Take it away, please!

A reductive newsletter

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.

“Whenever we try to change how things are to how we want them to be, we often overlook subtraction. And until we do something about it, we’re missing ways to make our lives more fulfilling, our institutions more effective, and our planet more livable.”  — Leidy Klotz, Why Getting to Less Can Mean Thinking More

The shorthand in our house for when you’ve botched something and should move on (sunk cost alert!) but instead keep trying to salvage it is stuffing soup. So named because I once made a terrible soup and proceeded to empty the contents of our pantry (including stuffing mix! why?) into it, in the hopes of saving it. An atrocious artwork that you work, in vain, to salvage? Stuffing soup. A weak newsletter that you gild with superfluous supporting links? Stuffing soup.

Happily, most things in life aren’t soup. No, you can’t remove that overzealous tablespoonful of pepper from your bisque. But you can delete lots of discrete things from daily life. As humans, we’re additive by nature. But what if we could see the beauty and benefit of subtraction? That’s the premise of one of my favourite academic’s new book Subtract, in which he posits that we overwhelmingly focus on adding things when it’s taking them away that often provides the solutions we’re after.

This resonates. I’m an adder ad extremis. New goals, new projects, new challenges ALL THE LIVELONG DAY. It’s very chickenheadcutoffy and stress inducing. Yes, I want to solve the climate crisis, but maybe the way to do that isn’t by starting a new project but rather by nurturing what I’ve already got going on. 

It gels with the lowest layer of my Buyerarchy of Needs, too. Use What You Have. Work with what you’ve got:

To be clear, though the idea of subtraction is about getting to less, this doesn’t necessarily mean doing less so much as it means being smarter about how to economize your actions. Taking a bit longer to think about the simplest, most efficient action. And making the “how little can I use to get the job done” perspective your default one.

Writes Klotz:

“The breakthrough came when I figured out what I am interested in is not simplicity, or elegance, or any other form of “less is more.” Subtraction is an action. Less is an end state. Sometimes, less results from subtraction; other times, less results from not doing anything. There is a world of difference from the two types of less, and it is only by subtraction that we can get to the much rare and rewarding type.”

I agree with the rewarding nature of subtraction, but I’m also a fan of not doing anything. Often, not doing anything solves the problem. I wrote a whole book about not buying stuff and living with less, and I really believe that if you do nothing, the problem often resolves itself, or you get over your consumeristic desires, or realize your elaborate, energy-depleting, or carbon-intensive plans just don’t need to happen at all.

In climate, the subtractive answers are obvious. We need to subtract carbon from the atmosphere. We need to expel less, or none, of it in the first place. While additive, new-fangled CCUS solutions will be necessary to mitigate our overshoots, focusing on the simple, essential subtractions we can do right now is just an absolute duh! (And explains why many consider any solution that does not involve immediate cessation or subtraction nothing more than a delaying tactic).

In the spirit of subtraction, I’ll keep this week short. 

This week:

What’s your takeaway on subtraction? How can you do less to realize more? Tell me, please!

Last week:

On the Venn overlap of running and enviro action from the lovely U:

I'm an elderly broken down marathon runner and a long time Environmental Queen!  I got involved in the environmental movement  in the 70s and have been @ it ever since.  Lots of people say how much they admire what I do (still), but not too many follow suit.  Right now I have 3 neighbors using my compost pile though.

Stuff:

My friend Jen is launching an amazing new sustainability program at Humber College here in Toronto. Know a high school student who might want to apply?

Are you languishing? I wrote a guest humour piece for my husband’s excellent Get Wit Quick newsletter. Check it out and subscribe!

I tend not to go deep on eco-anxiety anymore because there are so many others writing so thoughtfully about this, like Eric Holthaus.

Best Maclean’s headline in a while: Climate action is going to create too many jobs.

I spoke about carbon pricing at a great event organized by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and I love the visual notes by artist Erica Bota.

People dancing:


Have a lovely weekend!
Sarah

Thanks much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.

