Ivy already knew quite a bit about environmental issues. Since her mom worked in the renewable energy industry, Ivy had grown up discussing carbon dioxide equivalents, alternating current, and gigawatts at the dinner table. She went to work researching sustainable lifestyles in her mom’s sunny and spacious office. It was a wonderful space to spend time, with large windows on three sides and French doors that connected to the kitchen on the fourth side. Best of all, the windows looked out onto native gardens that hummed with pollinator activity. Ivy’s mom always said she never had to work a day in her life because she was passionate about her job. And it never really felt like work—especially when she got to spend her days in such a lovely environment. 

First, Ivy needed to figure out what the end goal was and what “sustainable” meant. She had an inkling already that the U.S. and China were the largest greenhouse gas emitters. She searched several reputable websites that had similar information, but the graph on the Union of Concerned Scientists website made it crystal clear that the weight was definitely on the shoulders of China and the U.S. to reduce emissions. China was responsible for about twenty-eight percent of the world’s emissions, and the U.S., for fourteen percent. Just two countries are responsible for nearly half of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.20 That’s disgusting, she thought.

 She dug deeper and found out that the U.S. had contributed the most global CO2   emissions overall—about 25 percent of the world’s total emissions to date.21 Great, thought Ivy, the U.S. is the biggest carbon dioxide polluter in history, and we are home to only 4.25 percent of the world’s population.22 That’s not just disgusting, that’s immoral. 

She was hoping that this information was wrong, so she kept searching. Unfortunately, she kept finding similar numbers. She also found that the average Chinese person contributes a relatively modest 7.5 metric tons of CO2e per year, whereas the average person in the U.S. contributes a sickening 16.5 metric tons.23 She saw other figures that estimated Americans contribute as high as 28 metric tons per person. She hoped that was wrong. From what she could find, the global average seemed to be about 4.5 metric tons of CO2 per person each year.24

 Her dad said that “we” needed to cut emissions in half. But how does that work? Should everyone on Earth reduce their footprints by half? She wished she would’ve asked her dad that question. Some countries barely contribute any greenhouse gas emissions to start with. Or maybe the biggest polluters should reduce their footprints by more than half so everyone is on a more level playing field? After some thought, she decided that the second option would be the right thing to do. Americans should feel duty bound to cut their egregious levels by more than half, since they are so much higher already. 

Next, Ivy looked into where the emissions were coming from. She looked by economic sectors first, but didn’t know how that translated to individuals, so she found information about where the average American’s carbon emissions were coming from. She found that:

1. Home energy use was 32%, with over half (17%) for heating and cooling

2. Transportation, with gas-powered vehicles accounts for about 28%

3. Stuff we buy is 26%

4. Food is 14%25

This list seemed pretty straightforward, so she started a new Google doc and brainstormed a list of ways to bring down the consumption in each area.

Zeroing Out Home Energy Use

-17% Heating and Cooling

“To eliminate the need for heating and cooling systems, we need more  passive buildings,” muttered Ivy to herself. Ivy knew a little about hyper-insulated “passive” houses, because she lived in one with her mom. Visitors were typically shocked to find out they didn’t have—or even need—a furnace or an air conditioner despite living in their extreme Midwest climate where annual temperature differences can span a hundred degrees. She and her mom also had rooftop solar, so they consumed no energy from the grid and actually sold their excess energy back to the local energy company. She knew that building passive houses costs more upfront because they have thicker walls and way better windows, but they paid  for themselves in energy savings. Now let’s look at the remaining fifteen percent of the energy used in homes.

-15 % Misc. 

The biggest home energy uses are water heaters, lighting, and inefficient appliances. Reducing energy consumption wherever possible would be the first thing to do by installing LED lighting and more efficient appliances, thought Ivy. Then the rest of the energy use could be supplied by renewables. 

Implementing passive building design, energy efficiency, and renewable energy could essentially zero out the home energy use sector. Of course, renewable energy sources have a footprint to build and install, but in the long term, and certainly in comparison with coal, the impact is minimal.

OK, Ivy thought, this isn’t so hard. Why don’t adults sit down and solve the climate crisis? It’s obvious that the solutions exist. So, adults just don’t think the future is worth protecting? Or all they care about is making money at the future’s expense? Or they can’t stop arguing about inconsequential details and get over their egos to do something for the common good? Ivy didn’t understand adults and how illogical they are. She felt the climate crisis was like everyone’s house was on fire, and all of the adults were still sitting on the couch eating potato chips watching their favorite show, not bothering to evacuate or call 911. 

