Climate Change: It's Not a Technology Problem... It's a Behavior Problem

I was sitting at my desk when the familiar ping notified me of an incoming email. I opened it right away, seeing it was from a dear friend who is also an architect. When I absorbed the contents, I fell back into my chair. No single piece of news had rendered useless all that I had been working for, so quickly. The statistics read…



I closed my laptop thinking, “We are doomed.” Having worked on Passive House projects for almost ten years, I am excited to see the momentum the movement is experiencing. I have thought many times about the importance of retrofits. I have understood that building “new” is not going to relieve us of the problem of all of those existing leaky envelopes but a new Manhattan every month? No calculation is needed for me to know that this isn’t sustainable. Our community can scurry down the rabbit hole of embodied energy and yes, it is an important issue to master, but it will not lead us to the kind of scale of change that we need to see in the timeframe that we have.

While I was grossly disappointed by Michael Moore’s latest movie Planet of the Humans, there is one very valuable insight it offers. The narrator accuses environmentalists of working to preserve the lifestyle that we now have. While the movie makes absolutely no suggestion about the right path to take, only criticizing those who are trying to make a difference, that comment is right on. Our movement is trying to protect life as we know it. Life as we know it is the problem. Even Passive House lobbies to maintain the status quo in terms of thermal comfort in buildings. No one since Jimmy Carter talks about putting on a sweater or extending the boundaries of our thermal comfort.

I am reminded of Bill McDonough’s phrase about energy efficiency, popular twenty years ago. He was talking about the importance of reaching zero energy targets rather than focusing on energy efficiency. It was something like….” If you want to reach to Canada, but are heading in the direction of Mexico, going more slowly to Mexico doesn’t get you to Canada, it just takes longer to get to Mexico.” When I read about “a new Manhattan every month”, I saw how fast we are hurtling toward Mexico.

What we are facing isn’t a technology problem, it is a human behavior problem. Tim McDonald, of Onion Flats fame, has a great story about three Passive House rowhouses that he designed. After a few months after having them occupied, he looked at the utility numbers and only one of the three units was operating as predicted by the energy model. The other two were high, one moderately high and the other wildly high. He learned that in one unit, one of the occupants smoked and afraid of bothering his housemate, opened the door and blew the smoke outside, keeping the door wide open each time he had a cigarette regardless of the temperature outside. In the wildly high energy-use scenario, a woman was operating a laundry service for the neighborhood from her unit and the energy was use for domestic hot water was staggering. This is a tiny example of how our behavior matters most. It is not just our behavior surrounding energy use. COVID-19 has shown us that the way we live our lives is one of the largest contributions to the problem.

Our behavior MUST change. Our planet is telling us change or die. It is common knowledge in psychology that in order to change behavior you have to change awareness, your thoughts and beliefs about yourself. Beliefs about ourselves, lead to feelings, and those feelings lead to our behavior. In order to change our behavior, we need to change the beliefs about ourselves. We need to behave differently…this means changing how we think.

During the pandemic, we witnessed how when armed with facts about our health, we were able to shut down the ever-precious economy and choose health over profit. Seven billion people turned on a dime when they thought their health was at risk…think about that. It illustrates how unaware most people are about the effects that the climate crisis will have on their health.

What we have is an awareness problem. If people really become aware about the health implications that climate destabilization threatens, they can change quickly. But most of our seven billion have not made that connection. We also saw the power of individuals acting collectively. People’s individual actions do make a difference. Acting collectively, they can make a huge difference. This insight offers a significant glimmer of hope. It is the possibility of our culture’s rebirth.

We know that our behavior during the early months of COVID 19 resulted in drastically reduced emissions, still not enough to reverse climate change but making a huge step in the right direction. It was a larger step than all the passive houses collectively that have been built so far have made. What changed? We paused. Not all of us, but a huge number of us stopped commuting all over the place, started to think about travel strategically, and simply did less. I have been heartened by the challenges of the pandemic that felt so limiting but offered so many gifts.

