The 80/20 Proposition

Photo by Michelle Craig.

Photo by Michelle Craig.

The 80/20 Proposition

By Jim Poyser

The day I became a full-time environmentalist, I bought a car.

   In my former job, I lived a sweet 15-minute bike ride or a 40-minute walk from the office. I could use my wife’s car if I really needed one. So it wasn’t much a problem to not have a car.

   Then I became executive director of a statewide environmental organization, Earth Charter Indiana, and had to face the fact: I needed a car to get around Indiana. So I bought one, from a friend, for a thousand bucks: 1999 Honda Accord. I’m fond of saying it belongs to a previous millennia.

   But I say that “previous millennia” joke in part to assuage my guilt about driving, or at least to resolve the cognitive dissonance this car creates for me. Transportation, in the form of cars and trucks, accounts for at least a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. So here I am, working mostly with young people on fighting climate change, driving a car.

   Now let me count the number of times I have flown in a plane to attend an environmental-oriented conference: 3, soon to be 4. Add numerous regional conferences I’ve driven to: 6 or more. There are times I think I’d make more of a positive impact on the climate if I just stayed home.

   Now take this transportation imbroglio of mine and extend it to all sectors of existence: food, water, energy — in short, consumption.

   In the midst of this contradictory puzzle, I have determined the following: The greenest way to go is not to be conceived in the first place.

   So, okay, you were born — hello! — and you’re a carbon emitter, now what?

   No one is perfect or can be perfect and if you try to be you end up undercutting yourself with hopelessness and despair. Thus, I say try for what I call the 80/20 Proposition.

   Let’s stick with transportation to explain what I mean by that. For me, my philosophy is basically this: how I get to where I am going is almost as important as what I do when I get there. If I can walk, bike or bus somewhere, I’m good. If I have to drive, then carpooling is the way to go. If I have to drive alone, I will make sure to flagellate myself with stinging nettles.

   In the past few years, the IndyGo bus has been a revelation. Why everyone doesn’t take the bus is beyond me. Arguments that it’s late, it’s filled with reprobates, etc., don’t hold up to the reality of actual bus-use. Riding the bus is a dream; you can read, work, scroll through your Instagram, look out the window. Behold! You can even have a conversation with a stranger. I’ve met some pretty amazing people on the bus, from the retired podiatrist who volunteers his services to a community-in-need, to a blind man who considers the bus his ticket to independence, to a female impersonator impersonator. Yes, you read that correctly.

   Given nobody’s perfect, reduce your use of automobile driving by 80 percent. Can you do more? Sure. I know a number of people who have given up their cars and now use mass transit, bikes, whatever, to get around. For me, 80 percent is a challenge but doable.

   Now try that — with a myriad of complications, of course — with other aspects of consumption. How about you reduce/reuse/recycle 80 percent of your goods.

   You probably can’t reduce your energy use by 80 percent especially in Indiana where self-generated renewable energy is fraught with obstacles — literally, in this season’s Statehouse — so trying flipping the equation, reduce energy by 20%. The diet possibilities are endless, when it comes to this 80/20 Proposition. 

   When it comes to your civic life, i.e. volunteering for an organization, meeting with your congress-person, attending a protest or city council meetings, writing letters to the editor, etc., if you can’t spend 80 percent of your time advocating for the planet, then try for 20.

   The truth is there is no longer an option to do nothing. We are in the era of climate destabilization, and if you aren’t doing something dramatic to change your life and your local consumption systems, your grandchildren or great-grandchildren, as they sit in caves, shivering, figuring out which one of them they are going to eat next, will be casting evil spells upon your demonic, lazy spirit.

   I am kidding, but honestly, I am afraid I am not.

   We have a little time left, the relative luxury of a few last years to get this right, on a personal level and on a civic level. Begin with yourself. Once you get started on something, you will discover the benefits rather quickly, whether it’s a healthier lifestyle (exercise, diet, etc.), or the ineffable benefits of living a more sustainable existence. Then, buoyed by your courage, jump into a civic life.

   I mean, since you were conceived and all, it’s your moral imperative to try.

   Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana. He can be reached at

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