Climate risk ‘pyramid’ from US polling data

2009-04-29

in Economics, Politics, The environment

Graffiti murals in the ROM

Back during the 2008 election, many eyes were glued to fivethirtyeight.com: the statistics-oriented website of a baseball analyst turned electoral statistician. A couple of days ago, the man who runs the site posted an interesting diagram based on polling data about climate change (n=2,164). Basically, it shows that ever-decreasing numbers of people expect harm from climate change, the closer to them it would appear. For instance, more people expect it to harm plants and animals than people, and more people expect it to harm those in developing countries than those in the US.

All told, I think the trend is an accurate reflection of the most likely outcomes from climate change. It seems highly likely, for instance, that future generations will suffer more than this one. Nonetheless, the chart does a good job of demonstrating just how hard it is to get people to accept immediate sacrifices in order to protect long-term climate stability: they are not fully exposed to the risks, and they have ample opportunity to fob them off on others, so as to avoid making changes in how they live their own lives and how the political and economic systems in their states operate.

While I think the pyramid is basically correct when it comes to the relative magnitude of harm that will likely occur in each area, what it doesn’t convey is that the absolute level of harm would still be unacceptable, across the board, in the absence of strong climate policies. Continuing to emit greenhouse gasses at present levels until the end of the century will almost certainly cause massive harm to those living in the United States and other rich countries. It may not be as bad as the harm that would be visited on future generations and poorer countries, but it is more than serious enough to justify devoting a significant fraction of society’s resources to building a carbon neutral future.

There is some more discussion of the pyramid over at ZeroCarbonCanada.

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{ 72 comments… read them below or add one }

XUP April 29, 2009 at 11:02 am

I’m not surprised. Look how difficult it is to get people to accept that eating junk food, smoking and never exercising is bad for their health. Even when they become obese, have a heart attack or stroke or develop some other lifestyle-related illness, they still have difficulty accepting the relationship between the behaviours they enjoy and the outcomes they don’t. If people are this stubbornly oblivious to their own health, I see little hope in trying to convince the majority that they need to change their behaviours for the health of the planet.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 11:07 am

For the most part, I don’t think the ranking of conclusions is irrational. To go back to an earlier alcoholic analogy, putting greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is like downing ten shots of vodka in quick succession: it takes a while to have an effect, but has a whomping effect eventually.

We’re the ones doing the shots. People in a few decades will really start to feel the impact. If we don’t cut back on drinking well before then, we will seriously endanger human civilization.

oleh April 29, 2009 at 11:33 am

I think that people all around us are trying to make small changes in both their life styles and in their attitudes to the environment. I attended a drumming festival in Seattle last weekend and there were no paper/styrofoam cups or places. Instead, you were served your food on edible plates. They tasted like styrofoam, but they were 100% biodegradable. In North Vancouver, there are hoards of bicyclists and many children are biking to school. People are growing vegetables in their gardens and many people are growing indigenous plants. These changes may seem insignificant on the large scale of the problem, but they do have a psychological impact and give people the message that everyone can make a difference. I love the photo, by the way.

alena April 29, 2009 at 11:35 am

The above comment was from me, but Oleh did not change the name from his previous remark.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 11:59 am

I think most people are drawing the wrong lessons from society’s growing concern about climate change. The threat is far more serious than that from a major war, but people are still mostly treating it as a triviality. Small lifestyle changes really don’t matter, when it comes to stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses. We need to change the fundamental energy basis of society: something that requires wholesale economic transformation and a great deal of political change.

Rather than focusing on biodegradable grocery bags or compact fluorescent lightbulbs, it makes a lot more sense to educate people about the severity of the climate crisis, while also making it clear to political leaders that strong action on that front will be a prerequisite for future support.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Another quotation that echoes Speth’s point:

“Continuing with current practices will, by the end of this century, take us to a point where global warming in the subsequent decades of more than 5°C above pre-industrial times is more likely than not. Temperature increases of this magnitude will disrupt the climate and environment so severely that there will be massive movements of population, global conflict and severe dislocation and hardship.”

Professor Lord Nicholas Stern. The Global Deal: Climate Change and the Creation of a New Era of Progress and Prosperity. 2009. p. 8 (hardcover).

