What’s the Best Way to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint?

The NY Times recently provided a pop-quiz to invite answers to this now familiar question (12/15/22). It cited a dozen oft-discussed eco-acts aimed to help with that shrinking, such as turning down the heat at night during the winter. Which is the best?

Okay, mea culpa, first of all. I’ve been writing about ecological – and theological – issues since the middle of the last century. I ought to know the correct answers to such carbon footprint questions, right? And sure, I did get nine of twelve right. But I under-estimated, by one step each, the value of what the Times article considered to be the three most important planetary practices for shrinking your carbon footprint:  living car-free, using renewable electricity, and eating a vegan diet.

No wonder, I suppose, because I’m not in a position, if the truth be known, to make any serious progress on any of those three major lifestyle fronts, much as I would like to. Living car-free, for example. Anywhere other than New York City or comparable urban settings:  good luck on that one. Except for such exceptions, the car-free life won’t work for most Americans today, even – or especially – for the working poor. Not for me, surely.  I very much “need” my car, given the way that the affluent world in which I have chosen to live is organized. Mea culpa, again.

So taking that pop quiz seems to have left me in a familiar fix:  pondering my eco-guilt. I addressed that topic at one point in my last book, EcoActivist Testament. There I resolved to forget about eco-guilt altogether and just try to get on with something ecologically responsible. Following up on that discussion, this thought now crosses my mind.

     Forget about shrinking your carbon footprint for a while and find some leverage. Remember what you learned in high school physics about how a lever works? Here are two current examples, one from politics, the other from religion. All along, let’s hear it for the leverage!

Politics. The enormously impressive, card-carrying Methodist activist, Bill McKibben, has lately launched a new nation-wide movement for folks like me, Third Act. The rationale:  many in older generations in the U.S. have now left behind the demanding stages of finding a life’s path and then beginning to walk that path. Many of us have by now settled down for the long haul – or even have retired. We’ve found some financial stability along the way, too, most of us; some have even made a lot of money. So, argues McKibben, now’s the time for these older generations to pitch in eagerly with financial assets and boots on the ground to address our global climate crisis, especially since we all care so much about the world that our grandchildren are going to inherit.

Why not then throw ourselves into collective efforts like McKibben’s Third Act right now, as much as we possibly can? This kind of thing is called, as I have observed, leverage. A political movement can sometimes have an outsized impact.

So, yes, I will keep trying to find ways regularly to eat less meat, say, or to drive the miles that I must drive as efficiently as I can. In this sense, I believe that we all are called by God to do everything at once, in these times of crisis. But, if I may say so, God prefers politics – rightly done, of course. Hence I’m highlighting Third Act here.

Another political example. Better work with a public splash of fellow alums or fellow students to get your college to divest of Exxon stock, say, rather than to focus on convincing your spouse or your roommate to join with you to eat lower on the food chain or to give up meat altogether. Best, of course, do everything; but first throw yourself into the world of politics, like that divestment struggle, if you possibly can. Go for the leverage.

Religion. If you belong to a community of faith as I do, I recommend that you check out how you can leverage things in that context, too, if you haven’t already figured that out. See if you can have a multiplier effect for ecojustice by more consistently participating in your own religious community regionally or nationally, where cadres of faithful souls are probably already at work, protesting or lobbying or building coalitions. Get some political leverage for ecojustice by working with other people of faith.

I have tried to do that in my own denominational setting, by doing everything I can to support an outstanding grassroots, faith-driven, ecojustice movement called Lutherans Restoring Creation. In EcoActivist Testament, I list a bunch of such religious groups (pp. 1-2). By working with and through one of those groups, you can have a leveraging effect politically that might astound you, especially when all those groups work together, as they often do.

I have even fantasized that the whole ecumenical community in the U.S., sparked by its own faith-driven ecojustice activists, could join together to confront McDonald’s! What if an ecumenical coalition of church groups were publicly to announce that they were asking all their members to stop eating Big Macs and also that they were demanding that McDonald’s reinstate its vegetarian McPlants? Why? This is much more than a lifestyle issue.

Frankly, American meat-eating habits are a major part of a trend that’s killing a number of our planet’s ecosystems. “If Americans continue to average three burgers a week while the developing world starts to follow our path,” one report has convincingly argued, “it’s hard to see how the Amazon survives.”*

The Amazon? Yes, because corporate interests are greedily cutting down larger and larger portions of the Amazon in order to provide more grazing land for beef cattle, which the US market is constantly and urgently demanding. At the same time, the whole Amazon region is “the lungs of our planet,” as it often has been described. Those forests spectacularly sequester huge amounts of CO2 and purify the air as they do. Hence this lamentable eco-logic:  the more Big Macs, the more Amazon trees cut down, the more CO2 in the air, and the more destructive the global warming of our earthly home.**

This dream, then.  You’re going to figure out how to join a nationwide faith-coalition – yet to be launched – to end the Big Mac in favor of reinstating the discontinued McPlant. You’re going to resolve, more generally, to protest against McDonald’s itself, pressuring that company to end its orders for Amazonian beef and to beef up its marketing of reinstated McPlants. Picket McDonald’s anyone?

Imagine this. You’re going to take your Confirmation class to the nearest MickyDees to get into the action. Such a project might well spark some good ecotheological discussion, even some helpful controversy, back in your own congregation the following Sunday and – hopefully – some notice in the local media. And more.

What if all the Confirmation classes in your District or your Diocese or your Synod were to join in? Fill a score of McDonald’s parking lots for a couple of hours one Saturday with young Church protesters who have studied the issue! Maybe ask those kids themselves to write the press releases and to be prepared for the press interviews!! For the sake of their religious education!!!

Hear and see this, then, on the local nightly news – all those confirmands chanting, again and again:  “No Big Macs – Yes McPlants! Save the Am-a-zon!”

Later, this kind of public protest could be duplicated all over the country, led by green people of faith of all ages who have long been eagerly searching for some tangible way to get into the action. Count me in.

Conclusion. Isn’t the kind of leveraging ecoactivist participation in politics and in religion that I have just described the best way, if not the only way, to shrink your carbon footprint? Methinks, yes.


*Michael Grunwalk, “It’s Time to Say ‘Put Down That Burger’,” NY Times, Dec. 15, 2022, SR 7.

**See further: Jessica Brice, “McDonald’s Linked to Amazon in New Report,” Bloomberg, 3/30/2022.