If you like MVP you can support it by telling all your friends and frogs about it. Hit the 💚 below to let me know when the newsletter is on the right track. Send me a note when it’s not! I’m always open to new ideas! You can share the newsletter here:

Share Minimum Viable Planet

Make sure to drag this email into your primary folder so it doesn’t end up in landfill.

The Climate BFG

The myopia of climate metrics

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.

Enough with the Big Fancy Goals!

Here’s the scenario: I want to run a marathon. Do I launch my training regime by running 42.2 kilometres on day one? Of course not. I drink copious amounts of orange Gatorade (the best kind), I make increasingly fussy horn-heavy running mixes, I dawdle and futz and delay and double-knot my laces thrice. And then I run a few miles, tacking on a bit more each time I set out to train. I set a decently ambitious pace goal, and if I find I’m training in such a way as to surpass it, I inch said goal up, pushing myself to do better. (Better being subjective. I am the world’s slowest runner, a distinction I take unironic pride in.)

The problem with equating a marathon training regimen to climate targets lies in the failure risks: Missing my goals means a slightly more embarrassing race time, missing the planet’s emissions goals means an uninhabitable earth. But while the outcomes vary, the metaphor’s core is strong. Would you obsess over whether to run a marathon or an ultramarathon when you haven’t yet run a 5K? No! You’d just jump out the door and start sprinting for all get out!

Which is why I favour: Set a goal, improve upon it, set a tougher goal. And given the fact that we have not much time at all, do this very quickly, over and over again! Easy, right?

It’s why I lose my patience a bit with endless arguments about percentage targets. What matters is the strength of your conviction, your accountability to the goal, and what you do in the increments. So while I’d certainly welcome a stronger emissions reductions goal from Canada with regards to improving upon our Paris commitments, what matters more is what we can actually do, and whether we’re going to do it

Based on our track record of not having ever met a climate goal, and climate accountability legislation that is currently treading water in the House, starting with a goal that is scary but not impossible, and then strengthening it forcibly as we close in on it doesn’t seem like a bad play. We’ve already inched up our Paris commitments once, who's to say we can’t do it again? And again?

The opposite view was put forth in a Hill Times editorial this week. They write:

When it comes to commitments to combat climate change, the more ambitious, the better. 

After all, that old nugget of positive thinking, “shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars,” only works if you’re overshooting.

Can I agree with that too, minus the dorm room poetry? 

Stateside, I’m finding good company in the words of David Roberts, who writes about Biden’s Paris commitments by saying that, “policy, not aspirations, will determine Biden’s legacy on climate change.” He goes on to write:

I know that targets and pledges serve an important signaling function. They communicate intentions within countries — when they come from states, provinces, cities, or companies — and between them, in the context of international climate relations. They “send a message.” Sometimes, a particularly bold target or pledge will even go so far as to “change the conversation.”

But messages and conversations do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Policies reduce emissions, by driving changes in behavior, and targets and pledges are not policies. They are vouchers, promises to pass policies in the future. They are wrapping paper. It’s the policy inside that matters.

But also, these BIG FANCY GOALS signal your policy intent, and once a goal is set, it’s up to fresh policy to close those emissions reductions gaps. Or, to go with Roberts’ analogy, excessively beautiful wrapping paper might inspire you to make sure there’s a really good gift inside, right? Imagine tearing the gold-foiled 50%-Paris-reductions paper off a gift box only to find a lump of coal?

Behavioural science tells us to break daunting goals into discrete chunks so as not to be overwhelmed by the larger goal. The climate corollary for this is a carbon budget — we need to be breaking down our remaining emissions reductions into small slivers of time and aiming to make the biggest strides in the beginning. Rather like race training, the big gains need to be made at the start, where the low-hanging fruit lets you pace up on the quick. It’s towards the tail end of training that gains are measured in seconds. And it’s towards the tail end of our carbon reduction timeline that we’ll find the hardest emissions to abate, and may need to avail ourselves of some of that scary carbon removal tech.

