Simple Living, Environmental Destruction, and the 80/20 Rule

If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you care about the environment and our screwball destruction of it. You might also care that we seem to have no real clue how to tackle the issue.

Let’s be real here too. Nobody has a notion where we are going. Every common sense, sane indicator and metric shows we are performing poor to terribly on a planetary health-check.

Billions of us crammed onto this ever-hotter blue sphere. Another 3-4 billion to be added to the total by 2050.

The solution? More windfarms, (green) power plants, economic growth, and development. Except now, we are going to do it all sustainably! It’s called sustainable development. If that’s not a misnomer in these times, I’m not sure what is.

Take a look at this chart, it kind of blew me away when I first saw it.


The implications are huge. Despite all our technological prowess, it highlights how unsophisticated our messaging around the problem is.

You know the 80/20 rule right? Roughly 80% of the effect(s) of something comes from 20% of the cause(s).

Think about how the planet would apply that rule to halt the destruction of its environment. We use it across all walks of life, except it would seem, something like mitigating our carbon footprint. Or even the discussion of it.

Your carbon footprint is only one metric, true, but the burning of carbon is a founding father of modern environmental destruction. Confronting the drivers of our carbon footprint is to directly confront the biggest threats to our planet.

So what does it tell us?

For all the good will in the world recycling/your eco toothpaste/replacing a fossil-fueled car with a cleaner alternative won’t actually make a huge difference to your end carbon footprint.

Of course these are very important. Dealing with the blight of plastic in particular – how it is being dumped on our land and in our rivers is a collective shame on the past few generations and one which future generations will remember us by.

Cutting Your Carbon Footprint

So, let’s get serious about this.

From the source site:

“We found there are four actions that could result in substantial decreases in an individual’s carbon footprint: eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car free, and having smaller families. For example, living car-free saves about 2.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, while eating a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year. -Source

We don’t think of ‘being green’ in these terms. Asking women to consider having less children is not a very popular message to spread (not that I am), especially as the world’s economic system is so heavily dependent on a constant churn of workers and consumers to keep the ship running.

Many developed countries population profiles are aging, and the economic structures are not set to handle that profile very well. I’m not surprised if the minimum age to avail of state pension provisions will be close to 80 for my generation by the time official retirement comes about. I intend to be retired long before then anywho.

So does any of this matter?

Human behaviour depends very directly on being told a good story. Telling people not to have kids, to take less flights, and give up their cars is kind of a shit story.

The story we are being told at the moment though is a sort of modern fairytale – yes we are making a bit of a dog’s dinner of our home planet and chowing Goldilock’s-style through all the porridge, but green energy and our own wonderful ingenuity will come along to save us in the end – mess in the kitchen be damned. It’s really neat and reassuring.

The evidence for this happy final coup d’├ętat unfortunately stretches only about as far as Hollywood movie endings.

Try selling that crap to all the people affected by increasingly frequent and severe climactic events. People displaced by famine and hurricanes and desertification. They don’t have to be told.

Cognitive bias is inevitable and part of life in an increasingly information soaked world. It is also the belief that consuming ‘green’ products is the response needed to restore and maintain our home’s health. It is the level and type of consumption where the biggest gains can be made.

Learning to live simply for personally rewarding reasons can inadvertently tackle some of these much greater issues.

People need those reasons. A story. It needs a much stronger narrative.

Speaking of which, this reminds me of a short piece to illustrate cognitive bias.

Tim is from the USA. He is withdrawn, quiet and introspective. Do you think he is more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?

Most people answer librarian, which on the face of it seems correct. However, a study (quoted in Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age – Lee McIntyre) claimed at the time (and likely different in number if not significance now) there were twenty times more male farmers than librarians in the USA. The context of the USA is as or more important than the description of his personality – or at least weighs in very substantially.

The chart is a stark reminder of our context.

I guess caring about the environment is at its core about having some vision of how we can live alongside and within it, not above and beyond it.

We are of nature itself, if our narrative doesn’t include a lived reference to that it’s simply not a good story.

Ants always act in unison for the good of the colony. Perhaps we could pick up one of their broadcasts. And get rid of Fox News too. Two birds with the one stone.

2 thoughts on “Simple Living, Environmental Destruction, and the 80/20 Rule”

  1. Cubert says:

    Here here! Get rid of Fox News! YES!!!
    Well done post here, James. The narrative is sorely lacking, or least one compelling enough to change behavior en masse. Policy is the answer methinks. But not policy from the current disaster in DC.

    1. earthworldjim says:

      Thanks, I am glad you agree! It’s something I have been thinking about quite a lot recently. Unfortunately the very last place something constructive is going to come from is the current DC environment.

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