How Do We Make Low-Carbon Actions Feel Tangible?

We need to help people see how their specific actions contribute to a much larger, more meaningful goal.

Trying to turn the heat up on home radiator heater, new world economic crisis

zoranm / Getty Images

Some time ago, I was listening to the wonderful, soon-to-be-retired podcast "Hot Take," where co-hosts Mary Heglar and Amy Westervelt were discussing why folks have a difficult time adopting or sticking with behavior changes like taking shorter showers or shifting their diet. It wasn’t that these actions didn’t matter at all, they suggested, but rather that they felt these tweaks were puny in relation to the scale of the problem that we are all seeking to address. 

I think about that episode often. And specifically, I was thinking about it when my brother came to visit me from the United Kingdom. As we discussed what had been going on in his and his partner's lives, they told me (his ostensibly treehugging brother) a rather impressive fact. I’m going to paraphrase a little, but here’s the gist: 

“It’s November and we haven’t yet had the heating on. We’ve been really focused on energy use since the invasion of Ukraine, and we are trying to do our part to make sure that Vladimir Putin doesn’t get his way.” 

Meanwhile, in the relatively balmy climate of North Carolina, I could not make the same claim. While we do try to be judicious with energy use, and we have insulated our old home as well as we could, a cold snap in late October and early November had us turning on the heat before we normally would.

I’m not sharing this to confess my eco-sins—I have done plenty of that already. Instead, I am sharing it because it was one more reminder among many that if we are going to create new social norms around energy use and consumption, then we are going to have to figure out how to make those norms meaningful and tangible in people's lives. 

In the case of Europe—yes, my British brother is very much still a European—Russia's invasion of Ukraine has made energy supply and consumption a far more immediate, tangible concern than it might have been previously. And as we’ve seen with both national, policy-level responses and citizen-led efforts to conserve, they do appear to have lit a proverbial "renewable-powered fire" under a certain subset of the populace over there.

And they have done so in a way that the somewhat less immediate threat of the climate crisis didn’t quite seem to do. There is, of course, a lot to unpack about why it took a threat to a majority white, fellow European nation to galvanize the majority culture in a way that catastrophic floods in Pakistan, for example, could not.

Meanwhile, I’ve yet to detect a similar cultural shift over here in the U.S. Maybe that’s because the war in Europe feels geographically far away. Or maybe it’s because many Germans and Brits feel a stronger connection to the energy rationing narratives of World War II that are being evoked again in the current push. Honestly, I am neither qualified to say nor do I necessarily think it matters. 

While there are undoubtedly specific and detailed lessons to be learned from the campaigns and initiatives that appear to be yielding results in Europe, there is also a larger and more macro lesson to be learned. And that’s the fact that if we are going to be pushing for conservation and sufficiency, then we have to get better at making that push relevant, interesting, and engaging to the people we are calling to action. 

And that means different pushes, in different cultures, in different contexts, to different audiences. For some folks, appeals to patriotism or international solidarity will likely work great. For others, we may want to focus on stewardship, social justice, or community values. Regardless of the audience, it will also mean helping people to connect the dots between their personal, individual actions and broader, much larger goals. 

On this last point, technology may have a role to play. While apps like Ecosia and Joro have garnered attention for how they help users plant trees or track and offset their personal emissions respectively, I think their greatest value lies in helping folks to see how what they are doing— whether it’s a web search or a change in diet—is directly connected to similar efforts by thousands of other users. (Disclosure: I recently completed a small messaging project for Joro looking at this idea of collective impact.)

As usual, there is no one answer. But learning to read the room, to understand the context we are speaking in, and to tailor our pitches to the interests and values of the people we are seeking to activate will all get us much closer to the kind of cultural change that is required. Unless we help folks to see how their specific actions contribute to a much larger, more meaningful goal, then we are always going to be tinkering around the edges of the problem—preaching to the converted and winning over a few committed converts but never really changing the culture around us.