Waste Watchers, and other weak puns

And Happy Friday, wonderful people!

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

I’ve been nursing a wasteful idea for a few months. This week I was afforded the opportunity to workshop said idea, or at least aerate it, like a well-tended compost heap. There is an increasingly codified How To Talk Climate With People Who Aren’t Like You body of research, and while I agree with the general gist (find shared interest, make it relatable), I’ve long had a gnawing feeling that “find common ground” is not as helpful a directive as it needs to be.

I picture a well-meaning activist talking to a MAGA hat. “Hey, you like hats? I like hats, too...so...climate change.” For “find common ground” to work it has to be deeply and earnestly felt. It must also be accompanied by a desire to listen, openly and honestly. That’s soooo hard. Sometimes you have no common ground. Sometimes you need pragmatic, instantaneous agreement. And so I humbly suggest: Get wasted!

Waste is a unifier. You don’t even have to believe in climate change to hate waste. Both a conservative and a liberal will not let you throw out that that last piece of molten chocolate cake. Both a conservative and liberal will tell you not to pour money into the garbage. Especially if there is already a delicious piece of chocolate cake in there that you can fish out.

At a literal level, waste is carbon emissions. Food waste, languishing in landfills, produces methane, which is 24 times as potent as carbon. And in Canada, a whopping 58% of the food we produce goes to waste. Holy mother of a buffet! But at the same time, you can skip the emissions talk and keep it all about waste if you’re talking to a denier. Don’t save the food because you care about climate, save food because you’re thrifty and it’s delicious.

At a great panel yesterday I got to try this messaging out first-hand. The topic was how to make film production more energy efficient here in Canada, how to advocate for climate, how to lobby production and film agencies to level up our goals. An affable audience member raised his hand and said that while he wasn’t sure if carbon was a thing (I paraphrase), he had worked on set for a long time and was put off by the waste, and wanted actionable steps to reduce it. Cue my handy, eminently appalling stat about food waste.

While I didn’t get to do a full exit interview with this friendly carbon skeptic, anecdotal evidence (gentle head nodding) suggests the idea of eradicating waste was landing. You can be as climate dubious as the last remaining Koch brother and still hate the idea of a useful thing going to waste. Fiscally-minded conservatives are here for it. Conserving is in their name, after all.

Would this conversational weigh-in hold up to peer-reviewed scrutiny? I’m not sure, but if you have the opportunity to try out waste as a gateway climate convo, pretty please, with a salvaged cherry on top, let me know how it goes.

THIS WEEK: Waste Audit

What I love about food waste as a climate issue is both its salty salience, and the fact that it’s a continuum issue-one that can be worked on from the cozy personal dinner plate (buy less food, use it all) all the way to the macro (sweeping policy and industry systems change). What’s your food waste story?

LAST WEEK: Sleepless Nights

Write lovely Janou-Eve - 

I do not sleep well about climate change. I am afraid for my 8-year-old son's future. I try to do everything I can in my power to reduce my waste. I eat biological (organic) food and support my local farmers with Equiterre’s farmer program. I work from home and I buy trees to compensate my GES in French (greenhouse gas emission?). And I am about to write this graphic novel book.

(Note: Janou-Eve will be writing/drawing an amazing graphic book about all of this. I know that doing so will help with the sleeplessness! Just writing your thoughts out can help so much.)

CONTENT FOR YOU:

  • Dorkily excited about Bill McKibben’s new climate newsletter for the New Yorker (though it really could use a better name). Maybe you are too?

  • This week’s newsletter was brought to you by the film Wasted! The Story of Food Waste. (Well, not literally). It’s a slightly on-the-nose (to tail) doc that gives you much to think about when it comes to how we eat and waste, with surprisingly hilarious insights from Mario Batali, Dan Barber, and Anthony Bourdain (RIP). 

  • Need some climate hilarity and yet another way of reminding friends and ferns to TALK ABOUT CLIMATE? Watch Rick Roberts’ and Gord Rand’s absolutely perfect little video. Climate Mime FTW!

