Old electronics

The scope of the challenges facing modern society in coming to grips with the climate change issue clearly is daunting to the global community of more than seven-billion people; to our various societies and cultures; to our government, business, academic, and nongovernmental entities; and, ultimately, to each of us individually.

But climate change poses “all hands on deck” challenges, and actions by each and by all are called for in mounting the mobilization efforts demanded.

That said, there clearly are some actions that can be taken by many, and in vast numbers. Those, as shown in the initial three parts of this series, need not be unduly burdensome, nor impose radical or discomforting life style efforts by any practical standard. Think here about carpooling to work once or twice a week, going under the maximum allowable highway speed limit by five miles per hour … rather than over it by five; finding pleasure, and a few calories to boot, by a regular “meatless Monday” or day of your choice.

Beyond those actions that many can pursue are others that perhaps only some will find appealing … but nonetheless important and appropriate in particular instances. These – involving confronting our Madison Avenue “keep-up-with-the-Joneses” consumerism and optimum family sizes – are the focus of the remaining two installments in this series.

So here the discussion and consideration may get more uneasy, particularly as we address the often-ignored “elephant in the room,” population and family planning, in the closing fifth part of this series.

But discuss them we must. So let’s start with the goods Madison Avenue encourages us all to buy virtually every waking minute, saving family planning for part 5.


Durable goods and nondurable goods (i.e., consumables) – their manufacture, distribution, use, and disposal – account for the fourth main source of greenhouse gas emissions, after transportation, housing, and food.

Durable goods are generally considered products that last longer than three years, such as furniture, appliances, electronics, sports equipment, and toys. Nondurable goods are products that are generally consumed, such as cleaning supplies, or replaced in less than three years, for instance some clothing and what often are referred to as “perishables.”

Determining an accurate estimate of the GHG emissions generated by a product during its lifetime (from manufacture to disposal or “cradle to grave”) is difficult, but virtually every consumer product has a carbon footprint. The simplest way to reduce a product’s GHG footprint, according to the shrink-your-product-footprint webpage is to buy fewer new products. By avoiding the purchase of a new product, we avoid the emissions associated with sourcing materials, manufacturing, and distribution. Those are emissions that never will come to be – in effect non-emissions.

The shrink-your-product-footprint website points out that though many products improve our lives and afford us status with friends, they can just as easily be a source of distraction, financial stress, and clutter.

Having basic physical needs – food and water, shelter, and adequate clothing – met is important for happiness. But, as research psychologist and book author Jonathan Haidt notes, once one has entered the middle class, the relationship between wealth and happiness becomes smaller. Haidt and others have shown that increases in the comforts of life – a larger home, more or a newer car, televisions, etc. – quickly become the routine conditions of life, and we adapt to them and take them for granted. The pleasure they bring us is often fleeting.

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So why are we so intent on “getting ahead” and acquiring luxury goods? Haidt says that it’s because we were shaped by evolution to pursue success (e.g., prestige and resources) rather than happiness. And Haidt says that modern life is full of traps, some of which are set up by marketers and advertisers who know just what our subconscious mind wants – and it isn’t happiness. One trap advertisers often use is to say, “Buy this and save.” But, actually, the greatest savings come in not buying.

And for those who want to improve their financial security in light of stagnating wages, it is generally easier to spend less than to make more.

If we want real and generally unbiased information about durable and nondurable goods, Barry Schwartz, an economic psychologist, says we “have to go beyond advertising to disinterested sources such as Consumer Reports. Its publisher, Consumers Union, is an independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to help consumers. It does not allow any of its reports or ratings to be used in advertising, nor does the magazine contain any commercial advertising.”

What does appear to result in sustained happiness, according to Haidt, is warm, personal relationships – something that has virtually no carbon footprint!

In reality, according to historian David Christian, many components of a good life – friendship, empathy, kindness and generosity, good conversation, an appreciation of beauty, a sense of physical well-being and security, a sense of contentment, a sense of intimacy, a sense of humor, and a delight in good ideas – require no consumption and are “renewable resources” that emit no greenhouse gases.

Next: How family size shapes your carbon footprint

Craig K. Chandler is a retired horticulturist and professor at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, where he led the university’s strawberry breeding program from 1987 until 2010.