April 6, 2012

Every Little Bit Helps…or Does it? ~ Oz Osborn

photo by Jill Barth

I won’t pull any punches. Ideological naysayers notwithstanding, our biosphere is in deep, deep trouble. This means that all living species on this planet–including us ‘clever apes’—are also in trouble.

Global climate disruption is the most obvious example, but there are a whole host of converging (and often inter-related) calamities to consider—the biodiversity crisis, population overshoot, freshwater depletion, topsoil depletion and degradation, oceanic acidification, nitrogen pollution and attendant dead zones, desertification, habitat/ecosystem loss, the wholesale destruction of rainforests, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Colony Collapse Disorder—the list goes on and on.

(Photo by Robby van Moor)

As Paul Gilding has succinctly put it: the Earth is full.

We’re deep into what Bill Catton has called ‘overshoot’ in terms of the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity. And don’t even get me started on the concomitant challenges in the realm of social justice!

I know I’m preaching to the choir here—I’m confident that the majority of those reading this article are aware of environmental issues and most are committed to doing ‘something’ about them. It’s good to be among friends.

That said, the challenge becomes to define what that ‘something’ should be in order to achieve an effective outcome. And therein lies a particularly pernicious rub.

You see, we’ve been taught to buy into what I believe to be a fallacy: that we can ‘help the environment’ (perhaps even save the planet!) if only we will pay attention to the little things—a view embodied in the common expression: ‘every little bit helps.’ Since we environmentalists are nothing if not conscientious, we do our best to comply.

We turn off the lights when leaving a room—and those lights are of course low power compact fluorescents (and soon, LEDs), in place of extravagantly consumptive incandescents.

We turn off the water when brushing our teeth and when doing our dishes, and we use drip emitters to water our landscaped plants (or even xeriscape), so as to conserve. We recycle, thus diverting a portion of our waste stream from the landfill—and we attend to the other (lesser emphasized) members of that triumvirate: to reduce and reuse (some of us even freecycle).

We take part in initiatives to plant trees to help offset rainforest loss, and we drive 50 mpg hybrids rather than 25 mpg ‘gas guzzlers.’ We dutifully turn our thermostats up in the summer and down in the winter by a couple of (or for some of the more hardy, a few) degrees.

We make purchases with our eco-hats on to reduce ‘carbon miles’ and support eco-minded suppliers, whether for food purchases (hoorah for local and sustainable organic!) or clothing, or anything else. And on and on.

Taking these small—and (importantly) more or less painless – steps will add up to big changes, we’re taught. And I gotta say—kudos! I am very aware that many of us make such conscious sacrifices every day, and I’m very proud to be a part of such a conscious and conscientious movement. We are indeed fighting the good fight.

And after all, it’s worth it, because every little bit helps.

But, as Byron Katie might ask, ‘is it true?’

Consider this seemingly plausible suggestion from the Blueprint for a Green Economy, out of the UK—an explicit example of the ‘every little bit helps’ logic that we so often see:

“The mobile phone charger averages around… 1W consumption, but if every one of the country’s 25 million mobile phones chargers were left plugged in and switched on they would consume enough electricity (219GWh) to power 66 000 homes for one year.”

photo by larksflem

Now that sounds substantial, doesn’t it? Powering 66,000 homes for an entire year! And ensuring that one’s phone charger remains unplugged when not needed—hey, even I can remember to do that!

But now consider that there are 25 million homes in the UK—and that 66,000 is 0.26% of that. In other words, the proposal in question would save about one quarter of one percent of the electricity consumed by homes in the UK. That’s not a lot—that is, in fact, very little. It’s a ‘little bit.’

As David MacKay, a physics professor at the Univ of Cambridge (and the guy who came up with this example) says:

“If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. We must do a lot. What’s required are big changes.”

In point of fact, these sorts of suggestions, in which we are awash (a-green-wash), do not constitute a level of ‘savings’ that can—even combined with other ‘little bits’—ever add up to a significant amount (and even that small amount ignores the Jevons paradox, which tells us that efficiency gains often lead, counter-intuitively, to an increase in consumption), simply because of the sheer size of the challenges that confront us.

Credible sources estimate that, in order to achieve the goal of 350 ppm for CO2 (or CO2e), those of us who live in the US need to reduce our per capita energy usage by something like 80% – 90%, to effectively wean ourselves completely off of finite, non-renewable fossil fuel energy, the burning of which lies at the heart of every single one of the problems listed above.

According to James Hansen and other climate scientists, we need to do this over a very short period of time if we hope to avoid an ice-free earth leading to a catastrophic sea level rise.

And of course, that’s just for the climate challenge piece. Additional efforts are going to be needed to properly steward water and soil, to stop habitat destruction and consequent ecosystem and biodiversity loss and desertification, to fundamentally restructure a wildly out of whack food production system, etc.

These efforts will, per force, need to occur within the context of vastly diminished access to fossil fuels and the tools with which they provide us. In short, because the systems in question are complex, what we face are not ‘problems’ but ‘predicaments’:

 “Most of the so-called intractable problems we are now facing (e.g. …the growing economic, energy and ecological crises) are not ‘problems’ at all, but complex predicaments. The challenges of complex systems are predicaments, not problems, because, since they are not mechanical, they cannot be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’. Alternative, non-mechanistic approaches must be used to deal with them.” ~ Dave Pollard

‘Daunting’ is an understatement. Let’s put it this way: we’re running flat out at 100 mph and heading for a cliff. If we all do a ‘little bit,’ then perhaps we’ll only be doing 90 by the time we reach that cliff. Perhaps, if we accept a little more pain, only 80. Obviously, this isn’t good enough.

photo by Jill Barth

Instead of ‘hybrid’ think ‘bicycle’ or ‘walking.’ Instead of ‘compact fluorescent’ think ‘skylight.’ Instead of ‘cool to 76 degrees’ think ‘no air conditioning’ and instead of ‘heat to 68 degrees’ think ‘wood and wool.’ Instead of ‘Whole Foods’, think ‘CSA’ or ‘backyard garden.’ I could go on, but you get the point.

That point derives from the fact that we have allowed ourselves to be misled into thinking that we can make relatively painless, small sacrifices and that these will be magically transformed into large and significant outcomes. In a way, this is even worse than doing nothing, because doing many small things—many ‘little bits’—encourages us to feel we’ve done our part—and thus reduces the pressure we rightly feel to do the big things.

I would further argue that we have allowed ourselves to be misled into thinking that ‘the government’ needs to figure this out (if only we can get the right set of rascals in there!) instead of implementing major changes in our lifestyles even in the absence of the ‘right’ policies being put into place beforehand. So we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking ‘I am only one person—or one family—I’ll do the little bits and rely on government to do the big bits.’

But if we can conclude nothing else from the pronounced paucity of action on the part of the government across 50 years of increasingly escalating warnings about ongoing ecological degradation (even now with the cliff in sight!) we most assuredly can conclude that government cannot be relied upon—hoped and prayed for perhaps, but not relied upon—to get the ‘big bits’ right.

It is only reasonable, then, to conclude that it is almost certainly going to fall upon our shoulders, the shoulders of individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities, to handle not just the little bits but the big bits as well.

Contemplating this ‘inconvenient truth,’ I won’t insult you by offering blindly optimistic handwaving (“we can do it!”) let alone any guarantees. What I will offer you is a reminder—a ‘big bit’ of wisdom from Buddhist monk and alleged ‘happiest man in the world’ Matthieu Ricard:

“The basic root of happiness lies in our minds; outer circumstances are nothing more than adverse or unfavorable.”



Formally trained, and with degrees, in physics and engineering, Oz is a dedicated yogi and Vipassana meditator whose passion and focus is ecological sustainability, and finding genuinely green ways to address the daunting environmental challenges we face in these thoroughly unsustainable and greenwashed times.




Editors: Jill Barth / Andrea B. 


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