I’m not writing this because the green agenda has made any particular leap forward recently, but as a riposte to an op-ed in the New York Times that leaves you with the impression that all your efforts to ‘go green’ have been, and will continue to be, futile. The op-ed, by economist Gernot Wagner from the Environmental Defense Fund (which advocates market-based solutions to environmental problems), argues that the ‘changes necessary [to protect rainforests, stop climate change etc] are so large and profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action’. And although he’s careful to say at the end: ‘Don’t stop recycling. Don’t stop buying local’ – the tone of his article is incredibly negative and dismissive of individuals’ attempts to green their lifestyles, and leaves you feeling as if you may as well give up now.
One of Wagner’s key points, which I agree with, is that currently we citizens all pick up the bill for businesses’ environmental mess-ups, and we need a regulatory system that ‘compels us to pay our fair share to limit pollution accordingly’. But I’m flummoxed by his curious claim that the result of the current way of working is ‘planetary socialism’. There’s nothing egalitarian about allowing wider society to pay for the cost of irresponsible polluting industries while the latter accrue most of the benefits.
The main point of his argument – that there’s no point in individuals’ efforts to reduce their personal emissions – is way too pessimistic and unhelpful. Rather, increasing consumer trends towards buying more green products sends signals to politicians and businesses that lower environmental impact is something the public wants. And yes, just one person doing it by themselves won’t have a huge direct impact, but they’ll have a considerable indirect impact by contributing to changing social norms, whose force should not be underestimated. Although changes happen painfully slowly, there have been profound alterations in the way we (governments, businesses, NGOs and individuals) manage our relationship with the biosphere over the past few decades, prompted by increased environmental awareness.
We obviously need to change the economics, and the government needs to show more leadership in this arena (e.g. by letting the Green Investment Bank start borrowing right away, rather than in 2015), but we shouldn’t dismiss the importance of personal action: both for creating a sense of a shared undertaking, and for effecting measurable changes. A particularly annoying thing about the op-ed is that Wagner slags off personal carbon savings without providing a concrete alternative except to ‘learn some basic economics’. It doesn’t fill me with a ‘get up and go’ mentality. I’d be more sympathetic towards his article if he’d told people to put pressure on their elected representatives to get the UK’s Energy Bill fit for purpose, or switch their bank accounts to ones that don’t invest in Canadian tar sands, or change their electricity tariffs to ones that invest in renewables. Or even to join the September 24th global day of action to demand we move beyond fossil fuels.
It was written for a US audience, and maybe I’m exhibiting an excessive amount of British optimism (sounds almost oxymoronic doesn’t it) given the relatively – relatively – healthy state of our environmental politics compared with the US. As one of my professors said the other day (and I apologise that I’m not yet able to comment on this), national green energy policy in the US has achieved almost nothing. Whereas in the UK, we’ve built more offshore wind turbines than any other country, according to the European Wind Energy Association [I need to be careful here – a side-effect of living in the US is that you start thinking that EU and British environmental policies aren’t that bad after all, which ain’t necessarily so].
But there is some truth in the oft-repeated Gandhi quote that you should “Be the change you want to see in the world”. If you’re not rejecting plastic bags in favour of the sturdier and longer-lived versions, what grounds do you have for persuading anyone else to do the same? How can you expect others to take the environment seriously if you’re not walking your talk? It’s also a matter of personal conscience, which, although probably seen as irrelevant by economist Wagner, is something to be valued and nurtured. Some of us need to compensate for its apparent absence in many of our public figures today. American plastic-bag-reducers can feel good in the knowledge they won’t be adding anything more to the 100 million ton plastic bag soup currently drifting across the north Pacific. Feeling good is important!