The Carbonauts Course Teaches You How to Lower Your Carbon Footprint

Treehugger founder Graham Hill teaches us how to live a low-carbon lifestyle.

Carbonauts in Training


Years ago, environmentalism was a niche occupied by people dressed in Birkenstocks and ponchos. Graham Hill founded Treehugger in 2004 to make sustainability sexy, appealing, and comprehensible. Hill described it: "Treehugger is the definitive, modern yet green lifestyle filter."

Now we are in the middle of a climate crisis and Hill has built The Carbonauts, a different kind of lifestyle filter, where he and his team teach carbonauts-in-training how to reduce their carbon footprints and lead a low-carbon lifestyle. Their mission, as it was with Treehugger, is to help people understand what to do in a confusing and scary world.

"You’re worried. You’re recycling. You know you could do more. No one else seems to be. But the research is confusing and the effects seem far away. Paris Agreement? Tons of carbon dioxide equivalent? It seems serious. Scientists and academics are sounding the alarm. But politicians and corporations aren’t doing much. What impact can one person have, anyway?"

This last question is a major topic of debate, whether individual actions matter, whether we should pursue personal change or system change. Why bother, when you often hear that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions?

"It’d be oh so convenient if we could just blame someone else, such as the '100 companies.' But the reality is that we ARE those companies," Hill tells Treehugger. "We work in them. We buy their products. We invest in them. They aren’t some foreign entity run by evil aliens...they are US, we are THEM. So a great way to make a difference is to do two things; change your own behavior and pressure corporations and governments to change as well."

Hill notes the urgency of the situation and tells Treehugger how these actions can change social norms.

"We have an all-hands-on-deck situation per the latest IPCC report. Don’t let vested interests divide and divert and distract," says Hill. "This is not time to argue about minutiae, it’s time, as Saul Griffith says, YES, AND… We want to help people focus on the actions that matter most so we focus them on what we call 'The Big Five.' They are switching to renewable energy, reducing and electrifying driving, moving to a plant-rich diet, reducing food waste, composting, reducing and optimizing flying, and buying offsets. We also heavily promote the idea of sharing and influencing others as we want people to realize the power they have in creating new social norms."

This—how actions influence others—is an important point Treehugger writer Sami Grover discusses in his new book "We're all climate hypocrites now." Grover writes:

"We don’t need more people to ride a bike because it will cut their personal carbon footprint. We need them to do so because it will send a signal to politicians, planners, businesses, and fellow citizens. That signal, along with organized activism—and support for that activism from folks who aren’t yet ready to ride—will in turn help to change the systems that make cars the default choice in far too many situations."

Grover also speaks with climate scientist Peter Kalmus, who lives a low-carbon lifestyle, and describes how it leads to a better understanding of the bigger issues:

"By taking this journey you really start to see how you are limited by the systems, and how important it is for the systems to change. There’s this really deep connection between your own reductions and your awareness of systems change."

The timing of this project couldn't be more auspicious, given there is growing consciousness and awareness of the problems at hand. They are not academic as they were 10 years ago but are immediate and threatening. There is a desire and willingness among many to change, but they don't know what to do.

Hill tells Treehugger:

"We need to build a movement of people living compelling low footprint lives that ultimately create new social norms and that reaches a size such that society mobilizes and makes it easier for the rest to live significantly more sustainably. We need to live differently, influence others and we also need to pressure governments and corporations to lower their footprints, give us the products and services we need to more easily live lower footprint lives not to mention the policies and the investments to move rapidly to a much healthier, greener, more resilient way of life."
Webinar course


Given that I recently spent a year putting my life through a giant carbon calculating spreadsheet and writing a book "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I was intrigued by a free one-hour course led by Hill and former Treehugger editor Meg O'Neill, to teach people how to use a carbon calculator. The pitch:

"Understand your personal carbon footprint and which actions you can take to make the biggest difference. We'll explain what a carbon footprint is and how it’s calculated. Then we’ll work with you to compute your personal footprint and set realistic goals for reducing it. "

Hill conducted the course personally and was impressive, entertaining, on top of the material. Frankly, having lived inside a calculator and tested them all, I thought I would be bored given that it was all stuff I knew; I wasn't for a second. The others in the course skewed older.

Hill tells Treehugger who the audience has been to date:

"For whatever reason, we seem to be getting 70/80% women. Age-wise, we’ve been getting people from 20 into their 70s but mostly 30-50. Mostly American but a fair number of Canadians and some Brits, Europeans and even Australians. They are people who are ready to make a change. They may have done a few things but are generally ready to take it up a notch and appreciate the time-effective help and accountability we bring to the table."
Graham pitch of the Big Five


The Carbonauts also offer a 5-week course covering, logically, The Big Five, with the late-night TV pitch: "EASILY REDUCE YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT BY 20-40% IN THE FIRST MONTH AND JOIN MANY OTHERS THAT EVEN REACH CARBON NEUTRALITY!"

This sounds like a diet ad, but it is important stuff. The next report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was recently leaked to The Guardian, and will include calls for personal reductions:

"The top 10% of emitters globally, who are the wealthiest 10%, contribute between 36 and 45% of emissions, which is 10 times as much as the poorest 10%, who are responsible for only about three to 5%, the report finds. “The consumption patterns of higher-income consumers are associated with large carbon footprints."

That's all of us in the developed world. Hill tells Treehugger that this is doable, and maybe not even so hard. "We have most of the knowledge and technology to get ourselves out of this mess. We just need the will," says Hill. "And believe it or not, a lot of the things we can do in our own lives aren’t that heavy of a lift! It starts with us. Individuals have the power to make changes in our own behaviors and homes. The world needs more people who step into this power. Every person who does take a step toward creating the bright green future we know is possible."

ready to slash your footprint?


So once again, Hill has positioned himself at the inflection point, once described by Intel's Andy Grove as "an event that changes the way we think and act." People were littering the streets of New York, so he came up with a porcelain "We are Happy to Serve You" cup. He founded Treehugger with its ironic, in-your-face name at the birth of the blogosphere with a new way of selling sustainability. Too tough to totally give up meat? Become a weekday vegetarian.

But The Carbonauts may be his most ambitious and important project. People need to change. Many people want to change. People don't want to be depressed and miserable about the crisis ahead, they want to believe that it can be fixed and that they can help. The Carbonauts is a great place for them to start this journey.