Is all of this a long-winded way of saying targets schmargets? No. We need them. Now more than ever. I just worry that in the pickle fight over which percentage is most admirable or right or true, we lose sight of the larger picture. Which is that we need STRONG, IMMEDIATE, REDUCTIONS now to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis. And that we need to DO the things we plan to do, on time, and preferably yesterday. So I guess the takeaway is: As long as the goal is within the range of reasonable, let’s not waste time on it. We have soooo many other things to do! Like make a really good running mix. BRB.

This Week:

How do you set goals? What do you thing of this latest round of Climate BFGs? LMK!

Last week:

Visualizing emissions. My lovely colleague sent me this excellent graphic that helps visualize emissions. It perfect.

People dancing

Thanks much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.

If you like MVP you can support it by telling all your friends and frogs about it. Hit the 💚 below to let me know when the newsletter is on the right track. Send me a note when it’s not! I’m always open to new ideas! You can share the newsletter here:

Share Minimum Viable Planet

Make sure to drag this email into your primary folder so it doesn’t end up in landfill. Have a great weekend!
Sarah

I can see clearly now the vague is gone

On climate visualizations that really stick

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.

Remember when I said we should make Drake drag around a balloon the size of a blimp to illustrate his carbon emissions, in order to see, in living bling, his invisible carbon footprint? Of course you don’t because it was a muddy and vague visual. Barry Saxifrage has conveyed this idea so much more brilliantly by visualizing our unseeable emissions with a very seeable metaphor: straws. And, well, it induces shock and straw.

Saxifrage examines the disconnect between how Canadians want to see ourselves (climate leaders!) and what we really are (climate laggards!) by going deep on trying to represent the average Canadian vehicle’s carbon emissions with straws. He uses two plastic straws to represent each gram of CO₂. In so doing, he can very quickly visually articulate our emissions. When driving, we emit the equivalent of 15 straws every second, or 400 straws per kilometre. Yes, 400 straws EVERY KILOMETRE. (Note: he’s using plastic pollution to convey our overall climate pollution. See handy and frightening chart below.)

Canada has the dubious distinction of driving the world’s dirtiest cars and trucks, with the U.S. coming in a very close second. (Readers in other parts of the world, check out how your country fares here!) Our cars produce an average of 206 grams of climate pollution per kilometre. Which is how Saxifrage arrives at the 400 straws shooting out of our tailpipes every km. 

Saxifrage’s other super salient visual representation uses plastic bags. The average Canadian burns 44 kg of CO₂ every day. But it’s impossible to visualize what that means. Well, it’s the equivalent of littering 7,400 plastic bags a day. Aack.

I share all these representations not to induce guilt in myself or anyone else but to illustrate how little we know when it comes to seeing the pollution we produce. And to highlight that knowing this stuff does inform better choices. Research bears this out! A recent Danish/Swedish study about carbon labelling suggests that just knowing a bit more about our emissions really does shift our purchasing habits. Participants reduced the climate impacts of their choices by 25% after choosing to learn about the emissions intensity of their products. Writes Sarah DeWeerdt in Anthropocene:

The findings suggest that carbon labeling of food has the potential to shift behavior among those who aren’t looking for the information—and even among those who are actively trying to avoid it. But to do that, the label will have to be carefully designed: for example, the information needs to be presented simply, and in a can’t miss spot on the front of the package. “If a label is difficult to avoid, the effects are likely to be considerably larger,” the researchers write.

DeWeerdt writes that you simply can’t unknow your food’s carbon footprint. And this rings true for me. A Toronto newspaper had a long-running feature about the unfathomable calorie counts of certain epic restaurant dishes. I like to think I don’t care about this stuff at all, but after they did my favourite cookie (a walnut chocolate chip disc the size of Kansas that really is the best piece of food on the planet), I could never unknow the fact that it clocks in at 1400 calories.  

