A momentary lapse into defeatism

I have always felt very ambivalent about the 10/10 campaign. It seems so very unambitious. Most people can reduce their carbon footprint and general environmental impact by 10% by little more than scrutinising their current lifestyle and cutting out the worst excesses. Turn the thermostat down a couple of degrees too high, stop wearing flimsy clothes on cold days, fix poor insulation for a small outlay, stop buying gadgets, fashion, trinkets, food from the other side of the planet, drive more thoughtfully (and if possible stop driving altogether), turn off unused lights (and stop squandering electricity for pointless lighting in the first place), remember to turn the PC off, and so on. 10%? A piece of cake.

What is more, I have probably managed 10% with disproportionately little sacrifice. It took me seconds to reset the thermostat and turn off the radiators in areas I barely use. It took about a week to get used to rooms a couple of degrees cooler. It took not time at all to remember to turn off lights and shut doors. It will take a lot longer to step back from impulse buying and toys, but it’s not impossible – I’m not so addicted to consumerism that I have to go along with the entire glitzy, grubby farrago. Nothing too it, if you really want to make a difference. 10%? Why so little?

But that isn’t the problem I have with 10/10, or any of the many other exhortations to us (as individuals) to use less. 10% is a nice idea, but the correct answer is something like 85%. So if we achieve 10% in 2010, will we achieve another 10% in 2011, and then another in 2012? It’s not inconceivable, given a truly impressive level of sign-up (which has not, as far as I can see, happened so far).

But even 30% is long way from 50%, let alone 85%. Read George Monbiot’s Heat or David McKay’s Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air for a sense of just how far we really have to go. At that level, the only sensible answer is to look seriously at our core social, political and economic systems to see how they need to be changed to deliver the goods. Or rather, stop delivering them.

But especially since Copenhagen I feel like we not only still have a very long way to go but that we have taken completely the wrong road. Down this road, no matter what a few individuals do, things do not get better – no, they get only worse.

I’m not too worried by the flagging public confidence in the reality of global warming or the tiny holes knocked in the credibility of individual environmental researchers – not even the IPCC. Such upsets will be transient and have a marginal impact. Much more serious is the decision by so many national governments to do what can only be summarised as – nothing. For how else can we understand Copenhagen (which left the world’s environmental strategy even weaker than after Kyoto), or the news that the UK government plans to take its expenditure on environmental projects in the developing world from existing budgets, or Obama’s evident fear of doing anything whatsoever about his environmental promises for the foreseeable future, or the Chinese government’s unwillingness to make any significant contribution to climate change (other than to make it much worse, of course)?

But why is this so much more important than persuading individuals to make a start on their personal environmental impact? Because the number of individuals who were ever likely to take that road was never more than a small – perhaps tiny – minority whose collective actions would have no significant effect on our fate. To have a wider impact, they had to serve as a catalyst, as a demonstration to governments that the environment was a vote-winner. Only when they had learned that would governments start to take the action needed to transform not just the footprint of individual households or even a Transition Town but the collective footprint of (in the UK’s case) 60 million people or more.

And not just 60 million individuals. Unlike you and me, governments can directly transform the country’s physical infrastructure on a national scale, coordinate similar actions on an international scale, force big business to mend its ways, and all in all make the systematic changes that no assembly of individual persons can ever bring about. Even 60 millions individuals could not change the public transport system without government action, nor how we generate electricity, nor how developing countries go about achieving a civilised level of development, nor any of the rest.

But after Copenhagen? Nothing can expected from governments any more. Or at least, far too little even to deflect the crisis by more than a smidgen. Even worse, not only have they decided against going beyond Kyoto but they have plainly decided that the only solution to the world’s economic woes is to restore the economic system that got us into our current mess – economic and environmental alike. The only adjustments they plan to make are trivial, serving only to make the economic system a little less dangerous in narrowly economic terms, without any thought for the environmental consequences of a capitalist ‘business as usual’.

In such a situation, what is the point of an individual making a personal commitment to reducing their environmental impact? Does it make sense for individuals to take action off their own bat if the great majority are not only not doing practically nothing (a situation I can live with for a decade or two) but major organisations (political and economic) are never going to be moved in an environmental direction, and have in fact decided to head straight back down the road we all know leads only to global warming, ecosystems collapse and resource wars? What can we claim that individual environmental self-control can achieve after that – that we will succeed in putting off the evil day by 10 minutes?

So even if I do manage a 10% – or 25% or 100% – reduction, exactly what have I accomplished? On a personal level, perhaps it is still a lot. At the very least, if I can get my footprint down to a sustainable level (not a very meaningful proposition while I remain a member of such a destructive society), I can say that at least it wasn’t me, guv. But on a higher level? What have ‘we’ accomplished? In the absence of a broader, systematic impact on the whole way we (at worst) conceive of the environment and (at best) the way we manage our economy, a lot less than we might imagine.

More of RJ Robinson at http://richardjrobinson.blogspot.com/

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