Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less

Book Review: Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less by Leidy Klotz

Published by Flatiron Books, 304 pages

Review by Victoria Ines

The title of the book Subtract happens to be a fairly accurate summary of its contents. Through seemingly unrelated experiments, personal stories, and professional experiences, author Leidy Klotz makes a solid case proving that subtracting could be an effective answer to many societal issues. Whether it is removing an unnecessary freeway in California, refusing to fund the apartheid system in South Africa, or extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, society has the potential to be drastically improved, simply by subtracting.

I often quip that it isn’t “quality over quantity” that is rewarded, but “quantity over quality.” As a rising senior in high school, I have had 12 years to experience teachers’ natural bias toward more. Less is seen as the product of laziness, so more must be better. It is very rare for a teacher to request a maximum of (blank) words. Instead, students are almost always asked for a minimum word count. Even when teachers don’t set a word or page limit, I often find myself adding more than is needed, thinking that the extraneous words will make my paper better. But this phenomenon isn’t unique to teachers or students. Klotz bases his entire book on the idea that we all subconsciously prefer to add.

To demonstrate people’s collective inclination toward adding rather than subtracting, we might consider a simple example. In an experiment inspired by his three-year-old son, Klotz requested that participants complete a Lego bridge. To successfully build it, they must decide whether to add or subtract a single brick, without specific instructions. Even when told that the use of each extra brick would cost money, a majority of the participants still added. However, when prompted with the phrase “you may add or subtract,“ more people chose to subtract. This phenomenon indicated that most people did not even consider the possibility of subtracting, but when prompted, decided that it was a good idea.

Klotz acknowledged that the issue is not necessarily that people add. Instead, it is that people do not even consider the act of subtraction as an option. By removing an entire category of potential solutions, humanity is preventing itself from finding the best option. Granted, for some instances adding could be a better choice. The key, he says, is that both adding and subtracting must be implemented simultaneously. For instance, the number of pages in The Code of Federal Regulations — which lists all rules written by each federal agency — has increased by 1,800% in 70 years. While many useful rules have been added to the code, agencies have neglected to subtract outdated rules, which can waste resources.

Of course, it would be impossible to discuss the constant adding of humans without considering the damage we do with this practice. More specifically, humans have been the main source of carbon emissions for a long time, leading to some devastating consequences. Klotz’s solution for climate change is probably clear at this point — subtraction. The question, however, is “how” and “in what way.” According to Klotz, we must learn to triage. Most people — whether they have taken it to heart or not — have heard of the aphorism, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” This is, after all, one of the first environmental lessons that a child learns. However, while Klotz admits that the 3 R’s are, for the most part, a step in the right direction, they neglect the most important R — remove. Rather than becoming “carbon-neutral,” countries should aim to be “carbon negative.” Although Klotz has no concrete answer for how this will be achieved, Costa Rica, one of the pioneering nations in carbon removal, provides an effective solution that utilizes both adding and subtracting — adding trees with a goal of subtracting CO2.

The final chapter addresses how we can now turn this new knowledge into wisdom — in other words, how to use subtraction to combat climate change and other social issues. “It is by stripping down elements of the system that we find essence.” Essentially, once the unnecessary information is pruned and the important information is known, it can be used. We are in dire need of such wisdom, so I suggest that people read this book. Widespread acknowledgment of the ideas outlined in “Subtract” could be the beginning of an entirely new method of approaching climate change.

Victoria Ines is a rising senior at Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, NY. She is passionate about working to protect both the environment and endangered species. After high school, she would like to attend college to study engineering or biology.

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