My panels are bigger than your panels... Image credit: CoCreatr, used under Creative Commons license.
When I wrote about residents who turned their entire street into an energy graph, I was interested to note that the project deliberately avoided giving out household-specific energy information. The idea was to encourage comparisons to an average, but to avoid direct competition and/or naming and shaming households that failed to cut their usage. This got me thinking, just how helpful is it to compare our energy use, our carbon footprint, or any other aspect of our environmental impact with those of others? Does Comparing Carbon Footprints Help or Hinder?
In my post earlier this week on why systems are important in going green, I suggested that working with partners to provide mutual support and a little peer pressure can be a helpful motivating factor for some. But the more I think about it, there are significant downsides to basing our efforts on the efforts of others.
Lifestyles Differ. Footprints Too.
For one thing, comparing how we are doing at reducing our mileage, cutting our energy use, or reducing our meat consumption is rarely a case of comparing apples-to-apples. From where you live to the size of your family to the kind of job you do, each of us has very different personal circumstances, each with their own sets of advantages and consequences. Comparing the carbon footprint of my rural North Carolina lifestyle with the carbon footprint of a New Yorker may help us argue on a policy level for dense urban development but, except for those willing to move home, it provides very little insight into the day-to-day decisions that help make up our environmental profile.
A False Sense of Achievement?
Conversely, perhaps, direct comparisons with others—even if they live in your neighborhood—can also provide a false sense of accomplishment. Because very few of us are even close to achieving a sustainable level of environmental impact. When I first moved to the States from the UK, I was astounded by how much I had to drive to get around, and I was shocked at how being carless turned you into a second class citizen. But the longer I have lived here, the more I find myself lulled into a sense that I—while still grossly dependent on fossil fuels—am at least not using quite as much oil as my next door neighbor. Not only does this kind of comparison remove a motivation to do better, but it also carries the danger of turning into eco-snobbery and holier-than-thou judgment, neither of which is helpful in winning new converts.
Individual Impact Versus Collective Success
Finally, I would argue, focusing too intently on how we are doing compared to our neighbors, or friends, runs a risk of perpetuating the myth that it is enough to focus on individual footprints as opposed to collective environmental action. Sure, each of us can do our part to cut carbon, reduce waste, and lay the groundwork for a greener society. But a relentless drive to keep up with the eco-Joneses can be a dangerous distraction of having the cultural and political debates we need to have if we're going to shift course for a more sustainable future.
Sure, let's keep learning from those around us, and encouraging each other to do better. But let's remember to keep it in perspective. Sustainability is a collective mission, not a competition.
More on Environmental Footprints and Strategy
Individual Virtue Versus Collective Success, or Why Greens Must Take Political Action
To Win, the Green Movement Needs to Understand Leverage, Not Just Footprints
Motivation is Not Enough, You Need a System to Go Green