Don’t make me math

After last week’s meditation on climate nuance, or lack thereof, I was equal parts disturbed and very disturbed to see this clickbaity headline: Your cotton tote is pretty much the worst replacement for a plastic bag

Let me save you a click:
The story inspired a zillion-strong comment thread in the green Facebook group to which I belong. With anger on both sides, the main nugget of the piece was lost in the hyperbolic frenzy, despite my friend Katie’s most valiant effort to pull it out and shine a hand-cranked flashlight on it: “Whatever you have in your house now—be it a pile of cotton totes, or a jumble of plastic bags—don’t throw them out. Keep using them until they fall apart. Whatever the material, use it as a garbage bag once you can’t use it for other purposes any more. And whatever you do, try not to buy new ones.”

This is the basic truth of every calculation we make. The best thing is ALWAYS to use what you already have. After that, the math gets tricky quickly.

Each mathematical equation for a tote is different, based on a million factors we can only take a vague stab at carbon calculating. With every choice we make, we’re forced to pull up the last twenty articles we’ve read and do some shot-in-the-dark math to make a best guess at our most sustainable option. It’s too much. And it’s where the whole consumer power/individual action equation falls down — it’s not our responsibility to do blindfolded carbon calculus. I’ll go one step further: Even if these arguments are in good faith, they’re a waste of energy and intention. On these issues, we need decisive political action and policy change. (A girl can dream.)

Which is why the Quartz headline is so clicking unhelpful. It immediately sends everyone running to their internal calculator to figure out if the choices they’ve lived their lives by actually make sense. Behavioural science tells us that we don’t like to be confronted with facts that don’t adhere to our worldview. So when we read that an organic cotton tote has to be used 20,000 times to equal a plastic bag…well, cue the zillion aforementioned comments claiming the article is a flaming ball of plastic-coated cheese farts. Great, people are angry on the internet.

In an ideal world we’d have the carbon costs of everything we buy on offer at all times, so we’d know that eating kiwis out of season used a huge whack of our carbon budget. The Carbon Trust tried to do this a decade agowith mixed results. Because the math itself is subjective. Which criteria are we using? Who decides? Thorny questions, but at least we’d be judging things across a mutually agreed upon metric. I laughed at the unfathomability of that as I wrote it.

I advocate for a few simple climate and consumption heuristics. It’s why I created the buyerarchy of needs – Overall, it’s best to just use what you have. Overall, it’s best to fly less. Overall, it’s best to eat less meat. With the caveat that overalls aren’t value judgements (though people always judge me when I wear them): Remember how divisive that chart about the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint was? These elaborate calculations will always come down to someone with three kids arguing with someone with three cars — both well intentioned but both devoting energy to meaningless oneupsmanship. Which brings us back to “Great, people are angry on the internet.” We don’t want that. 

It’ll also destroy your will to live if every decision point requires as much brainwork as putting together an Ikea Smorgenfraüf. That’s where systems change comes in. In the meantime, here’s to simple obvious rules that are mostly true!

All the nuance of a hammer

I know the nuance of climate communications is more precarious than a sumo wrestler dancing on eggshells. Still, I constantly find myself batting ideas out into the world, only to have them thwacked back with pointed questions and thoughtful considerations attached to them. Climate stuff inspires my System 1, that rash part of the brain that makes you do things like buy purple jumpsuits and volunteer to play Come on Eileen on your violin at your friend’s rock concert. (No, these are not based on real-life impulse decisions, why do you ask?)

If I agree with the base sentiment, I sometimes share an idea in an effort to amplify it. If you’re doing the yeoman’s work of posting unpopular buzzkill news, I will like it, share it, and marry it. Sometimes this backfires (hello, my deeply unpopular Facebook post about cutting out flying!). Other times it abets learning. I was lucky enough to have an experience with the latter this week.

!!Ontario Content Alert!!