In the US we have established routines, expectations, and values around how we work and live that are inherently unhealthy and unsustainable. We sit in front of screens for hours at a time, sedentary and hire others who are “less skilled” to do manual labor for us. We call them “essential” only in a pandemic. We purchase gym memberships so that our bodies don’t lose their fitness, because of our sedentary lifestyle. We prop ourselves up using caffeine and deprive ourselves of downtime in an effort to get ahead. Work dominates most of our lives. Computer technology has reduced the amount of time that a response is expected to happen to minutes not days. For most, there is no real away from work. Corporations feed on our overextended lives offering solutions to our anxieties by dangling the next cool thing to buy as the salve for our hard work, even though we have little time to enjoy them. These goodies represent the fruits of our labor expressed in trips to the shopping mall, or boxes arriving from Amazon. Most of us are in jobs where moreis always better. We think of LESS IS MORE as an idea about simplicity in design but not as a model for living. Not all of us participate in this system full force, but I do not know one person who does not contribute to it to some degree. The pandemic has made clear that the most important thing for us to do is to try to STOP! When we stopped, the planet started to recover. We need more being and less doing.

Change is never fast, and we still have time to adapt to another way of living, but we need to start now. It is not about giving up, it is about moving into a better quality of life, by doing, choosing, having less so we can experience and enjoy more.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the 10 billion number. How can we overcome that reality? I want to recall another nugget of wisdom from Bill McDonough. There is abundance in nature. When the settlers first came to the U.S. the rivers were so thick with fish that you could bend down and pluck them out. The fish were healthy and thriving. It isn’t our numbers that matter as much as how we are living.

I hear a lot of stories in the media discussing how we can return to normal as quickly as possible. It is important to recognize that normal wasn’t normal. We need to ask ourselves why do we want to go back?

We have a dying planet, where…

  • We have a narcissistic and abusive relationship to the land, our sole life support system

  • We fly food around the globe so the we are not limited to eating within the seasons often spending more energy in fuel than the energy embodied in the food

  • We slaughter 200 million land animals each day for food (3 billion if you count fish)

  • If we return half of the land that we use for livestock to its natural state we would make a large dent in the land’s ability to absorb carbon reducing the climate threat

  • The transmission of zoonotic disease is increasing along with the number of pandemics due to habitat destruction

  • Air-pollution is estimated to be responsible for over 4 million premature deaths a year

  • The economy only supports the citizens at the top

  • We reward having money, despite the methods used to procure it

  • There is a broken social contract with minorities and people of color

Is the life that we had really worth rushing back to? No. For those who can only imagine returning to what was, there is a colossal failure of imagination. The life we had is killing us. We need to step into a better, healthier, and more fulfilling one.

Imagination and change are what we need most right now. How can our communities create a way of living that respects people and the planet before profit? How can we remake our economy into one that isn’t based on incessant growth? How do we develop a culture that minimizes our need for constant reassurance around success and money? How can we uplift our fellow men from poverty, a lack of education, and the right to a decent life? How can we have a society that is based not on domination but on partnership? How can we continue to use the skills we have but first do no harm? We have some of these solutions in hand already, but we need to begin living them. We need to achieve less, and to live more.

It isn’t giving up the life we have worked so hard for. It means stepping into a better one. A life that supports us and the world we depend on. We have a lot of work to do, beginning with our mental health; our own awareness. It starts with us.

I implore my fellow members in the Passive House Community to consider choices carefully. You are already pioneers, in our work…I am asking you to lead again as role models in life. If you are reading this, you are already a thought leader who can influence your peers. Realistically we are not going to be able to stop completely, but we can make better choices. We can slow the train down, buy ourselves time, so we can change direction, and get to Canada.

If we all do it, we know that we can make a big difference. Thinking about who we are as people is what really matters and always has. It isn’t nearly as easy as “business as usual”, but it is the only way to find real solutions.

(Featured photo above is by Callum Shaw on Unsplash)

Author: Laura Nettleton
Categories: Climate Action