Tackling the 28% from Transportation

Ivy was a born list maker, so she started with what came naturally to her by making another one.

– Reduce need for transportation by slowing down the pace of life, using video conferencing, working from home.

Switch to electric vehicles, add a lot of charging stations to make it convenient for people.

– Make communities more walkable and bike-able.

– Promote carpools and hourly electric car rental systems.

– Build mass transit

– Eat food that is locally grown.

Ivy wondered if this last item should be in this transportation category or in the food category. She figured she might as well put it in both since it fits in both. 

Well, look at this, Ivy thought as a tiny smile appeared for an instant, this area could also practically be zeroed out, too.

To use stuff and eat food is essential for survival, so we are clearly not getting this forty percent of the carbon footprint to zero. But, we can do a lot better than we are. She couldn’t find exact numbers for these items, and it would never be the same for each individual, but she found various online carbon footprint calculators and found out that most people could probably cut their footprints in half without compromising their comfortable lifestyle and modern conveniences. 

Ivy recognized that this area was going to look different for everyone. The main thing is, since we cannot tackle such massive problems alone, everyone needs to do what they can in whatever way they can. She knew there needed to be tolerance of different ways of going about things. Different people have different needs and skills, after all. For example, a person who needs to be gluten and dairy-free might need to eat quite a bit of meat, which generally has a larger carbon footprint. That’s fine. A person with a special medical need might use a whole lot of plastic medical supplies to aid with his or her condition. Of course, plastics in life-saving medical supplies and devices had to be seen as a free pass. No one was going to fault a person for needing to use inhalers, sterile tubing, or a pacemaker with plastic components. Again, all totally necessary. It would have to be up to people to do their very best and for other people not to pass judgment on others. That was the tricky part. It’s so easy to pass judgment.

Ivy recognized that many people around the world don’t have their basic needs met and could never make the decisions to live a more environmentally conscious life without support, because they are just trying to survive however they can. She thought about a Mexican village she and her extended family had visited while on vacation. After visiting some local 4,000-year-old petroglyphs, her family had eaten lunch in a tiny village about an hour outside of Mazatlán, where they got to know a few of the villagers. Ana was the village teacher and had helped prepare their meal over a wood-fire stove. Whereas the tortillas tasted amazing cooked that way, Ivy recognized it wasn’t the healthiest for the air and for Ana and the other women cooking on the stove breathing in all that soot. There also weren’t many trees around, so it didn’t seem like it would be very easy to find sustainably-sourced wood for the stove. But what other stove choice did they have?

 Ivy’s youngest cousin, Sam, befriended Ana’s son Santiago. They were both seven years old, and it didn’t take long for the two seven-year-old boys to go off and play together. When Ivy found them playing at Santiago’s house, she noted that the family owned about as much stuff as her family traveled with. She was ashamed that just her mom’s house alone had more in storage than this family had in their entire house. Then there was her dad’s house, which was full of stuff, too.

Ivy quickly decided that her lifestyle influencing wasn’t going to be directed to people who weren’t in the economic position to make long-term decisions that were best for sustainability. Her aim was to reach the people who had the ability to make those decisions—and knew it was the right thing to do—but chose not to live more simply because they just didn’t want to be inconvenienced.

Cutting Stuff in Half

The goal would be to reduce consumption by half, bringing the CO2e footprint to around thirteen percent. Of course, this would be accomplished by reducing consumption first, reusing next, and recycling if nothing else can be done with an item. Voluntary simplicity—or living a simpler life not centered on possessions—would be key to move the needle on reducing the stuff in people’s lives.

Ivy reflected on the steps her grandma always walked her through before Ivy made a purchase with the birthday money she would get from her grandma. “Do you really need it?” Grandma Ethel would ask, “Could it be borrowed, rented, or purchased secondhand instead?” Then Grandma would also ask probing questions like where it was made and how far was it shipped to get to her. Were the materials used sustainable? Was the product or toy durable? How long would she use it? Could it be recycled?

This line of questioning talked Ivy out of buying many fad toys. Her grandma never actually told Ivy what to do; she would just ask Ivy these questions before they got to the check-out register. It seemed that nine times out of ten, Ivy would decide that she either didn’t need the cheaply made toy or that she could get it used. 