I shared an article about Premier Doug Ford’s abominable decision to close the office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. It’s a deeply regrettable move, telegraphing a lack of concern for the environment under the pretense of streamlining bureaucracy. But a friend who has worked in the Environmental Commissioner’s office for many years reached out to explain how this decision might actually play out positively. Overall, she’s optimistic that she’ll be able to continue her environmental work at the office of the Auditor General, and given the higher profile of the A-G, perhaps be more effective than before. This is fantastic news. And I almost wanted to share it more widely. But the fear of nuance nags. Will people walk away thinking our climate-denying Premier is somehow doing good by the environment? This friend and I both agreed that perhaps it’s best to let the prevailing sentiment about our shuttered environmental accountability office remain as such. Because anything that gets people in our province mobilized to fight our Premier’s execrable environmental moves is helpful right now.

Mostly, the experience was a reminder of the bluntness of our communications tools. And my own reductionist/quickie/angry face emoji shares. I resolve to take a little more time to contextualize why I’m sharing something, and what I really think about it. At the very least, I’ll source a GIF that better reflects my thoughts on the content I’m sharing. 

“Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbour”

To facilitate this interaction, just print, clip out, and display the above sign on your front door to let the neighbours know you’re there in a (and for a) pinch.

I wrote a column for this month’s issue of YES! Magazine that caught firelast week. I thought I’d be anointed Captain Obvious for declaring that borrowing is important. But I guess lots of things are all at once deeply obvious and totally revelatory. Smoked cheddar, for example.

The piece was about the broader implications of borrowing. It’s not just the planetary necessity of each of us not owning a personalized drill we’ll use for 15 seconds a year, but the bonds you build when you feel comfortable asking a neighbour for an egg, or a push-up bra. Despite trying to live the Buyerarchy of Needs, my default is to not want to bother people. My husband can Amazon Prime something in the time it takes me to mull which neighbour might own a purple tutu (Oonagh?), or a power tool (Dylan!). But over the past few years I’ve forced myself to ask for things. To become a borrower. And to try to borrow thoughtfully and reciprocally. The results have been modestly magical.

People want to share. And they want their stuff to be of use. We’re reciprocal creatures. Yes, this is another behavioural science tangent: I could write a book on reciprocity, my favourite social norm, but it’s an almost universally felt human impulse to create circles of back and forth help. It’s like hot potato, but the hot potato is a nice thing you can do for someone else, and not a scalding tuber. There’s nothing more satisfying than receiving a borrowed item back from a neighbour, alongside some thank-you cookies and the knowledge that together you saved the world from another gratuitous purchase. Plus, you get to eat cookies.

The term Social Capital has become buzzworthy of late because it moves in parallel with growing inequality. Loosely, our social capital is the network of humans we can rely on to help us. Wealthier people have armies of loose connections they’d feel comfortable leaning on for a favour or three. Less wealthy people, not so much. It was not always thus. Impoverished communities once had fantastic social capital (some still do), with neighbours and friends pitching in with childcare and casseroles. But as we’ve become a society of overworked loners, the people who suffer most from a diminishment of social capital are the ones who really need it.  

I know that borrowing sugar won’t solve climate change, but I do feel its importance is bigger than we realize. And writ large, all that borrowing does add up. Like all the peanut M&Ms I eat. Good neighbours make good neighbourhoods, which make good cities, which make good countries, which make good planets. One by one by one by one by a million. I hope you have a beautiful borrowful week!

Everything is perfect in the future

Did you play MASH a child? Did you dream up what life would be like when you grew up? I wish I could say I imagined myself on an organic farm raising abandoned baby goats and saving the world, but I think my suburban dreams skewed mostly pink and plastic. I was always MASHING myself living in a mansion in a glamorous city, with my 12 beautiful children. In this mansion, I designed ballgowns, and ate only chocolate cake, and life was perfect. I also looked like Jesse Spano.

Humans are prospectors and forecasters. It’s what makes us distinct from most of our animal relatives. We imagine the future, to both our benefit and detriment. This week everyone was talking about a wonderful NPR piece called It’s 2050 and this is how we stopped climate change. (Thanks for sharing it with me, Amanda!). The piece inspiringly maps out a future where we’ve made the right choices. It’s great because it relies on a tool behavioural scientist have been finding increasingly effective in getting people to make change: the Future Self. Scientists have used it to show people unhealthy versions of themselves in order to get them to make better choices. They’ve also shown positive scenarios. This piece does a great job of laying out the future perfect. Which is pretty darn useful at the moment.

