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Carbon “Fitbit”

May 28, 2022
What if you could literally WATCH your effect on earth as easily as this? (Photo shamelessly stolen from a commercial site.)

What’s our species’ shortest path to net zero carbon, while ethically protecting all life?

Today, there is no effective leadership from central powers (industry and government) to achieve this, yet by all indications we are in extremely dangerous territory.

What options do we have as individuals?

If we all lived in a large building, and we knew an earthquake was going to strike in two weeks, and we were rational and concerned with our individual and collective survival as a functional family (big if), how would we spend those two weeks? No doubt packing out our precious things and setting up camps with basics (food, water) in a relatively safe place. Possibly bolstering the building. Adapting to a new start, changing our commute patterns, eating practices, and doing a lot of self care while we waited for the likely destruction of our physical home. We might rebuild completely differently, something that would stand the test of time for the next earthquake.

Today, we are the earthquake. We are rumbling the foundations and the vibrations are increasing. The façade has cracked and the foundation is crumbling. A resonant frequency, even a small repetitive impact, can cause the collapse of a suspension bridge. In this case our collective insistence to continue pounding more and more is building the destructive energy in the system, and we see the results all around (tornadoes, drought, killer storms and floods, crop failures, mass migrations, war).

Some years ago, when I saw clearly that my career efforts to shift California’s transportation and climate policies (and in turn the nation’s and the world’s) had effectively failed, despite our valiant underdog achievements, I pondered this question: what can individuals do to expedite a global low carbon culture?

The personal approach of individual lifestyle change seemed to have failed as well; if anything, it only led to increased isolation and curtailment of opportunities, and generated resistance. If the Jevons paradox is correct, it also had at best, zero effect.

How can those who are willing to make a principled sacrifice, knowing the “earthquake” is coming, grow their numbers and realize an effect?

Today, if anything, society and its economy rewards people for increased consumption. There’s certainly no penalty for this behavior, and likely higher status. Picture a person who eats a huge steak every night, drives a 4 MPG monster, and flies away every weekend for pleasure. You might make them a hero and elect them Governor!

Meanwhile, someone who goes vegan, rides a bicycle, and takes Amtrak, is treated as strange!

It’s easy to be discouraged – and feel alone – and it’s hard to be clear on your goals and how well you’re achieving them.

Three major obstacles:

  1. We can feel alone
  2. We don’t know what our target is
  3. We don’t know how well we are doing

What if we used today’s technology to solve for those?

What if you could literally WATCH your effect on earth as easily as this? (Photo shamelessly stolen from a commercial site.)

Visualize an app that tracks your carbon emissions, offers you a choice of a personal carbon emissions target, and links you up with others willing to join similarly.

  • No more counterproductive sacrificing in isolation.
  • No more dread of the unknown.
  • No more proceeding blind

The app could even give guidance and advice on how to make choices that reduce personal carbon, and how to take more effective collective action.

Enter: the “Carbon Fitbit” -I haven’t used a Fitbit, but in talking up this idea starting around 2019, someone made the observation, “It’s like a carbon fitbit!” and so far the term resonates widely.

Starting simple, this could be a quick daily survey (what did you eat, how did you travel, did you take a hot shower, etc.). Over time it could become highly sophisticated (knowing the carbon intensity of the products you purchase including your electricity and tracking through your electronic purchases for example).

The app might link you up with all your friends and neighbors who care, building a global support network.

But wait, even if you have 100,000 or 100,000,000 idealistic changemonkeys on this new climate crusader social media platform, we are still trapped in this perpetual growth economy, right?

What if the app was designed to reward those who opt in, with an eye to building collective resources. Building a low carbon economy in the shell of the old. Giving credit for unspent carbon allotments.

Add in a guaranteed wage of carbon credits (for food, for resources) in the future.

For once grows an accountability mechanism to reward and protect those willing to sacrifice to save life on earth, and potentially even penalize those who chose to consume faster the death spiral we’re in. Accountable how? If someone ignored our efforts and thus wasn’t accounting for ahz carbon use, we can assume nom wasn’t making an effort, and is thus not as entitled to community protection. Sound draconian? Yet that’s the way the economy works today, in reverse, rewarding high-carbon excess, and those who fall out are literally left to die. In stark contrast, this proposal is an ethical degrowth framework.

While a low-carbon-credit-currency is a major leap from simply tracking our individual and group impact, it’s still another major leap from protecting all life on earth ethically. If the climate crisis, and its ironic twin, the oil decline, escalate, everything we rely on today is destabilized. We can’t rely on apps to function long-term much more than a cryptocurrency’s blockchain.