Of course I’m alert to studies and information that reinforce my belief in the importance of making emissions visible to people. Not just so we’ll reconsider our flights, but so we’ll advocate for TOP-DOWN policies that change things at scale, because we cannot stem the stream of straws alone, unless we’re Roman Abramovich. At the same time knowing about the straws and plastic bags is motivating.

I’d somehow made myself feel OK about purchasing a friend’s old car a few months ago we were going stir crazy, living in a tiny walkable radius no wider than a few blocks, and we wanted to go hiking outside the city. These weekend hikes have been our salvation, but we’ve also put hundreds of thousands of straws of pollution into the atmosphere each time we take a drive to the forest. Picturing our emissions, spewing like so much suckery, makes me want to get back to public transit as soon as possible and commit to an EV if we are going to remain car owners after this GD pandemic ends. My exhaust exhausts me. And I can see it clearly-er now.

THIS WEEK

Got any tricks for visualizing emissions? I’d love to know!

LAST WEEK: Body cues for climate blues

Lots of feedback on body awareness. Writes N: My body has been falling apart for the past year. My spine x-ray showed my chiropractor I had the spine of a 45-year-old woman - I'm only 25 lol.

Please take care of your spines!

And an extra dose of inspo!

Wednesday was Florida activist and wit Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s bday! I wrote a comic about her a while ago. I love her the most. It seems like a good time to share these excellent words from her:

Join a local environmental society, but see to it that it does not waste time on superficial purposes… Don’t think it is enough to attend meetings and sit there like a lump…. It is better to address envelopes than to attend foolish meetings. It is better to study than act too quickly; but it is best to be ready to act intelligently when the appropriate opportunity arises…

Speak up. Learn to talk clearly and forcefully in public. Speak simply and not too long at a time, without over-emotion, always from sound preparation and knowledge. Be a nuisance where it counts, but don’t be a bore at any time… Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action….

Be depressed, discouraged and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics — but never give up.

Don’t sit there like a lump! I love it.

People dancing

Mike Peele is the only thing keeping me from losing my mind as we enter our third stay at home order. Highly recommend his easy, fun dance workout vids!

Thanks much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.

If you like MVP you can support it by telling all your friends and frogs about it. Hit the 💚 below to let me know when the newsletter is on the right track. Send me a note when it’s not! I’m always open to new ideas!

Make sure to drag this email into your primary folder so it doesn’t end up in landfill. Have a great weekend!

Sarah

Am I sad or did I just eat some bad cheese?

Body cues for climate blues

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 think about this short little piece by the lovely Edith Zimmerman about once a fortnight because it introduced me to a simple concept I hadn’t known: Interoception. Or, the sense of the internal state of the body. It’s so obvious and yet so often missed, even among those of us (me!) who like to think we know how to breathe deeply and listen to our organs (hello there spleen!). It’s a reminder that our body cues inform our climate blues.

I’ve been feeling climate bummed these past few weeks. The initial momentum of the Biden superhires abated, and then I read too many stories about climate commitments falling short — from China’s anemic five year goals to our very underwhelming Paris emissions reductions to the quarterly “huge chunks of ice breaking off of things they should not break off of” update. But is there any way to make absolute sense of macro climate moves on a specific day or week? Only to a small (warm) degree. The rest is ... just my body guiding my brain.

And my body has been tired, overwhelmed by a year of lockdown and a fresh wave on the horizon, fatigued at the thought of not getting to see my family for another few months. I feel a tiny stab of pain in my hip when I run, and I forget about it the rest of the day, though it is still there, a low-level aggravation that I’ve normalized. In other words, my body is feeling blue. And the blue shades my perception of everything around me.

Which is not to say that there aren’t objectively bad things happening (see: aforementioned ice break), but to remind myself that when I’m physically blue I collect dour news like a misanthropic magpie, alighting upon the facts and figures that align with the negative narrative I’m fashioning. If I was feeling top o’ the world, I could just as easily grab onto shiny good news, like India’s recent climate commitments or some dazzlingly fun innovation that is going to fix everything.

