ICYMI – Blog from Listserv thread August 2022 (edited by Valerie Brachya)

Dr. Ortrud Leßmann initiated the thread on:

Citizens’ action plan on climate change – following a quote from Ingrid Robeyns

4. Let’s look critically at our consumption, but prioritize political action
Yes, we must adapt our consumption patterns: move towards vegetarianism and veganism, use public transport or bicycles and share cars, insulate houses, put solar panels on roofs, repair and recycle, and think three times before flying. However, consumption patterns change most robustly following price changes or government regulation. That’s why political action and climate activism are more important: recall that we need politicians who introduce a set of regulations, public investment and taxes that are needed to move towards a sustainable way of living, and do what it takes to move other countries that must do the same. Yet despite that political action is more urgent and potentially more powerful than merely changing our own consumption, this should not be used as an excuse to not look critically at our own consumption patterns. Because in some areas our consumption can make a difference. There is low-hanging fruit, such as moving away from meat and dairy consumption, that all of us, can start with tomorrow (except the vegans, who I salute).

The crises of today: the pandemic, the war in Ukraine with its impact on food supply, the drought in Europe, … make more people realize that our way of life is not the best and has to be changed. Individual action is not  enough and there are multiple difficulties in organizing collective answers. 

Ingrid Robeyns’ list contributes to encourage those who are aware of climate change and environmental pollution to start doing something rather than resigning. She also answers their concern – or excuse – that changing individual consumption has only a marginal effect by highlighting that apart from sustainable consumption in the narrow sense there is a lot of environmental friendly behavior and political activism that helps to overcome the limits of individual action by moving into the direction of collective action. As Tom Bowerman has written, we need both

William Rees

1) Robeyns’ actions, while potentially helpful, are all addressed at climate change but climate change is not the real problem. Ecological overshoot is the major environmental existential treat facing humanity.  (There are too many people consuming and polluting too much.)  

2) Climate change is an excessive waste problem and just one symptom of overshoot. 

3) Politically acceptable ‘solutions’ to climate change will not fix the climate and tend to exacerbate overshoot. 

4) The only effective way to reduce overshoot and address its major symptoms (climate change, plunging biodiversity, ocean acidification, tropical deforestation, land/soil degradation, pollution of everything, etc., etc.) is through significant reductions in energy and material throughput (consumption and waste discharge) and human population.

5) One could argue that society’s simplistic focus on climate change is a distraction from the real issue of overshoot and as such is a form of denial. 

6) In short, Robeyns’ solutions do not go nearly far enough.

What should we do to reduce overshoot and stave off extreme climate change? 

First, on the conceptual level governments should:

  • Formally acknowledge the end of material growth and the need to reduce the total human ecological footprint by about 40%.  
  • Acknowledge that, as long as we remain in overshoot, sustainable production/consumption means less production/consumption.
  • Admit the theoretical and practical difficulties/impossibility of an all-green quantitatively equivalent energy transition.
  • Establish programs to assist communities, families and individuals to facilitate the adoption of sustainable lifestyles (even North Americans lived happily on half the energy per capita in the 1960s than we use today).
  • Implement education/training strategies to retrain the workforce for new forms of employment that result from reduced energy budgets.
  • Recognize that a just sustainability requires reallocation of wealth and income. Strategies (e.g., taxes, fines) to eliminate unnecessary fossil fuel use and reduce energy waste (half or more of energy “consumed” is wasted  through inefficiencies and carelessness)

More specific policies would require that governments/society:  

  • Phase out non-essential and frivolous uses of FF.  (e.g., private vehicles including EVs, ATVs, jet-skis, leaf-blowers, non-essential air travel, etc.)
  • Allocate any remaining FF budget to essential uses (e.g., agriculture/food processing, inter-urban truck and marine transportation, high-temperature industrial applications.) There are no substitutes for many uses of  FF in the short-term.
  • Implement carbon taxes, resource depletion taxes, allocation quotas, etc. I.e, internalize social and eco-externalities through full social-cost pricing.  This would significantly raise the prices of almost everything to better reflect the full costs of production and thus reduce unnecessary consumption.
  • Since the relatively poor would be adversely affected by full-cost pricing, this program should be accompanied by elevated minimum wage schedules and a guaranteed minimum income where necessary.
  • Implement fair income and corporate tax systems so that high-income earners pay a fair share of the costs of eco-damage and regeneration.
  • Re-localize essential manufacturing and food production.
    (i.e., reduce dependence on unreliable global supply chains)
  • Reorganize settlements into more self-reliant, steady-state, urban-centred bioregions integrated into local ecosystems.
  • Downsize housing (new house = 1000 sq ft, down from 2500 sq ft)
  • All new construction to passive house standards (~80% more energy efficient).
  • Invest in restoring essential ecosystems and life-support services.
  • Implement a global non-coercive family planning/population program starting with better education and economic independence for women.

