Archives: Our Personal Choices — and Our (un)Sustainable Lives

I don’t think we can buy the argument anymore that we deserve special dispensation just because we think what we are doing is worthwhile. 

airplane takeoff pollutionLet’s see. At last count there were already well more than seven billion of us sharing this suddenly very small planet. And let’s say, just to get a crude handle on this, that each of us, whether in Mali or Malibu, makes something like a hundred “personal planet action choices” each day, leading to specific actions which when we had them all up have quite a potential impact on our earth.

Choices like turning a water tap off tight, leaving something electric on when we are no longer using it, buying more stuff that locks us into using them perhaps somehow excessively, hopping into the car to go to the gym, perhaps getting on a plane to take the wife and kids for a long week-end in Maui, voting for public officials who persistently invest in what is clearly unsustainable infrastructure for vehicles and not sustainable mobility for us ordinary people — you know, the long list of all those often very small things we do, usually without thinking about it at the time, and certainly not considering what happens when we add it all up.

When it comes to our personal mobility behavior the number of choices we make is only part of this greater whole, but if you do your own calculus about trips taken, including those by foot, you will quickly see that if you take us all together there are at least many tens of billions of “personal planet-defining mobility choices” that taken together determine our collective footprint on our small planet.

Now that’s a pretty big number and an awful lot of people spread out over the world map to somehow re-orchestrate into a more sustainable mobility mode for all. Daunting task. Where to start?

What about this? One way to start to get a handle on the issues is this . . . . . .

When in doubt look into the mirror.

 * The original posting of this text and personal CO2 restraint strategy appeared in these pages in November 2004.


  • Why bother even trying?
  • How am I doing? (Oops!)
  • Personal air travel/CO2 minimization strategy
  • References
  • Ten practical suggestions

Why bother even trying?

“I am a very busy person and my work is highly important. I have to fly a great deal to do my job and make my contribution to the economy and a better world. Anyway, I am only one person. The problem is not measured in such small personal doses.  So please, leave me alone and let me get on with my important work.”

It’s quite a challenge here in the turmoiled 21st century to live a sustainable life when technology, our unexamined habits and for some of us sheer abundance– the many agreeable ‘acquis’ of the rich and profligate North of our time — invariably have us more or less operating on auto- pilot, opting for daily life choices, small and large, inconsequential and egregious, which together add up to pretty unsustainable lives. Even for those among us who are deeply concerned about the issues of sustainable development for the planet as a whole. But that whole is made up of each of us, one by one — and no less important many of the “us’s” working on these issues are people with potential high public exposure. Thus our very visible examples count double.

So if I, to take a concrete example, decide I “need” to travel from Paris to, say, Shanghai for an assignment to advance the sustainability agenda in concrete ways — if I use the Climate Care or some other workable CO2 calculator I can see without a doubt that in the process through my personal actions I will cause some four tons of CO2 to be spewed into the atmosphere.

Hmm. How many time a year can I permit myself to do that in good faith? Is there a more efficient way to get that particular job done? Or at least if I do make the trip, how can I make sure that I am responsible in my choice? I better do a lot and work hard and smart while I am there, or our gasping planet will be the loser.

This page introduces a selection of the growing collection of web-based devices that can help us to get a better grip on the impact of our choices, of our actual actions. And perhaps with this knowledge, we may modify our choices. Some of us? At least perhaps some of our choices? In any event the sheer knowledge of what we are making happen should be a step in the right direction.

I end this piece with a bit on my own travel philosophy and personal choices in the face of these important challenges. (And how am I doing? Well to be perfectly honest, not so great. But I’m working on it. In fact I have something of a strategy. Have a look and tell me how to do better.)

How am I doing?

How can a man, riding on an ox, looking for an ox, ever find an ox?  – Lao Tse.

Aaaargh! Don’t ask. I guess the answer to that is not too horribly badly for a dullish, somewhat over-schooled, hence exaggeratedly privileged middle class male with international work pretensions . . but given the scale and urgency of the problems here in the opening years of this new and environmentally threatened century, not nearly enough. Yet.

