The Elephant in the Climate Change Room

architect game

2018 may well have been the wake-up call for human-caused climate change, which dominated news cycles for most of the year. Multiple climate study reports released in late November elevated the call to action as a clarion cry, sharp and urgent.

When 97% of the world’s climate scientists reach a consensus that the extreme climate changes associated with the Arthropocene are caused in part or heavily accelerated and amplified by human activity, it’s self-defeating not to take it seriously.

The National Climate Assessment released its latest two-year study of global climate change on November 23rd, followed by the United Nations’ release of its Environment Programme four days later. Between the two reports, thousands of pages of scientific research predict dire consequences if rapid and and urgent action is not taken to mitigate human-caused factors.

Ironically, the climate change effects we’ve seen increasing in scale and size—from floods to fires to droughts and entier species die-offs—is just the tip of the rapidly-melting iceberg.

The elephant in the climate-change room.

We humans like our creature comforts. Reducing human-caused contributions to climate change is going to be hard. It’s going to be hard because there is an unfathomable amount of profit tied to dirty energy which overtly harm the environment. It’s going to be hard because 7.53 billion people need to eat and agriculture and factory farming are also huge systemic factors in climate change.

But it’s going to be hard on a personal level, too, in much the way New Year’s Resolutions are hard to achieve successfully. Nearly 40% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions. Of those, only an estimated 8-12% actually achieve them.

We can learn how to take radical personal responsibility for climate change by taking a page from the playbook of those who successfully accomplish their New Year’s Resolutions.

Success is not complicated.

Good planning is a predictor of success. Carrying out New Year’s Resolutions—or adjusting our attitudes and behaviors to reduce our own personal contributions to climate change—needn’t be complicated. Yes, it’s a huge problem. And we, according to climate science, are a part of it. Thus, we can be part of the solution.

Those who set New Year’s goals and achieve them point to good ol’ common sense goal mapping as key to their success:

  • Keep it simple. Don’t go for a personal makeover in record time. Start small.
  • Be specific. “Lose weight” is not a goal. “Lose 10 pounds by Easter by eating whole foods and ditching sugar and exercising three times a week” is a clear, specific goal.
  • Be consistent. Yes, you’ll fall off the wagon, forget your gym shoes, or have tacos at happy hour because tacos. That’s fine. Just start over again, without the negative self talk as quickly as you can.
  • Get support. Whether from peers, colleagues, friends, family, or a Meet Up group, social support has been shown to boost success rates with all manner of intentional change-making endeavors.
  • Chunk it down. Kissing cousins to tip number one, if something feels too daunting—like, say, tackling climate change—break out some smaller steps that are achievable and then get to work. Achieving micro-successes will help bolster confidence and clarity when wrestling with larger issues.

There are countless resources full of advice on how to minimize our carbon footprint on an individual basis. I’ll spare you the expense and time of having to buy, read, and implement all these excellent resources by making it ridiculously simple (and kind of fun) by inviting you to play a game with me. I call it the Conscious Consumer Game.

The Conscious Consumer Game

In 2009, I was introduced to The Minimalist Project, founded by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus—two successful corporate jockeys who burned out on the rat race, quit their jobs, and began paring away their wordly existence until they reached a sort of minimalist nirvana. Since then The Minimalists have helped millions of people live more meaningful lives with less through their website, books, podcast, and documentary film.

The guys came up with a brilliant and simple strategy to help people reduce their consumption of stuff. Essentially, on the first day of the month (any month) you go through your things and get rid one thing. On the second day you eliminate two things. Three things on the third. Each day you add another item, and so forth and so on.

If you do this in February (it’s a short month which is less daunting to many people) you’d end up eliminating 406 things from your life, closet, bedroom, garage, attic. Right now you might be thinking that’s just crazy. You couldn’t possibly get rid of 406 things in a month, right? But when you consider that the average American home contains over 300,00 items and 10% of Americans rent offsite storage for their stuff, four-hundred some-odd items is barely a drop in the bucket.