However, the problem is not what should be done but rather how to convince the world to take the kinds of decisive action necessary.  Global society’s continued worshipping at the alter technology-abetted perpetual growth is a cognitive barrier that is only beginning to be challenged in the mainstream. 

On the upside, societal beliefs, values and assumptions (narrative or paradigm) are subject to erosion if the flood of evidence continues to surge. At some point we reach a social tipping point when acceptance of the need for rapid change goes mainstream.  The barrier  comes down.

Ordinary citizens can do very little that directly affects overshoot or climate change.  Overshoot is a collective problem that demands collective solutions. Ordinary citizens cannot implement the necessary tax and incentive regimes, ration FF supplies, implement public transit, etc.  In fact, many of these things are  required to support people in taking personal action such as using transit.

In this light, perhaps the most important action for ordinary citizens is to organize in special interest groups and mass protest activities to push politicians into doing the right thing.  

Would the majority of people be willing to participate/protest/revolt if they realized that significant action at the top would mean economic disruption, reduced energy supplies/consistency, job losses, possible relocation, etc., before things re-stabilize, if they  ever do. 

Dimitris Stevis

Climate change is a symptom of our broader political economy but overshoot is also a symptom of it.

 It is worth noting that the overshoot argument (population cum overuse) gained traction in recent human history (and particularly during the 20th century and more so after WWII), i.e., with the rise of the political contestations associated with industrialism/capitalism/colonialism/global geopolitics.

Tom Walker

Mass protest activities would have to take the form of a general strike, relating to Walter Benjamin’s image of activating the emergency brake.  How does one “activate the emergency brake?”  Where, even, is the emergency brake on this train? The answer lies in the production function, which combines labour and capital. Production stops happening if there are no labour inputs. Stop working and the “train” stops racing toward the cliff. The Covid lockdown was just a tentative rehearsal.

 People voluntarily (often enthusiastically) complied with the government directives. Of course in a general strike there will be no government directive unless it is to return to work. 

How is “your” life going to be better? In Geoff Mann’s review essay, he mentioned the idea of a “reduction function” as the counterpart to the economists’ production function. Now there are only two factors in a production function, labour and capital. There are three factors in my reduction function: labour, leisure and material consumption (income). This is a mathematical model with variables and equations all explained with reference to the literature. What the model shows is that people can have an “equivalent” standard of living with moderately less material consumption, MUCH less work and MUCH more leisure. The catch, though, is what are people going to do with all that leisure?  This is where calculations are not going to help and this is why I start with the concept of the Sabbath and particularly Erich Fromm’s (and Abraham Heschel’s and Samson Hirsch’s) interpretation of the Sabbath as giving the natural world a rest.

Joe Zammit Lucia

Mass actions like general strikes (if they could ever be organised successfully – which is almost impossible these days in most countries given the legislation around strikes and the exorbitant cost of mounting them) would likely feed political forces opposed to climate action

We need to internalise that the reason that political action is slow and halting is that for the vast majority of people they only care about climate change when asked about it in surveys, not in their real lives. It might give us comfort to delude ourselves that it’s all due to politicians being weak or incompetent. Or conveniently to blame it all on the lobbying power of fossil fuel companies. But none of that gets to the fundamental issues.

Community organisers have made progress when they convince communities to take action that benefits the climate because they are framed as actions that improve their lives today.

Kate Olson

A wide range of people seem to respond to 1) connecting climate impacts to places they love and depend on for their livelihoods and well-being and, 2) combining this with easy ideas for how to incorporate action into all the spheres of their own lives. Building community through action, and making it fun, works, for example, climate action happy hours and climate action coffee hours. It may not be enough, but at the very least it’s building more community resilience.