R.K. April 29, 2009 at 1:25 pm

In a way, those alive and making policy now are a bit like generals in WWI. They are far from the front lines and unlikely to be killed themselves. At the same time, they are giving the orders that will affect the fates of millions.

. April 29, 2009 at 1:40 pm

The environmental inverted pyramid, corrected
Posted 10:16 AM on 28 Apr 2009
by Brad Johnson

Although Silver’s observation that “advocates of cap-and-trade may need to find ways to personalize the terms of the debate” is quite accurate, his post is accompanied by a misleading infographic. The poll results are presented as an “inverted pyramid,” with global warming impacts affecting “You” just a tiny nub.

Emily April 29, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Small lifestyle changes really don’t matter, when it comes to stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses.

I don’t think you can discount baby-steps, or symbolic gestures that indicate that the public is awake and aware and caring. If we live in a functioning democracy, then this is precisely what we need to practise in order to demonstrate to politicians egging for votes where the people’s interests lie.

I think to say ‘Small lifestyle changes don’t really matter’ contradicts your ‘no fly’ policy. In reality, one person not flying on principle does not ‘change the world’ if everyone keeps flying, but certainly your dedication and your vocalization about your reasons for not flying are important.

I think in order for people to accept change in a democracy you need a) demonstration of the will towards the change, and in order for that you need b) demonstration of the change in action, and working familiarity with the change.

I think fostering a healthy and eager attitude towards stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions is essential to create systemic change in Canada, not superfluous to.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 2:33 pm

A flight represents a significant fraction of a person’s annual emissions. The disposable cups and plates they use do not. Indeed, avoiding flying and becoming vegetarian are two of the easiest ways most people can make a significant reduction in their emissions.

I don’t think you can discount baby-steps, or symbolic gestures that indicate that the public is awake and aware and caring.

I think saying that such steps make a difference is damaging and dishonest. Like Earth Hour, it creates the false sense that climate change can be addressed through trivial lifestyle changes.

Someone who thinks they have done their part because they changed their crockery or bought a smaller car is being deluded, with the active assistance of much of the environmental community.

As for our democracy, it isn’t healthy when it comes to climate change. No Canadian government has even been successful at containing the increase in our emissions, much less producing reductions. If we are going to achieve the cuts we need in time, our politics is going to need to change significantly. That means voting out governments that won’t close down coal plants and cut absolute emissions from the oil sands, not just insisting that governments say nice things about the issue while remaining basically inactive about it.

Emily April 29, 2009 at 2:50 pm

The point is not that each gesture makes a significant difference, it’s that each gesture demonstrates a greater attitude of concern and openness to change.

Growing your own vegetables and bicycling I see as legitimate contributions to a sustainable world. Not a five star contribution, but a contribution nonetheless.

In order to create lasting change, I think people need to internalize concepts in order to commit to them. Simply watching television and waiting for the system to organize itself, or waiting until the next election, feeling hopeless, will only instill more apathy.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 3:15 pm

I am just fearful that they are internalizing the wrong concepts: “Buy a hybrid SUV and it’s all OK.”

The kind of piecemeal changes you are praising risk engraining the wrong attitudes about the seriousness of the problems we face, and the actions that will be necessary to deal with them.

alena April 29, 2009 at 3:20 pm

I agree with Emily completely. I think that it is a bit like the “Sky is Falling…” analogy. If we are terrified into inaction by fear inducing statistics, it helps nothing. Taking a bus to a concert, eating vegetarian food there, using earth friendly products, growing your own vegetables and hanging out your clothes to dry are concrete steps which generate ripples all around you the same way that social activism does. When Gandhi decided to spin his own cloth, it did not change anything right away, but a collection of actions and non-actions and increased numbers certainly did.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 3:25 pm

In an important way, the sky is falling. We are on track to wreck the planet for humanity by the end of the century. Responding to that with token gestures really misses the point, and risks making things worse.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Two other points:

(1) The energy being devoted to trivial solutions would be better off re-directed towards making more important ones. Lots of smart people are willing to put a lot of energy towards dealing with this problem, so it is especially tragic to see efforts steered in directions capable of producing only marginal benefits.

