more thought to… when we have more time. 


There is no more putting this off. The outcome depends on what we do now.


Climate models show that by the end of this century, our current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions will have warmed the Earth’s climate by 3-4° C. This is the overall global average temperature, not whether a particular place is a bit cooler or warmer on a certain day. This means that we are moving the Earth out of the stable climate of the Holocene period, (experienced for the last 12,000 years, and which has allowed civilisation to thrive), into something more unpredictable and much less tolerable.

 
“From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale.”
1 


The UK is thought to be one of the lesser affected areas. But on our current path, no country is predicted to bear a resemblance to today. More action is needed to prevent flooding, droughts, and “significant threats to our natural capital and the goods and services it provides, from timber, food and clean water to pollination, carbon storage and the cultural benefits of landscapes and wildlife.” 

 
Let’s be clear, we’re talking about a struggle for clean water and food, and this type of struggle isn’t pretty. People have no choice but to go into survival mode, which leads to wars, violence, and crime. We’re seeing these impacts around the world already. George Monbiot explains that the effects are already visible, “In Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, devastated by Cyclone Idai, in Syria, Libya and Yemen, where climate chaos has contributed to civil war, in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where crop failure, drought and the collapse of fisheries have driven people from their homes.”


No one knows exactly how bad it could actually get. The climate models give us an idea, and we can hope that they’re overestimating future impacts. However, as we’re dealing with something completely unprecedented, they could be underestimating the scale and timelines. 
Melting ice caps, sea-levels rising, ocean acidification, and extreme weather events are already proving worse than previously predicted. 

The problem - Part 3 - Our ‘big-picture’ issue

Climate change is waking us up to the huge void that lies between modern society and our natural world. It’s a void between our behaviours and what is best for the planet, and it has a profound impact on our wellbeing.

Our lifestyles centre around one thing – consuming. Unsurprisingly, those of us who have taken a step back to think about that – and even the ones who haven’t – realise, on some level, that this should not be our primary function as human beings. In fact, it’s largely unfulfilling and causes immense environmental destruction (including climate change). Overconsumption is distancing us from a life that is connected to nature.

But would we really be better off if we lived in a way that respected our natural habitat? It sounds a bit ‘fluffy’ to many (or even most people) because we tend to accept the world from our current view, rather than challenge it.

The answer, though, is a resounding yes! It’s becoming harder to ignore that our distance from (and lack of respect for) nature has come back to bite us. It’s now all too evident, from climate change to rising mental health issues to the diseases caused by the food we eat.

We inherently need to be close to nature to fulfil our wellbeing needs, which we all know go well beyond the financial. But the only measure of success in our society is making more money to buy more stuff. So, we keep doing it, despite the negative effect it’s having on us and our collective home. Getting richer and buying things will never fulfil us.

Before we delve into how and what we can do about it, it’s important that we understand the root of all these issues. We need to know and understand the underlying cause of overconsumption which is creating climate change. And why we feel a block to taking individual action. Then we’ll have an awareness that will empower us to put the right solutions in place.

Section 2 - The real root cause and what is has to do with us 

“If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.” Albert Einstein

The following chapters in this book focus on how we, as individuals, can reduce our carbon footprint. They offer a way to do this collectively so we can begin to turn the dial on climate change in our favour. But before we can do this successfully, we should explore what’s been blocking us so far.

We need to discover why we’ve cooked up a society that is not only causing climate change but which tolerates growing social injustice and is negatively impacting our wellbeing. As many writers, including Naomi Klein, and organisations like Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace attest, these aspects are deeply interwoven. This means that when we understand the underlying cause of climate change, the changes we make don’t just tackle one of these issues, they can have an impact on all of them.

Failing government 

New governmental policies on climate are a must, and will undoubtedly have a huge impact on climate change issues. Take charging for plastic shopping bags, for example. It’s a tiny ‘windbreak’ in the ‘environmental hurricane’, but charging a measly 5p per bag in the UK has created a mindshift that transcends money. Plastic bag usage has decreased by 83 percent since 2015, that’s 6 billion fewer bags a year!

Imagine if policymakers really pulled their thinking out of the bag and backed up their Paris Agreement pledges with real action.

Big changes would happen.

The trouble is they can only do so much while operating within the current economic system that relies on constant growth. Although, politically, we are operating within a democracy as well as a capitalist system, the fabric of all parts of our society – cultural/socio-economic and political – are completely intertwined. This makes government seemingly as subservient to the big players in business as ‘the people’. And big business lobbies government relentlessly for:

  • Continual increases in general consumption

  • Fossil fuel to be the main energy source for a growing population

  • No restrictions on intensive farming or deforestation

These things are at the heart of rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

So what about big business? 

Our system has evolved to focus primarily on making a profit in the short term. Asking CEOs for environmental protection to be their primary consideration is asking them to measure themselves by different standards of success entirely. That’s unlikely to happen in the timescales needed while we’re using a system that revolves around economic growth. Economic growth, in reality, equates to ever-growing consumption.

