Solving the big problems

When I started my better living project it wasn’t really about quality of life at all. It was more about facing the question: “what kind of life is best for a person living in our times?” It was as much about being responsible as anything else. I was worried especially about intractable problems like global terrorism and global warming. Ten years later, terrorism is still a fear, but climate change in particular has emerged as the dominant challenge of our times –our generation’s equivalent of walking on the moon.

Living a good life means making a difference to an important issue like this, or at least doing our best. (We know that the only thing necessary for global problems to persist is for good people to do nothing about them). But, if you’re anything like me, quite frankly as concerned as I am for the environment, I do very little with this conviction. When I make a choice, the effect it has on the environment is rarely foremost in my mind. This dissonance (between what we know is important and how we act) has a lot to do with the complexity of these kinds of issues. It’s hard to know quite how to make any kind of targeted intervention, to make any kind of real difference at all.

Below I’ve listed some practical ways to get involved. But, first here are some great insights into the issue from Bill Gates.


I’ve just taken an online test and found that my personal C02 output every year is about 17 tonnes. This is much higher than I expected. 69% of these emissions come from transportation, which is also surprising considering that, here in Belgium, I don’t drive a car. My emissions simply from flying equals about 10 tons per year. (If you’re interested in what that means, here’s what one tonne of CO2 looks like).

If you’d like to take a test like this here are some you can use: from the EPA (from the US), from ActOnCO2 (from the UK), ICLEI (International).

Small steps for man

The most important thing most of us can do to combat climate is to support (and encourage) government efforts to reduce emissions. Through the government one person, or a small group can make a big difference.

Here area  few other things we all do to reduce our carbon footprint:

  • Reduce the miles you drive (i.e. by walking, cycling, carpooling  or taking public transit)
  • Reduce air travel (i.e. by using electronic communications).
  • If you do have to drive, purchase a vehicle with the highest fuel efficiency available (and also have it regularly serviced, avoid using the airconditioner, reduce your driving speed and use it as rarely as you can
  • Pay to offset your CO2 footprint through organizations such as Conservation International, Nature Conservancy, Climate Trust, Native Energy, Terra Pass, or  The Carbon Fund. (More details on the costs and projects of each of these organizations are described here). I’ve done this before, but personally I am going to make a routine of offsetting my emissions, by investing in these types of projects.
  • Plant trees. One tree, planted in the tropics, will absorb about 1 tonne of CO2 if it lives to 40. Considering my 17 tonnes usage per year I will need to plant around 14oo trees in my life to make up the difference. Certain other factors, such as the likelyhood of some of these trees not surviving so long and the ecosystems where I have a chance to plant mean that I should plant at least double that number to ensure I am carbon neutral.
  • Increase the energy efficiency in your home (here is a good list of ways to do that)

The future

Bill Gates makes the point that a big push to innovate is also necessary. One idea I’d love to be a part of is implementing crowdsourcing methods to innovate solutions to climate change. (Studies have shown that diverse groups of people can often have more success solving really challenging problems than groups of experts.) That seems a logical way to use technologies (which have contributed to the problem) to our advantage.

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