As always, TELL ME HOW TO MAKE THIS BETTER! Shouty caps or no.
And heart if you like, heart twice if you don’t.

Have a beautiful weekend!

Sarah

Sleep On Sleepin' On

This is not a newsletter about FOMO

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

For the past nine days, I tried to just sit and be still and read simple books and watch mindlessly uplifting, funny things. I tried to think about anything but the pain of adult tonsillectomy. As a result, my thoughts are a little more snippety this week.

Sleep with the wishes

When I came to after general anaesthetic last week, the relaxation I felt as I woke from the deepest of sleeps was all-encompassing. (The morphine helped, too.) After a few years of anxious, fretful sleeps (my friend once cursed me by saying: It’s very common for women in their mid-thirties to wake up around 3 in the morning. It’s a thing). Luckily, I’ve been sleeping deeper for the past few years, largely due to a very strict regimen of not reading dire climate modelling tweets right before bed. 

But this post-surgical sleep was one I’d not experienced in a long time. I felt like the protagonist in Otessa Moshfegh’s amazing My Year of Rest and Relaxation. She knows she will find peace if she can just sleep through a long expanse of time. It’s hilariously insane, and yet it works (spoiler! sorry!). The ourobouros of anxiety is that it’s hard to sleep well when you’re experiencing it, and when you don’t sleep well, you’re even more prone to anxiety about the climate and everything else. 

And yet sleep eventually materializes, settling over us all like a weighted blanket.  Of course for those at the frontlines, the battle against anxiety and for sleep is ever real, and not solved by simply tuning out the apocalyptic frequency. I’m in awe of young activists like Xiye Bastida. 

Global warning

I find Shankar Vedantam’s speech very lulling, and yet his Hidden Brain podcast never puts me to sleep. In a recent episode he delves into the psychology of warnings. For years the cause of my climate anxiety was the fact that no one was heeding the warnings (How does James Hansen sleep at night? He’s been shouting at a world wearing noise-cancelling headphones since 1988). But the growing number of climate Cassandras inversely correlates to my level of climate anxiety. People will listen now, right? Yes and no. Says Vedantam:

Warnings are likely to be heard when they’re made by someone whose part of our in group, when the warning is so imminent that nearly everyone can see the danger,  and when the solution doesn’t require radical shift in existing strategy. Unsurprisingly this means that many warnings will go unheeded and many Cassandras will be dismissed.

With climate, we can see why a lot of this is so difficult to achieve. It’s easy to heed the warning if you’re already part of the group. But we’re trying to convince totally different groups. And the danger is difficult to see, and the solutions required, are, well, radical. But the good kind of radical!

Yet another time I was wrong about climate art

I can’t wait to read Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather. Her last book, Dept. of Speculation, was so so good, and this new novel is about reconciling climate crisis with the compelling banality of everyday human experience, a subject I muse about a little too often (see: every pie chart I’ve ever drawn). Writes Leslie Jamison about Weather in the NYT book review:

Preoccupied by the apocalyptic horizon of climate change, the dark pulsing terror at the center of the novel, and by the “feeling of daily life,” Lizzie understands — or at least, enacts — the truth that we inhabit multiple scales of experience at the same time: from the minutiae of school drop-offs and P.T.A. activism to the frictions of our personal relationships all the way to the geological immensity of our (not so slowly) corroding planet. Offill takes subjects that could easily become pedantic — the tensions between self-involvement and social engagement — and makes them thrilling and hilarious and terrifying and alive by letting her characters live on these multiple scales at once, as we all do.

Let me know if/when you’ve read it and we can convene an online MVP book club.

This week:

Does climate keep you up at night? Are there things you could change that would help you sleep? Let me know.

My goal this weekend is to write a million letters to our Canadian powers that be about pipelines and mines, and the fact that Trudeau seems to have forgotten that he was elected on a climate mandate. Let me know what you’re working on, too.

