A New Year's resolution: Stop worrying about your personal carbon footprint

grocery shopping
Public Domain MaxPixel

Think bigger.

Whether it's the importance of understanding leverage, not just footprints—or pontifications on the difference between shopping and voting—I feel like I've written variations on this theme many times before.

And yet the planetary crisis continues, and I keep meeting people whose first question on this topic is some variation of "how can I best reduce my family's carbon footprint?"

It's not, as I've argued before, that the question itself doesn't matter. It's that the scale of it is all wrong. If we spend our mental energy worrying about the relative climate impact of paper-versus-plastic bags, or local meat versus imported tofu, then we run the risk of missing the more important conversation about how we build a society where our collective carbon footprint trends decisively and rapidly downwards.

Sometimes—indeed often—the end result of our deliberations will be the same. When we choose to go car free, or switch to driving electric, we are sending a signal to free markets and legislators alike about the world we would like to see. Indeed, oil demand in Norway is now beginning to actually drop thanks to the collective impact of thousands of individual choices by car buyers going electric (and non car buyers going car free).

But the story of Norway is actually an excellent illustration of exactly what I'm talking about. Norwegians made the choices they made because of a decade of government support for electrification and/or car-free alternatives.

Of course individual footprints matter. But a focus on individual footprints alone means shopping gets prioritized over voting, consumption gets prioritized over activism, and switching off the lights gets more column inches than moving your investments away from fossil fuels.

So, by all means, as you map out your New Year's resolutions today, spend some time thinking about how to trip your carbon footprint and reduce your impact. Cut down on meat and dairy, commit to using transit, or buy a used Nissan Leaf.

Just don't end your commitment there. Instead, think about ways that the personal decisions you make can be leveraged and amplified to create society-wide change.

A New Year's resolution: Stop worrying about your personal carbon footprint
Think bigger.

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