We know that fear, facts, and shame only ever motivate 20% of the population to change their behaviour. The rest of us need other ways of having the climate message articulated. The amount of shares on the NPR piece alone indicate that the positive Future Self is a great way to go. How can you use the Future Self to get people around you to think or see differently? You can create a vision of the world you imagine for them. In all likelihood, they’ll come round to your scenario. Especially if you act out that vision while dressed as a mime. A positive futurecast is irresistible to homo prospectus.

The Glob of Hope

I watched a horrible, neverending documentary about the circular economy last week. Toronto’s circular waste group screened it as part of a worldwide simultaneous screening, so I presumed it’d be good. I mean, who invites an entire planet to watch a crap movie? Alas, thousands of eager Torontonians (and who knows how many more humans around the world) endured a poorly shot, ill-conceived, meandering doc, in which a professor flies around the globe monotonously asking various companies how they achieve industrial circularity. I would have laughed more at the awkward interviews, terrible sound, and bad cinematography if I hadn’t been so sad about such a great opportunity squandered. The only reusable glimmer of knowledge came at the end, when interviewer Dr. Wayne Visser delivered what I’ve come to call the Glob of Hope. Even the most dire climate change communication always tries to end with The Glob of Hope.

Dr. Visser’s glob of hope was about our human capacity to shift very quickly when necessary. He gave a more long-winded version of the same speech Bill McKibben gives at the end of Do The Math,’s vastly superior 2012 climate-change documentary. In that film, McKibben talks about mobilizing for WWII, when the United States pivoted faster than a Silicon Valley startup. It’s the best nugget of hope you can give, because it provides not just hope for the planet, but strength to the belief that humans are resourceful and good when faced with the worst.

Quick shifts are at the heart of Alex Steffen’s forthcoming book, The Snap Forward. The idea is not just climate action, but rapid climate action. And it’s this language of swift turns and satisfying snaps that I love. If small actions and dire news are leading us to this tipping point, it’s the rapidity and decisiveness of what happens when we get to that tipping point that will matter. I love the sound of a snap, or a swivel, or a pivot. And as we delay, the need for that snap becomes all the greater. Picture the world’s biggest rubber band resoundingly thwacking into restorative action.

Without letting myself get too optimistic, the idea of a snap feels less impossible than it used to. The problem has always been that unlike an advancing army, you can’t see climate charge marching at you. But increasingly we feel it in our bones. And the people who think they can outrun it feel it in their bank accounts. And when everyone decides to leave oil at once…well, snap. Whether you conjure an auditory pleasure in imagining this snap is negotiable, but I hope the idea of swift and decisive action gives you strength when you need it. 

Support systems

There’s this thing about climate mood. When you go deep and feel the sadness and the fear that comes with understanding how precarious a state we’re in, even a climate-sympathetic family member can feel like a Trumpian denier when they don’t seem to embrace a sense of emergency commensurate to your own. Such was my case with my own dear family for a long time. My dad would concede that climate change was bad…but then ask me what we should have for dinner. Which is absolutely normal. Figuring out what to have for dinner is really, really important in our family.

I don’t need or want my loved ones to feel the angst I feel about the planet, but knowing they support me plays no small part in countering my mean greens. This very newsletter has made me realize that the more I talk about how I feel, the more the ones I love empathize and support. After all, we’re all on this Minimum Viable Planet together. My mum snapped the photo above of an adorable couple in Miami Beach. She thought I’d love their tote. The couple asked why she wanted a photo and they ended up having a lovely chat. Anti-consumerist tote bag as conversation starter. Meanwhile, my dad has taken to sending me JAMA articles about the medical implications of climate change. And my husband has thoughtfully (and helpfully) begun editing this newsletter with gusto, sharing useful links all the while. In short, the more I talk, the more they support. Duh.

I sometimes feel that people can understand everything I’m thinking about climate change, not realizing that they can neither read minds nor diaries. But the desire to not be a Debbie Downer may cloud me from talking about climate stuff very much at all. Don’t go there, my inner voice says, when the conversation gets anywhere near methane. Yes, I run in some strange circles.