Of course, the climate truth of the day is always somewhere in between, with the same dominant narrative overarching: There is progress. There are setbacks. We need to be moving much faster. And we can do this. I just need to remind myself that this is the story, not the one I generate based on the blips of my body.

The positive side of this mind body reminder is it inspires more critical thought about everything: the China news is nuanced, that slight pain in my left hip needs attention, and I’m hungry and should probably go make a sandwich.

So how should we track out where we’re at with this whole global climate emergency thing? Gernot Wagner sums it up expertly as usual:

The proper metric to judge the Biden administration’s—or any country’s—climate policies, is neither this year’s emissions, nor is it the net-zero decarbonization target three decades out, however important that might be as a long-term target. The real metric of climate success is the trajectory of emissions five to 10 years out. That is far enough to not be subject to the whims of annual variability. It is also close enough to be directly influenced by today’s policy choices. It is where “building back better” comes in, and where it is disheartening to see the world, by and large, not doing so to the extent necessary.

THIS WEEK:

How are you feeling? How does your body inform your mind? Let me know!

LAST WEEK:

It’s been a few weeks so I have a huge collection of delightful feedback. Here’s this lovely display of cardboard hearts from Sabrina after the post about what to do with all that delivery cardboard.

And Kathryn sent some very good language tweaks to help make my climate signage entreaties more effective:

I wonder if instead of “talk” or “ask” you could phrase your invitation as more of a question, maybe? I haven’t come up with anything pithy enough for a button or mask yet, but, there was a postcard in my office (which I haven’t been in lately, or I’d look up the exact source) from a British museum dialogue event that I think said “do you want to talk science?” with all lowercase letters – which also may seem less “threatening” than “shouting” in all caps 

 Or maybe “let’s talk climate” which isn’t a question but may be more inviting?

OTHER STUFF:

My latest comic for Yes! On how to bring nature into your life.

And if you (understandably) find the language around carbon offsets and labelling con-fu-sing…read my Chatelaine magazine explainer on all the terms you need to know to slice through the greenwashing.

PEOPLE DANCING:

OMG I love Atsuko and her grandmother, and am thinking about them very much this week.

The end

Thanks much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.

If you like MVP you can support it by telling all your friends and frogs about it. Hit the 💚 below to let me know when the newsletter is on the right track. Send me a note when it’s not! I’m always open to new ideas, and very much respect and value the fact that a few thousand people take the time to open this thing every week.

Make sure to drag this email into your primary folder so it doesn’t end up in landfill. Have a great weekend!

I Don't Always Paint Trees...But When I Do They're Happy

On benign visual interventions in physical space

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.

Which signs do people see?

Was Sheldon Whitehouse’s sign effective? The junior U.S. Senator from Rhode Island delivered his Time to Wake Up speech to his colleagues 279 times. It was a weekly oratory effort to make politicians move on climate, dutifully delivered on the Senate floor since 2012. This week, finally feeling that the government was beginning to act, Whitehouse retired the speech. He also retired the charmingly huge and 1995ish clip-art sign he displayed each time he made said speech.

Was Greta Thunberg’s sign effective? Her Friday School Strike for Climate signage, messily but disarmingly painted, helped her galvanize the world. I prefer Thunberg’s hand-made placard to Whitehouse’s Capitol Kinko’s affair, but both get the job done for their respective audiences.

So what should my sign say?

I’ve been thinking about this visual vernacular very much lately, given the distance at which we all communicate these days. Our faces are covered by our masks, so physical cues are nearly nil (If I’ve passed you on the street and not said hi, sorry!!! I seem to need more facial real estate to determine identity!).

