My husband’s buddy Craig from college is a lawyer in a small town in Missouri. The type of law he practices is not the kind that makes it to a TV series. While I am sure that Craig’s intentions are on par with Perry Mason, his practice is more focused on day-to-day issues, like the neighborhood kid with the DUI and the closing of a home purchase. He is the kind of lawyer who impacts the everyday life of his friends and neighbors in what I am sure is a very good way. Perry Mason may get the Neilson ratings and the high-profile cases, but Craig is the one who will have a lasting impact on people’s lives.
Craig is passionate about fighting climate change. In this battle, he sees himself more as Perry Mason, wanting to tackle problems on a highly impactful, national level rather than a well-read, well-intentioned guy with a hobby he is passionate about. He talks to me about potential strategies, knowing that I work on environmental stuff. Craig wants to work with his senators, talk to the people who write the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report about using clearer language, and put together presentations to share far and wide. While his intentions are the best, the likelihood of his success on this level is pretty much nil.
I always try to talk Craig down from these big grand gestures and encourage him to focus on stuff closer to home. I encourage him to talk to his town council rather than trying to get a session with his senator. Talk to his neighbors or the local school group. He would do even better if he led with actions rather than words. A wide range of actions is available to all of us. Doing these things and talking about them to the neighbors is likely to have an impact, one that is easily aggregated if the Craigs in our country take advantage of the tools at hand.
Start With The Obvious
Let’s start with the obvious. At least obvious for BioCycle CONNECT readers. I haven’t looked into it but I would wager that Craig’s town in Missouri does not offer combined curbside collection of food scraps and yard trimmings in a green bin. That is a topic he could broach at a town council meeting. Over time, showing up at meetings, getting neighbors on board, Craig would have a fair chance at success. Taking a step back from a community-wide initiative, Craig could start composting in his back yard. He could offer to volunteer at the local elementary school and help build a compost bin there. Get those fourth graders to shame their parents into composting at home.
If the town council is hesitant about starting collection, perhaps they could subsidize residents who are thinking of purchasing home composting bins. Perhaps Craig could talk to the County Extension folks about teaching a composting workshop. These are all not very glamorous steps. But these are steps that have a much higher potential of getting you somewhere rather than flying to Capitol Hill.
How much of an impact can this have?
Let’s say that Craig generates 20 lbs of food scraps per month. Over a year that comes to:
20 lbs/month × 12 months/year = 240 lbs/year
If you use a coarse approximation of 1 ton of food diverted from landfill to compost and then used in the soil of 1:1 that comes to:
240 lbs of carbon dioxide (CO2) per Craig per year.
It turns out that Google now shows the CO2 emissions associated with different flights. By composting, Craig would save as much CO2 as a single flight to Washington, D.C. would emit. Looking at it a different way, by composting Craig could take a trip to someplace warm in the winter (they do have winter in Missouri) and not feel guilty.
If you step outside of the typical BioCycle lens, you will find plenty of other ways that Craig can have an impact on climate. These are things to do that Craig can also talk about with his friends and colleagues. I promise you he’ll have more sway here than on a national stage.
How about he has friends over for dinner? Let’s say he does this on a Monday and joins a meatless Monday movement. It turns out that what you have for dinner can have a big impact on climate change. Beef is often the poster child for what not to eat and for good reason. Cows and ruminant livestock (sheep) are the culprits here, with beef and dairy responsible for more than 70% of the livestock associated greenhouse gas emissions — approximately 6.3 Gt CO2 (a gigaton is 1,000,000,000 tons) or about 15% of human related carbon emissions. One kilo of boneless beef costs about 25 kilos of CO2 to produce. Switch to chicken and you are down to 4 kilos of CO2/kg boneless, skinless breast (I prefer legs and thighs myself but you get the point). Switch to soy-based proteins or legumes (think white beans, lentils, and limas) and the ratio is less than one to one.
Say Craig invites friends for dinner once a week and instead of putting a roast in the oven, he opts to fry some chicken instead:
10 people × 8 ounces beef/person (225 grams) = 2.25 kg of beef
2.25 kg beef × 25 kg CO2/kg = 56 kg CO2
10 people × 8 ounces of chicken/person = 2.25 kg chicken
2.25 kg chicken × 4 kg CO2/kg = 9 kg CO2
If he goes crazy and makes Phad Thai with tofu instead, or perhaps paneer and dahl:
10 people × 8 ounces of vegetable-based protein = 2.25 kg beans, tofu etc.
2.25 kg vegetable-based protein × 0.75 kg CO2/kg = 1.7 kg CO2
You get the picture here. If Craig were to do this several times a week at his house and talk his neighbors into hosting their own dinners, the impact would be substantial. There is also a good possibility that his cholesterol would go down.
These are just two examples of the impact of personal action. There are plenty of others including how you heat your home, how long you hold onto your car, and how much stuff you buy. Knowing this is powerful. It lets you make a real difference in fighting a major battle. I will share this column with Craig and encourage you to share it with your college buddies and friends and neighbors. And if you want, no harm in placing a call to your senators’ offices signaling your support for federal action on climate change.
Sally Brown, BioCycle’s Senior Adviser, is a Research Professor in the College of the Environment at the University of Washington.