The stories coming from COP26 are both exciting - the pledge to end deforestation by 2030 - and disappointing - the last minute acceptance of just the “phasing down” of coal. This is just further evidence that we can’t forget that as much as individuals want to have an impact, too often we come up frustrated and confused.
Even solar customers who have made proactive steps themselves can be stymied. Here’s a common refrain:
I went solar to lower my carbon footprint. I recycle as much as possible. I’m conscious of how often I drive, and I’ve even changed my diet to limit how much meat I eat. Nonetheless, these actions seem isolated and don’t seem to add up. There’s a coal power plant still powering my city. The recycling program only recycles a small fraction of what’s possible. Traffic has increased with ride sharing and last mile deliveries. And new restaurant chains pop up every day.
In the face of the enormity of it all, can you blame them for feeling this way? And if this is the case,
How can one person drive change?
At Bodhi, we measure our efforts, our product, and our business against this challenge. Our goal is to reduce the friction of going solar through an extraordinary customer experience to accelerate the mass adoption of solar. One homeowner’s decision to go solar is amplified through advocacy and referrals- a necessary and powerful antidote to the high cost of customer acquisition.
Additionally, Bodhi is specifically designed to increase an individual’s awareness of their personal impact. Because energy usage and energy decisions have long been relegated to just paying bills, awareness brings a whole new dimension and responsibility to the area of energy, expanding our ability to engage at many levels. It is akin to adding the experience of taste to eating, or the awareness of calories to our diet. And like with food, we believe that energy powering our lives comes with a similar sense of responsibility and even a similar sense of pleasure.
Hence, in response to the question, “How can one person drive change?” we are launching a new product we are calling Carbon Cleanse.
Carbon Cleanse targets our way of thinking about individual responsibility and provides a series of actionable habit forming measures to empower individuals towards concrete contributions. To do this, each measure is a couplet of a specific action to take and a description of the context of the issue it addresses, together yielding the principle:
Carbon Cleanse: Action in Context = Engaged Action
The Problem with the common “Energy Tips”
You know those energy tips - somewhere in the clickbait section of the NY Post are the 21 Tips to Save Energy. They’re also in your utility mail inserts or emails. For example, Austin Energy sends weekly emails to “Turn off lights when you leave the room” or “Replace your inefficient light bulbs with LEDs.”
As with many of these energy tips, they mostly call for us to just use less energy, to sacrifice.
Carbon Cleanse measures are different. And how they are different reveals the fundamental flaws underlying the common energy tips.
Fundamentally, the common energy tips we’ve all been pushed rely on a way of thinking based on the economic model of scarcity. Simply said, change is only possible if we reduce the inputs of that which we want to change, many of which are things and experiences we actually enjoy. While we intellectually understand this, it also inherently relies on shame, guilt, and other Calvinistic means of restraint to compel change. This underlying model is flawed as it goes against humans’ natural instinct to resist change. And even more so, we generally heighten our resistance to change when simply asked to change. Recall your last political discussion. When presented with a strongly delivered appeal to change your mind about voting rights, social policy, or the role of government, did the appeal invite you to reconsider your position or harden your ideas?
Another flaw in the usual strategies to compel change is the generally insufficient understanding of the context in which a change applies. A good example is campaign around reducing use of plastic straws to save biodiversity in the oceans. Digging deeper reveals a much more entangled reality of plastic waste from industrial fishing practices obfuscated by self-referential sustainable ratings systems. Is the problem A) plastic straws kill sea organisms or is it B) our voracious appetite for consuming sea organisms. Before we throw our hands up in resignation, we can at least understand the context of the issue and appreciate the complexity of the issues shaped by a global set of forces.
Further, energy tips often underestimate how climate change affects people across the world to radically different degrees. Those displaced from catastrophes have very different concerns than those with high electric bills. Because climate change is happening at all levels of our experience, we need strategies to recognize and internalize this experience, regardless of the proximity to the most tragic and impactful events. Carbon Cleanse makes an explicit attempt to link local action with the felt experience that action has at a global level.