A much earlier individual crisis will occur when people realize just how hard it can seem to meaningfully go low carbon! Good news, it doesn’t happen overnight: your target allows you to spend some now to be able to save more later. The networking allows new distribution and procurement. The strategies include reusing and preserving the wealth we already have. You don’t have to stop your hot showers if you get into using a sun-heated shower bag…

Yet, even if we succeed in an all-in-it-together supported collective approach, and are highly organized and intentional with our resources, and begin to gain control of our livelihood in a new low carbon framework, how can we share regionally, nationally, and internationally? If we are having trouble providing basics in North America, how can we help ensure those in Africa have enough? What nourishment need we cultivate beyond rice, beans and bicycles, to preserve critical technologies, and our overall wellbeing, in a time of great change and challenge?

[News for you, it could be a lot harder blundering along on the business as usual path.]

Tracking my personal habits (whether it’s money, food, or carbon) has always helped me steer my own ship toward my goals. That’s a core inspiration for this idea. We are all so in the dark! I realize I may be an outlier, unrepresentative of most, as I can geek out on data and happily do the work to track numbers and events.

Human psychology “is what it is”, but we can’t rely on what we think it is today to set our limits for tomorrow. There are so many barriers to making a low carbon transition. But our psychology is malleable, it reflects where we are, and where we are now is at the far end of the plank. Can we inch our way back to safety? The horror of starvation and war that’s implied if we don’t, forgets to consider the liberation we’ve achieved while climbing up the energy ladder, and the implications of how to preserve and progress with those gains. Without a strong collective culture with a practice of protecting those gains, we are all much more at risk of losing them.

Knowing that others are doing their part, knowing what our part would look like, and providing some points of reference and even a foundation to build a new safer space could just be the only hope we have of not going down with the building. Stop stomping, people!!!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sasha permalink
    May 29, 2022 4:58 am

    Jason ,
    What a great idea . Surprised it doesn’t exist already

  2. June 2, 2022 12:27 pm

    Early comments after posting on LinkedIn, republished here:

    Marlena H., MURP, PDC, MSW, MLSe, CSM
    Permatect building sustainable, healthy communities and organizations

    I don’t know, Jason. I feel like that this was, in roundabout ways, the promise of the internet at its nascence, in the first place. And yet, it has been completely co-opted for myriad things, few of them good and most of them ultimately passive, even if with good intentions. There’s a reason why we are more connected than ever, yet experience more isolation and alienation than ever. I’m not sure that having *another* channel for an abstract community is any kind of answer. As a completely logistical question, I’m not sure how the effective UBI of merit gets funded. As a matter of real behavioral shift, self-reporting is notoriously delusional. It also likely amplifies the already shrill narcissism of the righteous, who will point to the data sets as evidence of how committed they are to taking one for the team. Plus, then we have to figure out our rubrics, since one person says vegan and another says carnivore, both hurling data at the other. My issue with TM over other forms was always that my objective is not to rise above the dirt, but channel through the dirt to manifest, since that is kinda the point of having a body, anyway. That relates because the creative tension of how to operate within insane constraints surely has evolutionary value. But, I am with you about the nihilism in planning. I am also maybe with you in that, with age, I am no longer as interested in throwing myself against the door in an attempt to progress. There is an allure to the notion of like minded pockets, until you try them and realize how much conflict occurs among like minds. Still, I do think the best versions of “Findhorn” could be small-city blocks. Energy, communication, distributed supply and local economy are all ideal at this increment. Detroit seemed poised to become this experiment, but was co-opted as a colonial outpost just as (because) the momentum ramped up. Still, surely there is some abandoned Jericho AZ or town in Italy we can occupy.

    Michael McCormick (He/Him)
    1st Founder & Partnerships Lead at Farallon Strategies/Team Lead at BayCAN

    Luckily this app exists – does just this! Check it out or talk with the founder, Lisa Altieri
    Climate Solutions | BrightAction

    Jason N. Meggs, MPH/MCP (They/Them) Author Climate & Resource Policy & Planning
    Dear Michael, while I’m genuinely happy to learn of this effort, it definitely does NOT seem the same to me.

    We will NOT hit net carbon neutral ASAP by purchasing new appliances and learning to practice basic energy efficiency measures, no matter how successful crowdsourcing might be.

    We will also most likely not grow a new global accountability framework, essentially a new economic system, that leads to greater security and rewards for low carbon efforts, without some major evolutionary leaps of both the offer and use of BrightAction.

    That said, the starter proposal acknowledged that it would need to start simple and grow. I’ll happily contact Lisa Altieri, the founder, thanks for noticing and networking.

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