Climate Change Guilt

By this point, many of us have spent years of our lives feeling guilty. We know we buy too much and waste too much. We don’t always eat organic. We drive cars and fly in airplanes even when it’s not strictly necessary. Sometimes we leave the lights on because it’s winter, and it’s dark, and it just feels nice. We’ve learned to think of these lapses as direct contributions to climate change, sinful pleasures that more conscientious people forswore long ago.

It’s entirely possible that some of climate change denial is rooted in an adverse reaction to this very guilt. People who refute the effects of rising emissions are reluctant to believe in something that will instill shame for their most quotidian actions. They can’t bear to accept that every time they let the tap run while brushing their teeth they’re adding to the force of our inexorable doom.

Who can blame them?

In his 2009 article “Forget Shorter Showers,” writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen posed these questions:

“Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal ‘solutions?’”1

Jensen’s point is to equate the argument behind our constant, personalized guilt about climate change to the old saying, “Finish your dinner – children are starving in [some far-off country].” We knew it then and we know it now: whether or not we eat all that broccoli, there is no way a starving child will benefit from it.

But understanding that disconnect doesn’t stop us from trying to take on a problem the size of humanity at the scale of our individual, day-to-day actions. And here is something we perhaps should feel a little guilty about: for many of us, myself included, it’s easier to imagine that we’re making a dent in the world’s problems by biking to work than it is to join together as a united movement, confront the powers-that-be, and create change at the only level where it will make a difference. As Naomi Klein put it in a 2015 commencement address to the College of the Atlantic,

“The hard truth is that the answer to the question ‘What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?’ is: nothing. You can’t do anything. In fact, the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts.”2

By pretending that we can stop climate change through our own tiny good intentions, we may be shirking a harder, scarier, far more imperative task.

I have to admit I can’t quite fathom the “massive and organized global movement” Klein envisions as an alternative to individual simple-living. But maybe the path to that kind of revolution can start as small as the path to a net-zero house or a greywater-fed garden. Instead of taking shorter showers, maybe we should be focusing on something just as easy but much more far-reaching: taking every opportunity to talk about climate change.

Dan Kahan, a Yale Law School professor and member of the Cultural Cognition Project, conducts studies to identify what motivates people to believe or disbelieve in climate change. Kahan found what many social scientists have found before: that most people are primarily motivated to agree with their friends, with the people they trust, and with the prevailing opinions of their social or political groups.3 Does everyone you know already believe in climate change? Then perhaps it’s time to start talking to people you don’t know.

Kahan is careful to stress that the mission of the average believer should not be to educate others about climate change. The scientific community has learned the hard way that throwing facts at the public doesn’t win any converts. What’s needed is more subtle: the creation, through sustained social pressure, of a cultural mindset that acknowledges climate change as a political (not just a scientific) issue, and one that requires action.

Developing such a culture certainly seems like a daunting task. But maybe if we free ourselves from the burden of our own misguided guilt, we’ll at last have the will to confront our neighbors. The less energy we expend in feeling bad about our cars and heating bills, the more we’ll have to think about and talk about and make voting decisions based on climate change, and the more chance we’ll have of swaying those with real power toward policies that will make a measurable difference in the composition of the atmosphere and the future of the planet.

  1. Jensen, D. 2009. Forget shorter showers. Orion Magazine.
  2. Klein, N. 2015. Climate change is a crisis we can only solve together. Commencement Address, College of the Atlantic. The Nation.
  3. Kahan, D.M. The tragedy of the risk-perception commons: culture conflict, rationality conflict, and climate change. Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 89.

Crisis Drives Creativity in California’s Search for Water Solutions

As a kid scrambling around in the Vermont woods, I never thought much about water: where it came from, where it went, whether there was enough of it. It was all around me, all the time, and I gave it as little thought as I gave to air. It wasn’t until I moved to the stark desert mountains of eastern California that I suddenly understood the power of water to shape and explain a place. This magic force could carve huge canyons, nurture narrow ribbons of cottonwoods and willows, fill the saline basins of inland seas, and – it seemed to me – dictate the course of politics, culture, and human endeavor.

mono lake 2128

Woods Creek in the Sierra Nevada.

Water in California is both highly visible and desperately scarce. Throughout history, water conflict has played out as the principal drama of the California stage. Farmers have dynamited aqueducts, cities have battled one another through decades of litigation, and governments have imposed restrictions on water consumption that would be unthinkable in the East1, but the problems have only intensified. While drought has plagued the state off and on for all of American memory, the last four years were among the warmest and driest in more than a century of record-keeping2,3. Increasing population pressure and a greater understanding of global climate change have brought water shortage to the tip of every tongue in the state.

Human ingenuity is spurred by crises, and California’s plight has prompted widespread brainstorming. Proposed solutions range from the prosaic (mandatory water rationing, public education about water conservation) to the resourceful (desalinization, improved stormwater retention and treatment) to the bizarre (cloud-seeding, harvesting fog, or reducing evaporation from an open-water reservoir in Los Angeles by filling it with 96 million plastic “shade balls4). While idea generation is rampant, actual implementation lags behind.


Shade ball deployment in August 2015.

