The law of large numbers: Even with sustainability, sometimes it is quantity over quality!

I have frequently been asked why all my life hacks and blog posts promote such a moderate approach to sustainability, when what we need right now are radical actions. Today I want to answer this question with numbers.

Radical climate protection feeds the division of our community

In Germany, we see an increase of voters for the Green party – but also increasing influence for the right wing party. The Fridays For Future movement is strong, but the stronger we get, the more anti-movements arise. Even normal people develop fear and hate for climate-friendly activism because they see it as a thread to their lifestyle.

Radical and efficient actions that will have significant impact on the environment, such as switching to a vegan diet or selling the car, also mean to give up some freedom – freedom of choice or movement – for the greater good. Whenever we protest to promote climate-friendly ways of living, others fear that they will be forced to do the same even if they don’t want to.

Freedom is the most important human right. People fear their freedom is at thread by climate protection.
Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash

Naturally, everyone wants to protect his freedom because it is essential – it is the most basic and important human right. When threatened to loose their freedom, people will fight against it – and this way, they will not participate in a climate-friendly way of living.

Instead, I want to promote ways to make life more sustainable and climate-friendly without threatening everyone’s human rights – by showing actions that will not radically change your life. My hope is that we reach much more people like this: With large numbers, we can change the world – one small step at a time!

How Flexitarianism could save the world

As an example, let’s take a closer look at vegetarianism: We can all undoubtedly agree that switching to a veggie or even vegan diet will significantly lower your eco-footprint. Making animal products such as meat causes so much more greenhouse gas than producing vegetables. But going completely veggie is hard, which is why in 2019 only 0.95 % of all Germans were vegan or 7 % vegetarian [1]. At the same time, 80 % of Germans support Fridays For Future and their demands [2]. This means that 80 % of Germans agree that we have to act to save our environment, but won’t switch to a climate-friendly diet.

But instead of trying to get everyone to switch to a vegan or veggie lifestyle, we should try to make everyone eat less meat: This is much easier, will affect their daily lives less and will not feel like a thread to their freedom. Therefore, we might be able to get more people to reduce their meat intake – instead of those few that we could convince to go vegan or veggie.

Meat production causes significant amount of greenhouse gas and fuels the climate crisis!
Photo by Sebastian Holgado on Unsplash

The result? Summed up over the whole community we will reduce our carbon footprint. And the sum over all is what is important! Let’s calculate this through:

The today-Scenario: Currently, we have about 81.6 million people living in Germany. On average, those 80 millions eat about 30 kg of pork, 13 kg of poultry and 10 kg of beef per year [3]. With typical Greenhouse gas emissions per kilo shown e.g. here, this causes more than 350 kg of CO2 equivalent for each German – a total sum of incredible 28.700 millions of kilos of CO2 equivalent for all of Germany, that is 28.700.000.000 kilos!

The every-second-day-Scenario: If we could now motivate just 60 % of all Germans to eat meat only every second day, this number would already shrink to 20.100 millions of kilos: That is almost a third less of what we are now producing! And with the low impact on their lifestyle, this is also reasonable to achieve for 60 % of the population.

The Flexitarian-scenario: And if we went further and got those 60 % to eat meat only at the weekend, we would lower our Greenhouse Gas emission from meat consumption down to already 16.400 millions of kilos: That is almost half what is happening now!

The vegetarian-Scenario: If instead we motivate more people to go veggie and if we would manage to get 14 % (double the vegetarians compared to now), we would still produce 24.700 millions of kilos.

So many numbers, so lets make it visual:

Looking at the total sum of Greenhouse Gases emitted during the production of meat for all of Germany in these scenarios, we can clearly see that the Flexitarian diet has the highest effect. And due to its low impact on the everyday life, its acceptance for 60% of all Germans is reasonable. To achieve the same reduction in Greenhouse Gases, we would need for 55 % of Germans to go completely vegetarian – which is way harder!

I know that I am making a lot of assumptions here and calculate this only for meat, not considering other animal products and additional stuff veggies have to eat to replace meat. Still it demonstrates my point:

Why large numbers are important

The law of large numbers that I am presenting here is not the one I know from studying math. I am talking about the effect we have on the environment if we change our behavior all together. This has the highest effect and is our only chance. With only few people changing their behavior massively, we still won’t achieve enough to change the path we are on. This is why we have to take this change one step at a time. Change cause resistance, and the more radical the change, the more radical the resistance. By taking small steps, we can reach higher acceptance in the community and thereby a much higher effect with those large numbers. So please help us: Spread the word!

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash


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