On a recent episode of How To!, Emma Marris, an environmental writer and author of Rambunctious Garden, shared some surprising tips for how to combat climate change. As Earth Day turns 50, she says we should convert our “green guilt” into group action—when it comes to saving the planet, we have bigger battles to fight than the ones we wage against ourselves. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: How dire are the effects of climate change right now?
Emma Marris: It’s bad. The fires in Australia are a great example. How bad things are going to get depends a lot on what we do now and in the next couple of decades. There could be a lot of extinctions. There could be a lot fewer plants and animals for our children and grandchildren to enjoy. And things could change pretty radically in ways that make mostly the Earth’s poorest more miserable.
If somebody came to you and said, just give me five easy things to do that you think will have an impact on the environment, what would you tell them to do?
I’d say No. 1: collective action. No. 2: collective action. No. 3: collective action. No. 4: eat a little bit less beef. And No. 5: don’t fly if you don’t have to.
What about banning plastic straws? Is that a good shift?
The straws thing drives me bonkers. Frankly, it just seems like such a red herring. Here are all of these companies digging up huge quantities of fossil fuel everyday and burning it and just throwing those emissions into the air. And we’re supposed to all feel like assholes for having straws. Like what? That’s bonkers.
And did you use cloth diapers?
I tried it with my first child. I thought that’s what I should do as a good environmentalist. And then I started to worry about the amount of energy I was spending washing and drying these diapers over and over again. When I sat down and actually did the math of how much emissions I was individually saving by doing that, it was pretty tiny. That was part of my process of beginning to think: Is there a smarter way to reduce emissions?
So what really matters when it comes to actually helping the Earth?
It took me a while to get to this point, but I can confidently say that the secret to being effective on climate change is to stop focusing on yourself.
I think that this focus on lifestyle choices is a trap. It’s a trap that is gleefully supported by the fossil fuel industry. It was British Petroleum that first popularized the individual carbon footprint calculator, because it really puts all of the burden and guilt about solving climate change on the individual consumer’s shoulders—which, within our current system, is extremely time-consuming, expensive, or both. If we don’t do those eco-friendly things, we feel super-guilty, as if we’ve failed the planet and we’re going to eco-hell. The alternative is to demand big changes in the systems in which we live so that the cheapest, easiest option is the greenest option.
In some ways we’ve been moving toward that, right? Under former President Barack Obama, there was this push to greater fuel efficiency standards, which said, “Look, we’re just not gonna let you buy cars that put out so many emissions anymore. They have to use less fuel.”
Right. Those fuel efficiency standards reduced emissions massively more than either an individual person could do by buying an electric car or even huge numbers of people could do by buying electric cars. There are 7 billion people on the planet. That is an enormous number. The idea of working on just your one-seven-billionth of the problem is a dead end. We’ve got to change these big systems that affect millions of people at a time.
When did you come to the realization that focusing on yourself was the wrong thing?
About a decade ago, I was shopping for an eco-friendly purse and I started reading articles about eco-friendly purse manufacturers. After 10 hours of research, I ended up buying this purse that was made out of a recycled leather jacket. As I sat there after I hit “buy” on my computer, I thought, what if I had taken that 10 hours I just spent on this single purchase and had gone to the City Council meeting and said, “Let’s have more bike lanes in the city?” What if I had spent that time to join a group that was fighting for better fossil fuel standards or tougher restrictions on the garment industry? And what if we had succeeded? I would have been able to stop vastly more emissions. My 10-hour search for the purse stems from the fact that I was trying to not feel guilty.
How guilty should I feel?
You should not feel guilty. Because here’s the thing—our government has decided that they’re going to put in place policies and incentives that have tax breaks for companies like auto manufacturers. They have set up the market situation that you find yourself in. But this is not the only way. Norway, for example, has a massive incentive program on electric cars. You get so much money back on your taxes that it is cheaper to buy a brand-new electric car than it is to buy a standard car. As a result, a huge number of the cars on the street in Norway are electric. They have made it easier and cheaper to do the green thing. We can do this too, if we demand it.
So, according to what you’re saying, does that mean I can just kick up my heels, use as many plastic bags as I want, and every four years I promise to vote for whoever is a little bit green?
No, you’re not off the hook! I do want to emphasize that individual stuff is not totally wasted energy and time. Choosing the green option when you can and when it doesn’t put a lot of stress and strain on your family is the right thing to do. I’m saying take the hours that you spend now feeling guilty and reallocate them to collective action.
Do you love biking and bike infrastructure? Or are you really interested in electricity generation? Or are you super-passionate about saving species? This is where you should get on the internet and do research—not to figure out the best recycled purse, but to figure out the best group to join. You might not change fossil fuel policy for the entire United States, but you might get a cool bike lane put in your city that encourages a lot more people to take that option to commute.
One other advantage of joining a group is that you don’t have to know everything. We can just bring what we’re really good at, whether that’s accounting, writing, talking to the media, or even bringing food and watching the kids. It’s all about divide and conquer. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the complexities of this extremely wicked problem. And that’s why we all need to do a division of labor and collective action. That’s the only thing that’s going to get it done.