10 steps to smugness
By Robert Alcock
Dave Reay trots out the oft-repeated assertion that "saving the planet starts at home" ("Your planet needs you", p36, 10 September 2005). But it's a logical fallacy to "multiply up" decisions about one's personal lifestyle to the population as a whole, unless there is evidence that your choices will really influence others. Otherwise, it's a question of "Ten steps to feeling smug about the planet".
The vast majority of people are either unaware of or apathetic about the threat posed by climate change; those seriously concerned represent a small minority. Any small reduction in emissions this minority may achieve will probably be negated by market feedback and/or used as an excuse for inaction by politicians.
True, some of the actions suggested (install low-energy light bulbs, cycle to work, compost food waste) make good sense anyway; but then it's superfluous to invoke the environment as a reason for doing them. Others (shiver at home, drive more slowly, make sub-optimal transport choices) are forms of self-punishment that have no chance of ever being adopted by the unconcerned majority, and are thus a distraction and a waste of time/money for the concerned minority. Either way, "the environment" is not a valid reason for changing your /private/ actions.
To have any significant impact on environmental problems, the concerned minority must take /public/ action to change attitudes and behaviour. What's more, this needs to take place at a level appropriate to the problem. Riding your bike or installing roof-mounted solar panels, for instance, are public acts. They are seen and may even be imitated by others – but mainly at a local level. This is the level at which most environmental activists (including myself) work and where results are easiest to achieve.
Climate change, on the other hand, is a global problem resulting from the unchecked growth of the fossil-fuel economy. Effective action against climate change must mean somehow transforming or disrupting the global economy. Reay mentions in passing "running for political office" and "walking to the polling booth". But readers in the US and UK, at least, should by now be well aware of how the main political parties and the media are hand-in-glove with big business, while voting systems are designed to shut out minority voices. (Speaking of the media, what about the ads for Lexus, Nissan and Saab in New Scientist?) This situation leaves people concerned about climate change with few effective tactics, short of civil disobedience and non-violent direct action. No wonder those in power would rather we stuck to buying low-energy light bulbs.