Helen Williams

We are trying to solve a systems problem. Individual actions are therefore necessary but not sufficient.

Systems change will come (has only ever come) from people organizing to change rules and incentives in ways that benefit them personally – materially or emotionally.

The sweet spot in organizing is the overlap between what we know is good for the planet, and what we know is good for our well-being as social creatures: connecting with each other, and with place.

Debbie Kasper

Empathy is a good place to start. Acknowledging the anxiety, impotence, fear, anger, apathy, denial, overwhelm, and other things we and others feel is crucial, and wanting to relieve that is a good thing indeed. The desire to promote “feeling good” at the expense of genuine efficacy is not only pointless, it’s part of the problem. Our insistence on feeling good, whether conscious or unconscious, at all costs is one of the main obstacles to understanding and addressing our predicament (and in some ways its cause). It keeps us from facing facts which are challenging, unsettling, or upsetting. Even if partly a matter of innate cognitive biases, it’s also a matter of conditioning in MIT cultures which encourage and reinforce it. The irony is, this insistence keeps us trapped in cycles which contribute to our feeling very bad in the long term.

With regard to the function of “what YOU can do” lists, improving them means: 1) crafting lists informed by a more solid grasp of the facts, 2) contextualizing them within the bigger picture, and based on that, 3) being transparent about the limits and opportunities for what people can achieve. 

What kind of education do we need?

 For starters, we/citizens desperately need to learn how to see and understand reality more clearly (i.e., how to zoom out to see the bigger picture, identify the roots of problems, understand the likely outcomes of a given scenario, zoom back in to discern what all that means for us in our particular contexts) and ultimately how to face and live more gracefully in reality as it is. In Norbert Elias’ terms, we need to shift the current balance of involvement and detachment–the proportional influences on our reactions/responses of immediate concerns and emotional involvements versus the capacity for a more dispassionate view of the larger situation. 

How can we operationalize the teaching and learning of a more accurate understanding of reality–how the world works, what/who we are in relation to it and other beings, and the consequences of human activities–and fostering the ability to take a more big picture dispassionate view.

“How we think and see the world* is at the root of the socio-environmental (and many other) ills that concern us here. 

*This should not be equated with conscious rational thought. It refers rather to the values, beliefs, assumptions, mental models (aka the paradigms) at the basis of our cultural narratives, social systems, ways of being in the world, and the nature of the activities and material surroundings that emerge from all that and together generate “normal.”

Options are: 1) experimenting with strategies for cultivating these capacities in students, 2) offering alternative mental models for making sense of the world, 3) developing the socio-environmental synthesis framework to provide common ground from which to understand and study long-term socio-environmental processes and social change and to be better able to identify entry points for meaningful action, 4) working on the ground (figuratively and literally) to contribute to increasing the resilience of our community. We also need holistic education (not just for schools) that shows why the learning we need must attend to whole people–“body, mind, and spirit” in individual and collective senses–and suggests some ways to do that. 

Ruben Anderson

We need to better understand what human beings as animals are capable of understanding – better understanding can easily be wasted effort. We have extremely limited resources of time, energy and attention, and when they are used up they are gone. So, sadly, with many issues it would often be better to do nothing than to rob resources from an issue that has a chance. There are many, many things that better understanding cannot change, and so it would be more useful to direct our understanding to things that can be changed. We have a brain, evolved over a couple of million years, that was built to enhance our day to day survival, facing hunger, thirst, weather, predators, and conflicts. We can’t ask our eyes to see in ultraviolet, nor our ears to hear in subsonic. How is our brain going to comprehend the “reality” of this world we have built?  And how is it going to do it with our few hours of conscious analytical attention each day—a few hours minus all the other demands we have on our cognitive capacity. This may leave us with scant minutes to try to understand reality, or even in cognitive debt, with a foggy brain. 

We need to admit that some things don’t work, and doing it bigger, faster and harder won’t help—because it doesn’t work. 

The activist model of raising awareness about issues hides a dagger in the velvet glove. Since attention is finite, if we pay attention to one issue, that means we cannot pay attention to a different issue. The attention is used up, there is no more until our tiny supply is replenished. Our physical cognitive limits, and therefore the hard limits on our attention and action, are the biggest missed factor. If a proposal relies on a large amount of focused attention, it is unlikely to succeed.

