Doing the Math

Staff at Cool Choices talk a lot about how small changes add up.  Sometimes, though, audience members question our math.

This week I met a guy who told me he had been diligent about his idling.  He was even turning off his car at ATMs.  Naturally, I expressed enthusiasm.  Idling is one my pet peeves –while modern owner’s manuals say this is not good for the car, lots of us continue to idle, getting a whopping 0 mpg in the process.

Anyway, when he said he had cut down on idling, I smiled and started to praise him.  He said “Not so fast,” and went on to explain that he had seen a report the day before about the rising number of cars on the road in China and India and had concluded that his efforts were pointless.

“I can’t save enough to neutralize all those additional cars so why bother?” he asked.

This is a common lament.  Watching the news, it’s easy to feel that the benefits from our individual sustainable actions are nullified by the cumulative acts of others.  And, unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad news out there because – as we’ve noted previously – some folks think talking on and on about the bad stuff will spur others to action.  (It doesn’t work that way—emphasizing waste makes waste the norm; see Robert Cialdini for more on this topic.)

Our perspective is different.  We think it’s time to focus on the good stuff, instead of bemoaning the non-sustainable behaviors elsewhere.

There are two major reasons why our friend should continue his anti-idling habits.

First, reduced idling has immediate bottom line benefits for the driver.  Every two minutes of idling is equivalent to the gas required to go 1 mile.  A 10 minute idle represents 5 miles of fuel.  When presented with a good opportunity to reduce fuel expenses, the smart driver takes it.  Maintaining his anti-idling practices is just smart driving.

Then, more broadly, his efforts—especially if he talks about them with others in his community—have the potential to inspire more changes.  While the idling practices of a single driver won’t reverse climate change trends, each of us has the opportunity to be part of a broader community of solutions.  His actions might well inspire more actions and all of those small actions really do add up.

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