What does it take to have a low carbon footprint? Sure, we can go vegan, reduce our dependence on plastic, drive less or even ditch our cars, and take fewer flights. But even these major lifestyle changes only get you so far in our industrialized society that is so dependent on fossil fuels. How far does someone have to go to live a truly “green” life? You might imagine that you would have to live off the grid, isolated and outside of civilization.
As it turns out, it is possible to drastically reduce your carbon footprint without homesteading in the wilderness—but it does take some major sacrifices that many people would be unwilling or totally unable to make. John Cossham, who officially has the smallest carbon footprint in the United Kingdom, might just be the best example of the lengths someone has to go to in order to live a nearly carbon-neutral life in a modern city powered by fossil fuels.
Cossham dropped out of college in 1984 after realizing that he wanted to live a truly eco-friendly life. He began championing environmental causes and made every effort to live sustainably in a society that seemed determined to make it as difficult as possible. In 2008, Oxfam held a competition to find the person with the smallest carbon footprint in the UK. Cossham was a clear winner: his footprint of 0.45 tonnes per year was so low that the judges actually thought it was a mistake at first!
So, how does Cossham do it? For starters, he does not own a car and never travels by plane. If he needs to go somewhere local, he will walk or hop on his bike. He doesn’t leave the UK (although he could get to continental Europe by bus or train if he wanted to), and to travel long distances within the UK, he travels by train.
Cossham and his wife, Gill, live in a trailer in York, England. He works as a children’s entertainer, and he won’t accept gigs outside of a reasonable biking distance. He also rarely buys anything new—instead, he frequents thrift shops.
On most mornings, he eschews a hot shower and washes up with cold water and a flannel instead—hot showers are a luxury that he indulges in about four times a year. He’s basically a forager and a “freegan,” so he dumpster dives quite frequently. He will occasionally eat animal products if they’ve been thrown out. He and his wife do have a garden for vegetables and herbs, and he’ll also eat her home cooking.
The couple has a compost toilet and a woodstove in their home, which Cossham uses to cook—Gill, however, does use the oven sometimes. This keeps their electricity bills very low.
Cossham says that he’s very happy with the life he leads, and that he does not feel deprived. However, it’s unlikely that everyone would want to adopt the same lifestyle, and many people wouldn’t even be able to.
What lessons can we learn from Cossham and his extraordinary efforts to lower his carbon footprint? Well, first of all, achieving a minimal carbon footprint and participating in modern society is very difficult. But then again, so is homesteading and becoming self-sufficient off the grid. Basically, this means that no matter which path someone wants to take, living a genuinely sustainable lifestyle is not easy. Making those early, basic changes is great, but to really reduce your impact, it’s just not that simple.
The moral of the story? Yes, we have to continue encouraging individuals to change their habits. After all, progressive movements that effect change don’t start from the top down. They are born of grassroots efforts to create a better world, and early adopters are usually normal people, not powerful public figures. But Cossham’s story also reveals the limits of a movement focused on individual change. When real sustainable living demands so much from the average person, the majority of people won’t be able to make these changes.
What else can be done? Where can we go from here? The goals of environmental activists comprise both individual effort and systemic change. We need to pressure political leaders and major institutions to create a “green” society. We need to imagine a future where making sustainable choices doesn’t involve so much personal sacrifice or inconvenience—where living a “green” lifestyle is so sensible that these decisions are second nature. What if sustainability was the default, not the option that took extra effort? That’s the version of the future we need to focus on.
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