The most powerful number in sustainability

Big news big news big newwwwws!

Howdy. Been a while. I’ve been waiting to hit send because this newsletter is timed to an exciting announcement. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’m going to the answer to the question posed by the line: It’s 2. (Two.) 

Sorry if you were expecting some curiosity-gap shenanigans that forced you to wade through a drawn-out anecdote from my past before coming to a vague and unsatisfying pronouncement, but that’s the answer. You can go now. (Or you can mosey down past the picture of the giant number 2 and read the news I teased above.)

Orrrrrrr… Can I interest you in a drawn-out anecdote from my past that offers more explanation?

The beginning

The original idea behind one5c—that small but meaningful tweaks to our everyday lives can add up to world-saving change—didn’t arise from some lightning-strike moment of inspiration. It was 2021; I was a new dad, and even though I was slinging car magazines, I tried to keep current with the latest science journalism. I couldn’t just quit it after almost two decades.

In August of that year, I read the 6th IPCC Assessment Report, which painted a devastating picture of our progress towards halting global warming. I had a mild freakout thinking about the world of my daughter’s future, and I resolved to do something to make it better. The only thing I know how to do is journalism.

So I decided to do journalism and went looking for a need that was unmet by the existing sources of environmental media. As I read and watched and listened, it became clear that everyone was serving up the same thing: fear. 

Fear leads to inaction, which is not an option; so I started doing research to understand how to create an opposite response. If I found something insightful, I tried to get on the phone with the person who made it. I interviewed climate scientists, activists, businesspeople, and more. Some of the coolest conversations were with economists and psychologists.

One was Jason Shogren, Stroock Chair of Natural Resource Conservation and Management at the University of Wyoming. He also served in the Clinton Administration’s Council of Economic Advisors, and he was able to help me unpack one major source of inaction. It comes down to something called the discount rate [PDF], which you’ll understand if you’ve studied economics. If you haven’t (👋), it breaks down like this:

The discount rate is what a dollar earned 10 years from now is worth to you today. If you’d pay less than a buck now to have a buck in 2033, you broadly believe that things will get better. If you’re willing to pay more than a dollar now to have a dollar in 10 years, well, that’s a seriously pessimistic outlook. I’m not going to go much deeper than that, because it’s enough to understand that behavioral economists like Shogren use the discount rate to explain motivation. Any future event can be discounted by factors that reduce the perceived value of caring about it now. 

Economists who study the environment frequently use the concept of discount rate to describe the lack of action to fight global warming. Even dates like 2030 seem far off: discounted by time. The places that will suffer the most and soonest are in the Global South: discounted for many of us by space. And in order to actually do something about climate change, all of us need to do something: discounted by inconvenience. 

This meshed with what I learned from Janet Kay Swim, an environmental and social psychologist at Penn State University. “When the problem is so big, you might encounter a kind of learned helplessness, like whatever you do is not going to matter,” she says. That sounds like a psychological cousin to the discount rate, and it is a result of something called emotion-focused coping: when you try to change the way you feel about an issue. To counter it, you need to switch to problem-focused coping, where you change your mindset and focus on what to do about it. 

The opportunity of one5c is to make the problem seem smaller without making it insignificant—to reduce the discount rate, and to offer a mindset of problem-focused coping. This is why, over the past year and a half, I’ve broken climate action down into small challenges that allow you to make an actual difference one block of tofu—or bar of soap or electric vehicle—at a time. 

“A large number 2 on a mountaintop, with the sun rising behind it and an eagle with outstretched talons flying in the background” Credit: Made using the Dall-E Image Generator

Yes, we are still talking about the number 2

Here’s the payoff: Armed with a more objective understanding of why many of us find it difficult to take action, I circled back some of the people I’d interviewed. I asked them for the most powerful but achievable act of climate stewardship a person can take. Most of them said the same thing: Join a group. 

When you go from being a solitary actor to part of a group of two or more, your discount rate lowers. You reduce the inconvenience, because you share the load; and you increase the perceived future value of action by considering even one other person’s life. Even if your group is just two people, your burden of action could be half what it was. And if you’re part of an action-focused organization, you are immediately in the realm of problem-focused coping. 

You did this when you subscribed to one5c. Maybe you’re a member of another group, like the Sierra Club or Third Act or your local government or Greenpeace. If you aren’t, it’s a major force multiplier that you might want to consider.

I just joined a group myself, and totally buried the lede of this email: Last month, one5c was acquired by Fragment Media Group, publisher of The Daily Dot, Nautilus, and Passionfruit. I was very happy to keep making this newsletter by myself, slowly expanding the stories that one5c tells. But Fragment’s CEO, Nick, made a very compelling case as to why I should join his gang: one5c could be more, and it could get there faster. Buckle up.

I am not going anywhere. This newsletter will look the same for a while, but it will eventually change. Though I am currently one5c’s editor, I’ll be taking on the role of publisher, which means I’ll be hiring other journalists to take the original idea and improve upon it. (I have some very cool news on that front coming soon.) 

What I hope doesn’t change is you. The people who read this newsletter and email me daily with questions and comments and internet high-fives are what keep me going. The best thing about this news is that I’ll be able to give you more. You deserve it—because, after all, you are going to save the world. 

Take care of yourselves—and the rest of us, too.