July 18, 2013

"I Go to the Gas Station Once a Month"

Welcome to the July 2013 Natural Living Blog Carnival: Inspiring Change in Others.

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Natural Living Blog Carnival hosted by Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project through the Green Moms Network. This month, our members are talking about how they inspire others to make positive changes in their lifestyles. If you have tips to share, feel free to comment on all of the posts! And maybe you'll walk away with a few tips you can use in your own life.


"You go to the gas station once a month?" My good friend Elise, who normally takes my word for granted, is unable to hide her incredulity. I give her my usual line about how, while I like the guys at the station, I do hand over a wad of cash every time I see them; so once a month is enough, thanks. "Once a month," I hear her mutter, again. We go on to talk about other things, but I do believe I made an impression, even on my friend who is already very green.

It's not easy to spread the word about climate change in such a way that people are willing to listen. This issue is so deeply enmeshed with our security that we simply don't want to hear the bad news. It's like trying to talk to Californians about the risk of earthquakes: they just smile and change the conversation.

Denial is built into our psyche, a safe place to hide behind when we are not ready to face really scary stuff, like our mortality - or the fate of the blue ball we call home. I mean, it's so much easier - and more pleasant - to think about the next smartphone you're going to buy, than to deal with the feeling of depression and helplessness in the face of a problem that's literally the size of a planet.

I'm no psychologist, I couldn't help anyone past their denial stage; so I prefer to go around that. Instead, I like to point out that green living can save a bundle of money. This is certainly true in the long run, and very often gives instant gratification as well. Besides, saving money is something that everybody recognises as a good thing.

My favourite new line is "Green = Frugal".

Examples are everywhere: it saves both money and carbon emissions to eat low on the food chain, to set the thermostat closer to the outside temperature, to bike rather than drive, to choose the car with the smaller engine. The list goes on. The best part: Saving money is something everyone can get behind: there is no controversy about it, and nothing scary.

It's hard to work for something that's far in the future: but anyone who has children or grandchildren looks to the future (just think of - gulp - saving for college). That's why CelloMom reaches out to parents and grandparents, and tries to open a window on transportation possibilities that are out of the high-carbon box.

My second tactic is to exploit technology envy, and to show how small that high-carbon box is in which car manufacturers have placed Americans. Nearly all my car reviews show how here in the US our choices in cars are severely limited: to the largest models, and the largest engines. It's not unusual for us to get a "choice" of two engines, where elsewhere you can choose from six or more, most more frugal, and with more advanced technology, than what you can buy here.

I've had a few angry responses, in which I've been accused of being useless (or worse) by dangling cars that are simply not for sale in the US. I suppose anger is good: anger is one step past denial. And anyway, if you don't know that these gas sippers exist, how can you ask for them? My reviews of cars in German or Japanese showrooms may not help any American in their current car purchase, but I hope to awaken a green envy (or a tech envy) that may some day turn into real consumer demand. Knowledge is power: if you know that this or that model is made with a nice gas-sipper engine, no car dealer can tell you that "Ma'am, they don't make those." You can just sit down at their computer and show them that Yes they do make those.

The time is ripe, and already there are hopeful signs for a shift: for instance, Audi has finally added the cute A1 to its US lineup, filling the gaping hole, and BMW has brought its 1 series to the US as well. Before that you could have thought Germans started to count at 3. Need I mention that these additions have the smallest price tags in their showrooms?

Spreading the word about global warming can seem a hopeless task: It's easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed about the global warming problem in general. But I take care to point out that, even though the situation can appear already hopelessly out of our control, it is not too late to act: we can still prevent worse (much worse) from happening. If we choose a modest car with a gas-sipping engine rather than an over-the-top SUV, we're curbing our carbon emissions for the lifetime of the car. If we don't keep our homes at 72F summer and winter, if we start eating less meat, we help avoid methane emissions throughout the rest of our lifetimes.

I used to get impatient with people who proudly report on their recycling efforts, but who turn out to drive large SUVs - but I'm coming to the conclusion that every little bit helps, and very often that recycling bin can be the first baby step to a crunchy lifestyle.

To paraphrase Mahatma Ghandhi: In our fight to stop global warming, whatever you do individually will be insignificant, but it is important that you do it.