Last week:

Lovely words from new reader Gisela: 

I just noticed your call to hear from on-the-ground activists. I work as a volunteer with a bunch of grassroots nonprofits (mostly Fair Vote Canada, Transition Kamloops, and the BC Sustainable Energy Association). I find that action with others is the best way to combat despair and helplessness, although I’ve had to learn after years of disappointment to get away from “attachment to outcome” as the primary criterion when deciding where to put my energy. I’ve found peace by having confidence that I’m doing the right thing, even if it doesn’t have stellar chances of success at this moment in time. I draw on Joanna Macy’s concept of the spiral (discussed at length in her excellent book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy. She points out that change isn’t linear, or even incremental, and that the abolitionists and the suffragettes kept fighting for decades on what appeared to be hopeless causes. In the end, the power of their conviction ensured victory.

I very much agree that action is the antidote to hopelessness, and that change isn’t linear. 

Thank you so much, Gisela!

As always, send thoughts, links, and hedgehogs to help me make this newsletter better.

Have a wonderful, sleepful week,

Sarah

You Can Put a Price on Nature

(And not just at fancy downtown succulent and smoothie shops)

One of my 3,292 NY resolutions was to acquire a plant a month. (Running to plant shop as soon as I post this).

Sometimes the same ideas come at me like so many jets in an annoyingly fancy hotel shower. This week, those jets were all shooting this idea: price tags for nature. There are many things we don’t put a price on. The things we do put a price on reflect what we prioritize as a society. 

A few weeks ago I was at a social commons conference where a panelist eloquently made the case for putting a price on the unwaged work in society—things like childcare, things like...all the stuff that women tend to do. 

Yesterday, my husband sent me an article about another group who don’t get paid for their hard work: whales. Indeed, over a whale’s life, it’ll perform two million dollars worth of important environmental work. The study of this value creation is called natural capital economics. Of course, the idea of price-is-righting the value of nature is by no means new, and by no means universally loved. Wrote George Monbiot, rather wonderfully, about the more than slightly fuzzy nature numbers put forth by a UK Government panel appointed to study natural capital:

These figures, ladies and gentlemen, are marmalade. They are finely shredded, boiled to a pulp, heavily sweetened ... and still indigestible. In other words they are total gibberish.

But at the same time, if we show people the trillions of dollars of value we’re destroying, might we not reevaluate said destruction as we spread the numbers on our toast? While it is a bit reductive to slap a price tag on whales, natural capital is evolving to neater and more resonant metrics. As Tim McDonnell and Amanda Shendruk write in Quartz: 

Natural capital scientists are increasingly interested in moving beyond dollar figures toward other, more tangible metrics, like the number of lives saved by clean air and water, or projections of how crop yields might be affected by pollution and climate change.

The armchair behaviour scientist in me says duh. Quantifiable, emotive stats! Yes! Here in Ontario, closing the coal plants ended smog days and measurably prevented deaths. Using dollars or yen or zloty to share salient data points like numbers of lives saved, or lakes cleaned, or homes heated is a much more vivid way of illustrating value. Just as the reverse is true: putting amount of CO2 expended per plane trip or car fill-up is no different than displaying the calorie count of a Big Mac. If my husband had a zloty for every time I mentioned wishing food products would have carbon labels! So while it may be crass to think of nature in terms of numbers, the alternative asks us to ascribe value in a vacuum. It’s easy to get behind pricing nature when you see the astronomical value of an ecosystem. 140 trillion is so mind-bogglingly huge a number it rather aptly illustrates that nature is priceless. I feel a Mastercard parody coming on.

Visualizing value can also make an issue come alive. Telling people income inequality is a huge issue doesn’t seem to do much. They nod their heads and move on with their day. Using pie to illustrate the disparity = on-the-nose genius.

This week

Do you think about quantifying the value of nature? Let me know!