Within the consumer goods sector, the Consumer Goods Forum is a CEO-led organisation that aims to help the world’s retailers become sustainable. Their initiatives aim to lower retailers’ impact on climate in line with the Paris Agreement. This sounds fantastic. But within our system, neither this forum nor the Paris Agreement can advocate what’s actually required to avert climate disaster – less consumption.

 

It seems, then, that it’s the system we’re operating within that is blocking both governments and big business from making the changes required to avert climate change.

So:

  • Is it the system that’s responsible?

  • Will changing the system resolve it?

Many left-wing thought leaders will tell you yes, but let’s explore a little bit more to understand if the system is the real villain here. To do that, let’s take a look (a very dumbed-down version) into the human brain. After all, our brains have created the notion of governments, businesses, and the system within which they operate.

The three main parts to our brains centre around our:

  1. Survival instincts

  2. Emotions

  3. Higher thinking

 

The higher thinking part of our brain evolved last, and is what separates us from the apes and other animals.

 

Higher thinking is what makes us human.

 

It allows us to analyse our animalistic, instinctual behaviour – that comes from the more primal parts of our brain that we’d rather not act on – and move away from it.

Why is this relevant here?

 

Because it’s the less desirable traits we display that are turning the cracks in the system into major flaws, and which are causing the climate change issue. Capitalism’s original intent was about growing the economy to maximise wealth for all, but our animalistic characteristics have turned this into maximising profit/benefit for the individual at any cost.

This greedy, selfish behaviour – which the system perpetuates – comes from the primal parts of our brain that centre around survival and emotional thinking. Capitalism doesn’t allow lots of time for higher thinking; above and beyond our primal and emotional impulses.

 

When we’re thinking in our right (higher thinking) minds, we all want to be part of a society that considers wellbeing the most important goal. Looking after ourselves includes looking after our environment – the collective house in which we live. It should go without saying that our wellbeing is intrinsically linked to the health of the planet. Unfortunately, this seems to need pointing out too often.

The behaviours that capitalism perpetuates, in the name of looking after number one, are actually in direct opposition to a huge part of our wellbeing, which is all about taking care of each other. Yes, financial wellbeing is important as everyone deserves to be comfortable, but the focus on purely financial wealth is becoming our downfall.

We need to use the higher thinking brain to improve and change the system, in order to focus on our wellbeing and that of the planet. But, the system doesn’t encourage us to use the higher thinking part of our brain. So the real root cause of climate change is a self-perpetuating cycle of the capitalist system, and our lesser nature.

We’re stuck in a capitalism catch 22  

The capitalism catch 22 or CC22 as I’ll call it for ease, makes us forget about what’s really important. It’s as if buying more and more things will somehow quell our built-in urge to connect with other people and our natural environment. Unfortunately, to an extent it has. But it can’t kill it completely because we need these connections for our wellbeing, far more than we need an extra car or holiday.

Sadly, modern, consumption-gone-mad capitalism has become so normal to us that, for many people, it seems crazy to question or attempt to change it. Even in light of the inequality and planetary destruction it’s causing. It’s so ingrained that it has become a way of life and a way of thinking. It keeps us so busy on the treadmill of more money-making for personal gain if you already have some, or for survival if you don’t, that there’s little time or impetus to think up something different.

The CC22 has a lot to answer for. From the polluted air we breathe to our unhealthy diets, to the lack of peace of mind because we don’t spend time in nature, to looking after number one instead of feeling a sense of community. To feel contented and live a happy, healthy life, we must understand that we’re caught in the CC22 trap. Then we can see that taking care of our natural environment for the greater good is ultimately the best thing we can do for ourselves.

Section 3 – The Consumer-Led Movement

Good buy to climate change

Not using our higher brain capacity has made us forget that we are a part of nature, and that we rely on it to nourish us in every possible way.

Governments and business can make all the changes they like, but it will never be enough to sustain the planet if our personal attitudes – to respect nature for how important and powerful it is – don’t change. If we continue to disrespect our natural environment while governments put environmental repair policies in place, governments will always have to fix the issues caused by billions of individuals’ disregard for the natural world.

 

Thus, nature will continue to be plundered until the ecosystems are completely destroyed, and there is truly nothing left. I can’t help thinking that even if humanity found a way to survive under these circumstances – which we’re well on our way toward – it will be a stark and depressing existence.

The good news is that in a system where businesses fight for consumers’ attention to survive, and consumers and businesses influence governments, it is the consumer that holds all the power…

 

“While consumers have always had the ability to vote with their feet, or with their wallets, they now have more power to influence not only what they buy, but also what others buy. Empowered by social networks and digital devices, consumers are increasingly dictating when, where and how they engage with brands. They have become both critics and creators… expecting to be given the opportunity to shape the products and services they consume.”4

 

We can move towards societal wellbeing and minimise climate change by:

  • Supporting organisations that create a green economy and provide products and services that minimise our impact, and even more importantly…

  • …Stop paying for products and services we don’t really need that add no real value to our lives and are environmentally damaging

Individual actions add up

Analysis published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology5 showed that consumers are responsible for more than 60 percent of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions – a figure which is made up from the direct use of carbon like heating our homes, and indirect uses, such as what we buy.

