Here's why turning off the lights really does make a difference

turn off lights photo
CC BY 2.0 Edouardo Costa

From my ramblings on why green lifestyle choices won't save us to the meteorologist who broke down over climate change and vowed never to fly again, I've regularly argued that personal carbon footprints can be a distraction, when what we really need to focus on is collective, system-wide change.

It's not always a popular position. In fact, some commenters have accused me of being "weazely" - and they may have a point. Like most human beings, I am a hypocrite. And like most hypocrites worth their salt, I regularly feel guilty about it. But it really has never been about me. (Honestly!)

Evidence-based action
As I read Lloyd's piece on why so many energy saving tips are bad, I was reminded again that caulking, turning down thermostats and switching off lights are indeed immensely valuable—but that we have to focus the lions' share of our efforts on those actions which have the biggest, collective impact.

And that means simplifying our messages.

Leverage is more important than footprint
There will be those who argue that, because we need to achieve 80%, 90%, even 100% cuts in fossil fuel use in the coming decades, that we must push individual change on the level of No Impact Man, or perhaps The Moneyless Man. But I believe they risk creating a movement focused more on moral purity, rather than effective social change.

Tweak the playing field
As a recent piece in The National Geographic about the war over solar net metering reveals, relatively small disruptions in the energy market can have a big effect. As with many industries, there are huge fixed costs involved in the current fossil-fuel dependent energy system—and those costs have to be covered no matter how many customers you have, or how much energy they are using.

Which means your profit comes from a relatively small percentage of your overall sales.

It only took a small percentage of homeowners to go solar, combined with some major (and disproportionately profitable) business customers unplugging from the grid, to start making fossil-fuel dependent utilities nervous. (One German utility is already changing its entire business model because it can't make money from building big power plants anymore.)

In search of tipping points
Imagine if, say, 25% of the population installed a Nest thermostat (or just programmed the thermostat they had already). Imagine if 25% changed their light bulbs—oh, wait - we'll all be changing our light bulbs soon anyway. Imagine if 5% of the population installed solar, if 10% of us crowdfunded a solar project, and if 15% divested from fossil fuels. And maybe if a few more of us started to turn off the lights when we leave the room too.

These goals are eminently achievable, and they would go a long way toward shifting the balance of power on the energy playing field. Once that balance of power is shifted, a whole host of bigger, more impactful changes become possible. (Price on carbon, anyone? Ending subsidies to fossil fuels?)

I'm all for big goals and ambitious plans. But it'll be the small changes that make those big plans plausible.

Here's why turning off the lights really does make a difference
Small lifestyle changes can seem insignificant. But it doesn't take much to change an economic model.

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