The trying is what defines us

An end-of-year pep talk and the ultimate TL;DR

Let’s start with a bit of good news: the Climate Action Tracker, an independent research group that tracks government climate action, recently announced that given China’s recent climate commitments and Joe Biden’s Build Back Better goals, we could be headed for just 2.1 degrees warming by end of century, instead of a truly apocalyptic 3 degrees. That difference might seem small, but in fact it has massive implications for the future world we live in.

Two degrees is still in the bad zone (we’re aiming for 1.5 degrees to preserve something like our current world), and the world’s environmental to-do list rivals that of a working mother of five, but this is good news, and worth pausing on. Massive change is happening, and we could be at a historic turning point. The next decade might be known as the one where humans finally saved themselves from themselves.

And though you’re not Joe Biden (though if you are, hello, sir!), you are still part of that turning point. The smaller actions that you’re all making in your day-to-day lives aren’t separate from those big policy changes, just little cells in the same organism. Looking at the early results from the end-of-year survey (hit it if you haven’t!), I can see all the things you’re doing, and I can tell you, unreservedly, you’re making a difference.

Buying something used or wasting less food can seem like small potatoes, but a) small potatoes are a delicacy now, and b) I do believe this is part of a cycle that transforms the world. I’ve said before that change needs to be both bottom up (starting with everyday actions) and top down (led by government and corporations), but recently I realized it’s not just an up-and-down motion: it’s a cycle. These are mutually reinforcing actions, and we can turn the cycle toward progress or toward decline.

Our own eco journeys are about momentum too. Most suggestions in this newsletter are meant to be a beginning. While Meatless Mondays won’t solve climate change, they do have a positive impact and can be a gateway to bigger environmental awareness and action. So stay engaged, pay attention, and always look for ways to take your action to the next level: by sharing on social media, bringing it to your workplace or gym or community, volunteering with an organization, organizing your friends or neighbours, or writing your representative. Maybe you started as someone who just wanted to recycle better or use less plastic, but as you learn more, you might do more, which makes you learn more, and . . . you get it. Another cycle!

Plus, few actions are truly individual. If you refuse a plastic bag, the cashier sees, and so does the next person in line, and the people riding on the bus with you, and your kids who are absorbing what you do. Every time I ride in a bike lane, sure, I’m saving a bit of carbon, but I’m also reaffirming to all the other people on the street that bike lanes are an essential piece of our urban infrastructure. Humans are social animals who are always assessing what’s normal. Changing that normal — even subtly — can be powerful. People like us are making green mainstream.

With everything you do, keep your why in mind. That might be your kids, a healthier community, your faith, your dedication to justice. Connect this action to what matters most to you. That’s what helps keep the wheels turning.

This isn’t all noble sacrifice, though. I believe that living this way leads to a happier life, and I hope you’re gotten a taste of that too. So far, 87% of survey respondents said doing something environmental made them feel good or even triumphant. Also, a greener life doesn’t have to be austere or deprived. In fact, it’s often joyful and abundant. It’s less about denial than about gratitude and resourcefulness. It combines increased self-reliance with more community connection. Above all, this kind of life can banish some of the dissonance that fuels our anxiety, and instead provide satisfaction and dignity from knowing you’re living more aligned with your values.

It’s also more self-aware: you’re not just tossed about by the tides of marketing, convention, or social media. If you’re swimming against the current, you’re acting with purpose. Effort can be clarifying. Few worthwhile things are easy, whether it’s raising a child, running a marathon, or starting a company. But these are the things we mention in obituaries. These are the things that make life worthwhile. We’re not just remaking a world, we’re remaking ourselves. And that’s kind of exciting.

Of course sometimes we fall short, especially in the never-ending disaster movie that is 2020. Sometimes values conflict; sometimes it’s impossible to eco-optimize because of time, money, lack of options, sheer exhaustion, or all of the above. Even I haven’t done every single thing I write about. Never forget the system is currently rigged to be fundamentally unsustainable in a million different ways. Sometimes acting for the greater good will be easy, sometimes it will be hard. Either way, do what you can, take pride in your success, and know I’m cheering for you.

And now because I realize I’ve routinely gone over my five minutes, a mega-TL;DR for the entire year. I’ve rounded up the key rules of thumb for making the most difference. (Even within this list, food and transport are by far the most important.)

On a personal level:

This high-impact stuff doesn’t require joining a monastery or going full Little House on the Prairie — you can do it and pass for normal. And, like wearing a mask or washing our hands, if enough of us do it, it moves the needle for the whole world.

On a societal level, we need to:

These are the things to consider in political platforms, to write your reps about, to inform where you donate money. These are the projects that could give our world the Fab 5 makeover it so desperately needs.

Humans like to think of ourselves as outside of ecosystems. But we are very much a part of the ecosystem, trapped in a little terrarium/aquarium hybrid with every other thing on this planet (and, at the moment, treating our habitat like a hot-boxed frat house). Despite the individualism most of us have been fed our whole lives, we are profoundly interdependent, with other humans and other species. Our well-being is inescapably collective. Caring for our planet is caring for each other, now and in decades to come.

Wins of the Week

“The trying is what defines us.” — David Suzuki

“All that you touch you change / all that you change, changes you.” — Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

  • After a CBC Marketplace investigation revealed a lot of Amazon returns are headed for the landfill, Emily’s dad and stepmom sent Amazon to landfill instead and are focusing on shopping at local stores.

  • Angela turned a pair of thick, cute patterned socks that had gotten holes in the toes into leg warmers for her daughter!

  • Carrie and her husband have been buying used furniture and painting it for upgrades around the house. Her husband also saved the Christmas lights by identifying burnt-out bulbs with tin foil.

Thank you all for sharing your wins with me over this past year. You’re a source of inspiration for me and for others, who told me that your specific wins got them moving.

Thank you to everyone who invited me into their inboxes and read along, who shared this with others, who wrote me to ask a question or share their thoughts. Sometimes this eco mission can seem a lonely one, and it felt great to know that so many people are on Team Trying.

I want to give a special shout out to Crissy Calhoun, who edited every single one of these newsletters, making sure they were polished and profesh and saving you from the worst jokes. I am so lucky to have her in my corner, in this and in my life in general.

If you haven’t yet, please take the quick survey and help me determine how to use my energy in 2021. I don’t yet know what the new year will bring for me and FMFP, but in the meantime, the archives are here for you and so am I.



Five Minutes for Planet is written by me, Jen Knoch, and edited by the incredible Crissy Calhoun. Opening photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash.