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!