How not doing things can help heal the planet

With COVID, you might say that “not doing” was our main theme.

Editor’s note: Green Briefs is a regular series of commentaries by eco-leaders on Vashon, presented in The Beachcomber in partnership with The Whole Vashon Project.

With the consequences of climate change beginning to show themselves, those who are not in denial are calling for dramatic action.

We need to incentivize and build renewable energy infrastructure. We need to be making more electric vehicles. We need truly biodegradable plastic. We need to recycle more. There is no question that we need to take dramatic action right away.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve had a thought, or maybe a feeling, that has slowly been resolving in my mind. It is that, besides doing, maybe we should be thinking a lot more about “not doing.”

Thinking back on the last few years with COVID, you might say that “not doing” was our main theme. We weren’t going to work or school, we weren’t traveling, we weren’t socializing in person, and we weren’t manufacturing as much because we weren’t buying. Because we weren’t manufacturing, we weren’t mining as many resources.

Many of us have found the ongoing COVID episode disastrous and intolerable, but there are some things that resonated and will probably stay changed. Many of those who were fortunate enough to work at home in comfortable, shabby clothes, foregoing three or four-hour commutes, are not that excited to go back to the office.

Here is a change that we would probably never have had the imagination or gumption to make, except for the fact that we were forced to do so by the pandemic. Yet can you imagine how much time and energy has been saved by this simple change? Very little needed to be “done.” This is a triumph of “not doing.”

In fact, a great deal that we have articulated as things to do entail mostly “not doing.” Don’t get me wrong— “green” energy and products are important elements in our plan, but I would posit that using less energy and buying fewer products is even more important.

One suggestion is that the sustainable energy use of 800-1000 kwh, per year, per capita, would be a good target. That figure considers population and sustainable energy resources, both solar-related and geothermal. Many developing countries are already below that target.

We in the U.S., although not the most profligate, are coming in at about 6500 kilowatt-hours per year per capita. That means that, given our current knowledge of energy production and its effects, we would need to reduce our energy budget by about 80%.

If the figures I’ve found are accurate, no amount of improved efficiency is going to make that much of a dent. For perspective, most European countries use about half of the energy we use, mostly by not doing as many things as we do. That means we should be able to cut our use in half and still have a lifestyle as good as in Europe.

We might be able to save as much as 80% of our transportation energy budget if we electrify everything and improve our renewable energy infrastructure to meet that need. Alas, long-distance heavier-than-air flight (jets) do not yet have a workable replacement. For some, limiting air travel would be a huge inconvenience — but remember, we did it during the pandemic. Perhaps cutting back to one or two flights a year would be doable for you. None is best.

This would also be a good time to promote modern electric rail travel. It doesn’t exist yet, but even current-day rail is far more efficient than any other form of travel and can be completely sustainable.

True, it would cost you an extra day or two within the U.S. But the quality of your extra time far exceeds being in a crowded plane fuselage, eating crackers, and hoping some fellow traveler doesn’t cough all over you. Why the hurry? Check out our Backbone Campaign’s Solutionary Rail.

The COVID pandemic has been a great trial for what we will need to do in the future. The best part is that cutting our energy budget will not include one of the worst aspects of COVID — not seeing your local family and friends. That will not be among the things that you “not do.”

Terry Sullivan is an island writer and activist.