(2) When people who have spent a lot of time and effort on trivial solutions discover they are trivial, there is a risk that they will conclude that all emissions reductions actions are pointless.

R.K. April 29, 2009 at 4:14 pm

People need to be given accessible tools for understanding which actions are trivial and which are not. Measures like appliance labels and home energy audits could help. Letting someone know that replacing their old water heater or avoiding one flight will do as much good as getting rid of a car they sometimes use is important and helps drive emissions reductions that are meaningful and personally acceptable.

Emily April 29, 2009 at 4:19 pm

I understand your position, but I think the mistake is in believing that anything that isn’t beating a politician upside the head with a solar panel is a ‘token gesture’.

1. If you could give me five concrete ways to make changes that fall under the amorphous term ‘important’, then I would be pleased to try a few out.

2. There is a risk, but that’s why we need to bolster community support and encouragement, no? You could say that people in the civil rights movement probably gave up once they realized that their ‘trivial’ gestures of acceptance weren’t making significant immediate change. But, luckily, there were enough people who crazily believed, against the odds, that you could criminalize slavery, abolish apartheid and maybe even someday vote in a black president.

Tristan April 29, 2009 at 4:25 pm

What is the consensus on Gandhi anyway? Do historians attribute any long term social or political change to his program? This question somehow seems relevant in our days of worrying about whether the actions of individuals matter.

Emily April 29, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I went a little rhetoric crazy in that last comment, and sort of missed the point I wanted to make which was: people willing to invest their time and effort should be encouraged, and that the trivial gestures you see as distractions are probably in a lot of cases (but not all) important markers of willingness to make social change. People start change with the hope that they can contribute to a cause.

I think that for a cause you still want to foster spirit, if you don’t see value in the action.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 4:34 pm

Emily,

If you could give me five concrete ways to make changes that fall under the amorphous term ‘important’, then I would be pleased to try a few out.

One reasonable place to start is by looking at the major sources of emissions worldwide:

  • Electricity and heat: 27%
  • Land use change and forestry: 18%
  • Agriculture: 13%
  • Transportation: 12%
  • Manufacturing and construction: 11%
  • Other fuel combustion: 9% (mostly emissions from commercial and residential buildings)
  • Other: 10% (of which waste is 3%)

Arguably, the most important steps you can take are political. In terms of physical options that seem like they could offer meaningful results:

  • Help people you know better insulate their homes
  • Eat much less or no meat. Reduce or eliminate dairy consumption.
  • Travel less distance, in more efficient vehicles.
  • Avoid encouraging deforestation. But FSC certified lumber and paper products. Don’t buy tropical woods
  • Buy fewer new products, especially those that require large energy inputs.

I know you do some of these already. I am sure other readers could cook up some good suggestions, as well.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 4:35 pm

The EPA has a Household Emissions Calculator that you can use to analyse your lifestyle. It also generates suggestions for reducing your personal emissions.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Canada’s emissions differ somewhat from the world averages:

  • Transport: 22%
  • Fossil fuel industry: 20%
  • Mining and manufacturing: 18% (includes the oil sands, the fastest growing source)
  • Electricity and heat: 17%
  • Residential, commercial, and institutional emissions: 11%
  • Agriculture: 7%
  • Waste: 4%

These figures are for 2004, but should still be broadly right.

According to Nicholas Stern’s new book, the IPCC estimates that passenger air travel alone will grow to 15% of global emissions by 2050 (p.45)

Milan April 29, 2009 at 4:45 pm

The trouble with the ‘what can I do’ approach is that the things that would be best are out of reach for individuals:

  • Use only heat and electricity generated using zero-carbon sources of energy.
  • Integrate electricity grids and make them ‘smart.’
  • Convert transport to electricity, where possible.
  • Where not, power it using biofuels grown in low-carbon ways.
  • Make sure methane from landfills is captured.
  • Stop extracting and burning fossil fuels.
  • Stop deforestation.

For the most part, these are things only governments can really help to bring about.

R.K. April 29, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Focusing on the energy system is key: it’s the inputs that matter, much more than the activities. As long as all cars run on unsustainable fossil fuels, it makes sense to avoid using them or get a small and efficient one. Once the energy source becomes sustainable and climate neutral, however, there is no reason not to drive a Ferrari.

