Can One Person Make a Difference in The Environment?

The U.S is one of the highest consuming nations in the world. We use more energy, create more waste, and demand more water than every other nation, except China.

Simply put, the more you as an individual can do to lower the average carbon dioxide emissions burned per capita, the better. But when an individual is responsible for such a tiny decimal of the global amount, it becomes very difficult to quantify this statement.

According to the World Bank [1], the United States burns about 16.5 metric tons (about 36,000 pounds) per capita. Environmental literature likes to label individual American’s as burning 16.5 metric tons on average, however, this is slightly misleading. In fact, the average American burns less than this, while the infrastructure and services we rely on make up the difference.

It is important to point this out, as I am about to form the argument that an individual person can actually make a difference and create a framework to lower the average number of carbon emissions that America burns.  

In 2008, an environmental class at MIT studied the carbon emissions burned by a wide variety of American’s. Ranging from a homeless person living on the street and eating from soup kitchens to Bills Gates, and from a 5-year old to a vegetarian college student. The findings that were announced from this class identified the lowest possible amount of CO2 emissions an individual American could burn, regardless of their energy choices. The number turned out to be 8.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions [2], which is roughly twice as much as the current global average.

The reason as to why no American can go any lower than the 8.5 metric ton “floor” is due to basic government services such as police, roads, libraries, public schools, hospitals, and the military, which every citizen is entitled to, and pays for via taxes.

So it becomes clear, even if we were a free-spirit, living off homegrown crops, homeschooled our children, refused travel, did not have an electronic product in sight, and never left our land, we would still be liable for 8.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year.

So, how can one person make a difference if all American’s are already producing twice as many carbon emissions as the global average and roughly three times as much as what the United Nations claims is needed to stabilize the climate? [3]

Understand Why

Before I began living an eco-friendly lifestyle, I sought to answer this question for myself. Unfortunately, there is not a tangible outcome that can be used to persuade any individual to begin going down a path of significant life-changing ideas. And because of that, it becomes incredibly easy for one to hear of strategies on how to reduce your carbon emissions, and discount them in the same fashion you’d discount religious values that are not your own, or an infomercial for a product you would have no use for. On top of this, it is very difficult for myself to listen to some of the loudest climate change advocators, because they sound preachy, and their sales pitches come across as scare tactics. All of which have become engrained signs telling me to walk the other way. Because of these things, from the very start of my quest, I was skeptical. For every article I read about the reality of climate change, I read two about the falsity of it. This went on and on until climate denying article sources began getting less and less reliable, and the climate advocating continued presenting more and more sources backed by universities, countries and non-profits I believed in.

When I review data, and theories on the topic, I begin to understand why some of these scientists seemingly go ‘mad’. The numbers are scary, the projections show deadly outcomes, and the trajectory we are in leaves anyone reading them feeling hopeless. It looks like the earth is on a sinking ship, and the orchestra is continuing to play.

A rule I set for myself when I started my eco-bound journey was to remain as qualitative as possible. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and use my understanding to define a direction I felt was the most practical for myself and my family, all while trying to do whatever I can do as an individual to make a difference.

I am not a mad scientist, I hope nobody takes any of my articles as some eco-nut preaching that the world should fuel their vehicles with vegetable oil and boycott the meat industry. The precursor, however, as to whether or not one person can actually make a difference, is for anyone interested in making a difference to first educate themselves on the matter. When you read the data, and you understand it in the laymen, non-environmental degree, simplistic way that was presented to me, you will want to figure out anything you can possibly do that would make even the slightest bit of difference.

But, and this is a big but, if you disagree with the data, if you find sources that say otherwise, or, for whatever reason, you deny the facts that are out there, stop right here. The entire reason anyone should want to strive to make a difference is that they’ve researched the outcome and understand the effects they have.

The point of is to share my journey and offer ideas on how we as a society can be better tenants to the planet we reside on. It is not meant to publish climate-related findings or host educational resources. I encourage this entire community to take the time and research on your own, why people should want to make a difference. If, after reviewing the data you find, you are satisfied, continue reading.