What makes Carbon Cleanse different
There are 3 key ways that make a Carbon Cleanse regime different. We target habits, provide context, and use behavioral science to stitch the two together.
Rather than restricting behaviors like the old energy tips do, we propose targeting habits that can promote different outcomes. A simple example from our COVID experience revolves around travel. Most people are intrigued when travel involves overseas, far flung exotic adventure: a Ligurian coast auto tour, an African safari, a glacial hike in Indonesia - all reachable by plane. During COVID, we needed to find the exotic in our garden, in our bedroom, and on Zoom. It wasn’t our travel plans that needed to be canceled, we needed to appreciate and notice the magical details that surround us even at home. We don’t need to travel farther to see more, we need to learn to see more wherever we travel. To value our experience differently, we need to target a changed frame of reference that transforms not how much, but how we consume experiences.
We also need a new way to internalize the context of our actions. The traditional mantra, Act Locally, Think Globally, implicates the extended impact of our personal choices, but in simply asking us to think globally, it misses something crucial. It misses the importance of engaged actions. Understanding the context of our actions is not an intellectual exercise, but must be embodied, which is a type of understanding that only comes from engaged actions and experiences. It is not surprising, but no less amazing, that the development of our hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, develops through action and spatial exploration. The notion of our extended mind reveals the power of how actions can change the way we think, perceive, and emote in the world.
To bring these two strategies together into a coherent program for action, we rely on behavioral science. We follow the fascinating construct of fuel vs. friction when considering how best to promote positive action. Traditionally, people have thought that promoting positive action comes through positive reinforcement (fuel), but it is shown that greater impact comes through making the positive impact easier to access (less friction). Consider the difference between showering praise for a family’s ability to sort plastics for recycling compared to designing a municipal program that can accept mixed plastics in a single bin. The former has a positive impact, but the latter reduces the friction for far more people to easily participate.
In Carbon Cleanse, we pair carbon reducing activities with positive, life affirming experiences, thus enabling actions to continue without continued exhortations and without sacrifice. It is both easier and more gratifying to repeat the things that enhance your life than those things that you’ve been told to do.
In this way, the outcomes are measurable as both life affirming and carbon reducing. Let’s look at one example from the Carbon Cleanse playbook.
Action: Shop for ageless looks or go thrifting for vintage items.
Issue: Today’s fashion industry accounts for up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions - through industrial cultivation and manufacturing, global shipping, fast fashion, and a culture of disposable or unused garments. The average person today buys 60% more clothes than in 2000. Learn more about the fashion industry’s footprint.
Under the logic of the common energy tips, the message to combat the extravagant consumption of the garment industry may be something like: Buy less clothing. This is challenging and cuts directly at the core of many entrenched habits supported by cultural trappings.
With Carbon Cleanse we instead suggest redirecting the acquisition of clothing to an economy that is inherently more circular and supports institutions that are less reliant on generating new products. At the same time, we literally wear our commitment and can be expressive about it. Mining the history of fashion and recomposing it to suit our needs is a creative act that generates reductions in carbon emissions. This is not reliant on coercive calls for reduction and gives the opportunity to create personal statements and support a growing industry around the activity. Thrifting is not new, but taking it seriously as a strategy for carbon reduction can have the effect of encouraging new forms of thrifting, notably on many new online platforms.
You will first see Carbon Cleanse in the monthly energy reports Bodhi sends to solar homeowners and sprinkled throughout our public outreach activities. It is an effort that we will continually build upon.
We acknowledge that Carbon Cleanse is not going to magically solve humanity’s climate change response. No single idea, person, or group can be singularly responsible. But it doesn’t absolve us of the need to innovate new ways to catalyze effective, lasting and impactful strategies that mobilize everyone’s participation. As we’ve seen, there are gaps and deficiencies in traditional models of behavioral change. We need new frameworks of action and a new language to reinforce these.
At Bodhi, confronting climate change is our business. We are driven to make an impact. From our point of view there is no other option, but our aspiration is to leverage our response to climate change to produce a richer, more life affirming world. Everything we do at Bodhi is evaluated against this simple imperative.
Books on this topic that we like:
The Climate Diet - Paul Greenberg