Of course, it might not be possible to produce enough sustainable, low-carbon energy to make the latter a possibility for most people.

Sarah April 29, 2009 at 7:41 pm

It would be interesting to know more about how demographic factors like age affected people’s answers to that poll – for instance are the 32% who expect climate change to significantly affect them younger than the 68% who don’t? I’m a bit disturbed to see that nearly 40% of US adults polled didn’t think climate change was substantially affecting plant and animal species, & arguably we need to focus on increasing the percentages aho are concerned all the way down the pyramid.

Milan April 29, 2009 at 7:44 pm

The full survey (PDF) is available online.

Sarah April 29, 2009 at 8:08 pm

The full survey does indeed make interesting reading. On p.28 it says that only 47% agreed that “most scientists believe that global warming is happening while 33% said “there is a lot of disagreement” in regard to the scientific consensus. There’s also a graph on p.40 showing divided opinion about whether individuals can make a difference to global warming, so the disagreement between Milan & Emily seems to reflect a broader split in public opinion.

While they do provide the demographic breakdown of the survey respondents overall, they don’t show how demographics relate to specific opinions. Perhaps their sample isn’t big enough to do that with any confidence, or maybe they just didn’t think that information was particularly useful or important.

alena April 30, 2009 at 12:15 am

There is no question in my mind that individual effort, no matter how small, is never trivial and insignificant. Just like your decision not to fly, every commitment to make a change or to improve anything in this world is a worthy cause. Just because something is a bigger change or something that is legislated or ordered by the Pope, it does not have lesser or greater merit. We can all only do our best and every small action benefits the whole of humanity. Working as a community activist and teacher has taught me how much impact a positive attitude has. People admire others whom they trust and respect and are much more likely to follow an example than to believe a politician or an environmentalist. A person has to be involved at a grass roots level to understand and appreciate this.

Tristan April 30, 2009 at 2:14 am

“People admire others whom they trust and respect and are much more likely to follow an example than to believe a politician or an environmentalist. A person has to be involved at a grass roots level to understand and appreciate this.”

Does someone need to be involved at a grass roots level to follow an example set by someone else working at the grassroots level? Isn’t that a small minority?

“Just because something is a bigger change or something that is legislated or ordered by the Pope, it does not have lesser or greater merit.”

There might be a sense of “merit” which has this extreme context-relativity. But, that kind of individual merit “from within” can’t be confused with the importance of an action. The actions which are the most important are those made by the most powerful, because they have the greatest “import”, i.e. implications on society/people’s lives.

“People admire others whom they trust and respect and are much more likely to follow an example than to believe a politician or an environmentalist.”

This just means that in certain situations, from a specific point of view, politicians are less powerful than people who are admired and trusted. The fact that someone is admired and trusted puts them in a situation of power, and means their actions have import. If someone is neither a politician nor someone trusted or admired, it makes little difference what example they set – because no one will consider following it for the sake of following an example. That doesn’t mean that their actions wouldn’t be meritous in an extreme context-relative sense, although in the normal sense of social-merit, where society calls meritous those people who benefit society at large, their actions will not be meritous because they do not produce good consequences.

alena April 30, 2009 at 11:29 am

Even a person who is not powerful can produce actions that are beneficial to the larger society. Look at all the stay at home mothers and fathers that raise their children, volunteer at the schools, take care of the elderly, and contribute in countless ways in the world. I am not saying that you have to stay at home to do that, but that power is not a desirable goal for everyone and that power more often has negative consequences rather than positive ones. Get your own garden, install a solar cell shower and worry less about the politicians.

Milan April 30, 2009 at 11:33 am

Get your own garden, install a solar cell shower and worry less about the politicians.

This is exactly what the coal and oil sands companies want you to do and it is, unfortunately, a recipe for failure. Without massive change on a societal level, our efforts to deal with climate change cannot succeed.

Tristan April 30, 2009 at 11:44 am

“Even a person who is not powerful can produce actions that are beneficial to the larger society”

I think this just means that people who are normally considered un-powerful are actually powerful, actually do have the “power” to effect change.