This and that

Welcome new readers, come by way of this interesting Huffington Post piece about what climate change will mean for Toronto. I had a really good chat with the reporter, but one of my key fears is that without much-needed explanation of what temperature rise will actually mean, climate change can be read favourably, as if there are winners and losers. A cursory read would lead you to believe that Toronto’s winters will just get comfortably milder, but there’s so much more to it than that. Our trees and natural ecosystem don’t just magically adapt to this new warmth. Our increasingly impermeable concrete city doesn’t just absorb the huge amounts of rainwater that will cause flash floods. I hope to devote a subsequent issue to the pitfalls of this winners and losers narrative. 

If this is all too dire, take amusement in the form of fave climate writer Emily Atkin’s recent revelation. I didn’t believe that Barron Cashdollar could be a real name. Reader, it is!

Emily’s been doing ace work on exposing the ridonkulousness of Exxon PR. Like this:

Have a wonderful weekend!

Sarah

Aloof to Social Proof

and other rhymes

I should have a swear jar but instead of swears I’ll deposit a quarter every time I utter the phrase social proof. I use it way too often—whilst slapping together an impressive slide full of logos at work; when I see all the hip-hop stoners suddenly wearing Patagonia; basically any time anyone is doing something because someone important has given them the idea to do it.  

Social proof is behavioural-science gold. When you land it, you can convert a once peripheral behaviour into something normative. You can make a tiny sliver of early adopters (3.5%) swing a huge late majority into doing something almost unthinkingly (hello duckface!). Which is why it should be positively glee-inducing that the CEO of BlackRock is getting out of climate risk, right? And yet lots of smart business minds have been working towards divestment, and talking up their efforts accordingly. And it just doesn’t seem to take. It adds further ballast to my working theory that climate blowhards are aloof to social proof. By climate blowhards, I mean entrenched political and business leaders who refuse to move on climate. These types are not going to budge til you pry the coal from their cold, dead hands. BJ Fogg refers to these immovables as crabs. You target the crabs last in your behaviour change scheme, because a crab doesn’t care if everyone else in the animal kingdom is doing it.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t important that BlackRock wants to be GreenRock. It’s great to see them leverage their power to force a reckoning when it comes to how we measure for sustainability. And their disclosure work is a fantastic first step. But what would actually move a climate blowhard? You might think the only green they care about is money. But even money isn’t enough when you’re dug in to the wrong position, as a million studies show. So many of the worst polluting industries don’t make financial sense anyway, and are propped up by subsidy. 

Ultimately news of BlackRock’s move is most important to you and me as we lobby the people who inhabit the layers above us to make the shift. It gives us strength when we need to converse in a different vernacular. We can use it when talking to family members who only speak in bottom lines, or investment advisors who don’t listen when we tell them we want to divest, or detractors who relegate climate to a yes, but. So wield your BlackRock social proof with precision and care. And good luck. My jar runneth over.

The Hope Trope

What are you wearing? is to actors as X is to climate scientists?

The answer is What gives you hope? I’ve stopped collecting tweets from scientists saying they’re tired of this question. Of course the question is vexing. It’s an interrogatory offloading of anxiety. At the same time, hope hope hope hope hopedy hope hope. The best talkers suck up the unintentional crappiness of the question and turn hope into action, torquing the query into an optimistic checklist. Which is what we need. Optimistic checklists for the planet.

There’s been a batch of optimistic checklist articles of late, and I am loving them. This one is particularly crispy and doable.

The Ruin We’re Doin’

I can’t stop thinking about this fantastic article on political hobbyism. More particularly, its implications for climate action. The gist of it is that there’s a whole thinking class that reads politics for sport but does not actively participate. “I found that white people reported spending more time reading, talking, and thinking about politics than black people and Latinos did, but black people and Latinos were twice as likely as white respondents to say that at least some of the time they dedicate to politics is spent volunteering in organizations,” writes Eitan Hersch.

I spend a lot of time armchair activisting when it comes to climate — writing letters to elected officials and signing petitions — but my actions on the ground are spottier. I’ve planned to go to a 350 dot org meeting since we were at 250 ppm. Is there such a thing as climate hobbyism? I find it hard to believe that anyone would willfully chose climate as a hobby, but I concede there’s chasm between knowledge seeking and on the ground organizing. I wonder if this is partly because the climate crisis is a new-ish (in the moral arc of the universe sense) issue, one that doesn’t have the robust organizing structures of political campaigning. You can’t just sign up to canvas for climate emergency. But perhaps you should be able to?

