I can’t help thinking that I just made a mistake. A 15 ton mistake, to be precise.
Let me explain.
My older daughter is about to start kindergarten next week. And for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here, we’ve chosen a school for her that’s about 5 miles away from our home. The other alternative was our neighborhood school, which is a little under a mile and a half away.
When I look at my family’s anticipated commute, our choice of schools will add at least 15 extra miles of driving each and every school day. (By the way, that’s more than twice as much as Alan’s family drives, total, in a typical day.)
Now, if we wind up sending both our kids to that school until they’re out of 8th grade—which is a distinct possibility, if we like the school—we could be stuck with those 15 extra miles per day, 180 days per year, for the next 12 years. We’ll carpool with other families if possible; but we’ll have to drive if it’s not.
So in the big picture, one single decision—sending our daughter to a school we really like—could increase our family’s overall oil consumption by about 40 barrels over 12 years, and our climate-warming emissions by at least 15 tons.
But it gets worse.
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Without that extra trip to and from school, twice a day, my wife and I would probably go back to being bus commuters; and the girls, eventually, could ride the bus to school. So our school choice is not only locking our family into higher gas consumption than our current level, it’s actually foreclosing an option to reduce our personal consumption below where it is today.
On the other hand (and there’s always another hand) the fact that we made this choice may be irrelevant. You see, if we hadn’t chosen this particular school, someone else would have. And judging from my conversations with other parents, our commute seems about average. So if our family didn’t emit those GHGs, it’s almost certain that some other family would have.
Ok, that sounds like a bit of a rationalization. But I think it’s more than that. It’s an instance in which what really matters is the system, not the personal choices of any one individual.
To a large extent, many of us personalize global & systemic issues, such as energy consumption and climate change. We look for ways to reduce our own impact; we feel virtuous for our good behaviors, guilty for our sins, and tally one against the other.
But an obsessive focus on personal purity can make us lose sight of the bigger picture: that the rules of the game are what really determine the environmental impact of society as a whole. After all, if there were an effective & comprehensive carbon market in North America, I could buy enough high-quality carbon credits to offset the climate impacts of my kindergarten decision for a piddling $300 (based on the cost of credits in the European carbon market.) Since there’s no such market, I wind up feeling powerless to reduce my personal impact on the climate, and guilty about my choices.
That’s a mistake. Guilt isn’t motivating, it’s dispiriting. And, really, I’m not powerless. I can (and do) work to change the rules of the system. That’s slow work, of course; but in the end, I think it’s my best shot to leave my kindergartner, and her kids and grandkids, with a world that I’d be proud for them to live in.
Yup. Areas of densification generally are not places coincident with places that have good schools (yesyes, I’m sure there are exceptions, I’m talking natonwide).Therefore, when folk with kids seek housing, neighborhoods in good school districts are chosen over proximitiy to work. Happens all the time, and is a factor in the reason why more won’t live downtown. Upping our CAFE standards will alleviate part of this problem that you are experiencing, Clark.Best,D
Oddly, Dan, we have some great schools nearby. Our neighborhood school, in particular, has great scores on the WASL (for what that’s worth), a responsive and caring principal, a nifty art & music program, good in-school resouces, a fantastic & fanatical parent community, etc. We just had some fairly unique issues that we thought made the local school only a so-so fit for our family, and (likely) a temporary stop on the way to a different school. Sigh.
Clark’s spot on about changing the system, or the choices available to all of us, rather than obsessing over personal decisions. But I can’t stop myself from focusing for another moment on the personal.Despite Clark’s favorable mention of my family’s lower emissions, I want to report that we actually had the same experience. School choice trumped all else for my family. We wanted our kids to have the best school (for their individual needs) open to us.And the only way that we ultimately got our emissions so low, was to actually move across the street from the school that we had chosen. That’s right, we selected the school first and then moved in next door, expecting that one or more of our kids would be enrolled there for the next eight years. (We’ve still got two years to go.) But we only made this choice after a year of driving the kids four miles across town each morning and afternoon.And our circumstances were different: we were more willing to move. We had been renting. And the school is in a great, walkable neighborhood, in any event.
Clark: Re “Since there’s no [effective & comprehensive carbon market here], I wind up feeling powerless”In the contrary! You have the power to use the money for what your conscience tells you. (Unfortunately, not everyone listens to their conscience like you do – or else it wouldn’t be necessary to prescribe a carbon market; but that is another issue.) Taking the European market as a guideline is a good idea. Just donate the amount to a pertinent good cause – beyond what you would give normally. That way, you can move the conflict from _supporting your child vs protecting the environment_ to _supporting your child vs money_, which is a more familiar battlefield for parents.
The initial post in this thread reflected the most common approach. Make each choice—home, school, workplace, etc.—separately. Then just buy every family member over 16 a car. Durning’s approach values “location efficiency,” which is so important to kids. Kids can’t drive, so approach #1 means they live a lot of their early life staring passively at the sky through a window of a motor vehicle, since the distances to their various domains are so great. They lose the chance to roam and explore under their own independence as part of their movements; they have friends in each domain that don’t meet each other; and they don’t see the continuity of a scale they can relate to. But, even adult’s time in a car is debilitating, especially when they lack physical activity, want more attachment to community, and carp about road stress. Rather than buy access to a good school, work to make the one near you better.Chris BradshawOttawa, Canada
You’re right, guilt isn’t motivating. However, I still think you’re rationalizing this quite a bit. That’s fine, we all do it. But what most disturbs me is that by doing so, you are playing off personal responsibility against structural change. That’s a huge mistake.I’ve said it before, but the reason I first joined NEW was because of what I perceived as a unique stance among “environmental” groups: individual actions *do* matter! All the other big groups like to push the “send a letter, pass a bill, change the system” approach, but NEW actually pointed out ways that individuals and households could affect things by the way they lived. Isn’t this the point of “Stuff”? Otherwise, why should I care how the everyday stuff I use is made?Clark’s post joins what I see as an increasing trend at Sightline in pooh-poohing individual action and praising systemic change. This “either/or” approach is disturbing to me. Both are necessary; both are valuable. After all, it’s like the chicken origin question: which comes first? The growth in organic food, recycled content in products, certified sustainable wood products, and other “sustainable” consumer items have all been largely driven by increasing consumer demand. If everyone said, “Oh, it’s just too expensive to buy these items, I’ll work for systemic change instead,” the market demand would never have driven prices down and led us to the ironic success of Wal-Mart offering organic food at “reasonable” prices (and an ever-increasing acreage of farmland under organic practices).I respect the personal frustration and guilt you feel associated with choosing your non-neighborhood school. It goes against your value of driving less. But don’t turn around and claim it isn’t really a problem as long as you’re working to change the system (although you didn’t point out how “changing the system” would even help in this particular case). The real issue is that in this particular decision, you are choosing one good (child’s education) over another (driving less). That doesn’t make you a bad person; that’s just the way the world works sometimes. What this should do is help increase our humility for those who (we think) make “bad” decisions.