Multiplication Saves the Day

In my last column for the magazine I wrote about numbers. Now I'd like for us to do some math.

Let's assume, generously, that 5 percent of Americans are deeply
concerned about climate change- concerned enough that they will change
all their light bulbs, scrimp and save to put a solar thermal hot water
system on the roof (or really scrimp and save to put some photovoltaic
electricity up there), unplug all their vampire appliances when not in
use, cut the number of car trips that they make in half and use a
hybrid for the remaining journeys, buy only local food in season, use a
clothesline to dry their clothes whenever the temperature tops fifty
degrees (1,016 pounds of carbon saved right there), cut their air
travel by two-thirds and learn to enjoy the pleasure of "staycations,"
take showers with an egg timer so they don't stay under too long (350
pounds of carbon), and do all the other things that every website
recommends for reducing your carbon footprint. And then let's assume
that they go buy offsets for the rest from a company like NativeEnergy,
which will use the money to build windmills on Indian reservations.

Okay, add it up, carry the one, dum de dum, here we go, yes-the impact
on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is, hmm, zero. Okay, not
precisely zero. Every bit helps. But if your concern is somehow slowing
the onrush of global warming in the short window of time the scientists
give us, then the number is close enough to zero that it gives you
pause. Even if that 5 percent then hector their in-laws, each of whom
somewhat grudgingly does half of what they could, the net effect is
still, well, right around zero.

I mean, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
Rajendra Pachauri, said recently, "If there's no action before 2012,
that's too late." By "action" he did not mean going down in the
basement and adjusting the knob on your water heater to no higher than
120 degrees Fahrenheit. James Hansen, our premier climatologist,
recently said that "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to
that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is
adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that
CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350
ppm." It is true that if you clean the coils beneath your refrigerator
it will run more efficiently, and it is also true that it won't do
anything to "preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization
developed and to which life on Earth is adapted."

I am exaggerating here to make a point. Of course I believe
in energy conservation. I've got a plaque that says I built the most
energy-efficient house in Vermont, I drove the first hybrid Honda Civic
in the state, I subsist mostly on food from my Champlain Valley. I'm
typing this article with electrons currently assembling themselves on
my roof. All these things are good. I highly support them. Please do them too.

But in a world where we need massive change at lightning speed, the
usual equations are turned upside down. We're used to thinking that
being practical is what really counts-that you can only reduce carbon
by, in fact, reducing carbon. Hence the light bulb, or the farmers'
market, or the hybrid car. If we think globally, to use the hoariest of
green cliches, we should act locally. In the fight against global
warming, though, the practical acts are for the most part symbolic,
while the symbolic acts might just save the day. Say you have a certain
amount of time and money with which to make change-call it x, since that is what we mathematicians call things. The trick is to increase that x
by multiplication, not addition. The trick is to take that 5 percent of
people who really care and make them count for far more than 5 percent.
And the trick to that is democracy.

We naively believe that it takes 51 percent of the people to make
change in a democracy, but it clearly doesn't-5 percent is plenty, if
those 5 percent are engaged in symbolic action that can force the kind
of legislative change that resets the course for everyone. In the civil
rights movement, for instance, the strategy was not to desegregate the
country one lunch counter at a time-there were way too many lunch
counters. Instead, you use the drama of the fight over one lunch
counter to help drive the Civil Rights Act, which puts the full power
of the federal government behind the idea that anyone can order a
hamburger wherever they want to. And here's the thing: I bet less than
one-quarter of 1 percent of Americans took part in a protest during
that great movement, but it was more than enough.

If people who care about climate change mobilize politically, 5
percent will be more than enough too-it will persuade senators,
congressmen, and presidents to back strict legislation that will set
real caps on emissions and fund real research on the technologies we
need. If such laws pass, they would change the behavior of 95 percent
of Americans, including reluctant in-laws. This kind of equation isn't
hypothetical. Two years ago, I helped organize a march across Vermont
that called on our leaders to work for deep cuts in carbon emissions. A
thousand of us walked the sixty-mile route-one Vermonter in six
hundred. And yet that was enough to get all of our legislators,
including the conservative Republicans, to sign on to our pledge. A
year later we organized fourteen hundred demonstrations in all fifty
states to call for 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. They
were the most widespread rallies about climate change to date, but even
so they hardly reached one-quarter of 1 percent of the population. And
yet the next week both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton put our goal at
the heart of their platforms.

So here's the thing. Along with spending a lot of time figuring out how
to make your own life practically green (because, it's true, how are
you going to face your kids if you don't?), spend at least a little
time figuring out how to engage in the symbolic political action that
might actually add up to something useful. In the United States check
out and; since you're a citizen of the globe
as well, you also need to help us at Putting up a clothesline
is a fine idea: 1,016 pounds of carbon, remember. But if you join
Project Laundry List to fight for the idea
of clotheslines, you become, in essence, an Amway salesman for positive
change. Yes, your Prius definitively rocks-but even if you can't afford
a Prius, you can accomplish considerably more by joining Al Gore's
campaign to push for the rapid conversion to renewable electricity,
which can power the next generation of hybrid cars.

It's not, I warn you, as immediately satisfying as installing a new
tankless water heater or greasing the chain on your bike. You have to
keep reminding yourself: multiplication, not addition. You have to keep
reminding yourself that atmospheric physics and chemistry don't give
you points for doing the right thing-they only care about how much
carbon is in the atmosphere. We have so little time that we can't waste
any of it. Screw in a new light bulb? Sure. Screw in a new global
treaty? Now we're talking.

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