Michael Pollan, in Sunday's New York Times Magazine's green issue, had an excellent article called "Why Bother?"--about whether individual lifestyle change is worthwhile (there is also, by the way, a little snippet in the issue about yours truly). Pollan writes (with my emphasis):
"It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: 'Personal choices, no matter how virtuous [N.B.!], cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.' So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live. Why? Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences."
And he's (mostly) right of course, but I'd like to add a little something, too, and then make a small correction.
As for what I'd like to add: At the moment, the public and political discourse, when it comes to climate change, is all about "energy policy." Should we charge industry for their emissions? Should we invest hugely in solar? Can we find a way to store (or sequester) the carbon dioxide emitted from fossil-fuel-burning power plants?
Suppose that we come up with a solution to these problems. Suppose we figure out a way to power the entire planet while reducing our carbon emissions 80% by 2050 (the goal suggested by the International Panel on Climate Change). Suppose that we get to carry on with business as usual except that we do it with clean energy. What will happen?
We will leapfrog to the next planetary crisis.
Because first of all, no one is really sure how much more carbon dioxide the climate can handle. Some think we've already reached it. A group of energy scientists recently published an article in Nature saying that 80% by 2050 is far too modest a goal. NASA chief climate scientis James Hansen recently announced that the EC's goal of 550 parts per million of carbon dioxide must be slashed to 350.
A lot of people think that we are actually going to need a 100% reduction in emissions--a completely carbon neutral economy. It's hard to imagine how that can be accomplished by energy policy without cultural-level lifestyle change.
But furthermore, even if we could stop climate emissions cold, we still have to deal with the facts that we are soon to run out of fresh water (see Wired's May issue article "Peak Water," for example), our oceans are nearly fished out, our forests are being decimated at an alarming rate, food prices are spiraling out of control so that people can no longer afford to eat and on and on.
These looming crises, like climate change, are a direct result of how we much energy and material we in the developed world consume, but there are no techno-fixes. Energy policy alone will not fix them [adding this later in case it isn't obvious: of course we do need good energy policy]. Only consuming less will fix them. And these are other reasons why, to add to Pollan's reasoning, we should bother to change our lifestyle, both at the individual and cultural levels.
As for my small correction, Pollan suggests, both in the paragraph I cite above and at other points in his article, that "climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis... of character." This implies that we--that is the human race--somehow don't have the backbone to deny ourselves in order to live sustainably. But I have and always will argue that we are neither selfish nor slovenly nor that deprivation is required.
No one I know wants to throw a plastic cup away every time they drink a coffee. Or to toss a plastic bag. Or to feel like their living comfortably will cost the earth. Everybody I know feels bad about the way things are going. It's not that they don't want to change. It's that they don't know how to change, not least because much of what makes individual lifestyle unsustainable are the choices that the culture presents us (think, for example, of suburbs built for cars instead of villages interconnected by rail).
Our institutions and systems were all built on the assumption that the planet's resources were limitless, which has been proved, of late, not to be true. What our culture is in the grip of is not bad character but bad systemic habits, some of which will be very hard to break. But that does not make us or our culture bad. It just makes us mistaken.
The good news is that we don't have to change our human characters--which some would argue is impossible. We simply have to correct our societal mistakes and change our systems. We simply have to change the way we live in a way that will make the planet happier but, as I so often argue, will also make the people happier. This brings me to my second correction.
We will not have to deprive ourselves--at least not of happiness. I would argue, in fact, that when people are working two jobs and twelve hour days so they can keep up with Jones when it comes to the number of Christmas presents they buy their kids, they are already deprived. Who wants to live in Stressville?
Instead, what is on offer, when it comes to individual and cultural lifestyle change is a shift of emphasis from stuff to people, from material throughput to potential for meaningful relationships and community. This blog is full of discussion of the opportunities for the improvement in our lives that will come with living more sustainably. I won't go into all of them here. Noodle around.
What I will say though is that I don't look forward to the lifestyle changes will we have to make with anything like dread. Yes, we may have to have less stuff. But I believe that we are finally being forced to change the cultural priorities that most of us know in our guts are wrong anyway. The result I envision, if we approach the coming times in the right way, is a kinder, friendlier, more equitable, more satisfying way of life.
PS For a humorous take on why we need to use less, not just use better, watch the video below.
Colin Beavan (that's me!) is now leading a conversation about finding a happy, helpful life at Colinbeavan.com. If you want to know how people are breaking out and and finding authentic, meaningful lives that help our world, check it out the blog here and sign up to join the conversation here.