Let’s be quite clear about one thing: an individual working on their own can do virtually nothing to slow global warming. Thankfully, however, humans are social animals and the normal way of living is to work together and co-operate with each person contributing some, complementary, skills in order to compete tasks that are much bigger than any one individual working on their own could achieve.
Assuming you are reading this at home, have a look round the room. Absolutely everything in that space and the place that it occupies is there because of individual choice. Now go ask a neighbour if you can look round one of their rooms (or imagine a neighbour’s room you have been in). Does it look identical? Chances are it will not. It may look pretty similar but even if it contains the same objects, they will most likely be of different colour, material and place of manufacture. Things will be arranged differently, if it is a living room the chairs and settees will have different number of sitting places. Yet everything in that room, and its location, is there as a result of individual choice. Each human is genetically different from the other and the way we dress and furnish our homes bears witness to our individuality (although we sometime choose to give that when we join a group and wear a uniform, for example).
Now, fix your gaze onto one item in the room. Where has it come from? How it get from there to here? What is it made from? If it is made from components, where did they come from? How many people were involved in the manufacture process? How many people in the distribution process? How many workers and how many managers? What about a Sydney plumber, using a diesel powered electricity generator? Are any of these things affecting the bigger picture with Global Warming – whatever that is.
All of them will have exercised some choices to find themselves in the situation where there actions and their decisions have made it possible for you to look at that object now. Truth is: modern human civilisation under capitalism is an amalgam of individual decisions that combined makes an amazing feat of managing complexity, of collaboration and of getting things done.
When we study history that is exactly what we study: his story. The study of history is to study the role and contribution of men and women and how they have shaped the course of the world. For virtually all of history is the study of the actions of individuals and how they have shaped the response of those around them. To understand how and why they made such decisions we usually read the biographies and auto-biographies of great people and many try to emulate them. But for every documented shaper of history there are thousands, maybe millions of undocumented ones that have just as powerful a role for they have influenced their friends and contributed to the growth of a “trend”. Trends are those unknowable, unseeable and unpredictable energies that shape how our societies evolve. No one is in charge yet we all have influence.
Earlier we looked at an object in your room and contemplated where it came from, who made it, and how it got from the originator to you. And it is here that the great mystery of the marketplace occurs. What would have happened if you had not bought it? Maybe someone else would have bought it maybe they wouldn’t have. And the response of the original producer (and those who handled it in its journey to you) is dependent on your decision. Because we are similar and like to get into groups, we influence each other in our behaviours and our choices. Some things are clearly accepted, something things are clearly not. The same thing happens with products and services. Each time we make a decision to buy or not to buy, we send a tiny whisper back to the producer and to our friends. When the choice is positive, that tiny whisper says “I like that, make more of them”: when the choice is to reject, the whisper says “nice try and I hope you find some other mug to take that stock from you”. When other individuals make their choices, the whisper grows to being the roar of the market and the producing company will respond accordingly. Business is a tough game and it does take a certain bunch of characteristics to be successful at it.
So, if our modern civilisation is a miracle of organisation and communication, how come we face the problem of global warming and the resultant climate change?
The answer to this might surprise you.
Politicians and governments do not control capitalism; it controls them, which is why politicians are always scared of markets. But the system itself is based on a false accounting. Our modern system is still reliant on an invention of 15th century Italian accountants: double-entry book-keeping. This system not only changed the way people did think about business activity but the way they could think. The outcome of activity was no longer in the hands of the Gods but could now be quantified and various activities compared against each other to see which was most “worthwhile”.
So powerful and complete was the concept that we still rely upon it today to drive how we account for our economic activity. Unfortunately, the world was a very different place then: we had not discovered any meaningful use for fossil fuels, there were many fewer people on the planet and the world view the inventors had was no doubt heavily influenced by Catholic doctrine, complete with man’s dominion over other life forms. Little wonder, then, that the idea that there might be a cost associated with using the Earth’s resources and services never occurred to them.
Economics is supposed to answer the question of how best humans can maximise scarce resource but the way we account for our economic activity makes the ludicrous assumption that the planet’s resources and services are not only unlimited but that there is no cost attached to their use. Had our numbers remained at the few hundred million they were when the accountancy system was developed, we might have got away with that assumption. With the planet’s population now at 7 going on 9 billion, it is clear that this assumption is no longer fit for purpose. Money is the most powerful motivator humans have ever invented but unless we can bring the ecosystem together with the economy, we will continue to struggle. We will continue to run a system that encourages people to destroy the environment simply so they can “make a living”.
There are two things you can you do to change this.
First, the majority of the world’s population live in democracies and politicians listen to their electorate. Tell your representatives at a local and national level that you want them to take the problem of global warming and the resultant climate change seriously. Tell them you believe the solution is to reform the way we account for our economic activity so that people can make a living out of protecting and restoring the environment rather than from polluting it. If the don’t think that is possible, remind them that we made up the rules once before but got it wrong and that politicians are paid to find solutions to the big problems in society.