In daily life, like most of you I am sure, I try to be pretty energy frugal. I live in a well insulated apartment, turn off lights when I leave the room, am careful about water, no air conditioning, enjoy cool rooms in the winter, sort my garbage, am pretty frugal about buying stuff and certainly am not a new clotheshorse, etc. The usual.

When it comes to getting around in the city, most of my trips are by foot and bike. And our world-level transit system that most cities would die for. The missing piece of my personal new mobility puzzle for now is convenient carsharing and a taxi subscription, which is not quite yet here. I did manage, finally, to get rid of my magnificent if twenty year old Honda station wagon (sob!), and am now trying to learn to live without it. Not easy. Better get on to the carshare folks to work out a new routine. Hmm. This one is going to take some effort. 

But here is my most serious challenge – Air travel. 

Personal choices and practices: Air travel/GHG minimization strategy

From the vantage of supply, since 1993 many of my collaborators and I have been assiduous users in our daily work of videoconferencing and IP group work tools as a travel substitute. . . but really and above all as a work enhancer. We use this not only for the usual one-on-one sessions and exchanges, but also for group meetings and even on quite regular occasions to permit my full participation in conferences held in distance locations. (Click here in case you are not aware of the current state of play in our use of these handy low cost technologies.) Where I think I do fairly well by comparison with many of my esteemed peers is in my systematic avoidance of what I consider to be unnecessary air travel. I have two ways of accomplishing this: think of them as supply and demand management.

On the demand side, my strategies are two. First, I refuse to go to any distant location just for a one or two day conference or whatever. If I am going to go to Bogotá, Bangkok or Bangor, it will not be for just a quick in and out you go visit. I insist that once there, I must stay, work at least one full day on that place’s sustainability agenda, for each hour I spend in an airplane getting there. So ten hours of uncomfortable jet travel to LA, means ten days of work on LA specific problems in areas of my expertise. The advantage of this is that it serves as more TDM, and at the same time permits me to be more useful in my work with colleagues and groups in that place.

But there is another huge advantage from my own personal work and knowledge perspective, and that is when I have a chance to work closely with the people in each of these places, I simply learn a great deal. And I would like to think communicate a lot to them as well. In any event for me it’s a no-brainer and that’s the way it is. (Believe me dear colleagues, it’s the only way to live! You learn so much.)

To reinforce my travel minimization philosophy (and this does not hurt) I request business class travel and agreeable and efficient  accommodations when I travel. (If you look at the fare tables to check out these prices you will see how this can be quite effective as a TDM measure all by itself. I always suggest to my clients that they sit down before getting their travel agent’s quote on this.)

How does this work out? More then one time in two, the prospective client looks at me and insists that they are ready to pay for travel and hotels, but cannot go beyond that.  They remind me that my colleagues have accepted the invitation gladly, so why should I want to ask for more.  And so it goes.

Well, when I run my annual Ecological Footprint drill for myself my results suggest that if everyone on the planet behaved as I do, we would need at least another half a planet to serve all of us. Ouch! On the other hand, were I living in say Los Angeles with a life style that goes with the place, we’d need closer to eight planets. And that’s serious.


Some Emissions Calculators to test yourself with

  • For all your daily emissions, click through to our Car & Home Calculator. There you can repair your impact on global warming, by offsetting the CO2 you produce driving your car(s) and heating and lighting your home.
  • A return trip from London to New York for one individual, generates more CO2 than driving a family car for 3 months. Air travel is climate-costly, so offset your aviation today using our Air Travel Calculator. Too busy to calculate your offsets? Then just go straight to our new Fixed Offset Options where you’ll find an offset to fit every pocket.
  • Ecological Footprint
    Sustainability means achieving satisfying lives for all within the means of nature – now and in the future. The extent to which we’re using more than nature can provide can be measured with the Ecological Footprint. This information points us to actions that can address fundamental sustainability concerns, and it gives us a way to measure our progress. Check it out and see how you are doing. Happy?