The Los Angeles basin is home to almost twenty million people5 and has a long history of redirecting water to suit its needs, from the aqueduct that drains 1,600 cubic feet per second of the Colorado River into the coffers of the Metropolitan Water District6, to the gravity-fed pipeline that appropriates Sierra Nevada snowmelt to fill the taps of city customers7. Today, in the face of the latest drought, Los Angeles is contemplating increased reliance on water that reaches the city in another form: rain.

Not long ago, stormwater was seen only as a threat to infrastructure. Cities were built to funnel rain out of the streets and into the ocean as efficiently as possible. But as reservoirs shrink and snowmelt dwindles, city planners have turned their attention toward salvaging the water that falls out of the sky. In August 2015, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) published a Stormwater Capture Master Plan that proposes to increase the amount of captured stormwater in the basin by as much as 114,000 acre-feet each year8. For reference, a California household’s average water use clocks in at less than one acre-foot per year9. The savings may seem insignificant, but the message is clear: water must be saved however and wherever it can be. There are no more rivers to divert or lakes to drain. Los Angeles must search for and exploit any possible source of increase to its water stores.

The Stormwater Capture Master Plan is ambitious and far-reaching. The plan identifies potential water-saving initiatives from the level of a single house (rebates for rainwater barrels) to that of several-hundred-acre spreading grounds where stormwater is trapped in shallow ponds to encourage its infiltration into underground aquifers. LADWP lays out a twenty-year implementation schedule and promises “immediate, significant, and sustained efforts” in pursuit of these goals8.

Los Angeles River in 2014

Los Angeles River in 2014

Yet there are those who find this approach unsatisfactory. LADWP’s plan is too broad to pick up on every fine-scale opportunity for stormwater retention in the basin, and the plan does little to promote public awareness of and involvement in the process. Peter and Hadley Arnold, architects at the Arid Lands Institute in Burbank, CA, have another idea.

“How do we craft cities and buildings that consciously and visibly mitigate, anticipate, and even celebrate, hydrologic variability?” This is the question the Arnolds pose in their 2013 article “Pivot: Reconceiving Water Scarcity as Design Opportunity10. Their answer: a geospatial model of the San Fernando Valley that blends runoff predictions with detailed surface mapping to identify where – at the scale of individual rooftops, gutters, sidewalks, and curbs – stormwater can be trapped or transported most efficiently. The model traces the likely path of water through the city, pinpoints ideal locations for cisterns or permeable substrates, and even accounts for contaminated areas where stormwater should be channeled off-site and prevented from entering a polluted aquifer. They call the software Hazel, after the wood traditionally used in divining rods. The Arnolds estimate that if the model became reality, it could save the San Fernando Valley 92,000 acre-feet per year of runoff water11. The Valley is about 260 square miles in area12; imagine those savings at the scale of the 4,850 square mile Los Angeles metropolitan area5.

Sample output from the Arnolds' model.

Sample output from the Arnolds’ model.

The Arnolds’ intention is not simply to create a more detailed stormwater retention plan. They envision a paradigm shift. As Hadley put it in a 2014 interview with Architect Magazine, “We first have to break through the invisibility of water systems…the idea that water is just something that shows up in a pipe”13. Instead, water availability and consumption should be transparent public knowledge. Woven into the Arnolds’ design are schemes to prompt a new consciousness of water: water meters as urban art installations, a “smart water grid” that helps private homeowners optimize their water collection, a house that showcases stored water in its walls. They hope for a new generation of planners, builders, and citizens whose eyes are trained to understand the water retention possibilities of a landscape, just as we’re trained to orient our windows toward the sun or build our foundations on level ground13.

For many people in urban Los Angeles, water has always been exactly what it was to me as a child in Vermont: something that comes from who knows where to pour out of the tap, and goes down the drain to who knows where when you’re done with it. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that water, while powerful, is not so mysterious. We have the technology to understand its trajectory in minute detail. The next task is to embrace an approach that capitalizes on that technology. Water can shape not only our creekbeds and canyons, but also the way we design our cities and homes. This new ideology could be a path to extraordinary and unlooked-for solutions.

1. Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, B. Thompson. 2011. Managing California’s water: from conflict to resolution. Public Policy Institute of California.

2. United States Geological Survey. The California Drought.

3. California Department of Water Resources. 2015. California’s most significant droughts: comparing historical and recent conditions. State of California.

4. Howard, B.C. 2015. Why did L.A. drop 96 million ‘shade balls’ into its water? National Geographic.

5. Wikipedia. Los Angeles metropolitan area.

6. Wikipedia. Colorado River Aqueduct.

7. Wikipedia. Los Angeles Aqueduct.

8. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in collaboration with TreePeople. 2015. Stormwater Capture Master Plan.

9. Water Education Foundation. What’s an acre-foot?

10. Arnold, H. and P. Arnold. 2013. Pivot: reconceiving water scarcity as design opportunity: mapping a more absorbent landscape. Boom: The Journal of California 3:95-101.

11. Tory, S. 2015. Could Los Angeles design its way to water independence? High Country News.

12. Wikipedia. San Fernando Valley.

13. Karaim, R. 2014. Woodbury’s Arid Lands Institute rethinks water in the west with “Divining LA.” Architect Magazine.