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How will we save the world

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The Independent (UK)
February 21, 2008

We'll Save the Planet Only if We're Forced To

by Johann Hari

Do you check every item you buy to make sure it is green and
planet-friendly? Do you buy carbon offsets every time you fly? Stop. It is
time to be honest: green consumerism is at best a draining distraction,
and at worst a con. While the planet's fever gets worse by the week, we
are guzzling down green-coloured placebos and calling it action. There is
another way. Our reaction to global warming has gone in waves. First we
were in blank denial: how can releasing an odourless, colourless gas
change the climate so dramatically? Now we are in a phase of displacement:
we assume we can shop our way out of global warming, by shovelling a few
new lightbulbs and some carbon offsets into our shopping basket.

This is a self-harming delusion. It's hard to give a sense of the contrast
today between the magnitude of our problem, and the weediness of our
response so far. But the best way is offered by the Nobel Prize-winning
scientist Paul Crutzen.

He explains that until 10,000 years ago, the planet's climate would
fluctuate violently: sometimes it would veer by 12 degrees centigrade in
just a decade. This meant it was impossible to develop agriculture. Crops
couldn't be cultivated in this climatic chaos, so human beings were stuck
as a tiny smattering of hunter-gatherers.

But then the climate settled down into safe parameters - and humans could
settle down too. This period is called the Holocene, and it meant that for
the first time, we could develop farming and cities. Everything we know as
human civilisation is thanks to this unprecedented period of climatic
stability.

Today, we are bringing this era to an end. By pumping vast amounts of
warming gases into the atmosphere, we are creating a new era: the
Anthropocene, in which man makes the weather. There is an imminent danger
of it bursting beyond these safe parameters, and bringing about a return
to the violent, volatile variations that prevented our ancestors from
progressing beyond spears and sticks.

Those are the stakes. Every week, there is greater evidence that we are
nudging further from our safety zone. The hottest year of the 20th century
- 1947 - is now merely the average for the 21st century.

And what are we doing? Many good, well-intentioned people are beginning to
grasp this problem - and then assuming green consumerism is the only
answer to hand. They shop around for items that have not been freighted
thousands of miles to make it to their supermarket shelves. They change
their lightbulbs. They turn down the thermostat a few degrees. They make
sure they buy products that don't sit on electricty-burning standby all
day. They buy the more energy-efficient cars, and scorn SUV drivers.

I don't want to attack these people. They are an absolutely essential part
of any solution. But we have to be honest. This is not even the beginning
of a solution - and by pouring so much energy into it, we may actually be
forestalling the real solution. I know a huge number of people who are
sincerely worried about global warming, but they assume they have Done
Their Bit through these shifted consumption patterns. The truth is: you
Haven't.

In reality, dispersed consumer choices are not going to keep the climate
this side of a disastrous temperature rise. The only way that can ever
happen is by governments legislating to force us all - green and
anti-green - to shift towards cleaner behaviour. Just as the government in
the Second World War did not ask people to eat less voluntarily,
governments today cannot ask us to burn fewer greenhouse gases voluntarily.

It is not enough for you to change your bulbs. Everyone has to change
their bulbs. It is not enough for you to eat less meat. Everyone has to
eat less meat. It is not enough for you to fly less. Everyone has to fly
less. (And yes, I hate these facts as much as you do. But I will hate the
reality of runaway global warming even more.)

The only way we will get to the situation where we are all required by law
to burn fewer greenhouse gases is if enough people pressure the
government, demanding it. Green consumer choices often drain away people's
political energies to do this. You have a limited amount of time to spend
on any political cause. If you have an hour a week to dedicate to acting
on global warming, and you spend it scouring the supermarket shelves for
the product shipped the shortest distance, that time and energy is gone;
you feel you've done what you can. Part of you might also assume: I've
made these choices; other people will too; in time, we'll all be
persuaded. But we don't have time.

There is a much better way for you to reduce the amount of greenhouse
gases in the atmosphere. Every minute you would have spent shopping around
for a greener choice, you should spend volunteering for Greenpeace, or
Friends of the Earth, or Plane Stupid, or the Campaign Against Climate
Change. Every hundred-pound premium you would spend to buy a greener
product, donate it to them instead. Why? Because by becoming part of this
collective action - rather than by clinging to dispersed personal choices
- you will help to change the law, so everyone will have to be greener,
not just nice people like you.

It works. Green campaigners from Australia to Canada to Japan have
successfully banned the old lightbulbs, so only the energy-saving
lightbulbs are on offer there now. Green campaigners have prompted the
Mayor of London to force SUV drivers to pay a punitive £6,000-a-year
premium to drive through our city, forcing many of them to shift to
greener cars. These are the first tiny steps towards banning - or
massively restricting - the other technologies that are unleashing Weather
of Mass Destruction.

Of course, some sincere and well-intentioned people have libertarian
concerns about this approach at first glance. Why should we force people
to choose the green option? Isn't it better to rely on persuasion and
voluntary choice? But even the most hardcore libertarians agree that your
personal liberty ends where you actively harm the liberty of another
person. Greenhouse gas emissions are undeniably harming tens of millions
of people - and endangering the ground on which all human liberty rests: a
stable and safe climate.

Just as no libertarian would argue you should have the right to buy and
fire a nuclear weapon, no libertarian should argue you have the right to
burn unlimited greenhouse gases. Once confronted with this argument, the
only people who cling to a libertarian defence of fossil fuels are people
who take money from the fossil fuel industry itself, like Spiked Online.
They have to scrape together any old excuse.

So enough with the placebos. Enough with the fake-libertarian excuses. As
the climate that sustains human life unravels around us, we are long past
the moment when we need real medicine - and the only one we have is hard
government legislation.

 

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