Confession: I troll climate change denier websites. And I leave comments there and at news outlets. I try to make it short, to the point, and humourous. I'm pretty sure I once put a stop on a facebook ranting session by calling into question the remark that started the thread. Misinformation on global warming should not be allowed to swirl around unchecked.

In my daily life, I don't proselytise, at least not too much: I do ask parents not to idle their engines on the school parking lot because our children don't need to breathe the exhaust: parents get that, immediately. Among my friends, I poke gentle fun at the "Ya-haa!" attitude of the crews on shows like Top Gear. When I get carried away and start to spout technical specs on cars, CelloPlayer will occasionally nudge me with an elbow and a "No car rant!" warning. I'm always happy to help my friends with their car buying decisions, but I make no comments about the cars they drive: that is an individual choice to make.

But if the subject comes up, I'm happy to put in my bit on behalf of the planet. Even if it's by bragging about how seldom I have to go to the gas station.


Selected reading on climate communication:

- Talking Climate: research and guides on climate change communications.
- Skeptical Science: explaining climate change science and rebutting global warming misinformation.
- "Can we stop getting creamed on communication?" by Jason Mogus.
- "The science of why we don't believe science: how our brains fool us on climate, creationism and the vaccine-autism link" by Chris Mooney .




Visit Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project to learn more about participating in next month’s Natural Living Blog Carnival!

Please take some time to enjoy the posts our other carnival participants have contributed:


  1. Interesting perspective. I have no doubt about climate change, but I'm not entirely convinced it's 100% caused by man and our "needs" such as cars and not partially cyclical (I think it's a combination of many factors). These days, I worry more about peak oil, and what our oil-dependent society will do when we can no longer produce plastic. I'm ready to go back to simpler times, where things are produced locally and traditionally. Where we rely upon the goods within our community and not from countries across the globe. I think globalization has caused many problems that can hopefully be reversed by turning back to our local communities.

    1. Hi Chrystal, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming of the last century has a human component (http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus). Even if it's not 100% caused by humans, every little bit helps, as they say: and in this case, strong feedback loops amplify every additional contribution.

      On peak oil: there are actually still plenty of fossil fuels in the ground; but if we burn it all, the consequences for the planet may be dire.(http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719)

  2. I too love those jaw dropping moments with a friend or loved one hears about some of the ways we do things. "what do you mean you don't use shampoo?" or "do they even still make cloth diapers". It's a great opportunity to teach someone something new!

    1. Isn't it gratifying to actually witness the light go on in someone's head? I love those moments too!

    2. Priceless moments, indeed! I'm finding that beekeeping opens up a ton of conversations that make people have lightbulb moments. I wish I'd known about this carnival in advance, so I could have written about that. It's quite staggering, the I can almost hear the penny drop...

  3. I am with you all the way in your thought process. Arguing the frugal angle does work if you apply it to a demographic that cares, i.e. the 95%. Sadly I live in a very affluent place and it seems to me that arguing this way gets me a smug response of 'that makes sense ... *knowing smile*', but I feel like I can tell that they think secretly that they're happy they don't have to bother because they can afford A/C, a huge SUV and the gas for it, the flight to the tropical island in February, etc).

    This isn't something we can buy our way out of. I use the money angle, but only selectively.

    On a related note: US consumers have no idea how little choice they have. We've been plotting for a 1-series diesel as our next commuter car for years. I'm glad to hear they'll be imported, finally. Germans do start to count at 1!

    1. I agree with you, we can't buy our way out of this one. Indeed, for every $1000 we spend (GDP) we're responsible for half a tonne of carbon emissions (this is the carbon intensity number for the US; it varies from place to place). For the very affluent, as for the rest of us, you need another angle: "Green = Cool". The planet needs more of the rich and the famous on her side: For instance, if the Duchess of Cambridge decided to cloth-diaper her royal baby, I suspect there would be a renewed enthousiasm for cloth diapering. If Hollywood stars decided to drive small cars, that would make an impression, and a difference.

  4. Thank you for pointing out how green efforts can help families, such as saving money and striving to take care of the planet for the future of our kids. It's a non confrontational way to catch the attention of others while inspiring them. Helping friends with their car buying decisions in a nonjudgmental way and reminding others that every effort counts is empowering!

    1. Presenting the argument as a win-win scenario really helps, and as you say, it's completely non-confrontational.


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