Happy new year. Pretty sure this is the last day we’re allowed to say that. I hope everyone had a happy holiday, maybe even snuck in a couple naps. Perhaps you spent your downtime contemplating who you were going to share this newsletter with? Me too! Now would be a great time to hit send.
During Christmas week in particular, I fielded a lot of comments about my apparent whipsaw career switch from fuel-huffing car-guy to Al Gore imitator. First off, let’s all recognize that some of the most consequential environmental journalism in the country is being done at Car and Driver, Road & Track, and Autoweek, as those teams help everyone navigate the technological and societal transition from gas to electric vehicles. But also: wow, right? You send two emails about the environment and all of a sudden your family expects to be shamed for their paper cups.
The psychology of action
Truth is, I spun up one5c in part to help direct my own personal need to do more for the planet, and I’m starting the race from squarely mid-pack. In a lot of areas I’m pulling up the rear, and sometimes that gets me down.
If you feel the same way, don’t worry; that’s a normal response. “When the problem is so big, you might encounter a kind of learned helplessness, like whatever you do is not going to matter,” says Janet Kay Swim, an environmental and social psychologist at Penn State University. That response can be a byproduct of what’s known as emotion-focused coping, where you try to regulate how you feel about something you can’t change. Another option Swim cites is problem-focused coping. This one is cooler: “You cope by changing your threat into a challenge.” Hell yeah, Dr. Swim. Let’s do this.
Think of your shortcomings as opportunities. Find the points you can put on the board right now. Because if we’re looking for reductions in emissions, waste, pollution, etc, we don’t need to flip immediately to an ideal state—especially if that ideal state is impossible to maintain. What matters are the steps we’re willing to take and stick with. Progress is progress.
A plan instead of a task
So how do you track this progress and maximize the easy wins? I spun up something I call the Imperfection Index, a number that helps easily recognize your forward motion, so none of us gets paralyzed by the enormity of the problem. The Index codifies individual actions and helps identify next steps.
Those next steps are important, because a landmine in the road of small, achievable actions is something called single-action bias, a term coined by Elke Weber, professor of psychology at Princeton University. It is:
the tendency of people who are responding to a threat to rely on a single action when other actions exist, even when the single action provides only incremental risk reduction and may not even be the most effective option.
In other words, you stop using tape and high-five yourself for saving the world. And yes, doing anything you weren’t doing before is an improvement. But how much easy money are you leaving on the table?
“It’s tricky, because each of us, based on our individual lifestyles, have parts of our lives that dominate our carbon footprint,” says Shahzeen Attari, associate professor at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. “You need to know a little bit about the person in order to tailor or target what goes into what they can or cannot do.”
This makes sense. You, Extreme Keto Carnivore who cycles to work and has an off-grid solar-powered home, are starting from a different baseline from your vegan neighbor who drives like Lewis Hamilton and has an oil-fired furnace.
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: The Imperfection Index is going to be imperfect too. That doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. To come up with a set of actions that applied to the most people possible, I took a very broad swipe at the ways in which most of us emit carbon, assigned a score to each item based roughly on the calculations from a seminal 2009 paper called The Behavioral Wedge, and grouped them into two columns: financially intensive and not financially intensive. Then I broke each column up into the three categories that represent the main areas of personal emissions contributions: Home energy use, Transportation, and Diet and consumption.
I made the cheap stuff worth more than the points you can buy because they are accessible to more people.
So go through this list, and calculate a score based on the items you’re already accomplishing. Then, subtract your score from 150, the total number of available points. (I chose 150 because it’s a multiple of 1.5c, and I am on brand.) That’s your Imperfection Index. Check it out:
I didn’t group points into gamified grade brackets—A+! one5c Platinum!—because the absolute value of your number isn’t important. It’s just a way to track progress. The point is what you can subtract from your Index over time.
Take my own Index of 49, which is about 40 points off what I believe I can achieve this year and feel good about. To improve, I’ll look first to the cheap column, where I’m leaving about 25 points on the table. I’m not maxed out there because I still eat a little bit of meat, I drive like an asshole, and our dryer is continuously processing toddler clothes. One of those things I can’t control; the other two I am working on. Later in the year, we’re hoping to upgrade our HVAC system. I’ll be recalculating this every month and will report back.
Roll your own
Some of the items on this list may seem inconsequential, but the upside for reasonably little effort is huge. Look at weatherization, a chunky points-haul. You can spend a lot of money weatherizing your home, but there are very effective DIY ways as well: a towel under a leaky door, a garbage bag around a window unit, a plastic sheet over a drafty window. And according to Dietz, et al, if everyone in the country weatherized, we could reduce our carbon emissions by more than 21 million metric tons per year. That is a lot. Even low-flow showerheads—the freebie on this list because come on—are good for a cool million metric tons.
The complete list of items outlined in The Behavioral Wedge could account for up to 7.4 percent of U.S. emissions, which is a goal worth chasing. My list is pretty different, and this paper is more than a decade old, so the actual numbers are more directional than accurate. But the point remains: Little actions, multiplied across millions of people, can make a massive difference.
You may also be thinking that this list is incomplete. It is. How can you ignore ecommerce? What about eliminating single-use plastic containers? Bro, do you even compost? My list is focused on emissions, arguably our most pressing challenge, but that brings us back to Attari’s point: we all live incredibly different lives.
If my list doesn’t work for you, change it. Add things that you believe should be included and take off the stuff you think is dumb. Make it add up to 150 points. Then calculate your personal Index. Send it to me! You can download my template here. Make a copy (File → Make a copy) and have your way.
Thanks, as always, for reading. If you liked this week’s note, I hope you’ll share it with everyone from your New Years Zoom Bash. You can also feel free to tweet about the Imperfection Index and look super smart. We’re @1fivec, because there are no new names on the Internet.
Take care of yourselves—and the rest of us, too.
*one5c is a reference to the goal of limiting Global Warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
I got some great responses to the last note, including a couple really good tips for cutting gift-wrapping waste. Two good ones:
Pillowcases! Our friend’s Mom is an early-days environmentalist and she used to wrap the kids’ presents in their pillowcases.
This sounded pretty janky to me (sorry, Sam), so I spent a few minutes on Pinterest, and… yup, still janky. So I decided to try it myself. I ended up doing a standard furoshiki fold, and honestly, not bad! I’ll keep practicing, and will keep an eye out for Rudolph sheets at the thrift store. Look out, Christmas 2022
Another reader, Alex, chimed in on Instagram with my favorite:
I try to wrap small gifts for grandparents in my son’s old artwork.
HELL YES. Our daughter brings home so much bad art from daycare. Now I might actually keep some of the stuff longer than the couple guilty days it spends “displayed” next to the recycling bin.
As always, feel free to reach out to me directly with ideas or questions. You can also talk it out in the comments below, or check us out on Instagram and Twitter.