'Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle': Threading the Needle Between Personal and Societal Responsibility

Lloyd Alter has written a rather fascinating, personal, and decidedly unique exploration of "green living."

Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle

Treehugger / Photo Illustration by Catherine Song / New Society Publishers

When Treehugger design editor Lloyd Alter reviewed my book on climate hypocrisy, he noted he’d been nervous and reticent to read it—having just published his own book: "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle." I confess I had my own reluctance to dive into his. The books overlap in the subject matter just enough that I was concerned about a) a fundamentally divergent viewpoint among colleagues (awkward!) or b) so much overlap that one or the other was redundant (even worse!).

Yet what I found, digging in, is that Alter has written a rather fascinating, personal, and decidedly unique exploration of "green living." It’s one that tests and challenges the much-touted notion that “100 Companies” are responsible for the climate crisis, but also avoids the trap of suggesting that societal-level decarbonization can be achieved through “personal responsibility” alone. 

Perhaps most interesting, to me, was how Alter’s year-long experiment of trying to live within our climatic boundaries revealed just how interrelated our own choices are with the choices of those around us. In the chapter on What We Eat, for example, Alter is very open about the judgment calls he has to make to even assign a number to a simple takeout meal. Here he tries to drill down into the delivery component alone: 

“This should be really straightforward, right? Just look at what kind of car the delivery guy drives, multiply its mileage rating by the distance to figure out fuel consumption, then convert liters of gasoline to CO2. Bingo: a shocking 2,737 grams, by far the biggest item on the list so far. 
But there are so many judgements here. There is a Swiss Chalet restaurant 3 km from my home, but the company has chosen to fill orders from one 7 km away. Most significantly, I ordered dinner for four people, but have attributed all of the CO2 just to my dinner, because I could have ordered for one. 
Then there is the question of whether fuel consumption is the only thing that should be measured. I go on in this book about the importance of measuring embodied carbon, the upfront emissions from making something like the driver’s Toyota Corolla….” 

You get the idea. And the transparency with which Alter shares the data—and his rationale for how it is assigned—is a refreshingly honest look at how difficult it is to even separate one person’s footprint from another’s. 

It’s a conundrum I have mulled myself. If I go to see a band that is touring from overseas, for example, do the travel-related carbon emissions belong to the band? Or do a portion of them belong to me? If my boss insists I must travel for work, do my air miles accrue on my environmental RAP sheet or that of the company I work for? These are rabbit holes we can easily get lost in forever.

What Alter has done with his book is offer a transparent look at the process of trying to answer these questions—and some suggestions for where we might land. But for the most part, he manages to avoid dogmatic pronouncements or absolute rules.

He also, to my relief, acknowledges the inherent inequities and systemic differences that make access to low carbon lifestyles easy for some, and more challenging for others:

“I always have to remember that it’s relatively easy for me to live a 1.5-degree lifestyle; I live in a place where I don’t have to drive and can walk to the fancy healthy butcher and organic grocer. I work at an internet-based job where I don’t have to go to a factory or an office downtown; I can just go downstairs to the home office that I designed. And I can’t write this book looking through my rose-colored glasses because it has to work for everyone.”

It’s this humility, which is threaded throughout the book, that saves it from becoming a holier-than-thou exercise in gatekeeping or a call for purity, and instead becomes a rather practical look at identifying when and where it makes sense to focus your efforts. 

Alter is frank, for example, about the fact that he wasn’t willing to go fully vegan—and that because a vegetarian diet is pretty comparable (emissions wise, at least) to a diet that simply avoids red meat, he has chosen to go the easy route. He also encourages us to forget about unplugging every phone charger (pointless) and is even somewhat ambivalent about turning out the lights—as long as they are LEDs. Instead, he suggests a strong focus on a few key areas of our lives: 

  • Diet
  • Transport
  • Housing/energy
  • Consumption

And while his numbers—which are neatly spread-sheeted—offer a pathway for folks able or willing to ‘go all the way’ to achieve a 1.5 Degree Lifestyle, they also serve as a useful measure of where all of us can have a meaningful impact, without obsessing over every little thing.  

That’s not to say I don’t have quibbles. One of the primary concerns I have always had about the focus on individual carbon footprints is that they can distract us from where responsibility lies. Alter is someone who has written about the ways that industry uses recycling to distract us from producer responsibility, so it’s not surprising that he takes some deep and interesting dives into the political and corporate maneuverings that shape so much of the world around us. And he is adamant that we should be pursuing political and legal avenues too. 

Yet Alter’s core assertion—that demand drives production, and that we can choose to abstain and resist—does occasionally run the risk of letting the powerful off the hook. It’s hard, after all, to talk about the things we can do, whether it’s eating smaller portion sizes, or avoiding the car, without it sounding like a should. And as soon as we get into the territory of telling our neighbors and citizens what they should do, we can lose sight of the structures and forces that made the harmful behaviors the default ones in the first place. 

Here, for example, he looks at our disposable coffee culture: 

“The real solution is to change the culture, not the cup. Sit down in a coffee shop instead of getting takeout to drink on the street or in your car. If you are in a hurry, drink like an Italian: order an expresso [sic] and knock it back, standing up. The linear economy was an industry construct that took 50 years to train us in this culture of convenience. It can be unlearned.”

True, we can choose to seek out coffee shops that still offer ceramic cups. Indeed, I often do seek it myself. But we must also recognize that the more time we spend encouraging each other to do so—or worse, admonishing others for not doing so—is time not spent exploring how the oil industry has pushed disposable plastics and packaging every which way that it can. The same is true for portion sizes. Or transport choices. Or any number of other lifestyle factors. 

"It can be unlearned" is true, to a degree. But so too is the idea that "it" can be regulated, reformed, or even legislated out of existence. As Alter himself recognizes, we need to create a system that makes that ceramic cup the norm, not the exception, that makes biking easier than driving a car, and that makes it so that every time I turn on the light, it’s running on renewables—without the need for me to think about it. The extent to which voluntary abstinence is useful, in this regard, is the extent to which it galvanizes a movement that brings about changes on a much wider scale.

As I was finishing "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I found myself reflecting on another book—"The Ministry for the Future" by Kim Stanley Robinson. In that work of speculative fiction, Robinson tells the story of how humanity survived climate change, weaving a global tale of many different actors doing many different things to shift the paradigm. Among those actors were global politicians, aid workers, refugees, activists, conservationists, and even some violent insurrectionists. Included among those groups were organizations like The 2,000 Watt Society (apparently a real group) who tried to model what it looks like to live with a fair share of energy resources.  

I believe the efforts of Alter and others to live as close to a sustainable lifestyle as possible, in a society that encourages the opposite: play a similar role to that of the 2000 Watt Society in Robinson’s book. There’s no way they’ll ever win enough hardcore converts to the cause to get us where we need to go, but they don’t have to. Instead, they serve to light the way by identifying and amplifying where structural challenges lie. They also help the rest of us—however imperfect we might be—to find places where we can start moving in the right direction. 

"Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle" is available from New Society Publishers, and it makes excellent companion reading to a certain, other, recently published tome. 

View Article Sources
  1. Unsworth, Kerrie L et al. “Is Dealing with Climate Change a Corporation's Responsibility? A Social Contract Perspective.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 7, no. 1212, 2016, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01212