Does ignorance of numbers help people defend against their impact on the climate?

June 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

 

I meet a lot of people who tell me they are ‘hopeless with numbers’ or ‘useless at maths’. There seems to be little shame in the admission. I’m not brilliant at maths either. I struggled in the remedial ‘O’ level class and was relieved to be allowed to drop the subject in the sixth form. I associated it with dull blokes who tucked their trousers into their socks when cycling and earnest girls who preferred the chemistry lab to sexual chemistry.

The environment world sometimes seems full of the same dullness. People who think that telling me that the UK produces enough rubbish every hour to fill the Albert Hall, will change my mind about where to drop that aluminium can. Or that the way to my ecological heart is to stun me with the news that a tonne of CO2 would fill my house.

It’s easy to mock, but staying ignorant of numbers can also be a way of defending against the gravity of one’s impact on the climate. Here are some of the things I’ve been told in groups and interviews where we calculated people’s actual carbon footprints:

  • “I think one’s spiritual connection to the environment is more important than the actual numbers.”
  • “Is 15 tonnes really worse than 10 tonnes?”
  • “I think numbers can distract you from the politics.”
  • “Numbers are so abstract – they make my head ache and they don’t motivate me.”
  • “I’d rather live an ethical life than get obsessed by numbers.”

Each of these people was struggling with the news that their carbon footprint was above average. Some of the statements contain interesting truths. Some are nonsense. Behind them lies the anxiety of being a poor environmental citizen, being asked to make changes that are hard or being accused of selfishness. Believing that numbers don’t matter is culturally acceptable and allows people to segue easily away from their discomfort.

As a teenager passing my maths GCE exam involved facing anxieties about self-image and about failure. Only then could I drop my defence that numbers were stupid and unsexy and enjoy my limited ability to use them creatively. Some people face a similar task when confronted with their environmental impact. They can’t grapple with the realities that the numbers reveal unless they can also find a way to cope with the anxiety and discomfort. So instead of realising that they have the power to make a real difference they hide behind the belief that the numbers are too difficult, boring or stupid to concern themselves with.

If you can bear it, here are just three numbers to think about.

  • 15 tonnes – the average personal UK footprint – the one you are likely to have if you have an average UK income.
  • 4 tonnes – the average world footprint.
  • 1.5 tonnes – the level of a sustainable footprint.

If you visit the WWF website, you can make a rough calculation of your own footprint. Or you can join a Carbon Conversations group and discover, in the company of others, that it is possible to make changes to your life and that the numbers are not as frightening as you thought.

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