Fifty Little Things That Won’t Save the Earth

By Mike SanClements, PhD

Warning: You might want to put on a helmet because I’m about to beat you over the head with some harsh realities. But, keep reading, because this is important.

First off, let me say—Climate change sucks. It’s inescapable (unless we make drastic changes), will affect everything that happens on this planet, and the bad is going to outweigh the good.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states in their Fourth Assessment on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability:

  • View of Four-mile fire from Boulder, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Mike SanClements, 2012.

    The costs and benefits of climate change for industry, settlement and society will varywidely by location and scale. In the aggregate, however, net effects will tend to be more negative the larger the change in climate.

  • The resilience of many ecosystems is likely to be exceeded this century by an unprecedented combination of climate change, associated disturbances (e.g., flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, ocean acidification), and other global change drivers (e.g., landuse change, pollution, over-exploitation of resources).
  • Projected climate change-related exposures are likely to affect the health status of millions of people, particularly those with low adaptive capacity, through:
    • increases in malnutrition and consequent disorders, with implications for child growth and development;
    •  increased deaths, disease and injury due to heatwaves, floods, storms, fires and droughts;
    • the increased burden of diarrhoeal disease
    • the increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone related to climate change; and,
    • the altered spatial distribution of some infectious disease vectors

Brutal, right?

As an ecologist, I read things like that IPCC report every day and it can get pretty overwhelming. The most upsetting part being that climate change is becoming more pronounced, the news becoming more dire. For example, take this summer’s record low Arctic sea ice which is estimated to have the cumulative warming effect of an additional 20 years of CO2 emissions.  Yikes. The increased warming is due to the open water absorbing heat from the sun, rather than reflecting it back toward space as the ice would have.

Speaking of depressing things that happened this summer, last month I attended the annual Ecological Society of America Conference and found it packed with equally bad news. It felt like a litany of presentations on dying forests, droughts, fires, melting glaciers, crashing fisheries, and so on. There truly was an impending sense of doom. And while not every talk made me want to bury my head in the sand and cry, the overall feeling was certainly gloomy. Gloomy enough to push journalist Hillary Rosner to write:

“…the gloom overload raises a pesky question for me as a journalist. If I can’t bear to hear the news, how can I communicate it to the public? What sort of articles — or books — should I be writing? Where is the balance between grim facts and hopeful innovations? How can I continue to write about what I believe is the most important topic of our time while maintaining my sanity?”

Important questions indeed– How do we as ecologists, science journalists, and citizens of this planet convey the urgency of this problem without leading people (including ourselves) to decide that we’re already screwed, so what’s the use?

Me–I honestly don’t know the answer, but hope that this post will generate some discussion on how we as a community should move forward.

I do have some thoughts on what not to do. In what I consider to be perhaps the worst approach I’ve seen, I’ll point toward a recent article and subsequent interview with Nathan Myhrvold and climate scientist Ken Caldeira. Their article titled ‘Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity states “We show that rapid deployment of low-emission energy systems can do little to diminish the climate impacts in the first half of this century.” Or, put another way, if there’s to be any hope of keeping climate change within even a semi-safe range, we need to transition immediately to a carbon-free energy base that cannot include lower carbon options like natural gas. Fair enough, after all, that’s what the data say. However, in the follow up interview (here comes the really bad part) with Dave Roberts from Grist, Myhrvold drops this bomb, which is pretty much enough to drive anyone off a cliff:

“One thing we wanted to point out is how hard the problem is. There are many advocates who say that it will be easy to switch to a low-greenhouse-gas energy solution. They have a great “can do” attitude, but their schemes are hopelessly flawed. To beat one dead horse, that little book ‘50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth — well, it’s at best wishful thinking and at worse deeply disingenuous. Those “simple things” are not going to save us. At most they can let you foolishly think you are actually accomplishing something when you are not.”


What am I supposed to do with that? My first reaction was anger. Then sadness. Then slowly a sense of defeat washed over me. Eventually though, I got mad again. Because frankly, that’s a terrible message; one that leaves me feeling powerless and without hope.

Now that some time has passed, what I’ve come to realize is that while riding my bike to work, eating less meat, and turning the lights off when I’m not in the room may not solve all of our problems, it does leave me feeling empowered and like I’m contributing toward the solution in my own small way. And I need that. I need it to keep me sane and motivated until we as a society are ready to make the massive changes that are necessary.

So, while I still don’t have the answer to Hillary’s question of “Where is the balance between grim facts and hopeful innovations?” . . .  I do know that I need to do the little things, that we all need to do the little things. Because if not, then we’ve given up.


11 thoughts on “Fifty Little Things That Won’t Save the Earth

  1. Thanks, Mike, for sharing these thoughts. I agree that the data, coupled with the stark realities related to renewables conversion, the human need for perpetual economic growth and “progress,” seem to indicate that riding bikes simply won’t cut the mustard. However, I commend your resolution to continue doing what you can. I had a similar epiphany recently and decided that if nothing else, reducing my carbon footprint will help me resolve the cognitive dissonance I have on a personal level. Ride on!

