The Simpler Way to a Greener Future

2012•04•02 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

I have been thinking a lot over the past few years about what I can do to reduce my ecological footprint. It is really not acceptable to ask others to make behavioural changes in order to improve the environment unless we are prepared to make them ourselves.

This became very clear to me in classes that I teach here at the UN University, where we have begun to ask the students and fellow lecturers to measure and share carbon footprints. The students are from all over the Asia Pacific region (and we connect via video conferencing, not by flying students or lecturers around) and the variation in footprints is quite considerable. Those living in industrialised countries tend to have considerably larger footprints than their colleagues from the industrializing world. The biggest factor is of course air travel and it is usually the lecturers, myself included, who are travelling most, either for research or to present at conferences.

During the course, we used an online carbon footprint calculator and it turns out that my footprint last year was 8.8 metric tons (a 29% drop on the previous year) and just below the average for Japan of 9.8 tons but twice that of the world average at 4 metric tons. So, I have a lot of scope for improvement.

Inspired by Colin Beavan we also run something called “No Impact Week” during the semester, whereby each of us tries to make changes to reduce our environmental impact. This could involve simple changes like having a zero waste day or an avoid shopping day. It is completely voluntary — you are not going to pass or fail — but also really enlightening.

In the student evaluation of the course we ask if there were “incidents, lectures or events during the class” that they enjoyed. Invariably, a large number of students write down how much they enjoy the carbon footprint measurements and No Impact Week. Said one of the students about these assignments:

“The first one, it was surprise to learn how much energy I consume. This activity greatly influenced me to change some of my behaviors to reduce energy consumption. The second one, it was good to see myself and other people seriously try to reduce the impacts of our behavior to the environment, even it is a short period, but it was a good start point.”

Personally speaking, just implementing these activities each year on the course got me to reduce my air travel (and subsequently lose my frequent flyer card), switch to a Prius, buy a bicycle and improve my diet — less meat, more fruit and vegetables. My colleagues at our partner universities who come back each year to teach also share stories of some of the changes they have made reducing travel, and with one even installing a solar photovoltaic system that gets her household down to a net-zero electricity bill.

Trapped between optimism and pessimism

While these can have a measurable, positive impact, such choices can be described as feel-good changes and they mainly happening in and around the class. I have to confess that for the remainder of the year, large parts of my daily life remain unchanged. I tend to think of myself as an optimistic person and that world is constantly getting better. Yet, when I read a lot about climate change, resource depletion, food security, biodiversity loss, water scarcity and so on, then I become more pessimistic and I know that feel-good changes are unlikely to be enough. It’s a conundrum. How do we make the world a better place and overcome major challenges like peak oil and climate change, for instance?

Two influential commentators, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, reflect one side of this conundrum in their 2004 essay entitled “The Death of Environmentalism”. They argue that we won’t solve big issues like global warming through behavioural changes. Instead they optimistically propose that the “solution to the ecological crises wrought by modernity, technology, and progress will be more modernity, technology, and progress.”

It is a view that is commonly held, something that was dubbed “Prometheanism” by John Dryzek in his 1997 book on The Politics of the Earth. The problem we encounter here, however, is that it may inadvertently suggest that we sit back and watch as business as usual plays out. The idea of doing nothing as individuals is attractive because it resonates with people who have a more relaxed and comfortable world-view.

But if you are of a more skeptical nature and prone towards pessimistic concern over pressing global issues, then you may view the contemporary state of the world as indicative of the need to transition towards some kind of new operating system. And if this transition is to succeed changes in our behavior will be required. Sure, technology may be part of the answer and progress on that front is key. But as others (like author and sustainable development expert Tim Jackson) have argued convincingly, the key may be to redefine what we mean by progress and prosperity.

And if, as physicist and human systems ecologist David Korowicz suggests, we actually are at a tipping point where we have to do more with less and less each year or face dire consequences, then sustaining our current behavioural patterns hardly seems to make much sense. The challenge here is that if you are acting when others are not you can easily be labeled as a “green, lefty, activist type”. It is just another way we humans find to be dismissive of the need, and doubt our own will power, to make changes.

Could the simple solution be best?

In this context, I am intrigued by a new initiative called The Simpler Way put together by Samuel Alexander, Ted Trainer and Simon Ussher of the Simplicity Institute. They have shared a practical action plan for living better on less. They present a range of areas where I can make changes in my life with five or six practical suggestions for each. The areas covered include clothing, energy, food, housing, money, technology, waste, transport, water, work and time, community, activism, politics, mindfulness and attitude. A lot of these suggestions are not new, but they are brought together neatly in one package.

One thing the authors of the action plan suggest is that “although there are hundreds of practical ideas in the first part of this document, each idea requires creative interpretation and personal application. This document, be sure, cannot replace thinking creatively for yourself”.

