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Q&A Spotlight

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?

Small-scale renewable energy

Individual actions to reduce global carbon emissions include the installation of a small wind generator or photovoltaic panels. But do steps like these actually get us anywhere?
Image Credit: Scott Gibson

For GBA 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.

“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 footprint 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.


  1. 5C8rvfuWev | | #1

    Great Job
    Summarizing that discussion must have been like trying to herd cats, Scott. Your version is so well done I hope you'll find a way to get it to a much wider audience.


  2. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #2

    Peter Yost mentions the
    Peter Yost mentions the obvious that was my point as one of the "cats" ..... though "self-reorganizing" is, was and will always be nature, life, the universe, us.

    Some fun reading.... Start reading the works of Fritjof Capra. A partial quote follows from Wikipedia.

    "Capra pushes for western society to abandon conventional linear thought and the mechanistic views of Descartes. Critiquing the reductionistic Cartesian view that everything can be studied in parts to understand the whole, Capra encourages his readers to take a holistic approach. In The Web of Life, Capra focuses on the systemic information generated by the relationships among all the parts as a significant additional factor in the character of the whole, emphasizing the web-like structure of all systems and thus the interconnectedness of all parts.

    Capra is purportedly setting the grounds for change in many new

    theories [citation needed] , one of which is the living systems theory, a theoretical framework for ecology. This theory is only now fully emerging but it has its roots in several scientific fields that were developed during the first half of the twentieth century —organismic biology, gestalt psychology, ecology, general systems theory, and cybernetics.

    Fritjof Capra is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy located in Berkeley, California, which promotes ecology and systems thinking in primary and secondary education."

  3. Eric Sandeen | | #3

    Individual action might spur collective action
    A couple things...

    Especially in the absence of collective action, individual action seems all we've got. While it may be a drop in the bucket, or even "worthless" in the grand scheme of things, I don't think one should overlook how individual actions can start to change the conversation, foster new norms, and facilitate collective action.

    I put solar on my house last year and did an insulation retrofit. It will not solve global warming. But my "sphere of influence" has gotten an earful from me about how well it's worked, and has learned something about renewable energy via osmosis. We've had talks about energy, conservation, renewable generation, and climate change. It has furthered the conversation. Some people I know are considering doing the same, and more than one has probably taken a look at their electric bills with a more critical eye. When it comes to politics, they might be slightly more likely to support a candidate who is more willing to try to tackle this.

    I suppose the only drawback to individual action is if it is too cost-intensive - if that residential solar PV rebate took money which could have been used more efficiently elsewhere, but I don't know if that can be judged too well at this point.

    Sometimes I do think it's too late, but I don't know for sure. Have we driven off a cliff, foot still on the accelerator, or is there still some chance that stopping the inputs will increase chances of a better outcome? Maybe nothing we do will change the trajectory we've set, but it still makes sense to me to stop actively pushing in the wrong direction. Maybe it'll buy some time, or affect the outcome in some small way. It's all I know to do...

  4. David Meiland | | #4

    Nice post...

  5. Bill Schoen | | #5

    Great blogs regarding "Green"
    Brian Savage summaized best:
    Group: BUILDER
    Discussion:Is "green" construction worth the trouble?

    If the dual flush toilets work better... great, that is exactly my point. Things should be sold based on their real value, not on a fictional value. I also understand the fact that there are occasional, local water shortages... but, you have to admit; "occasional and local" is not the environmentalist's focus. They are more into "devastating and global" (which doesn't exist). I have not seen any reliable data on why driving a V8 is worse than driving a 4-cylinder or why, other than functionality; using a dual-flush toilet is better than using a 1974 toilet that sucks up as much water as possible... water doesn't cease to exist when you flush the toilet... it goes back into the water table. It does this because of gravity, which man has no power to control.

    Please don't get me wrong Trish. I totally understand where you are coming from. If you want to buy dual flush toilets and solar panels and Smart Cars... that's fine, this is a free country after all. In fact, that's great, folks like you are making the market for such products and, if they are to sell, a market must be made. I just object to the WAY it's being sold. There is no long-term, global environmental crisis to justify a politically induced green movement. There is no long-term, global environmental crisis.... period.

    A third of Europe died in the 1340's and '50's because the streets were open sewers... THAT is an environmental disaster. Carbon dioxide emissions and water usage are not. Keep in mind that 70% of the planet is covered with water and that water transpires more CO2 than we could ever hope to produce by anthropogenic means. So, driving your V8 and flushing your 1974 toilet is not destroying the environment. It might be burning a hole in your wallet; but it's definitely NOT destroying the environment.

    BTW, that article is 100% speculation. I especially like the part about California's water shortages. Of course California has water shortages... they have EVERYTHING shortages because they are trying to control it all centrally! That never works! Besides, what was the excuse in the 1930's when we had the great dust bowl? That couldn't have been global warming because global warming didn't start until after the tragedy which was global cooling, which occurred in the 1970's. Global cooling, by the way, was also nonsense... as was the "holes in the ozone" scare we experienced in the '80's in which we replaced the much more efficient CFC's and HCFC's we were all used to using with less efficient refrigerants.

    While I'm at it... I think we should bring back DDT. It is much less devastating than the millions of annual deaths caused by malaria every year in Africa and South America. Who are we to say they can't get rid of their malaria problem the same way we did? Yes, North America had a malaria problem too... until we dealt with it. Guess how we did it? You got it... DDT! Now we (via the UN) have the audacity to tell other countries that they have to just suffer the deaths of millions of their citizens because we have deemed DDT to be a toxin.

    Do you see how many problems this environmentalist movement has caused?

    People should let people be free!!!
    Posted by Brian Savage

  6. User avater
    Brian Knight | | #6

    Savage nation
    Genius! Pollution is a myth. Anarchy is the answer! We only need a govt to protect corporations from the people. Profit is god. Amen

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