“Getting real”: How to offset your emissions when you have to do it

Some existing Offset Programs you can start to use today:There are two major points we would like to make here. The first is to bring to your attention a handful of websites and programs that you can already use easily to offset your emissions (sins?) when you absolutely have to climb onto that plane. Then, an idea that we should like to explore with you in the weeks ahead about how we might both do this and at the same time use the resources that it brings in to back specific actions, programs and groups that in our view are worthy of support. Let’s start with those already offering off-set arrangements that you can start to use today:

  • “Sustainable Travel International now offers MyClimate™, “a service that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Through the MyClimate™ program, travelers, corporations, travel service providers, and academic institutions can take concrete action to fight climate change by investing in WWF-certified carbon offset projects that help to neutralize the negative impacts of their air and ground travel.” They also have a ” Travelers’ Philanthropy” program. Otherwise they have their own carbon calculator for estimating the necessary offsets, and a choice of WWF approved projects for your money.
  • The CarbonNeutral Company maintains a number of carbon offset and forestry projects, and has its own range ofCarbon Calculators to work out your personal emissions. They also have a simple CarbonNeutral Citizen’s program which gives you an opportunity to make an annual donation that will go at least part way to compensate for your life style choices. In their cases the money received for charitable donations has been directed, for the past three years, towards Transparency International’s Forestry Integrity Network, which campaigns against bribery and corruption in management and exploitation of the world’s natural resources.
  • Climate Care offers organizations and individuals a way to reduce their impact on global warming. It sells carbon offsets on the one hand while funding and managing projects on the other. They also have an ingenious Fixed Offsets program which allows you to pay by credit card for your calculated life style emissions.
    So let’s see how this last one might guide me for that round trip flight from Paris to Sydney. I first turn to their

Air Travel Calculator

    , which informs me that my round trip is going to generate close to five tons of CO2, for which my “offset” costs according to their calculation is on the order of 31 Pounds Sterling (roughly $55). Okay. I then click to make a secure payment through the credit card and currency of my choice — and bingo I have paid for my latest eco-sin.

Of course, if we possibly can, the best is simply not to take that next flight without giving it serious thought, and otherwise be reasonably carbon-modest with all that entails. But if you for some reason are caught this time, then please consider making a contribution to the offset program of your choice. You can be sure that this extra amount of awareness is in time going to pay off. So you are already making an important first step.

Note: All of these programs offer certificates or other forms of recognition for your good civic behavior. Good on you but is that enough? According to my back of the envelop calculations, far from it. To be “sustainable” we would have to multiply that by some very large number indeed. Try it. It will have some interesting effects.

Ten Practical Suggestions for Limiting Your Carbon Emissions – Travel & Transport *

    1. Calculate your own carbon dioxide emissions: find out how much you are contributing to global warming. In order to obtain a fairly reliable figure, use a carbon calculator (see below).
    2. Drastically reduce or stop flying: it is the most damaging means of travel per kilometre and is associated with long-distance journeys.
    3. Get rid of your car if you can calculate how much money you would save.
    4. Buy the most fuel efficient car if you have to have one, but use it sparingly. Get a gas-powered car (or convert your car to gas): it is cheaper to run and emits less carbon dioxide. You may be able to get a government grant to do so.
    5. Change your driving habits: restrict your speed (driving at 70 mph uses 30% more energy than at 50 mph), use higher gears as soon as traffic conditions allow, and don’t run your engine when stationary. Service your car regularly and keep tyre pressures up. If you have air conditioning, limit its use.
    6. Move closer to your work or choose a job closer to your home, and work from home, whenever possible
    7. Change your other travel patterns: cycle or walk for local trips. (It will also improve your health and fitness.) Use local shops and services, select local schools, take holidays close to home, and use the bus rather than drive.
    8. Get your local schools, colleges and public services to produce green travel plans to discourage long-distance commuting, to promote cycling, walking and bus use, and to car pool and share a ride whenever possible
    9. Spread the word: tell people what you are doing to prevent climate change and why you are doing it, and encourage them to do likewise.
    10. Join an environmental pressure group with a good track record in influencing politicians on critical issues such as taking steps to restrict fuel use dramatically.

*.Adapted with permission from Mayer Hillman (with Tina Fawcett) How we can save the planet, Penguin Books, 2004

Well, we cannot least try.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

 – Samuel Beckett

# # #

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is a public entrepreneur specializing in the field of sustainability and social justice. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest work focuses on the subject of equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions -- and in the process, find practical solutions to urgent climate, mobility, life quality and job creation issues. More at:

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