Can Small Acts Help Save the Planet? You Bet

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Does installing an energy-efficient light bulb really help save the planet? According to climate and energy writer Jeff Goodell, it does. Just like big actions, such as a nationwide cap on carbon emissions, he believes small changes matter. Goodell, a writer for Rolling Stone and author of "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future," said committing acts of any size can trigger a repetitive cycle of environmental progress.

During a environmental forum at the Rhode Island Convention Center last year, Goodell explained what he called a “virtuous circle.” The term originated in the 1960s to explain economic growth models. Yet, according to Goodell, the expression was adopted by President Obama’s policy officials to describe the nation’s climate strategy. The concept is simple: Enact nationwide environmental policies so that political leaders gain leverage to persuade other countries to do the same. Once other countries follow along, more leverage is built to enact additional change back in the United States.

“What we are trying to do here is to develop a kind of big leverage towards this kind of change that we all know has to happen,” Goodell said.

Goodell’s insight, it turns out, has been correct. Last June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued proposed rules for reducing carbon pollution from power plants. After negotiations with the United States, China announced in November plans to enact carbon reductions of its own. Goodell predicts that the move by China opens the way for more U.S. progress, such as a carbon tax or an expanded cap-and-trade program.

How does this apply to light bulbs? Individual actions, such as installing solar panels or attending a climate rally, are acts that build leverage to drive the ever increasing benefits of the virtuous circle, he said.

“What you do in Rhode Island does matter in a big way,” Goodell said. “Changing a light bulb doesn’t just matter for saving kilowatts. It matters because it is a political act, a political action ... it can drive bigger political change.”

Examples of political acts driving environmental progress were abundant in 2014. All of those energy-efficient light bulbs installed in recent years in homes, schools and business helped Rhode Island jump from sixth to third in the nation in energy efficiency. Streetlights are next, as are energy-efficient heating systems and improvements to the power grid. Rhode Island's biggest renewable energy-incentive program has quadrupled in size. New financing programs are on the way as the price for renewable energy drops. Small composting hubs helped create a statewide food-scrap law. The divestment movement led Providence to divest from fossil-fuel companies, and Brown University helped establish a functioning climate change council.

Understanding positive feedback loops like these gave Goodell a new appreciation for his writing, as well as the environmental work of others, that at times seemed insignificant and hopeless in the face of the increasing signs of the inevitable impacts of climate change.

“We’re in deep already and it’s going to be a real big mess that is just going to be unfolding for decades to come,” he said.

Everyone in their own way, he said, must put pressure on those who create policies at every level of government. “I think that we need to push them," Goodell said." I push them in my way and you need to push them in your way and that’s how we are going to solve this.”