The very first MVP came with a prompt to talk talk talk. But I’m realizing talk is table stakes. We need to always be talking. In the least hectoring, most vivid ways we can, of course. But talking to fill the hot air with our thoughts and feelings and sadness and jokes.

Does this nature come in small?

A month ago I read a column about moving away from Toronto. It was one of those clichéd stories about someone departing the unfeeling megalopolis for the small town, where the houses are affordable, the community smaller, and life therefore perfect. There was a throwaway line about the author’s former life, in which he found himself, “settling for a ‘hike’ through High Park, because that is the closest thing we can find to wilderness.” I chafed because I love High Park, and run there weekly. Nature comes in all shapes and sizes, and the restorative benefits of a postage-size stamp of urban greenery are nothing to scoff at.

We know that nature is the gateway drug to caring about this planet of ours. It’s also a tonic for the anxiety of the modern condition, as Richard Louv so aptly observed when he coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder. But as we become an increasingly urban planet, we’re going to have to take some of our nature cure in the city, and appreciate the perfectly respectable loveliness of a tiny, perhaps even manicured urban park. The benefits of said park are still profound. Studies have shown that it takes neither a ton of time nor vast square fernage to enjoy the restorative benefits of nature. Even looking out a window has been linked to positive effects.

Which is not to say that nature exists merely to restore humans. We need to disabuse people of the idea that anything less than a remote forest doesn’t count. It all counts.

Last week I was on a neat panel organized by Apathy is Boring. One of the panelists, Joshua Stribbell, president of the National Urban Inuit Youth Council, spoke of the very concept of wilderness being a fairly modern idea unto itself. Wilderness as prized, untrammelled space, as land to be ‘“conserved.” Or trespassed upon by the lucky few who get to leave Toronto for more affordable cities with better access to pristine green stuff. It’s a false juxtaposition, in which those fortunate enough to travel or move to remote lands are able to access this heightened wilderness, while the rest of us rubes trudge to the overcrowded city park to enjoy our second-rate shrubbery.

In truth, the urban greenscape is a carbon sink that helps city dwellers feel the green, lest we all burn a million litres of gasdriving to the country to take dewy pictures of ourselves in sunflower fields. I’m constantly surprised at the peacefulness I can feel in a city of three million people. Sometimes I have High Park entirely to myself on a crisp Saturday morning. I can jog as slowly as I like. I cross an empty highway and run to our waterfront park, where I feel a million miles away from concrete and the detritus of Roll up the Rim contests. If you don’t know what a Roll up the Rim contest is, you are lucky to know true wilderness.

This is not to say that it wouldn’t be lovely to live somewhere quiet and verdant, too. We must all find our green and revel in it as best we can, regardless of its shape or smell. But green is where you find it. When we act like nature is only found in panoramic vistas and wildlife documentaries, we’re disconnecting ourselves from our planet. Nature belongs in our daily lives, not on a pedestal. And nature shaming is for the birds. I tell myself that I will leave my office each day, to take a walk or sit for a few minutes in the lovely park just outside our building. Often, the day flies by, and I neglect to do so. Which is ridiculous, because when I do, I feel so much better. I work better, too.

The weight of waste

I was baking up a storm and the storm smelled like plastic. Given my occasional absentmindness, my husband looked for a scrap of stray packaging that might have affixed itself to one of my baking tins. But nope. It was then that we noticed the black smoke was coming from behind the clock. We quickly dragged the oven away from the wall and unplugged it before major tragedy was averted. Well, the half-baked chocolate peanut butter cakes were a major tragedy in some parts of our household.

Our stove is only two-and-a-half years old. It was bought after hours of reading reviews, checking reputable sites, and basically doing all the things most people do when weighing a large and flammable purchase. And yet, it’s a lemon. (Definition: A product that craps out within 5 years of purchase but outside of warranty) The cost of repair was more than half of the cost of the oven itself. And I will no longer fully trust it not to burn my house down.