Food Footprints

As with the “stuff” category, Ivy’s goal was also to cut this in half—not by eating half of the calories, but by reducing packaging and “food miles.”

Cook your own meals based on locally-grown, seasonal food to minimize “food miles”

Eat less processed or packaged food

Eat a more plant-based diet whenever possible. Just changing from a meat-lover diet to a no-beef diet nearly cuts greenhouse gas emissions in half.

Avoid ruminant animals, like sheep and cows, because their multiple stomachs and the way they process their food makes their methane contribution crazy high. 

Ivy thought this fact was a little funny. Cow and sheep farts are actually a serious planetary problem! Sustainably raised fish, poultry, and even pork have much lower footprints.

Something Ivy found super interesting is that local pork had a lower footprint than an American vegan’s jackfruit shipped from Asia. She determined that it was less about what a person ate (you don’t need to be a vegan) and more about where their food comes from.

Whoa, she thought. She re-added the totals and realized this scenario would reduce CO2e footprints by eighty percent and bring footprints to nearer to a 3.3-ton lifestyle, instead of a 16.5-ton lifestyle. Making a short list for each of the four items made solving the climate crisis seem manageable. It’s not rocket science. Why are people acting like this is such a mysterious problem to solve? She had a plan, but how was she going to get people to go along with the it?

Ivy looked at the clock in the corner of her computer screen and realized that it was 5:00 p.m. No wonder she was starving. She’d never even eaten the toast she’d put in the toaster that morning, and she was still in her pajamas. Light-headed from hunger, Ivy went to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and searched for food that didn’t require preparation. Quick was pretty much her only criteria. She gobbled down cold leftover vegetarian lasagna, followed by grapes, a hard-boiled egg, and crackers by the handful from the pantry closet. Crumbs flew everywhere as she shoved them into her mouth.

Ivy contemplated her plan of action as her blood sugar stabilized. She decided that instead of tackling individual behaviors and a giant list of “101 things you can do to reduce your footprint,” it was time to bring about a cultural and moral revolution where people bonded and acknowledged the peril they were in together instead of just ignoring it. In order to get people to work together, she thought, we need to heal the division in our country. People need to feel accepted by the other side. And we all need to stop taking sides. We are one humanity that needs to unite against a common threat. That’s a pretty tall order for a 14-year old, she thought, I need Jayla.

She texted her best friend, Jayla, who lived three doors down, and asked her to come over ASAP. Jayla and Ivy had met in pre-school, when they traded pastel-colored marshmallows for pastel-colored dinner mints at snack time. They both vividly remembered this calculated trade that sealed their friendship and they’d been inseparable ever since. 

Ivy barely put her phone down before Jayla knocked and then let herself in, like she always did. Even though Jayla knew everything about her, Ivy was a little nervous that Jayla wouldn’t believe that her father had appeared to her as a pebble-throwing ghost, then communicated with her through Morse code to tell her she needed to help save humanity by changing consumptive culture. It was more than a little out there! Ivy recognized that she’d have a hard time believing the story if she heard it from someone else, but if there was anyone in the world that might believe her, it was Jayla. 

Jayla was super smart, not just book smart—although she was that too—but also intuitive and wise. Ivy called her an old soul because she always seemed to know what to do in any situation and seemed wise beyond her fourteen years of age. One time when they were swimming at a crowded beach, and the lifeguard hadn’t noticed their friend Kris flailing because the area around the bulkhead was so crowded, Jayla jumped in, brought Kris to shore, and calmly cleared her airways. It was as if saving drowning victims’ lives was something she did every week. Ivy remembered that she’d just stood on the bulkhead, frozen in terror. Yes, there was certainly much more to Jayla than met the eye. She wasn’t just a skinny kid. She was a brilliant hero. She always felt a little awe-struck by her and felt blessed to be able to call her not only a friend, but her best friend. 

“Hey, Jay,” said Ivy as she greeted Jayla at the top of the stairs. They gave each other a quick hug and Jayla perched herself on the edge of the kitchen stool and asked, “What’s up? I thought you were with your dad this weekend.”  

Ivy nodded and dove right in, explaining everything so fast that only a best friend like Jayla could keep up. She started with the fact that her dad had never showed up to pick her up. Shocked at this news, Jayla’s already enormous brown eyes widened. Jayla knew Keith was never late, and that this was super worrisome. She didn’t blink and hung on every word. Ivy asked if Jayla had heard the news that people around the world had disappeared. Jayla nodded, with an expression that said, “duh” and replied that it’s all over the news and social media right now. Ivy then explained the whole encounter with her dad, that he was one of the missing people, and what he’d told her to do. Jayla didn’t question whether Ivy was telling the truth, but just asked Ivy what her plan was to get him back. 

