Doing less as a key climate action

What do we want?
Climate action!
When do we want it?
Now!

If you have been to any climate protests recently you have probably heard the above rallying cry. Against the backdrop of deeply coordinated climate inaction on behalf of governments and corporations in rich nations, calling for climate action makes perfect sense.

We can view ‘climate action’ as any activity that aims to push us away from business as usual, from the status quo, in order to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

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What I do to reduce my environmental footprint

I wrote about the difference between individual change and system change earlier this year. I wanted to do some introspection to identify what individual actions I am taking in my own life to reduce my environmental footprint. I have grouped these actions into a few different categories below. These lists are not exhaustive, and will change and evolve over time.

I found collecting these lists helpful in looking at my lifestyle from different angles. Considering these different perspectives was perhaps more valuable than the exact items collected under each of the headings. Doing this also raised some interesting debates at home around what is considered reducing your footprint in the first place.

I am sharing these as a conversation starter rather than as a preconceived checklist for anyone else to follow, with the acknowledgement that all of this remains woefully inadequate given the enormity of the challenges we face.

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Human centred design considered harmful

In the 1990’s, I worked as a programmer and a software developer. Back then, using computer software was quite difficult for the layperson. I moved into the field of interaction design and learned about usability in the 2000’s. It was a revelation: we could no longer blame the user for everything that went wrong with software – the blame now lay squarely with us, the ones who made the software.

The disciplines of usability and interaction design, along with several others, have since evolved into a field we now tend to call User Experience. We follow an approach called Human Centred Design, which involves ‘the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process’.

I have spent nearly a decade and a half working in this field and have always held a strong belief that design should be human centred.

Lately, I have been having some doubts. Let me explain.

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Collapse: You cannot prepare for what remains unthinkable

What if there was no cash at the ATM?
What if there was no petrol at the bowser?
What if your home didn’t have electricity or running water?
What if there was no food at the supermarket?
What if there was no ATM, or petrol station, or supermarket?
What would your life be like?

We have known about climate change breakdown for over a hundred years. This knowledge has been more broadly accessible since the 1970’s, and it has become more acute by the decade. Yet, we have done nothing.

As climate breakdown fills the news every day now, people in wealthy countries are more aware of it. However, the general reaction has not been a change in individual behaviour, or demands for systemic change: instead, it is a mix of denial, apathy and mild despair.

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Promise of change without changing at all: The electric car as a talisman of false hope

In the public imagination, the electric car – and the hybrid car before it – has been hailed as a key solution for consumers to reduce their environmental impact and help slow climate change.

As one indicator, web searches for Tesla are up over 450% from 2012 to 2018 peak, and the company is now valued at over US$54 billion on the stock market. The cars are selling, too: Tesla sales are up seven-fold from Q3 2015 to Q3 2018.

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We are mistaking wants for needs and it is costing us the world

As consumers, we always want more, and we are very good at justifying these wants as needs. I discuss how to separate wants from needs, why it is important in a world on the cusp of irreversible climate breakdown, and why we urgently need to want less.

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On embodied emissions, exploitation and the unsustainability of consumer products

One core feature of globalised capitalism is that supply and demand, production and consumption are geographically separated. Consumers buying physical products have very little visibility into the supply chain and the participating organisations beyond the maker (the public brand) and the seller (the place of purchase). As consumers, we tend to stick with the story crafted by marketing and advertising, and assessing the sustainability of a product beyond this superficial understanding is a challenge we are not encouraged to take on.

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Undo capitalism or it will undo us

Let’s start with an assumption:

We want to live meaningful lives on a healthy planet and we want the generations to come to be able to do the same.

And a related definition of true sustainability (Ehrenfeld 2009):

[Sustainability is] the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the planet forever

We are currently using 1.7 Earths each year. This means that ‘we use more ecological resources and services than nature can regenerate, through overfishing, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than ecosystems can absorb’ (source).

Our current way of life is deeply unsustainable.

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