Second, remember earlier I said that your choices in the market place sent tiny whispers back to the producers and to your friends? Well, people are more likely to copy the actions of people they admire and respect and one of the quickest ways to achieve respect is to do as you say. In other words, align your actions to your words so both are sending the same message. That way you increase the chances that your behaviours are copied that the roar of the marketplace will demand a safe, clean world.
Global warming is supposedly driven by the fossil fuelled energy we use and deforestation. This means that to have an impact you need to look at your life in two ways: the food that you eat and the energy you consume.
Food production is responsible for around one third or all of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions but not all foods are equally to blame. Fossil energy is used in livestock production systems to widely differing extents, for example, broiler chicken production is the most efficient, but it still needs an input of 4 kcal of fossil energy for each 1 kcal of broiler protein produced. Milk production, based on a mixture of two-thirds grain and one-third forage, sees the energy in/energy out ratio rise to a ratio of 14:1 but the real drain on energy use is beef and lamb. Even using livestock systems mixing forage with grain feed, beef has a ratio of 40:1 for energy in to energy out. Obviously no one only eats meat for their diet but the differences in impact you can achieve are quite amazing: a diet based primarily on fruit, vegetables and pulses will have an environmental impact of around a third that of a diet containing meats. Furthermore, increasing the intake of fibre, fruit and vegetables will also have significant beneficial health benefits, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers and other chronic diseases. It makes sense to change the balance of your diet toward more fruit, vegetables and pulses.
The second place to look to lighten your impact and show leadership is in the energy you use. Individual energy use is nearly as unique as the genetic make up of the individual but there are three areas to examine for, in aggregate, they will be of more or less equal importance. They are, transportation, heating & lighting your home and the things that you buy (other than food, which we have just dealt with). There are a lot of guides available to help you work out what your personal emissions are but one I find quite easy to use is called One Planet Living, which shows you how many planet Earths we would need if everyone copied your behaviour.
Broadly the areas to be aware of and seek to reduce are;
Transportation: here the critical driver is the number of miles you cover and, to a lesser extent, the number of people in the vehicle. It might surprise you that a full aircraft gets about as many passenger miles per gallon as a car with two people in it. The big difference is that a flight between say London and New York will be as far as the car may travel in a year. Very simple rule: cut the miles, cut the emissions. Cycling, walking and sailing are all pretty much carbon-free activities so try and get as much of your travel as possible done with those methods.
In heating & powering your house, if you live in the UK, for example, you will use much more energy on heating your house than you will on electricity but because the fuel used to generate the electricity (which still uses a lot of coal), the electricity generates more emissions per unit. If you also consider that some of the electrical energy is wasted through in generating and distribution inefficiency, give equal priority to cutting your use of both. Best way to cut your heating bills is to insulate the roof and wall and cut drafts from windows and doors or, simply, getting used to a lower ambient temperature. As for electricity switching to a renewable energy supplier is a quick and highly impactful step, hundreds if not thousands of times more powerful than unplugging a mobile phone charger!! If that option is unavailable to you, invest in buying an energy monitor and experimenting with it to see where your biggest savings can be made.
Lastly, with the stuff you buy, realise that happiness is most often found in human interaction rather than things. This means cutting down on the physical purchases and treating yourself to some nice service based treats. When you buy “things” buy from as near home as possible and find out as much as you can on how they were made.
There maybe some people reading this who do not think the personal actions are “strong” enough: they are certainly not intended as instructions for achieving zero-carbon living. But as I said at the beginning, humans are social creatures and global warming and the resultant climate change is the biggest threat we have ever faced to the very fabric of our being. Global warming and the resultant climate change will not be solved by the privation of a few individuals. What an individual can best do to slow global warming is to lead by example, encourage others to join them and demand of our politicians the actions that will sweep up those who refuse to act.
There are solutions to global warming and resultant climate change but the way we have arranged our accounting system is tilted against their adoption. It is up to us to demand they are put in place.
Harold Forbes is Author of “How to be a Humankind Superhero: making your actions count more than a bit”.
First published in 2010 “How to be a Humankind Superhero” was described as a “fine and heartfelt piece of work” (Iain Banks, author) that “hits the elusive balance between the analytic and the practical” (Jonathan Porritt, author and environmental campaigner). The book uses the myth of Hercules to provide individuals with twelve impactful action areas to fight climate change and inspire action by politicians.
A fully revised and updated edition was published in 2013 and you can download a FREE PDF copy at [http://www.hksuperh.com]
Climate change has been described as the greatest threat facing humankind and “How to be a Humankind Superhero” empowers and inspires meaningful individual action to fight it.
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