This summer, as politicians argued about the cause of electricity shortages in California, one small act helped avoid the worst blackouts. The California Office of Emergency Services sent a text encouraging people to lower their energy use. Five minutes later, electricity demand fell by more than 2%, and continued falling rapidly over the next 15 minutes, ending the crisis almost immediately.
It is a dramatic example that some of the best tools to reduce energy use and cut CO2 emissions are, quite literally, in the palm of our hands.
Understandably, much of the discussion about addressing climate change — and other environmental issues — focus on top-down government policy. Government-led efforts like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act dramatically reduced pollution over the last 50 years.
This approach, however, isn’t working for climate change for several reasons. Political approaches are contingent on winning every election. In Washington, voters twice rejected carbon taxes. Australia and Ontario repealed carbon taxes when the price got too high. Political instability isn’t good for sustainability.
Also, as the late Bill Ruckelshaus, who pioneered many of those government-led efforts, noted, “the solutions we devised in the 1970s aren’t likely to make much of a dent in the environmental problems we face today.” Rather than single, large emission sources, today’s pollution is distributed — small bits of plastic in the ocean, many small sources of CO2 emissions. Big government approaches aren’t suited to solving that type of problem.
We need a better approach. As I outline in my new book, “Time to Think Small,” people across the globe are using environmental technologies to take millions of small actions that are solving the planet’s biggest environmental problems.
One taking the think-small approach is Tito Jankowski, who started a community for companies working to remove CO2 from the air. “People underestimate the power of things that start small,” he says. One company following his lead is Seattle-based Nori, which promotes capturing carbon in agricultural soil, certified with a transparent blockchain system.
As in California, empowering consumers to conserve energy can also greatly impact them. Electricity is most expensive and carbon-intensive during the evening hours. Helping people move their electricity use outside that time period saves money and significantly reduces CO2 emissions.
Curtis Tongue, who helped found OhmConnect, a company that uses smart thermostats to help people save energy, estimates that simple efforts like this can reduce the amount of electricity we use in the United States by the equivalent of 30 Grand Coulee dams.
Democratizing environmental action this way is more durable and effective than political efforts because it connects people directly to results. Unlike politicians who hide the failure of their policies, consumers will learn from their mistakes and find the best way to save money.
Personal actions also don’t require people to agree that climate change is a crisis. Smart thermostats and other energy-saving technologies are attractive to anyone who wants to save money. And technology can’t be voted out of office at the next election.
Climate change isn’t the only environmental issue where small technologies are making a difference. Working in developing countries where plastic pollution is worst, a group called Plastic Bank pays people to remove plastic from beaches using only cellphones and collection points, preventing more than 3 billion plastic bottles from reaching the ocean. The plastic is recycled into Windex bottles, and Plastic Bank uses a transparent blockchain-based system to show where the plastic was collected.
And in Central America, an anti-poaching nonprofit, Paso Pacifico, created a fake sea turtle egg that can be tracked on a smartphone to reveal and unravel poaching networks.
The great innovator Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, you build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Across the planet, environmental innovators are creating a new model to solve environmental problems.
While some focus on environmental gestures, telling students to engage in “protests [and] school walkouts,” the best hope for the future is to empower young people with innovation to take meaningful action that yields tangible results.
Technological innovation is creating a quiet revolution in how we solve environmental problems. From climate change to ocean plastic and the protection of threatened species, small technologies are solving various environmental problems. It is time to think small to solve the planet’s biggest problems.