Is the Green Movement Just Spinning Its Wheels?
Can individuals make a real dent in climate change, or does our future hinge on government intervention?
For GBAGreenBuildingAdvisor.com senior editor Martin Holladay, it all started with a column in The New York Times provocatively titled “Going Green But Getting Nowhere.”
The author, Gernot Wagner, contends that individuals can make no meaningful impact on reducing carbon emissions and staving off global climate change.
Even if each of the 1 billion Catholics on Earth decreased their emissions to zero overnight, Wagner writes, “the planet would surely notice but pollution would still be rising.”
“So why bother recycling or riding your bike to the store? Because we all want to do something, anything,” Wagner adds. “Call it ‘action bias.’ But, sadly, individual action does not work. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough. Self-interest, not self-sacrifice, is what induces noticeable change. Only the right economic policies will enable us as individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the planet.”
And by that, he means a cap-and-trade approach put into place by government.
Holladay (who has lived off the grid for many years) doesn’t agree. “My own opinion differs from Wagner’s,” he writes in a post at GreenBuildingAdvisor. “I’m a firm believer in the importance of personal actions that are consistent with our goals — but I agree that without governmental action, we face a grim future indeed.
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“I also disagree with the author's belief that living off the grid is a form of purgatory,” Holladay adds. “Really, Gernot, it's not so bad.”
So what’s it going to be? Personal action or government policy? That’s the subject of this week’s Q&A Spotlight.
More pain equals more action
AJ Builder thinks action will become likely when the impact of global warming and climate change become sufficiently painful. “One thing I think we all know,” he says. “If something starts biting us, we work hard to stop it. So when and if CO2 levels really start to cause some real pain then we most likely will work hard to stop it (the pain, at least.)”
AJ Builder adds, however, that one thing often missing from the debate over rising carbon emissions is the economic benefit they bring. “Personally, I agree with some who logically state that the benefits of higher CO2 are left out of most discussions. Economy is doing. Rebuilding homes on higher land is [part of the] economy, a job creator. I love playing in surf, but also love driving a nail. My conclusion: Climate change is a job creator. Work is great way to live. And working to lower CO2 is too!”
But if we wait until the consequences of global warming are really uncomfortable, Holladay replies, climate scientists believe it will be too late. And, adds Jesse Thompson, the time may already have arrived: “Anyone who thinks climate change is ‘going’ to start causing real pain just hasn't been reading the news lately,” he says. “The folks in Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Texas [states where floods and wildfires have displaced thousands of residents] might beg to differ right now.”
A clash of cultures?
Maybe it is the fact that “first world” inhabitants — those who live in highly developed industrial countries with robust economies — believe their wealth somehow excuses them from certain collective responsibilities.
“I think the fundamental problem is this: people in ‘first world’ countries feel that if you are affluent enough to afford occasional or frequent air travel, driving all the time, and meat with every meal, then you are off the hook for minding your carbon footprintAmount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that a person, community, industry, or other entity contributes to the atmosphere through energy use, transportation, and other means. because only a communist could expect you to give these things up just to avoid screwing up the planet,” writes Thomas Jefferson. “The only acceptable steps have to look and feel like what people are used to (e.g. choosing a slightly more fuel efficient gas powered vehicle) rather than making any significant changes.”
AJ Builder thinks people will adjust. “We are not going to pull back CO2 at the pace that the Gore types are asking for,” AJ writes. “It isn't happening, period. Taking that reality in, what next? Start wringing our hands? No. What will happen is, most will adjust to whatever is thrown at them. Some won't. Some will be affected. Some will die. In due time we all will die — no biggie ... Climate is ever-changing. Smart tribes deal with it.
“... Just saying, gents: ... adjust and prosper ... When the waves come your way, surf or move to high ground.”
You’re thinking like an American, replies Paul Brazelton. “Most of the people in the world do not have the mobility, wealth, and information necessary to adapt to climate change. Look to Bangladesh for an idea of how climate change impacts whole nations; when the storms come, these people aren't looking to hang ten — they're figuring out how to keep their children alive on $150 a month.” Or less.
Is it already too late to prevent climate change?
Brazelton is reminded of an article by George Monbiot called “Small is Useless.” In the article, Monbiot argues that small-scale electrical generation won’t solve climate change and, worse, such generation diverts attention and resources from things that would be more successful, like large-scale off-shore wind generation.
“On one hand, I think both Wagner and Monbiot are correct,” Brazelton writes. “Personal-scale action in our current situation is, holistically speaking, worthless. On the other hand, this does not excuse inaction. We are each responsible for our own actions and impacts, regardless of what direction our government goes. Being part of a murderous regime does not absolve us of our own murderous actions.”
Even so, from Brazelton’s point of view, the situation will only go from bad to worse. “Martin, it was too late a very long time ago,” he says. “Our economic and social systems are too fragile to handle even one environmental disaster at a time. AJ makes the argument that when humans feel enough pain, they'll respond. Unfortunately, the 'pain' we're feeling right now is the whine of a mini-gun spinning up. Once the real damage starts, there will be no chance at an effective response.”
That may be so, but Jesse Thompson agrees with Brazelton on the need for a sense of personal responsibility. And who knows? “It's never too late — people always seem to be capable of amazing things once they start actually working towards a goal collectively,” Thompson says. “I like Jason McLennan from Living Building Challenge's quote, very roughly paraphrased: ‘All we need to do is completely rebuild and transform the entire U.S. economy within a decade. And for all the doubters, we've already done it multiple times. Railroads and electrification did it once, the WPA did it again, and the superhighway and suburban build-out completely transformed the country yet again after WWII. Let's just get on with the next one...’
“It would be nice to get started, however.”
Our expert’s opinion
Some thoughts from GBA technical director Peter Yost:
Ecosystems never have caretakers or managers. For a long time, humans have either (often unknowingly) opted OUT of the ecosystem or claimed the title and rights of caretaker or manager without completing understanding or performing the accompanying responsibilities. Trouble is, you can neither really opt out nor manage an ecosystem. It is by definition “self-organizing.”
Some environmental degradation is the sort where a concerted effort gives timely and successful results (think ozone depletion and the holes in the ozone layer over the poles), but many, like global warming, operate on a huge global flywheel, and we are simply at the tail end of a grand experiment waiting for the final results.
We are the CO2 “Bigfoots” of the world (contributing 20 metric tons of C02 per capita compared to a worldwide average of 4). The ecosystem will adjust to deal with us, and it probably won’t be pretty, ecologically, geopolitically, or both.
There is no logic to most of what we do; we each follow (or don't) a unique mix of rules and personal convictions according to a mix of science, philosophy, and socioeconomic tenets. I do what I do primarily because I feel a responsibility to my children, and one tenet I want them to inherit is: it’s not all about you. Sort of a contradiction in terms.
The earth is somewhere around 4.5 billion years old; life has been on it probably about 3 billion years; modern man about 200,000 years. I will claim, more than likely, about 80 years. Snap your fingers, and each of us has come and gone. You don’t do what you do based on logic or impact, but a sense that as the only fully conscious creatures we know of, we should do better, even if we are not exactly sure what that better is!
So what is my answer? Is it personal action or government policy that will make the difference? Definitely, the solution requires both, but I think that if we don’t collectively and purposely lighten the load we place on our Earth — and soon — the global ecosystem is likely to “self-reorganize” around us. And all this from a full-blown ecological “Bigfoot,” GreenBuildingAdvisor or not.
- Scott Gibson
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