THIS WEEK

Do you volunteer or do environmental political activism on the ground? Let me know!

Hopeful linkage

Love this idea of environmental work placements. It’s not dissimilar to post-war tree planting efforts. Thanks Alex!

Mending plastic. Thanks Helen!

The only shopping mall I can get behind. So cool! Thanks Julie!

Work With Me?

After much thinking about how I can be most useful in this, the most important fight of our lives, I’ve decided to take a job at Clean Prosperity, an organization that works on market-based solutions like the carbon tax. Are you a policy or comms whiz? We are hiring. In Canada. Please share with anyone awesome. 

Learn With Me?

I co-organize Toronto Action Design, and our next meetup might be right up your alley? Dr. Jiaying Zhao will talk about Psychology for Environmental Sustainability on Monday, February 3rd at the David Suzuki Foundation. If you can’t attend in person, we’re doing our first ever ZOOM chat, so RSVP from wherever in the world you are, and I will post the Zoom link shortly before the talk. I’ve been a fan of Zhao’s work for a long time. It should be good.

—-

Have a wonderful week!
Sarah

What Makeup Do You Wear for the End of Days?

Apocalypstick

This is not a post about the apocalypse, but it’s apocalypse adjacent. Like life right now. My friend Carla recently shared a piece with the headline The Banality of Apocalypse, and while the piece itself, a meticulously ordinary account of escaping from the NSW fires, was riveting for its relatable scariness, it’s the headline that keeps flipping around in my brain like a fish on a rock. The banality of apocalypse.

My friend Khristina says she can’t watch apocalypse shows now because it’s all too close to home. I’ve always felt this way. I don’t need to watch The Walking Dead. Mitch McConnell gives me nightmares enough. The news from Australia is apocalypse writ real.

But how to sit next to an apocalypse? How to enjoy breathing unsmokey air? How to write New Years’ resolutions? How to spend a week at the beach, drinking craft beers in cute cans? It feels callous and unseemly, like when companies accidentally publish their programmed tweets minutes after a disaster. But if I follow this line of thinking it can render me completely immobile. So I started taking piano lessons.

I take piano lessons because I have to think that life will go on. That there is still room, amidst the complete depravity of a world that chooses coal over koalas, to do something that exists only for myself for a few hours a week, to concentrate so deeply on something so micro, despite a macro gone berserk. For me, it’s hope manifest. The world is burning but I have to hope that we’ll figure it out. And even as I want to focus on ACTION all the time, piano is a way to take time to breathe. It takes me an hour to work out the fingering for just a few measures of Chopin. It takes me a second to curse my musical ineptitude. But if I have to sit next to an apocalypse, I may as well do so with a nocturne at the ready. Or at the very least, the theme song from The Office.

I’m in South Florida, which has always been apocalypse adjacent, but is even more so now that there’s an apocalypse-themed café in the mall. Every time I think this town can’t get more garish, it surprises me.

In my search for a piano that my family can grow with, I’m astounded by the range of free pianos available. No one wants a piano anymore. It reminds me of another article with a great headline a few years ago: No one wants your brown furniture. No wants brown armoires, not even the beautiful, solid wood pieces that have lasted generations. We’re in the particleboard epoch. This is a tangent. But it’s an apocalypse-adjacent tangent. Thinking about things that last a long time is comforting. Remembering that I’m a blip in a continuum makes it OK to play piano for an hour. As the world burns. 

THIS WEEK:

What do you do to stay calm and focussed amidst the relentless stream of koala fire photos? LMK

COOL STUFF:

Vogue Italia created an all-illustration issue, to avoid the waste of all those travel-heavy photo shoots. Beautiful and inspiring and about time.

Thank you Jenn for this beautiful hilarity:

Hope you are having a wonderful week!

As always, send me your thoughts, links, suggestions.

Sarah

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