The research states that households have a relatively large degree of control over their consumption, but they often lack accurate and actionable information on how to improve their own environmental performance.

That means it’s our choices that have the most significant impact on climate change. China might be the biggest emissions contributor as a country, but not because the people there are living the lives of Riley on some fossil fuel-burning, luxury lifestyle mission to destroy the planet. It’s because they’re making all the crap that we choose to buy!

 

One reason we haven’t acted on this as a society so far, is because there’s no tool that brings us together to make our united actions count. It’s hard to believe that you’re making an impact on climate change and influencing society when you think you’re acting alone.

(A minority of) People Power

Making cultural/socio-economic and political shifts happen is quicker and more achievable than you might think. You don’t need every person to adopt a mindset change. A small percentage is all it takes to bring the rest of the community – whether that be local or national – along with them.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead, recipient of the Planetary Citizen of the Year Award in 1978, is quoted as saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”6

Recent research by Harvard Professor Erica Chenoweth puts some numbers to this notion. Her research found that for civil resistance to be successful, it takes 3.5 percent of the population to actively participate in a campaign.7 And it’s not just talking about taking to the streets for protests.

One example is the consumer boycotts in apartheid-era South Africa in which many black citizens refused to buy products from companies with white owners.The result was an economic crisis among the country’s white elite that contributed to the end of segregation in the early 1990s.

The recent massive turnouts at non-violent climate protests around the world show that millions of people are concerned enough about the crisis to take to the streets. Hundreds of thousands of people were, and still are, involved in several countries, including the UK, where 3.5 percent of the population is 2.3 million people. If hundreds of thousands are taking to the streets, then imagine how many of us – at home – also relate to the cause. A Yale University study in 2019 indicates it is a hell of a lot more than 3.5 percent. In fact, their study on climate change communication found that 72 percent of Americans described climate change as personally important to them.9

 

Enough of us are ready to put a plan into action, and for it to actually work. Read on to find out how to be one of the people making change happen.

And for the naysayers out there? Well, the wheels of change are already in motion. Take our mindset about food, for example. It has already made a massive shift in the last few years for environmental and ethical reasons, completely irrespective of government legislation. As a Forbes article detailing meat consumption explains, “Meat substitutes were projected to account for less than $2 billion of the projected total [retail sales of meat, poultry, and meat substitutes]. Wrong. The actual number was $4.63 billion in 2019. [Studies have underestimated] just how quickly meat substitutes are rising.”10

 

When we get together, even inadvertently, we can, and do, make a huge difference!

 

Let’s come together – right now

Today, there are 7.5 billion people, many of whom are thoughtlessly using the world’s resources. At the same point, we also – as never before – now have the means to work together across the planet. Doing this will encourage the changes needed for a positive future without the threat of climate change, despite the lack of action from our so-called leaders. We can grow a new kind of movement. The Consumer-Led Movement.

The Information Age

The web has evolved so rapidly in recent years, that we’ve only just begun to catch on to its power as a tool to connect individuals and instantly share a world of information. This ability is now ‘placed at everyone’s fingertips’. We have seen connected movements, like the Extinction Rebellion, where propelled action from people across the world has occurred within weeks.

Don’t underestimate your power as an individual in this new age of sharing. The way positive mindshift changes are made, on a large scale, is when individual people come together to make a stand. People make a stand because they believe it is the right thing to do, regardless of what others are doing. They know acting on what they believe in is transcendent in nature. It will bring a contentment found only in aspiring to be something bigger than themselves.

As Desmond Tutu puts it, “Do your little bit of good where you are, it’s those little bits of good, put together, that overwhelm the world.”

References:

1 Climate Change.United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/climate-change/

2 The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report (2017). Climate Change Committee. https://www.theccc.org.uk/uk-climate-change-risk-assessment-2017/

3 Only rebellion will prevent an ecological apocalypse. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/15/rebellion-prevent-ecological-apocalypse-civil-disobedience

4 The Deloitte Consumer Review – The growing power of consumers. Deloitte. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/consumer-business/consumer-review-8-the-growing-power-of-consumers.pdf

5 Consumers have huge environmental impact. Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160224132923.htm

6 https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/margaret_mead_100502

7 The success of nonviolent civil resistance. Erica Chenoweth. TEDxBoulder. https://youtu.be/YJSehRlU34w

8 The ‘3.5% rule’: How a small minority can change the world. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world

9 Climate Change in the American Mind. Yale University; George Mason University. https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Climate-Change-American-Mind-December-2018.pdf

10 Plant Based Food Products Started With Milk, Now Taking On Meat, What’s Next? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernhardschroeder/2019/06/18/plant-based-food-products-started-with-milk-now-taking-on-meat-whats-next/?sh=67879b021da8