How Families Can Make Low-Carbon Living More Complicated

Couple arguing

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My fellow Treehugger writer Lloyd Alter would really like an induction cooktop because of the problems with gas. His wife Kelly, however, is nowhere near ready to give up on gas in her ongoing pursuit of culinary excellence. Her case has recently been somewhat bolstered by the winter storms in Texas. This is just one disagreement, between one married couple, but it points to a challenge that’s not always fully recognized in the push for low carbon living:

And that’s the fact that families can make things complicated.

For every individual who decides they want to make a personal, low-carbon lifestyle commitment – be it flying less, going vegan, living car-free, or moving to a tiny house – there is also a unique combination of partners, parents, siblings, children and/or other familial connections that this person now has to negotiate with in pursuit of that goal. And that’s before we even get to expectations from friends, co-workers, and other social connections.

It might be easy, for example, for a single person to go 100% vegan. That commitment is complicated, however, if the family you live with is not ready to join the ride – especially if it involves cooking multiple meals for different family members. Heck, depending on the family, it can even make things complicated if your mum sometimes invites you to dinner. Similarly, while giving up on flying can be a fantastic way to slash an individual carbon footprint, the savings don’t mean quite so much if granddad is now flying twice as often to come and see the kids.

I reached out to Lloyd to get his perspective as a 1.5-degree lifestyler, and he pointed to examples from both his own childhood and his journey as a parent, to illustrate how differently such tensions can go:

"When I was a teenager and wanted to go vegetarian my mom fed me frozen fish sticks (barely thawed) every night while everyone else got roast beef. She was determined to break me of this and did. I suspect these conflicts are common. My daughter Claire is vegetarian, so we just accommodate her and make something without meat, it is not such a big deal.”

The challenges of balancing carbon commitments against family relationships were highlighted in Elizabeth Weil’s recent ProPublica profile of climate scientist and author Peter Kalmus and his wife, writer and academic Sharon Kunde. While Kalmus already documented his extensive efforts to lessen his carbon footprint in the book "Being The Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution," the ProPublica piece dug into an aspect less fully explored in the book: Namely the differences in approach and attitude between Kalmus and Kunde and their children. These ranged from Kalmus being the only family member still willing to use the composting toilet he built, to Kunde reserving the right to fly – even as Kalmus swore off flights more permanently.

In addition to differing approaches to climate action itself, family can also make things difficult simply by virtue of where it is they live. How does a divorced couple, for example, navigate a desire to fly less if one gets a job on the other side of the country? Should we now be asking climate activists to weigh their choices about who they date, or fall in love with, based on the fact that aviation growth will likely need to be curtailed in coming decades? And what does it mean for the growing climate movement if we tell people they can’t love who they want to love?

That was a question alluded to by my friend and former professional collaborator, Minh Dang – who now finds herself as an American on the UK-side of the Atlantic, just as I find myself a Brit over here:


It feels like a cop-out to say there are no easy answers to any of this, but there really are no easy answers to any of this. For all of the articles that have been penned about Top Ten Ways to Cut Your Carbon Footprint, or How To Build an Offgrid Tiny House, it seems to me that there have been far fewer about how to navigate competing demands, and differing approaches, in how we relate to the existential threat of our times.

The complexity of such debates – and the intensity of familial demands and obligations – is just one of the many reasons why I continue to believe we should prioritize institutional and systems-level interventions. After all, the road to a truly low-carbon society probably should not rest on the individual outcomes of millions upon millions of marital disagreements. That said, individual steps can and do make a difference in encouraging change. As Lloyd – who is known to disagree with me from time to time – pointed out, families complicate pretty much everything. So we probably shouldn’t use differences of perspective or priorities as an excuse to not at least begin exploring lower carbon behaviors. He says:

“One sets an example and it gets absorbed. We haven’t had red meat in a year because there are alternatives. My daughter bicycles to work in winter because I did. Change happens in the whole house, even if one person starts it. And even Kelly has admitted now that when this stove dies (unfortunately gas stoves go forever) we can get an electric one. It all just takes a bit of time.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of time. But as famed climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has said, one of the most important things we can do on climate is to talk to those we love. Regardless of whether those conversations are about who you’re going to vote for, or what you’d like for dinner, or what fuel that dinner might be cooked with, a lot is going to depend on the context of where the conversation takes place and who is participating. The most important thing is to keep those conversations going and to make sure they are ultimately moving us toward our ultimate end goal; societal-level decarbonization within a matter of a few decades. On that, I think most of us can agree.