It’s easy to say clean energy will solve climate change, but it’s also untrue. Because until we challenge how and why we consume the way we do, we’ll still be disrupting nature, polluting our air and water, and killing off species by the millions.

So what does cleaning out your garage have to do with reducing climate change? That stuff has to go somewhere, right? How does moving your stuff from your house or garage to another’s house or garage (or, often, to the landfill) have a positive impact on climate change?

Money can’t buy happiness. Or unf*ck climate change.

When I did my first Minimalist Game in 2010, I was teaching mindfulness meditation and therapeutic yoga. I was fascinated by holding space for and facilitating change for others. But before I could preach minimalism, I had to practice it.

As I went through my stuff and began to give away, sell, or trash stuff, my relationship with buying things began to shift. I realized that I—like most people who live in a capitalist environment—had a very unconscious relationship with consumer goods. I had an excess of socks, glasses, books, plants, candles, jackets, old cards, photos, exercise equipment, shoes, and food. I’ll admit I threw away a horrifying amount of vegetables twice a month. And I had nine bikes. NINE. Sure, I was a competitive cyclist and they were purpose-specific race bikes, but still. I was an amateur not a professional cyclist.

We’ve all heard the saying money can’t buy happiness. Oh, but it does! It buys happiness for all of a few minutes (until the ice cream is gone) or days (until our gel manicure chips) or months (until winter renders our bikes irrelevant) or years (until our car begins to break down and we need to either repair it or get another one). The impulse to accumulate stuff is deep seated in a basic disatisfaction with the way life is. The temporary sense of fulfillment that comes with acquisition is short-lived and the consequences are debt, pollution, and eventually, more disatisfaction.

What I and my students found was that by methodically going through our possessions and slowly eliminating stuff that we didn’t really use or enjoy or need any longer, we transformed our relationship to consuming. We were more mindful in making new purchases. We were more thoughtful about the choices we made when it came to what to eat or how to spend our time. We began to feel happy with less, and in fact, the more we got rid of, the happier we became.

We buy stuff because we need to live. We all need socks and food, and a few of us can even argue for multiple bikes. But the vast majority of us accumulate stuff carelessly, driven by subconscious urges that can be better met through simple, spacious awareness.

Yes, it’s your right to collect stuff and fill two storage units if you like. No one is suggesting you can’t. What I am suggesting is that conspicuous consumption is worse than climate change denial. It’s climate change denial in action.

A business owner student who did this practice five years ago bristled at the notion that this “idealistic quasi-zen BS” was “bad for business”. But isn’t a successful business one that recognizes challenges and opportunities and responds and adapts accordingly? We are approaching a global crisis. Perhaps this is what it will take for attitudes to shift from “what a hassle” to “what an opportunity”. And besides, those staunchly anti-environmental corporations and agencies who will never be swayed to put people or planet before profits will eventually be forced to change their tune…or perish, along with their customer base.

It’s not enough to recycle single-use bottled water containers. It’s also not enough to buy fleece and puffy coats made from recycled PET bottles. Recycling alone isn’t cutting it. We must reduce our consumption, period. It’s not that the stuff is inherently bad or wrong in and of itself. It’s that everything we accumulate has to be packaged, shipped, and marketed—all of which add to climate disruption in large and small ways.

It may seem like reducing your possessions or changing your purchasing habits is insignificant in the face of global climate change, but consider the fact that there’s over 7.5 billion others who all need access to clear air, water, and food. As the proverbial saying goes, you do the math.

It can also seem like I’m advocating an austere, empty existence, but as I and many millions of others have discovered, there is a freedom that comes with letting go of material excess. We begin to actually feel and understand on a conscious level that less truly is more. We begin a sort of mental evolution—an elevation of consciousness—that connects us to less mechanistic habits and more compassionate regard for ourselves, each other, and this incredible, amazing, gorgeous, one-of-a-kind planet.

I mean, where would we be without it?

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