But if I cut my losses and buy a new one, the landfill weight rests on me. Sure, some of the parts will be recycled, but the unusables will go to landfill and the carbon-heavy cost of manufacture and shipping will rest on my conscience. If we had real Extended Producer Responsibility, this would not happen. Producers would design for longevity, not wanting to shoulder the burdensome cost of taking care of the entire lifecycle of a product. It means the oven would have cost more when I bought it, but that price would be, ahem, baked in. All ovens would cost a few dollars more, fewer ovens would self-destruct. At least my oven was repairable. We know that so many of the goods made today are designed for obsolescence. I remember taking my Nespresso (don’t ask! We’ll do a coffee talk edition of MVP one day) to the repair shop about a decade ago. He told me he was unable to fix it because Nespresso used a proprietary screw system. Absolute manufacturer evil. And it’s only gotten worse since.

Despite pushback from some of the biggest companies in the world who see a threat to their business model (looking at you, Apple, as I type this on my Mac), the Right to Repair movement seems to be gaining some traction. It’s a push to allow consumers access to the parts and tools needed to fix their goods. It’s a push to give consumers the choice not to have to toss their appliances because producers have locked away the solutions that would enable reuse.

It’s very necessary. Because beyond the cost, time, and hassle it takes to attempt to fix our goods, the waste weight is too much to bear. And it’s a burden that should not rest on the shoulders of consumers alone. Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering how much of the Pacific Garbage Patch belongs to me. I feel guilty about the plastic salad clamshells and the overpackaged unnecessaries. And I feel angry about the stuff that I didn’t want to send away — the stuff that should have worked but didn’t, the things that ought to have been able to be fixed.

The way into this problem is both micro and macro. At the micro level, I’ll shake my fists at Frigidaire, demanding more and better, using whatever platform I can clamber onto to make them listen. At the macro, I’ve joined my city’s circular waste council. I’ve never been on a city committee before. 

Practice mendfulness

I’ve “met” a few amazing menders through Instagram. Not a sentence I’d have imagined myself writing a decade ago. But the threads of connection on social media have implications on how I live my life, even though the mending Instagrammers are scattered all over the world, and even though we’ll likely never meet. I ordered Katrina Rodabough’s book after connecting with her on Instagram. Her specialty is visible mending, or Sashiko. You’re not trying to hide the fact that the item is mended, but instead to make beautiful work of it. It’s the denim equivalent of Kintsugi, the gorgeous Japanese art of repairing cracks in pottery with gold lacquer. I like visible mending both because it doesn’t try to hide the fact that a garment has been worn and loved and tended to, and because I’m a remedial seamstress and can never convincingly hide my repairs anyway.

But what does any of this have to do with climate moods? A ton, actually. Mending takes time, and the economics often don’t add up. I’ll spend an hour sewing up the knees on a pair of $8 kiddo leggings. But the art of the fix is surprisingly satisfying. I hosted a mending night a few years ago, and with the aid of a few Singer ringers, everyone went home with a handful of restored garments, a deep sense of contentment, and a lot of cheese. Often, my mending piles sit for a year so when I literally close a loop, I get the kind of tactile satisfaction that’s analagous to crossing off TO-DO list item with a thick red marker.

While mending was absolutely necessary just two generations ago, these days actually taking the time to fix what’s broken can feel downright countercultural. Manufacturers essentially strong-arm us into disposing what ought to be fixed. Supply chains are one-way streets! Fighting the throwawayness of it all is both tiring and emboldening. But more on this in next week’s newsletter!

We know that knitting and crafting are great prescriptions for combatting anxiety, so it makes perfect sense that mending should be likewise. I really do feel as if I’m healing something when I mend, and I don’t just mean the ^ athleisure leggings from Old Navy that I’ve clumsily restored to working order.

When I was a kid, I complained my way through Hebrew School.  In one of our classes, we had a workbook that featured a cartoon picture of the world with a Band Aid on it. The workbook was all about the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, which literally translates to repairing the world. I think of this crudely drawn cartoon all the time, its message successfully imprinted on my brain at the age where things imprinted on your brain stick around and become part of your worldview. And I’m thankful for this slightly anthropocentric mindburn of an image. Because I am literally trying to Band-Aid my small corner of the world. And because my mending is about as pretty as a Band-Aid.