To solve climate change, perhaps we need to live a little lower lower on the hog

Published Tuesday, September 12, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

At a concert I attended this summer, folk singer Old Man Luedecke shared a story of how a bump in the road of life had once unexpectedly reduced his family income.  

“Well,” his wife’s reaction went, “I guess we’ll just have to live lower on the hog for a while” – in other words, make do with a bit less.  It inspired the song he then played, Low on the Hog.

I was reminded of it when I read two stories about global sustainability recently.  

Earth Overshoot Day

The first was about Earth Overshoot Day, which is calculated annually by the Global Footprint Network, an international organization dedicated to sustainable resource management.  Earth Overshoot Day is the date each year by which humanity has consumed all the natural resources the planet will produce or regenerate that year.  

For most of human existence, the planet has produced more than we’ve consumed.  However, recent explosions in both our population and per capita consumption have changed the equation.  

According to the Global Footprint Network, 1970 was the first year our consumption matched the planet’s productive capacity.  In 1971, we’d consumed everything the planet would produce that year by December 21 – the first Earth Overshoot Day.

Almost every year since, Earth Overshoot Day has occurred earlier on our calendar: November 4, 1980; October 13, 1990; September 23, 2000; August 9, 2010.  

This year, it was August 2 – the earliest ever.  By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, we will have consumed an estimated 1.7 times what the planet will produce this year.

You could say we humans are living pretty high on the hog.  

(So how is it possible to consume more than the planet produces?  By overfishing fish, overcutting forests, overconsuming water, depleting topsoil and more.  Picture a homeowner burning the furniture to stay warm – doable until there is nothing left to burn.)

Four impactful actions

The second item was a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.  Its authors analyzed 39 peer-reviewed papers, carbon calculators and government reports relating to how individuals can reduce their carbon footprint.  They concluded that, amid the multitude of possibilities, four specific actions stand out as having the biggest impact: 1) eating a plant-based diet; 2) avoiding air travel; 3) living car-free; and 4) having smaller families.  

Uncomfortable?  So am I.  Those are really hard, especially in this land of abundance, and the limitless local and global mobility we’ve become accustomed to.  I know, because I’ve just returned from a family vacation that involved (albeit carbon offset) air travel.

But as study lead author Seth Wynes said, “Those of us who want to step forward on climate need to know how our actions can have the greatest possible impact.  This research is about helping people make informed choices.”  In other words, if you’re going to take action on climate change, you might as well know which actions will have the biggest impact.

Study co-author Kimberly Nicholas adds, “We recognize these are deeply personal choices, but we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has.  It’s especially important for young people establishing lifelong patterns to be aware which choices have the biggest impact.”

What to do

Who isn’t intimidated by ‘the big four’?  But we can all take solace from the fact that each of them can be chipped away at slowly.  (Even the fourth, because large families committed to sustainability can have smaller carbon footprints than small families without such commitment; and perhaps the former can help teach the latter.)

Make no mistake: every act of sustainability is a good act.  But if our goal is to make the biggest difference, it's good to know where that biggest difference can be made.  

Clearly, we need to get our consumption back in line with what the planet can sustainably produce, and banish Earth Overshoot Day into next year.  To do that, we may need to think about living a little lower on the hog.