Michael Gazzaniga once said 99.999% of behaviour is unconscious. He was joking at the time, but then he said that was actually probably about right. Very little of our behaviour is the product of conscious attention. By far the greatest influencer of our behaviour is the physical environment we live in. If a road is straight, flat and wide, you will drive faster. If a road is twisty and narrow, with poor visibility, you will drive slower. Most of our behaviour is simply responsive to our environment. 

The next substantial chunk of influence comes from our social context. If our environment does not shape our behaviour, we use flocking behaviour.  There are a few big rubrics here, like “That is how we have always done this” (with the subtext, “and it worked out okay, so let’s do it that way again.”)

Another one is “This is what everyone around me is doing” (with the subtext, “and everything seems to be fine, so I am going to do that too.”)

We use these systems because our high-attention cognitive system is so costly. It was very late to evolve, and it uses a massive share of our brain’s energy despite doing just a small fraction of the work. We make just a tiny fraction of our decisions using this system, and we can only physically do it for a few hours a day. When our high-attention cognitive system is tired, we revert to the physical and social responses.  And, in order to keep our brain fresh in case it is needed to fight off a sabre-tooth tiger, we have defense mechanisms that discourage expensive conscious thought. Incongruence can be dismissed, which conserves brain resources. 

So, education is obviously a high-attention activity that is very cognitively demanding. We can’t do it for very long each day, and there are a lot of competing demands for those cognitive resources so we naturally prefer to defend the resources rather than consume them. 

Concerning  the ten points:

#1 education has been the dominant model for centuries now but is deeply flawed due to an over reliance on attention and mistaken beliefs about what flows after attention. 

#2 Our political power structures are built with very different goals than protecting the earth. 

#3 If climate justice was very effective, would we not expect some slowing in climate change? 

#4  Material and energy extraction only continue to increase, despite decades of activism. 

More material and energy throughput as we rebuild all our systems to provide the same services we enjoy except “green”

Effective directions would be Local Food, Walkable Communities, and Insulated Homes. 

Halina Brown

Giving a lecture on reducing emissions while wearing a sweater in a highly air conditioned room in a heat wave demonstrates disconnection between understanding and lifestyles.

Ruben Anderson

Many environmentalists fly off for vacation. These are people that are educated, aware, invested—and probably think they are part of a new paradigm. But they are citizens of this social group, living in countries with this infrastructure. We are locked in, in very meaningful ways. 

We could change a lot of paradigms and still be stuck with the same inefficient and dirty energy infrastructure, the same poorly built and barely insulated homes, and the same sprawling urban arrangements—these wasteful systems are major drivers of climate change and even if we did change our paradigms they would endure for decades or centuries more. 

There is an apocryphal story about how the International Space Station was constrained by the space shuttle booster rocket size, which was constrained by railroad capacity, which matched the wheelbase of Roman chariots? So a highly technical and modern spacecraft was limited by the width of horses’ asses in the Roman Empire. 


Philip Vergragt

I imagine learning environments (schools, courses, retreats) where teachers are working with activists to help them reflect on the bigger picture (zooming out); and then zooming in into daily practices of activism and experimentation to work with a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of it all: the long and short term; the local and the global, the individual and the larger scale of humanity. Have these courses been developed?

How can the results of our research be applied in real life? A better framing is probably how we can design action research in such a way that learning occurs and at the same time real change happens, on whatever level: individual, group, society. However, in my own practice of both researcher and activist I see a deep divide between the two that is hard to bridge. In my activist daily practices we talk about legislation, support for certain proposals; mobilizing support for these proposals, creating sources of funding, access to power brokers, etc. This is very disconnected from the language of sustainable consumption and lifestyles, degrowth, sufficiency, transitions, etc. How can we bridge these two separate realms and languages?

Debbie Kasper

 Being an “environmentalist” certainly does not exempt one from this erroneous modern worldview. Just look at the still dominant visual representation of the “human-environment” relationship. Two separate sides with a few arrows thrown in to “connect” them (see Chapter 4 of Beyond the Knowledge Crisis for elaboration). 

