Kim Stanley Robinson Makes the Case for Counting Your Carbon

Driving rapid change requires a basic change in attitude—and enough personal action to make new behaviors feel normal.

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(Bloomberg) — We can all burn less carbon than we do. This sentiment is strictly true, even though it happens to be far truer for some than for others.

People who live in the US, for example, burn on average around 30 times as much carbon as the least prosperous citizens of India. So substantial changes in American lifestyles have a disproportionate effect on the global carbon budget, a term for what we can still afford to burn before crossing the warming thresholds every nation in the world has pledged to avoid.

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Because not much is left in the budget, individual choices are worth thinking about and then changing.

The various methods for decarbonizing our lives are well known: Eat less meat, drive less, travel less, electrify your home and car. Yet it remains an awkward topic. Right action is good, but purity is obnoxious, and virtue is an imposition on one’s desires. We want what we want, and we can afford some of it.

Plus, life is short. It’s difficult to burn less carbon in one’s life and poorly received if you suggest it to others. It’s like getting on the scale when you know you’re a bit overweight, or telling a friend that they should lose some pounds. Unwelcome; seldom done.

There’s even danger that raising the question of how we live risks shifting the burden of change away from governments and corporations. That’s why the fossil fuel industry was the first to promote the individual “carbon footprint,” rather than face the poisonousness of its own product.

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It’s also true that individual action can do only so much to decrease the carbon burn of civilization, given its current infrastructure. An individual’s most powerful form of action remains politically supporting laws to curb emissions. It’s usually not very hard to figure out which politicians will do this. These are the real levers of effective action for individuals in our time: mobilization, solidarity, political mass action.

Even so, everyday life belongs in the larger movement, because now we are in climate change, the polycrisis, the long emergency. It’s late, but there’s still time to limit the damage. What’s needed to drive rapid change among prosperous citizens is a basic change in attitude, a philosophical shift of values—enough personal action to create a new structure of feeling, in which new behaviors become normal. Then reduction of carbon becomes not a decision but a habit, the done thing.

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One approach is simply to become more aware of what you consume.

You can calculate every part of your household’s burn and identify where you simply waste carbon. This capability has been with us for at least 20 years. It gets more immersive as households add solar panels, becoming both producers and consumers of energy. You end up paying closer attention.

There are other means of inventing new habits. The 2,000 Watt Society, based in Zurich and Basel, made a typically practical Swiss calculation to start the process: If you divide all the energy available by the number of humans alive, the annual amount available to each person works out to around 2,000 watts.

For reference, Europeans typically use about 6,000 watts per person; the Chinese, 1,500; Bangladeshis, 300; Americans, 12,000. A solid percentage of that 12,000 is wasted.

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What would it feel like to live on 2,000 watts, and thus use only your fair share? The Swiss who tried it found it’s not bad. They experienced no great deprivations and reported the extra satisfactions of living not only virtuously, but also stylishly. Daily life became an accomplishment, an aesthetic act, like performance art.

Of course, few of us take much time for performance art.

That’s perhaps why accelerating the worldwide shift to zero-emission watts is usually preferred to going on an energy diet. It’s happening faster than anyone previously thought possible; 39% of all power came from carbon-free sources in 2021, according to new research from BloombergNEF, and solar and wind rose to more than 10% of all power generation for the first time.

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For those of us who exceed the globally equitable share of watts, and whose awareness brings regret, there are going to be other tempting pathways. Like a lot of ambassadors for climate justice, I’ve done too much flying lately; it seems as if it’s a contradiction, and it is. Here’s something I have in common with corporate emitters: I’ve been paying for carbon credits. I go through the organization, which bills itself as a provider of voluntary carbon compensation measures. I like the projects they support.

This kind of compensation isn’t adequate. There’s no substitute for less flying, if carbon burn is what’s under consideration. Prosperous citizens have the option to pay some of the costs of overburn in support of other people doing the work of mitigation and hope it balances out ever so slightly. Better by far would be to burn less.

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This brings us back to a basic philosophical question: How best to live? Except now the old question includes the carbon burn involved in that hypothetical best life. Because we need the biosphere to be doing well for any of us to be doing well. The biosphere is our home, our parent, and our extended body.

As the Dalai Lama once remarked, we all will burn some carbon just by being alive, so it’s not a matter of renunciation, but rather of mindful consumption, much like mindful breathing. Paying attention to what actually feels good, as opposed to what is supposed to feel good, can be very instructive.

Following the nudges of the advertising industry, and thus burning carbon like lighting cigars with $100 bills, is not as satisfying as sitting in the dirt weeding a garden or sitting across a table sipping coffee while talking to a friend. Watching isn’t as satisfying as doing. The virtual isn’t as satisfying as the real.

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This is because we’re animals. We’re primates, meaning social mammals. Being animals, our animal pleasures are the deepest—they always will be—and those pleasures burn less carbon than the virtual, mediated, boosted, and advertised pleasures of the consumption society. That’s simple biology, and it’s a good thing, too, for us and for the rest of our family, meaning the biosphere.

So pay attention; feel your body; think it over. Be mindful of your carbon burn, and make what you burn really count. Don’t waste it. We’ve been cocooned in fossil fuels for too long, and busting out of that sheath of crap back into the wide world will be a liberation.

You’ll be healthier for it, and thus happier. And your planetary body, meaning all your living kin, will be happier too. Including all the generations to come. But first our world, our living and breathing moment.

Get your head away from your screen and decarbonize!

Robinson writes science fiction in Davis, Calif.



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