Ivy walked Jayla through her research and explained that her goal was to make a 3.3-ton CO2e lifestyle the norm. Jayla suggested that Ivy should keep it simple and stick with 3 rather than 3.3, because 3.3 didn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely. S-he added that three was a great number to use because it was kind of a magical number representing the past, present, and future; faith, hope, and charity; mind, body, and soul; the holy trinity; birth, life, and death; the beginning, middle, and end, and so on. Ivy was baffled by how Jayla could just rattle that knowledge off without hesitation.

 Jayla pointed out that bringing the number down to three was reducing the American carbon footprint by a little over eighty percent, but she agreed with Ivy that Americans should finally set a good example of what was possible—especially since Americans were, per person, the Earth’s biggest culprits for environmental destruction. She also pointed out that many environmentally-friendly lifestyle choices were expensive and that not everyone could afford to switch—at least not without some help. 

Then Jayla proceeded to school Ivy about environmental justice. Now it was Ivy’s turn to listen intently. Jayla explained, “Environmental justice is about treating all people fairly and involving all people in developing, implementing, and enforcing environmental laws. Currently black and brown-skinned people are much more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods and their rates of asthma and a bunch of cancers are much higher because of this pollution.”

Stunned, Ivy asked, “Why?”

And Jayla responded in typical Jayla fashion with facts and references, “The EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study showing that people of color were much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. Specifically, people in poverty were exposed to more fine particulate matter than people living above poverty—and this is at national, state, and county levels.26 

“Where is all that fine particulate matter coming from, Jay?” asked Ivy.

“Like car fumes, smog, soot, oil smoke, ash, and construction dust,” Jayla explained, “and polluters and pollution are disproportionately located in communities of color. It’s kind of hard to prove, but it seems pretty intentional that so many hazardous waste landfills, coal-burning power plants and hydraulic-fracturing oil wells end up in black and poor neighborhoods.”

Ivy was utterly horrified to learn this appalling information. This calculated racism made her feel despondent, and, once again, ashamed to be white. Yet another example of white people acting like black lives don’t matter. It was incomprehensible to Ivy. Jayla was Black and she meant the world to Ivy. How could anyone ever say people with a certain attribute deserve to be ill-treated? It’s revolting. It’s sinful. It’s inexcusable. It needs to change. Now. She wondered how this behavior could continue and how the people in power who were responsible could live with themselves.

Ivy recognized that even though Jayla was like a sister to her, and she felt like they were practically one, they lived in separate worlds. Never once was Ivy followed around a store with a watchful eye that assumed she might steal something, but Jayla was. Ivy had witnessed it at the drug-store on the corner. That owner had followed Jayla around like an eagle after a mouse as if Jayla would surely steal if she weren’t watched. Seeing the whole charade made Ivy want to pop some stuff into her pocket just so the shopkeeper would rethink her stereotypes. But she didn’t have the nerve to steal anything. When Ivy joined Jayla in the makeup aisle, the worker magically drifted away. Ivy told Jayla she noticed that lady was watching her. Jayla said, “Yeah, I knew it too. Did you see how I was making that dumb lady run all through the store? That’s more exercise than that lady has gotten all week!”

Jayla also told Ivy that her dad had been pulled over multiple times and questioned whether the car he was driving belonged to him. 

Ivy asked naively, “Why would the cop wonder that?” 

Jayla replied, “Because the officer didn’t expect to see a Black man in an Audi.”

Dumb-founded, Ivy shouted, “WHAAAAAT? Your dad is an engineer! Why wouldn’t he be driving a nice car?”

“Right?” Jayla asked rhetorically.

The kicker was that Jayla told Ivy that once a cop questioned her whether she was riding with “this man” voluntarily. At first, Jayla didn’t even realize what the cop was getting at. But she soon realized that the cop thought “this man” might be kidnapping her or something. In response to this insane racial profiling, Jayla had lost it and started screaming at the officer that this was her dad and they were going to a swim meet. Thanks to him, they were going to be late and she’d miss her spot in the starting lineup. 

Ivy agreed with Jayla that they absolutely needed to make environmental justice the basis of their sustainability plan.