“Get your own garden, install a solar cell shower and worry less about the politicians.”

I agree with Milan here – this is exactly the kind of action that stands in for what’s necessary and enables us not to make the real widespread changes that are required for the sake of justice to future generations.

Tristan April 30, 2009 at 11:45 am

“Get your own garden, install a solar cell shower”

Incidentally, these options are not open to most who rent an apartment.

. April 30, 2009 at 11:46 am

An introduction to the core climate solutions

Many people have asked me to write some introductory pieces. This post will serve as an introduction to climate solutions as well as a gateway to my ongoing series on the core solutions. For ease of access, I will place this in the “most popular posts” list (in this blog’s right-hand column) and constantly update it.

By core climate solution, I mean a technology-based strategy that can provide at least one half of a “stabilization wedge” by mid-century. Even half a wedge is huge — some 350 Gigawatts baseload power (~2.8 billion Megawatt-hours a year) or 160 billion gallons of gasoline. For the record, the U.S. consumed about 3.7 billion MW-hrs in 2005 and about 140 billion gallons of motor gasoline.

Peter April 30, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Milan,

I think the main objection to your extremely tough stance in this thread is one of attitude rather than a question of accuracy or estimation. Why not adopt a healthy pragmatism? I’ll let Tristan detail the Deleuzian political methodology, but a more optimal approach would be to build a monster that can connect with anything.

Rather than the caricatured message of, “Buy a hybrid and everything is okay.”, why not, “Buying a hybrid, choosing to walk or cycle, lowering the thermostat, and using durable dishes are small steps that help, but more is required.” Rather than “Your individual actions are trivial (with the implication that they are not even worth doing, or even harmful)”, why not “That was a good first step, lets talk about more you can do”, or “You’ve come up with some creative individual efforts, lets review the institutional changes that are also required.” (with the implication that the individual has a role to play in lobbying for those changes.)

The urgency and scale of the issue aren’t being challenged, but I think that you are mistakenly placing the evil in the act, rather than appropriately locating it with the misapprehension surrounding the act. In what way is “saying that such steps make a difference is damaging and dishonest.” if you give an honest and accurate account of the effects of those actions? To this end I applaud your fact-based approach; this is required for reasoned action. I don’t seek to challenge the facts, changing crockery won’t solve the problem, but you do real violence to the language and your position when you begin to speak of “trivia solutions”. The assertion that these actions aren’t the (entire) solution is correct, but their triviality does imply that individual actions are extremely small parts contributing to the lessening of the problem. Rather than employing the enormity of the situation as a bludgeon to effectively reduce the effects of individual action to zero, since you do realize that some of these actions do lower emissions even if more is required, why not remain faithful to your general educational approach and simply provide an accurate depiction of the effects of those changes?

You are not wrong when you suggest the misapprehension about the degree to which individual changes can impact the problem leads to a false sense of security that might be predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation we are in, but the harm lies in mistaking a positive action as a complete solution. It is only a synthesis of that type that can produce the bizarre term “trivial solution” In what way are these changes a solution? (which definitional implies ‘complete’) In what way could a (complete) solution be trivia? You’re struggling over the reality that these are beneficial, but only part of the solution, because the misrepresentation of such actions as the entire solution creates real harm. Why would you slip into using the very terminology that creates the problem? Furthermore, the other side isn’t wrong either when they suggest that completely dismissing the positive changes individuals do make, even if they only have minimal effect, is equally at risk of entrenching individuals against taking further action. (including participating or pushing for the more substantive changes that you assert are required.)

When you offer a reasoned consideration of which individual activities are more worthwhile, based on your statistics of Canadian emissions sorted by activity, you are appropriately targeting the misapprehension about the magnitude of the change rather than dismissing the action.

This is a dispositional complaint. It is possible to cultivate a disposition that endorses individual lifestyle changes while not obscuring the severity of the problem or the fact that further actions are required. I think this is a great virtue of your educational approach; when you are factually accurate you aren’t implying such actions are sufficient or devoid of all value, but posses a degree of value determined by empirical evidence. The main benefit from altering the practice from one of dismissal to the much harder practice of accurate education is that the disposition should connect better with emergent political opportunities. A pragmatic approach is unhealthy when it risks becoming an apologist for the current situation, but why waste energy on disavowing certain actions when it could be better spent educating willing individuals that more is required, or developing new opportunities?

