It took us a while to come to that conclusion. Although we’d been working in environmental media and design for years, we both knew something wasn’t right. Sure, we were reporting out the stories, smartly renovating our homes, eating less meat, and mindfully buying less. We even wrote a book about it. And over the past fifteen years, since launching green news site TreeHugger.com and, for Graham, running LifeEdited, a small-space living development firm, we’ve seen awareness about climate change and environmental challenges skyrocket. In fact, one recent survey showed that 70 percent of respondents were more aware now than before Covid-19 that human activity threatens the climate.
We thought we were fighting the good fight.
In reality, the numbers tell a different story. Since we launched Treehugger in 2004, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has only accelerated. Today, we are at 415 parts per million – dangerously over the 350 limit that is considered safe. Despite all of our hard work, it turns out, awareness has not translated into action.
How could so many people care so much, and yet the needle is still moving in the wrong direction? It’s easy to point fingers at the politicians and the corporations. But what about the fingers pointing back at us? We both realized we were missing something, but what? We knew we could do more. We knew we needed to prompt change in the real world, by influencing real people in real time. And we believed that individuals have the power to create massive change.
Change starts small, but when it is real and when it is felt, it can become a steamroller. Social movements need to influence just 3.5 percent of the population to mobilize change. We began to think about how we could reach that tipping point. If we could get people to understand the big levers behind their own carbon footprint, and how they can manage them, would they begin to connect more dots and, more importantly, do something about it? After all, if you were committed to a healthy lifestyle and losing weight, you wouldn’t just read about nutrition and exercise, right? You’d count calories and measure activity then begin to see results. That expertise might inspire a few friends, who’d ask you how you accomplished it, and where you struggled, which you’d likely be happy to share. In short, you’d influence their behavior.
If you’re like us, you're more worried than ever about the climate and other environmental problems, your own wellbeing, and your children’s future – and you’re ready to make a change. That’s why we wanted to build an effective way to help people drop carbon, save money, and improve their health, too.
We know that in addition to individuals, it will take policy and political will to win the fight for our earth and our species. But here’s why we’re starting small – with you, your neighbor, your best friend. Taking meaningful action in your personal life means making changes that work for your circumstances. But equally powerful may be the message this sends to those around you. Movements start when we create change and conversation within our own circle of influence.
How will we influence 3.5 percent of the population? One person at a time. That’s how we came up with the idea for The Carbonauts, a six-week, live online course focused on motivating individuals to align their actions with their values. It's all about learning the most accessible, effective steps anyone can take in ways that work for them personally.
We call these actions "The Big Five." Centered around residential renewable energy, optimizing driving, a plant-rich diet and reducing food waste, smarter flying, and purchasing offsets, these are programmatic steps that anyone can incorporate into their lives to make significant and positive change where it comes to the climate. While there are lots of things you can do to become a little greener, The Big Five address the most impactful steps each of us can take in our personal lives.
We know that none of this works unless it’s perfectly tailored to your lifestyle. We know it has to be easy and realistic for people to reduce their footprints. That’s why we deliver the why, the how, the support, and the accountability to get it done. We’ve taken these steps ourselves and know what it takes, so we offer real life advice and knowledge.
During the six-week course, which is taught by Graham and a handful of other experts, we assess personal circumstances (do you have kids? pay your own utility bills? commute to work?) and use behavioral change science to help people build sustainable habits that go beyond just recycling. We were aware that in order to work, the plan has to be sustainable – not just for the planet, but in day-to-day life, too.
We also wanted to create a community where people can join wherever they are along their journey. That’s why we call ourselves a Judgement Free Zone. Whether you are a vegan or an omnivore, you’re welcome to join us. We’ll meet you where you are, find solutions that work for you, and help you move from awareness to action.
Ultimately, most of our students reduce their footprint by 10–40 percent in the first six weeks. That’s promising. But our end goal is even loftier. We want to be part of a larger movement that empowers people to make change in their own lives so that they can influence others around them, too. Because when you live and breathe your values, it makes the argument – whether to an uncle or the city council – a lot more authentic, compelling, and extraordinarily inspiring.
About the authors
Graham Hill, one of Fast Co.’s “100 Most Creative People in Business,” is an environmental entrepreneur and frequent speaker on how to create a wealthier, greener, and happier planet. His two main-stage TED talks have reached more than 10 million people. Hill founded one of the earliest Internet consultancies, the groundbreaking website TreeHugger.com, and LifeEdited, a small-space living consultancy. TreeHugger, long the most trafficked green site, sold to Discovery Channel and has served billions of pageviews.
Meaghan O’Neill is a journalist and former editor-in-chief of Discovery Channel and TreeHugger.com. Her writing has appeared in publications worldwide, including The Guardian, Architectural Digest, and Slate.com, where her series on sustainability was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.