4- Planetary Harm Reduction

By AppleJax & P. Wingnut

Everyone can agree that putting carbon into the atmosphere is really, really bad.  But we need to be strategic if we want to actually successfully steer humanity away from this behavior—and steer us away fast enough to make a difference!

The trouble with the abstinence approach.

For many years, I’ve been part of activist efforts to combat climate change, and a lot of our organizing energy has been directed towards what I call the “abstinence approach” to carbon emissions.  When we use the abstinence approach, we spend all of our organizing energy trying to get people to stop doing things.  For example, efforts to convince people to stop driving, stop flying, etc.

This approach fails to take into account the complexity of human behavior and is similar to other knee-jerk abstinence approaches, such as when religious people demand full sexual abstinence, or people who demand that drug addicts immediately quit cold-turkey.  “Stop, stop, stop,” is the message we’re sending out.

The trouble with this approach is that sociological and psychological studies show that it simply doesn’t work.  Doctrines that push for abstinence are ineffective at best, and backfire at worst.

For example, abstinence-only sexual education has been shown to increase the likelihood of teen pregnancies and the contraction of STIs.  Additionally, abstinence-only approaches to drug users tend to lead to riskier behavior and higher rates of addiction.

Likewise, the heavy-handed “abstinence” approach to carbon-emissions that myself and many others have tried to use over the last few decades doesn’t seem to be working. Case in point:

— Based on the most recent data, 92% of American households still own a car.  So, even after decades of activists urging everyone to stop driving—and even with millennials supposedly driving less—over 90% of American households are still driving!

— A majority of Americans still purchase goods every week that are shipped from over 100 miles away, meaning carbon had to be burned to get those goods to them.

— There are more airplanes in the sky now than there have ever been.

We need better, smarter, more strategic approaches that factor in human behavior. This is why I would like to suggest that we take time to learn from the activist communities who have been working on an approach regarding drug addiction known as Harm Reduction. This has a more realistic chance of leading to a swifter end to carbon emissions once and for all.

About the Harm Reduction Approach

Rather than just commanding someone to quit, harm reduction tries to make drug use safer. This does two things: (1) discussing drug use more openly reduces the stigma surrounding drug use, which ultimately makes it easier for the person to take responsibility for their own behavior or ask for help without being judged, and  (2) it reduces the harm to the person and others caused by the drug usage.

For example, in the case of someone addicted to heroin, this might mean making sure they have access to clean needles, and that they have NARCAN available so if they overdose, someone can hopefully save their life.  The clean needles help prevent the spread of disease. Reducing shame may help remove the automatic-ness of a behavior, and creates more emotional room for a person to make more nuanced decisions.

The harm reduction model is wildly effective.  The country of Portugal serves as a great example of how effective harm reduction is: in July 2001, Portugal made all drugs legal, and public harm reduction centers were established where individuals could get clean needles, test their drugs, and talk to a clinician about their drug usage. The result: addiction rates fell dramatically!  Today, Portugal’s drug-induced death rate is 5 times lower than the European Union average, and on top of that, the country’s HIV infection rate has plummeted from 104.2 new cases per million in year 2000 to 4.2 cases per million in 2015.

What’s wild about this is that in the 1980s, Portugal was using an abstinence approach to drug use, and during that time, it had one of the highest addiction rates in the world: an estimated 1 in 10 people were addicted to heroin while the government was issuing shame-based statements like “Just say No!” and “Drugs are Satan.”


Shaming people often backfires. Harm reduction and non-shaming approaches are the way to go!

How to apply the harm reduction model to planet

There is no safe level of carbon emissions — the world has to get to zero emissions which requires changing almost all current technological and economic systems. But just like how it is better to be using clean needles in a supervised injection site while you’re addicted to heroin, to kick carbon its best to start with reducing harms, which may open possibilities for greater change down the line.

A lot of carbon dependence is determined by corporations, governments and the economic system and it’s not about individual choices. For changing those systems, the only path is social uprisings and movements.

Nonetheless, some emissions are based on individual choices which are strongly structured by cultural norms as well as the economic / political system. For those choices, carbon dependence is addiction-like. An able-bodied person casually driving alone in an SUV a short distance on a sunny day is like an addict using a dirty needle because it’s an unnecessary and reckless danger to yourself and others.

Driving a smaller car, driving it less often and only for harder to access destinations not accessible by bike or served by public transit reduces the harm. The very process of thinking about these changes reduces the stigma of talking about and thinking about carbon dependence — like when clean needles are made available. Maybe eventually we’ll kick carbon altogether.

This isn’t a perfect analogy but the crux is avoiding abstinence / extreme thinking about carbon use. Its causing a lot of people to shut down and tune out rather than change. Rather than trying to convince people who currently don’t know how to live without cars and flying and factory farming to change all their habits at once, its better to make fossil fuel dependence less harmful.

Some tips for transitioning to a harm reduction approach to carbon emissions:

— Avoid shame and shaming language about specific tech usage. This makes it more likely that a person will disengage from dialogues about their usage.

— Use compassionate language about carbon-burning. This can be hard, especially when you see so clearly how harmful carbon-burning is to everyone on this planet. But approaching a carbon-user with compassion and forgiveness helps create the emotional and social space for them to navigate away from their usage.

—Just like giving out free condoms and free needles, lower carbon alternatives need to be free and/or cheaper than any carbon-burning options.  This is the strongest, fastest way to get people to switch.

— Remove conditions that are preventing free/cheap distribution of alternatives. There is important work to be done in removing any and all social systems that are preventing the cost-free replacement of all carbon-burning tech with carbon-free alternatives.

As we enter the 2020s, I hope we can spend this decade ending all carbon emissions, or at the least, slowing them to a trickle. I am done working hard without results. I’m ready for a smarter approach.