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.