We cannot engage strangers at close range. We’re bundled, swaddled, removed from the frisson of everyday interaction, with precious few clues to understanding what the people in the spaces around us are feeling and thinking. Unless of course, they are sporting this mask:

It’s similar to a Talk Climate button that I made for a work project. It’s loud and bold and it’s been on my jacket for the past few months. It’s meant to invite people to chat, but … it hasn’t worked as well as I’d have liked. If anything, people seem to avert their eyes. It’s no different than when I had kale smoothie on my nose at work, and no one mentioned it. All day.

I think it’s because the shouting feels antagonistic. The message needs more surprise and delight. Every time there’s a climate protest, it’s the funniest and most clever signs that win the day. I think my next batch of pins will say “Ask me about rainbows (and climate).”

The right visual cues, bright and playful and inviting, may be the key to climate communications magic. A few years ago we started decorating the tree in our front yard. We’d cut the piles of gratuitous vegetable delivery cardboard into big shapes and paint them in loud colours. I made one for the Raptors (Tree the North. I know, couldn’t resist). And our 30 cardboard skulls have been hauled out for a few Halloweens now (much to the chagrin of our kids, who want all the gory plastic decorations they see on other houses. Not gonna happen!).

One day, a woman told my husband that she walked her granddaughter by each day to hear the toddler laugh at the creepy skulls dancing in the wind. It was all the cardboard affirmation we needed—this tiny little anecdote inspired my husband to make a batch of gorgeous hearts, which he put up a few days ago.

I like to sit in the window drinking tea and watching people smile when they spot a heart bouncing in the breeze as they walk by. 

Last year we painted forest signs in the park next to our street for a friend’s birthday. They weren’t climate messages, so much as the punny musings of two former headline writers. But with precious few outlets or ways to make our voices heard (especially through three-ply cotton), perhaps climate signs need to move beyond marches, and find some greater pride of place in the daily conversation. A little physical real estate to help others see that the vast majority of humanity wants to tackle climate change

Our tree signs worked because they were barking mad. Hopefully after chuckling at the silliness, people stopped to think about the fact that they were strolling a miniature urban forest, a truly wonderful and beneficial thing.

What could a large-scale visual intervention entail? Should it be a unified message, or a diffuse invitation to visualize climate concern on your place or person? I feel seen and green! If you lived 🌎, you’d be home by now. Nature is the opposite of doomscrolling. Dismantle dystopias! Here to stop the destruction of the planet so that future generations can live in a world that is not a desolate hellscape! Maybe that one’s a bit too wordy. But the possibilities are endless. And we’ve got to do something with all that delivery cardboard.

What will your sign say?

THIS WEEK

Is your home or apartment or body a climate billboard? Could it be? Let me know.

LAST WEEK

So many great recommendations, thank you! Writes Scott:

You asked what folks are reading, & right now I'm in the middle of Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. It was originally written in response to W Bush and his time in D.C., but now has a new foreword & afterword. I love the way she illuminates so many events & how they have affected our world. The first people to propose abolition of slavery was a small group of folks in London. They were determined, acted on their convictions & built a movement that saw it come to fruition in something like 25 years, and later the movement came to America. Great stuff, I highly recommend it.

I keep getting incredible solar punk missives, too. Writes John:

Sarah, I was inspired by your article describing indoor waterfalls to consult my 9 yr old granddaughter about an idea for a crossover relationship between Mindcraft and Lego.  She informs me that there is already a relationship. I am almost 72.  My time is coming to a close but hers is just beginning.  I am going to get her some minecraft legos because she loves them both and I need a way to believe that the world is going to be safe for her. 

And Chris produces a whole fictional solarpunk podcast from the year 2047. Check it out! 

PEOPLE DANCING

The end

Thanks for much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.

If you like MVP you can support it by telling all your friends and frogs about it. Hit the 💚 below to let me know when the newsletter is on the right track. Send me a note when it’s not! I’m always open to new ideas, and very much respect and value the fact that a few thousand people take the time to open this thing every week.

Make sure to drag this email into your primary folder so it doesn’t end up in landfill. Have a great weekend!

Share Minimum Viable Planet

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