The Consumer + the Climate
While I've studied different subjects and been different things, I've not been a scientist nor have I studied engineering. The climate crisis is one global issue where individuals feel the most powerless in making any impact. Leyla Kaya avoids flights and is vegan to minimize her environmental footprint, yet she suffers from eco-anxiety. Can individuals make a difference? I asked Dr Sam Goodman his thoughts which he shared below.
The Consumer Voice and the Climate Crisis One of the first questions someone asked me about my book was, “what can I do about climate change?” It’s a natural enough request. If you’re concerned about this looming disaster, you want to know the steps you can take to be part of the solution. But, and this is an unorthodox notion for an individualistic culture like the United States, one person really is powerless before climate change. All the recycling you leave on the curb, and public transit you take over your entire life won’t account for a fraction of a percent of a fossil fuel power plant’s hourly carbon dioxide emissions. You can be a singular, perfect avatar for sustainable living, and it won’t matter.
The question they should have asked is, “what can we do about climate change.” The climate-relevant choices that are available to us in our day-to-day lives largely circle what we consume. Where we shop, what we buy, and how we throw things away. Our collective carbon footprint is really dependent on small choices aggregating into larger movements. We can have a substantial impact on mitigating climate change if those trends can move markets.
Food is one area with a profound impact on the climate. Consider the steak you pick up at the meat counter. It takes 40 times more land area to make a unit of beef than if you simply ate the plants used to feed the cow. All that acreage requires more fertilizer, more transportation, more energy use, and more carbon emissions. Thus, decreasing meat consumption is a choice that would drastically contribute to an overall solution. While it’s easy enough to say everyone should go vegetarian, that isn’t a choice many people are willing to make. Meat consumption is a cornerstone of our culture, so the market provides what the people want. Shifting that calculus requires reasonable alternatives.
New meat-free meat products are a growing portion of grocery store shelves. Whether they’re impossible burgers, fake nuggets, or any of their myriad variations, there are good options that mimic the taste, feel, and experience of meat without the negative climate consequences. Unlike traditional bocca burgers and other vegan options that have been around for decades, these new options try to hide their vegetableness as much as possible. The rapid increase in variety and their apparent staying power reflect their ability to fill a niche in the market. Such products provide options for people who want to take action on climate change but still want to maintain as much of their current lifestyle as possible. Products that take a carbon-intensive sector, reduce its impact, and maintain convenience at an equivalent or modestly higher price point can replicate this success and are natural targets for future investment.
Aggregated consumer choice can go beyond finding a niche within an existing market and move to take it over completely. Ten years ago, electric cars barely existed when Tesla was the only wholly electric player in a market dominated by internal combustion engines. Now, it is the stated strategy of most major manufacturers to transition to electric vehicles only. The massive battery factories under construction in Georgia are evidence enough of that commitment. Even with all the invested capital for making internal combustion engines and in fossil fuel extraction and distribution, the popularization of electric vehicles drives decision-making for these businesses. The people want electric cars, so manufacturers maximize their profits by giving us what we want. Businesses need only be willing to accept the temporary discomfort caused by reorganization to seize such opportunities.
Not every sector is as amenable to changes in demand signals as protein and transportation. There is a subset of industries that are largely insulated from consumer choice by virtue of them being natural monopolies. This situation arises when building multiple competing instances of a certain service is inherently inefficient, and the market can only support a single entity. Operating multiple sets of roads doesn’t make sense, nor does building more than one set of power infrastructure.
Generating electricity accounts for the largest overall share of greenhouse gas emissions, meaning we have to deal with it. However, it is an industry wholly immune to consumer demands and consumer choice. We don’t choose whether our power company gets its energy from solar or coal. People are caught between needing electricity to function in modern society and having no leverage over where that energy comes from. Companies will simply make power in whatever way is cheapest for them. Typically, that means running their current, carbon-emitting capital for as long as possible to maximize their return on investment. Power plants are built to run for decades, and we will need to move faster than that to avoid the worst aspects of climate change.
To overcome this natural monopoly, consumer choice has to transition to political choice. While they may not be beholden to consumers, power companies are still subject to the laws and requirements of state and local governments. If people prioritize it and influence their elected officials, we could see the broader adoption of policies like California’s or New York’s clean power plans that correct this market limitation and spur action.
Properly addressing climate change necessitates consistent engagement by the people who are concerned about it. For the young person who asked what they can do, the answer is to advocate for changes in the market and political spheres by joining like-minded folks to increase their collective impact. Businesses can adapt, remain relevant, or even thrive if they are willing to look for opportunities to meet this burgeoning sustainability movement. Instead of clinging to old capital and business practices, they can be proactive and embrace change. The only horse and buggy companies that survived the introduction of the car were those who switched to making auto parts. The transition from fossil fuels is coming, so the same choice has to be made now. Will your business will still exist on the other side?
This is only one of the topics I talk about in my new book, Beyond Carbon Neutral: How We Fix the Climate Crisis Now, now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I am happy to connect and discuss these topics on my social media below and have signed copies available for those who wish to learn more about how we can avert disaster. Dr Samuel Goodman Email Website LinkedIn Twitter