Broader societal-level changes tend to take much longer than individual shifts, if they happen at all, given the massive resistance they usually provoke. Therein lies the challenge, and the great question and test for those of us interested.

Fortunately, as Meadows points out, there’s an even higher leverage point: our ability to change/transcend existing paradigms. This capacity goes hand in hand with the concept of “detachment,” both of which are products of evolution, so not contrary to it at all.

The concept of “involvement and detachment” refers to a fluctuating balance in the degrees to which immediate emotional reactions vs a more clear-headed, self-aware, far-sighted view govern our actions and responses. To advocate for an increased capacity for detachment is not to shame anyone. It’s merely to recognize the dangers of actions and interactions strongly based in near-term self-serving wishes and fears and to see the benefits of developing and exercising our (evolved) ability for self-reflexive awareness and to think about consequences farther down the road. This capacity was instrumental in past societies who were able to sustain themselves over long periods of time and in the development of science, for example. It can be encouraged or suppressed within a culture, develops unevenly both in time and across populations, and is never total. I stand by the argument that we need more of it.

Joe Zammit Lucia

There is a tension in how to present dealing with environmental issues. By and large, the main narrative is that this is a collective issue that needs to be dealt with through government policy and through global coordination at the government level.  One side-effect of that is that people believe that individual action is largely irrelevant or, at best, marginal because the number of people willing to modify their lifestyles significantly is vanishingly small and we can all find reasons why what we do is perfectly justifiable in our own individual circumstances. 

From an activist perspective, it begs the question of where best to put limited resources – influencing policy or trying to influence the lifestyles of billions of people. My personal bias is the former because, in spite of the frustrations, one is likely to get more (much more) bang for the buck and is less likely to alienate people from the environmental cause by making them feel guilty about their lifestyles 

The standard riposte to that is that we need to do both. The reality is that time and resources are always limited and trying to do everything usually results in achieving little – and especially so if different approaches are perceived to be giving somewhat different messages.

Ruben Anderson

What if it is not detachment we are lacking, but involvement? Did indigenous cultures sustain themselves by being de-tached, or a-ttached? Thinking seven generations ahead seems to be to be something that people who are deeply involved in their ecosystem do, people who are attached to their place. 

 This links to community building. There are often calls to “build community”, with the implicit theory of change that after we build community, we will do more good activist stuff together. I think community arises from doing stuff together. Community follows, not leads. 

So does detachment from the immediate, human concerns follow or lead?

I can easily imagine situations in which human detachment comes first, but follows a path of nihilism.  Whereas if involvement, attachment, to our ecosphere comes first, then detachment may arise as a natural consequence.

I don’t think we need more education, I think we need more attachment. And I don’t think we can educate our way to attachment, and in fact there are countless examples of well-educated people not being attached. 

We need a paradigm shift, but we aren’t necessarily going to get it. If we are going to continue this intensive population of high-consuming humans on this finite planet, we will need a paradigm shift. 

If we  don’t continue this arrangement, then we don’t need a paradigm shift. if we can’t make a paradigm shift, then we won’t continue this arrangement. Probably the latter.

Even if we have a paradigm change, we shall still have the same infrastructure, pumping carbon into the atmosphere.  Rebuilding the infrastructure is a separate task, a separate behaviour. It does not necessarily depend on a paradigm shift, and it does not necessarily flow from a paradigm shift. 

Most people do not care how they receive the goods they require. That does not mean that the theory of change is “make people care”.  We cannot care, and so we should stop trying to make people care. 

There are probably a hundred people, maybe a couple of thousand at most, that would actually be the movers of transforming the electrical paradigm. What sounds more possible—transforming two thousand people  or eight billion?

There was a massive paradigm shift, from the Earth as the centre of the solar system, to the sun. But it really only affected a few people. For the rest of us, who cares? Lots of us still believe in horoscopes. Our life is untouched by this fascinating new paradigm. The sun goes up, the sun goes down. 

  • Perhaps we need attachment, not detachment, and we can’t educate our way to that. 
  • If we do need a paradigm shift, we also can’t educate everyone to create that.
  • If we do need a paradigm shift, there are very few people needed to make that shift. 
  • Even if they make the shift, we may not be able to shift our infrastructure, and the atmosphere doesn’t care about our paradigms, only tonnes of carbon. 