Decide If You Want to Care About Future Generations

Enough scientists have agreed, the changes we are seeing in the climate now will have little effect on this generation. As American’s, we can continue our enormous consumption, all while supporting other nations development at the same time, and nothing will change. We can track melting icebergs the same way we track a child’s growth, with a ruler and a marker, inch by inch, and nothing substantial will display itself in the next 30, 40, or 50 years.

But, with projections some scientists have built, what will the earth look like in 60 years, or 100 years? There are seemingly simple, albeit expensive strategies to reduce your own carbon emissions by 60%. Those strategies won’t do much for us today, but they could prepare our children and grandchildren to live in a world whose climate is not as bad it could end up being.  

Lower Your Own Carbon Emissions to Bring the Average Down

The MIT class that studied how many emissions individuals burned realized that the higher your income, the more you burn. Bill Gates burns a lot more than a 5-year old due to his lifestyle choices, in fact, he burns roughly 10,000 times more than the national average. This is mainly due to the lavish lifestyle of the ultra-wealthy, private jets, helicopters, a support staff, and multiple luxury residences constantly kept in pristine condition.

The ultra-wealthy burn an unearthly amount of carbon dioxide emissions. What this tells us is, greater your own resources, the greater the chances are that you burn more than the average as well.  Even with the most sustainable life choices, you’ll still burn more than you should. But, if you calculate the amount of carbon dioxide emissions burned, and strive to lower your own, ton by ton, you will join a growing effort that is striving to lower the national average.

Unfortunately, even if you lived a very environmentally focused, sustainable lifestyle, you would still end up having a greater footprint than the homeless person. The MIT study calculated the carbon dioxide emissions of a Buddhist monk, who lived half of every year in a forest and only spent $12,500 per year. His carbon dioxide emissions weighed in at 10.5 metric tons. This is quite a lot! While 8.5 tons account for the fact that he’s living in America, his seemingly extreme eco-friendly lifestyle is still burning 2.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide. But this should not stop you as individuals wanting to make an effort.

Every step in the right direction brings us closer to a lower national average, and because of that, your ability as one person can make a difference! I understand this is the same motto used in campaigns during elections, fundraisers for charity organizations, and motivations during weight loss and fitness goals. But it carries a lot of weight. In order to move toward the direction we need to go, individuals need to start making the effort.

As an individual, having a lower than average carbon dioxide output will help align both the country and the world with a lower, per person average. On top of this, once the effort is made, and your lifestyle is more sustainably oriented, you’ll be in a stronger position to adapt to whatever future policy changes come your way. Thus, making a change now is what will prepare you for a more sustainable future.  

Educate Friends and Family

Discussing climate change is boring! Nobody wants to listen to that guy at a party preaching to everyone that they need to sell their car, get a bike and live a vegan lifestyle. When people discuss climate change, they’re bringing up all the topics American’s should not discuss at a party; the weather, politics, and why my life choices are wrong, and yours are right.

But understanding the effects fossil fuels have on the environment does not need to be done in a preachy, mad-scientist, or threatening way. When you begin to understand why the climate is changing, and why we might want to focus on doing something about it, the conversations can be interesting and lead to thoughtful discussions, when the time is right.

Get Political

So you’ve started living an energy conscious lifestyle, you are burning less carbon dioxide emissions than the average American, and you’ve had meaningful conversations with friends and family on why they might be interested to follow in your footsteps.

The next step is to focus on supporting change that is happening at the governmental level. With this in mind, you can start understanding which politicians recognize the importance of sustainability and what bills are being written with the environment in mind.

Do your part, in whatever way you feel is right to motivate those who are working towards the same goals as you.

Invest in Others Working to Make Changes

There are some incredible businesses and organizations worth supporting that follow carbon neutral business practices, and are working to give back to the climate. Supporting these businesses will allow them to continue doing good for our world, and continue providing them with the resources to innovate and develop new technologies focused on a more sustainable future.

Can One Person Make a Difference?

You asked the question, can one person make a difference if they begin focusing on a sustainable lifestyle? My answer is yes, they can make a difference. By being the change they want to see in this world, contributing to lowering the average carbon emissions burned, informing and educating others to do the same, while supporting policy changes and advocating for green businesses, a single person can do quite a lot.