Re-Framing Sustainability

In discussing The Carbon Efficient City, frameworks, and strategies of how we can move society and its corporations toward more environmentally friendly and sustainable practices, I began to think more critically about my personal carbon footprint. I recycle, I separate my garbage and compost, I often ride the bus to school, I turn the lights off in my house when I’m not using them, and do my best to conserve energy in my home by turning down the heat and using hot water only as necessary. But if I was asked to quantify my energy consumption and/or my household impact on the environment, I would be at a loss. Of course, I could start by tracking my energy use through bills from Puget Sound Energy, Seattle City Light, and Seattle Public Utilities, and then try to factor in my gas consumption, other transportation related energy uses, garbage and waste, etc, but to do that, I would have to be exceedingly more diligent in tracking these factors, and spend significant time calculating my impact on a rolling basis. And although this is something I might do out of my own personal interest, for the lay consumer this is a lot to ask in the name of sustainability (if they even believe in climate change).

I make this point because, to me, the primary obstacle in fighting climate change and moving to more sustainable practices in daily life is social in nature. Although there are resources for the environmentally minded to assess their impact such as Ducky AS (a browser and soon to be app that allows you to calculate and compete to lower your carbon footprint), as well as various carbon footprint calculator’s, it is my belief that we need to make environmental impacts more easily realized in our daily lives. By framing daily environmental impacts on a personal level, we could begin to alter the public mindset around sustainability and climate change, and start to better educate people on their own footprint. Moving the discussion from the abstract and distant (i.e. glacial melt, sea level rise, CO2 levels, temperature fluctuations) to the personal and at-home would help to change the social dialogue on the subject.

Could we more succinctly demonstrate environmental impacts to the average consumer? Are there tools or nudges we could incorporate into daily life that would help people to better understand their impact? What neighborhood and community actions and incentives could be implemented?

How can we as a society better relate the environmental impact of a full garbage bag or recycling bin, of a gallon of fuel burned by our vehicle, of a 3 gallon flush of a toilet? If we can somehow better frame and relay the impacts of the environmental decisions that we make tens of times a day (knowingly or unknowingly), we could begin to change the dialogue and actions surrounding sustainability, efficiency, and the environment.

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