Ok, so I need to think creatively and I need to look to simplify my way of life. So, under “work and time” there are suggestions such as “consider reducing working hours”, “work from home one day per week,” and “telecommute instead of travelling”.

Well, I know that the UN has a policy on work–life balance that goes back to 2003 when Kofi Annan was the Secretary General. Now, what it would take to actualize this? A survey of UN staff in 2011 showed that only a small number of staff  (43%) were aware of the possibility of “flexible working arrangements” and from that group and even smaller percentage had actually requested telecommuting (18%), staggered working hours (10%), compressed work schedules (9%), and scheduled breaks for external learning activity (3%). This exemplifies two common problems associated with bringing about positive changes — people have to be aware of what is possible and then go further to actually try it.

For travel, the Australia-based Simplicity Institute suggests I buy a bicycle (which I have done), use public transport as much as possible (which is easy and convenient in Tokyo), consider going car free (I still drive occasionally) and try not to fly so much (which I also have tried to practice). If I do have to fly, then I should look into paying a little extra for a carbon offset, at the very least.

Interestingly, carbon offsetting has been something we have talked about here at the UN University under our ISO14000 environmental management system, but we are still at the talking stage. I should also point out that being “carbon neutral”  is a central goal of the entire UN system.  That is a very progressive approach and something that needs to be pursued more extensively within the entire UN (i.e., everyone needs to be aware of and practice it).

The suggestions on food from The Simpler Way include growing “as much of your own as possible”, “use a community garden”, “support your local farmers market”, “reduce meat, dairy and fish consumption”, “consider vegetarianism” and “learn how to bake your own bread and preserve food.”

Well, living in Tokyo, we don’t have much space to grow things. In the past my family has grown peppers and tomatoes on our small veranda, and so maybe it is time to get back to doing that. We have thought about joining a community garden (and some colleagues at work have already done so) but again this is something we need to look into doing and fitting into our busy schedules.

I already mentioned that I eat better now, consuming less meat than before. I bake bread occasionally, but I have never tried preserving food. Still, we have a wonderful farmers market on the UNU campus every weekend where it is possible to buy local agricultural produce. It is really interesting to see that, even in busy Tokyo, I am part of the way there in the move toward a more simple life.

Small steps add up

But the list of The Simpler Way suggestions is impressively long and I am going to need more time to look at what changes are possible and realistic over what timeframes. But The Simpler Way team suggest that I introduce changes gradually, not overnight, and continuously. I guess it is like dieting, if you reduce your weight too quickly, you may suffer from the rebound effect. If you try to simplify things too quickly you may suffer frustrations or give up. I can see, however, that a lot of people are already giving feedback on their experiences directly on The Simpler Way website and perhaps I can learn something there.

For some people, the suggestions may appear too mundane or paternalistic. For instance, under the money section we are advised to “live beneath your means” and “avoid debt”. Well, I do both, but that is a lot harder for many people and I wonder how they feel when reading these suggestions. Is the reaction “yeah, yeah, I would if I could!” or “Hmm, right! How did I let my spending get so out of control?”

The authors suggest that The Simpler Way “represents a life with less clutter, less waste, and less fossil fuel use, but also a life with more time for the things that truly inspire and bring happiness”. I would like to think that was true. But is it? Well, I won’t know if I don’t try!

It is interesting that last summer, after the earthquake and nuclear accident, everyone in the Tokyo region was told that due to the shortfall in electricity we would need to reduce our consumption by 15%. Under normal circumstances, such a drastic cut would have been argued as societally unacceptable, since it requires major changes in behaviour. But we did it. Here in my office, we ran something called the Super Cool UNU Campaign where the room temperature was set at between 26 and 28 degrees Celsius. We did not use the air conditioner all the time, instead using small fans. As a result, we successfully met our target and the university actually saved money from the electricity bill.

In January this year, Professor Yurika Ayukawa from Chiba University of Commerce gave a lecture to our course where she explained what happened in other parts of Tokyo. She described how the number of trains was reduced, lights in stations turned off and escalators closed. Factories shifted to work on weekends, rather than weekdays, shops shortened their opening hours and ATMs were not open 24 hours. People started to commute by bicycle. Others shifted their working hours to start very early in the morning and finish early in the evening. She had a lovely photo of two young workers enjoying the longer evenings with a visit to the local beer garden.

It was a lesson in how to reduce electricity consumption without much inconvenience and it is something that will be repeated again this summer.

So I need to and can do more to reduce my resource and energy consumption, and lighten my step on the planet. But by doing this will I be better prepared and more resilient when facing future challenges? To be honest, I don’t really know. But somehow doing something feels better than sitting back and waiting for “more of the same”. What is your take?

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The Simpler Way to a Greener Future by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.