The Myth of Economic Sacrifice

And doughnuts

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.

The narrative that we have to sacrifice to solve the climate crisis is false. It’s a story perpetuated by people who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. It’s a story carried forth by lots of other, well-meaning people because it appears to make intuitive sense. Of course I’m going to have to put on a parka, turn down the thermostat and freeze my bum to climate salvation — there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

But no. This is bigger and better than lunch.

Yes, there are costs associated with climate mitigation. Yes, gas will tick up a few cents. Yes, change means some parties will lose a bit, whilst others will gain. But on the whole, if we act now, this change is affordable and the costs are absorbable. (If we don't act, not so much.)

“If realized gradually over several decades, it would cost just a few percentage points of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is equivalent to losing one year of economic growth over a 30-year period of sustained growth. This modest cost should be compared to the far greater cost and planetary chaos from instead continuing on our rising GHG path,” writes sustainable energy expert Mark Jaccard in The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success. How much GDP have we lost due to COVID? And that was just to maintain the status quo. Imagine if a similar economic disruption created a new economy AND didn't cost a single life?

The research is fairly conclusive across the board. The amount of money we need to completely decarbonize is astronomical writ large but affordable in the now. Of course, the longer we wait, the higher the cost climbs. Clean tech investor and writer Tom Rand has been using the cup of coffee and doughnut metaphor for years. In 2011, it would cost us just the price of a cup of coffee and a doughnut a month to maintain the Green Energy Act. By 2015 taking care of the environment had risen to a cup of coffee and doughnut per week. And in a recent talk, I heard Rand say we could solve the crisis for the low low price of a cup of coffee and doughnut per day. The longer we wait, the higher the cost per hour in crullers. About the actual metaphor itself I’m six or half a dozen. Highlighting the absorbable cost of transition in doughnuts is inoffensive. But it also seems to be ineffective. Maybe it’s because it’s just not jazzy enough. A doughnut a day keeps climate change at bay?

The idea that tackling climate change means wrestling with declining economic growth is also myth. Take a look at the 35 countries that have decoupled emissions from growth. If I sound a bit ‘eat your cake and have it too,’ I’m okay with that. I really love cake. And it vexes me to think that people are persistently told they have to give up their piece at the top of the offer. Any marketer will tell you this is not a winning strategy for attracting support. And unnecessary self-sabotage given its lack of veracity.

Beyond the ‘it’ll cost you’ argument, another baked-in fallacy is that life will be hard (see: woolly sweaters, lowered thermostats). But that argument cherry picks. “It’s a straw man—and terrible economics—to just point out the costs while ignoring the benefits,” professor Marshall Burke told The New Yorker last year. “He and two co-authors published a paper in Nature last May that shows that the economic benefits of mitigation are going to be much larger than previously believed. Cooler temperatures would help maintain and grow productivity, and reducing carbon emissions means reducing air pollution—specifically particulate matter, or soot—which brings immediate health benefits.” 

None of this distracts from the fact that tackling the climate crisis will be challenging, expensive, and near impossible to achieve on the clock. It’s just these challenges are exclusive of the relatively negligible cost borne by we, the crullered masses. 

It also doesn’t mean that energy efficiency will Save! You! Money! The argument that all energy efficiencies installed in the home will flatten your cost curve is not helpful. Having personally spent far too much money on solar panels that never recouped costs and new-fangled home heating systems that only heated my house with anger over their unreliability, I can safely say that I agree with Mark Jaccard’s argument that extolling the cost-saving virtues of energy efficiency as a means to conveying the low low cost of decarbonization is not the way to go. In practice, it’s finicky. Especially if you’re on the early end of the adoption curve. Jaccard talks about the first batch of compact fluorescents he installed, at $20-30 a pop, and their tendency to break, fail, and cast poor light. I point out this failure to illustrate that we have been highlighting the wrong part of the low cost argument for saving the planet.

In short, we’ve gotten our arguments crossed. We can’t encourage people to see how energy efficiency works at the personal level ( where it often doesn’t) in an effort to extrapolate to the systems level (where it does work). 

One of the most important rules of climate communications is to paint that positive vision. So often it’s a struggle to find the rosy facts to highlight, the wins to amplify. And yet, this overarching affordability is our winning argument, often buried, or worse, flipped on its head. We can’t afford to wait. We can afford to act now. 


Thoughts on the cost of climate action? Have you seen examples of climate communications that ask you to sacrifice? Can you amplify the affordability of action? LMK PLS!


Writes Jeffery:
Seems to me, you defining racism as not being anti-racist paints you into a corner. If anti-racism is merely noting the racism of others, that smacks of self-righteousness, of taking pleasure from the pain in the world, and accusations backfire. Judgmentalism is the religious approach. What’s the rational approach? If you define anti-racism as succeeding, then you’d care less what’s going on in the minds of your enemies and care more about fundamental reform of external, objective reality we all share—that, more than anything else, is economic justice. And that is an equitable sharing of society’s surplus. Imagine a large black middle class and a small number of poor blacks. Most acts of racism wither away. That’s what economic history shows is the welcome fate of other minorities. So balance the pleasure of accusation with the pain, the work, of understanding and articulating economic justice for all and how to win it. That’s anti-racism at the deepest, most pragmatic level.

I think I did a disservice to Kendi’s argument, in not clearly highlighting that placing judgment on the individual action absolves the need for absolutes. But there’s an inherent undertone of religiosity, in the most Catholic sense, to the stark terms of the approach.

Adjacent to the issue and extremely great fodder for wrestling with the ideas unearthed over the past few weeks is this Hidden Brain two-parter on morality. I can’t stop thinking about it.


Warning: this brilliant tune is earwormy perfection.

Hope you are happy and healthy and learning and enjoying your doughnut,