  2. Thanks for the post.
    Of course it is the greatest challenge we’ve faced in centuries (maybe ever?). But there are lots of people working on the big innovations that we need. I try to write about some of them. For example, the article you reference says that natural gas can’t reduce GHG. But we have an even bigger problem than that. Since natural gas is cheap, we’ll actually consume MORE of it (the Jevon’s Paradox). We shouldn’t ignore that natural is generally alot cleaner than coal for other reasons as well (mercury, particulates, etc)
    Seems to me these people are the modern day version of people in the 1960’s that said the earth couldn’t support the billions of people it does now. Technology seems to find a way. And there is always “adaptation” as well as “mitigation”.
    Not sure how you as an ecologist feel about geoengineering, but I have a feeling it might come to that. I think it is something we need to study and do some pilot testing now so that we have that option down the road. Isn’t much different than how we are manipulating the earth now, just in a more directed manner.
    The tougher problem, as you indicate, is the societal changes that need to happen to reduce consumption of resources. If everyone does some of the little things, it will make a big difference. Not eating meat because of the massive GHG emissions is something most people could do. Biking instead of driving will require massive changes in the way we build cities before most people are enabled to actually have that as a viable option.

  3. All good points. My thoughts on “green” lifestyle choices are that the things that improve my quality of life and health are things worth doing, even if they aren’t going to save the planet. Or, put another way, I’d rather live in a world where people value biking to work, so I bike to work.

  4. Tom DeLuca on September 12, 2012

    Great comments Mike! As ecologists, I think that an important role that we can play is to reach out to the public with balanced ideas and discussions on the peril imposed by continued and unbridled consumption of fossil fuels. We urgently need broad scale implementation of true alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels. While I agree that riding our bikes, eating lower on the food chain, and turning down the heat in the winter are all great conservation measures, they will ultimately mean little in a world with seven billion people all itching for the same comforts we have given ourselves (and continue to broadcast around the world) here in the US. Given the enormous amount of carbon in coal reserves in the world and the startling rate of coal based electricity development in Asia, it is clearly coal that is going to cook our goose in the long run. Although there may be some worthy geoengineering projects, many of them make me nervous as they represent the same sort of hubris that got us into this mess in the first place (we can solve our problems by interfering with natural processes). Educating the public on climate change, conservation, and supporing legislation for meaningful alternatives will go a long way in helping solve our current problems. If people truly understand, they may be more likely to act by getting on that bike or voting for legislation that will make a difference. Our outreach might come in the form of blogs (like yours) and perspectives type articles in science based magazines (e.g. Frontiers), but we also need to push for publishing op-eds in local and regional newspapers, participating in well organized public lectures and events, and if possible publishing articles in less likely media streams, such as the ‘Montana Farmer Stockman,’ or the ‘Iowa Farmer Today.’ It is up to us to share our science and the science that we understand directly with the general public, rather than having it filtered through journalists that are up against deadlines, quotas, popularity issues, and internal (owner) or external (consumer) bias. So, thanks to each of you for the taking the time to blog and comment. I will look forward to listening to one of you being interviewed on the Colorado Agricultural News Network in the near future! Keep on keeping on!!

  5. Tom!

    Thanks so much for reading and for the great comments! I totally agree with you that we need massive changes in order to tackle this problem and that small conservation measures are just the tiniest tiniest tip of the iceberg. They do at least keep me feeling sane in the face of the truly massive challenges ahead of us.

    Your comment on a crowded world wanting the comforts we have reminded me of this recent article:

    Come to think of it, I agree with you on every point you made (maybe because you taught me so much of what I know). Especially the geoengineering, it makes me very very nervous. Perhaps I will write about that next.

    Good idea on the local newspapers. I think I will give it a try at some point!

  6. Nice post, Mike! And nice to meet you at the ASM!

    So, I think, too, that journalists probably struggle against the 24/7 news cycle, no? So, there’s sort of reader fatigue: if we hear 24/7 the doom & gloom of climate change, we as readers get totally desensitized. That’s one problem. But a second problem is that perhaps the people making the decisions around what gets published (editors? I’m not actually very clear on the journalism world) may think “oh we covered climate change last week, we don’t have to do that again until next summer, or until the next major hurricane or extreme weather event.” Then again, bloggers aren’t (often) beholden to editors…

    In any case, I sympathize a bit with the “the little things won’t save the planet” mentality. I think successfully grappling with something as hugely important as climate change will take vast (global) systemic social-political-economic changes that are hard to accomplish by “the little things.” It’s very disheartening, and, well, gloomy :-(. I guess, though, that if “the little things” help people stay engaged in the debate and engaged in creating solutions, it will more likely that solutions will actually come to the fore? Still, I think that things that need to happen to prevent and mitigate climate change will not be easily come by (note: this is NOT a reason not to be actively and fervently working on the problem!). Sigh. Anyway, well, off I go to pick up my weekly farm share and maybe get a more positive outlook on the future!

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  8. Very interesting discussion and comments. I wonder if we will need to take a more active approach to addressing the changes we have brought upon us. I figure if we are able to change the climate of the Earth, we are capable of so much. Perhaps the ecological chaos cause by our influence of basic physical processes obligate us to act as stewards of the earth, helping where we see a need, even when it isn’t a human need. We are certainly capable of this, if we have the will.

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