If we are not going to make that shift and transform our pollutants, then we need to plan and work for a very different future. 

Halina Brown

  1. Culture matters a great deal. In the opening statement, Ortrud Leßmann calls switching to veganism as low hanging fruit. I understand her meaning: that is entirely dependent on individual decisions making and does not require government action or new infrastructure or costly technology. But that does not necessarily mean that it is easy or even feasible. Take for example, the Netherlands. Dairy products are the core of people’s diet and part of the national cultural identity. It would be easier to  convince the Dutch to stop flying or driving than to stop eating cheese and drink milk whereas you may succeed with this transition in the Mediterranean countries. This is why actions – policies, campaigns, incentives — must evolve within the context of culture.
  2. In countries with strong traditions of non-urban dispersed populations and land ownership, such as the U.S., Canada, French countryside and others, changing lifestyles toward lower carbon footprint requires radical changes: more dense conglomerations, different modes of mobility, different housing construction. Cultural traditions and national identity are powerful barriers to such lifestyle changes.

National government can help facilitate this change through targeted taxation and incentives (and disincentives). But the engine of change must be on the local level: policies regarding land use, zoning, housing, local taxes, etc. And this is the level at which political action may actually make a difference because people know each other or of each other, accountability is high, trust is greater, fora for debate among all parties are easier to create, and persuasion is a viable option.

Tom Bowerman

Individual’s actions are measurably so infinitesimal as to be non-existent ,but  there is conversely the sum of the parts and tipping point of movement which eventually reverberates into broad sea-change. Moreover, we collectively profit when we have working examples instead of hypothetical abstractions to motivate the broad collective.  

The following are actionable specifics,  based on fifty years of practicing frugal, comparatively low impact living.

1.  Measurement:  It is really helpful to become familiar with the analytics of environmental footprint.  There are various analytic measures, scaled to world-wide, country-wide, state-wide, household or individual.  My personal preference is for individual or household measurement: Cool Climate Calculator (CCC), built and operationalized and maintained at UC Berkeley. There are two versions: short form and long form. It is used by both Oregon and California in helping citizens become familiar with their lifestyle and consumptive behaviors.  The Berkeley calculator uses the unit of “tons CO2e” per household.  This presumes a conventional vision of one individual or a familial type consumption unit. A lot of my assumptions and decisions are founded on a two year study of this topic in 2014 when five researchers in my group tested calculators and assessed the validity of the measurement process.

2.  Think about goals:  CO2e is the internationally recognized unit of measurement for climate impact. You can easily look up per capital carbon equivalency for almost any scale you choose.  Statistica computes the world’s per capita emission at 4.5 tons CO2e.  Qatar is listed as the highest per capita emission country at over 30 tons. Using different sources for this data will reveal a range.  For example, in the USA, some sources are as low as 16 tons or as high as 25 tons. I think my goal should be 2 tons per capita, that is about twice that of a low income African resident and half that of the world average.  My cool climate calculator computation year-on-year comes close to 4 tons for our household of two. I take that figure and add four tons for each of the two of us to represent our collective share of  governmental (city+county+state+nation) provisioning in carbon emissions.

3.  Set your goal:  As an individual, my goal for personal behavioral efficacy toward climate change is 2 tons.  Many people earning above $50K per year could cut their emissions by 50% within three years or less, and thereafter, continue to cut their emissions incrementally by 50% again and again until they land at 2 tons as individuals. My first major shift was year 2000, I sold my Subaru 4×4 (24-30mpg) car and bought a 3 cylinder Geo Metro (45-53mpg), relocated my work office from downtown to home, and stopped flying in airplanes.

4. Give interactive feedback about your behavioral emissions regarding house, vehicle, diet, and other consumption choices.

5. Give thought- then action – toward big ticket lifestyle changes , some  of which can make a big difference , such as:  live within walking distance of where you work, stop flying for business or pleasure, buy in-season and eat relatively basic foods grown close by, downsize or reorganize living space to compartmentalize comfort zones .6.  Get in the habit of evaluating little daily decisions through the lens of climate impact.  Every permanent 10% or 50% reduction in a consumption habit is an accomplishment. 

7.  Carbon offsets:  Evaluation of people discounting carbon offsets  seem motivated by unease about how it relates to their own priorities.