Milan April 30, 2009 at 2:09 pm

I don’t seek to challenge the facts, changing crockery won’t solve the problem, but you do real violence to the language and your position when you begin to speak of “trivia solutions”. The assertion that these actions aren’t the (entire) solution is correct, but their triviality does imply that individual actions are extremely small parts contributing to the lessening of the problem. Rather than employing the enormity of the situation as a bludgeon to effectively reduce the effects of individual action to zero, since you do realize that some of these actions do lower emissions even if more is required, why not remain faithful to your general educational approach and simply provide an accurate depiction of the effects of those changes?

One reason is that there is a strong case that individual actions aren’t even the kind of thing that will ever produce meaningful reductions. Right now, people can choose between different unsustainable options, some less so than others. Choosing the more sustainable option has a positive effect, but it is also a dead end. What is necessary is to create a society in which genuinely sustainable options exist: something that cannot be accomplished at the individual level.

Furthermore, the other side isn’t wrong either when they suggest that completely dismissing the positive changes individuals do make, even if they only have minimal effect, is equally at risk of entrenching individuals against taking further action. (including participating or pushing for the more substantive changes that you assert are required.)

The tactics of speech and messaging do have relevance here, and I agree that it is counterproductive to insult efforts that people think are worthwhile. That being said, not challenging the incrementalist approach risks letting things continue on as they have in the path, an outcome that is unacceptable.

To use an analogy, our society is a huge cruise ship sailing towards some nasty rocks. Individual efforts to change the course of the ship be erecting sails, dropping homemade sea anchors, and so forth will not be sufficient to keep it from smashing into the rocks. Indeed, they aren’t even the kind of actions that could. We need to either convince the crew to change course or replace the crew with one that is willing to do so.

Milan April 30, 2009 at 2:11 pm
Milan April 30, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Another factor to consider is this:

Canada has a goal of reducing emissions to 20% below 2006 levels by 2020. Leave aside, for the moment, that the goal is not compatible with doing our fair share while stabilizing global concentrations of greenhouse gasses below 450ppm. What does meeting this target require?

Canada’s 2007 emissions were 747 million tonnes: 4% above 2006 levels and 26.2% above 1990 levels. To hit our 2020 target, we need to cut emissions by 170 million tonnes: approximately equivalent to the total greenhouse gas output of Alberta. We need to do this in eleven years.

Individual actions will play a huge role in this, but they won’t be voluntary actions driven by the desire to do good. They will be millions of individual responses to the economic incentives created by a carbon pricing system. In addition to these, there will also need to be big top-down efforts to improve the electrical grid, phase out coal, build much more renewable capacity, etc.

R.K. April 30, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Why do price-motivated actions have more impact than ethically motivated ones?

Milan April 30, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Simple: if we price carbon, the market does the job of distributing information on which activities and products are carbon-intensive. It also does so in a way that will discourage emissions even among those with no personal interest in doing so.

An ideal system would be to tax fossil fuels and deforestation at the point where they are produced (or imported). The producers would pass the price along to distributors, and from there it would spread through the whole economy. There would be no need to agonize over which decision is better for the climate. Individuals will just need to respond to the signals they receive.

Of course, that will only fully be the case when the carbon tax reached the same level as the total social cost of carbon. This might not happen for many years, after a carbon price is established.

Sarah April 30, 2009 at 4:32 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with Milan & am slightly at a loss as to why his claims are proving so contentious. As I see it, this is a problem of scale and lots of small, individual actions just won’t provide the extent of reductions in CO2 emissions that is required. I agree with Alena that grassroots activism is hugely important, especially in changing opinions, but I don’t think voluntary, local and uncoordinated actions will make enough of a difference to avert catastrophic climate change.
Sometimes I wonder if we can better understand people’s views about this by looking at what kinds of stories they like. The emphasis on individual action to tackle climate change resembles the classic upbeat Anglo-American drama of individual heroes making a difference against the odds and people who like those stories often feel depressed by tragic narratives in which structural factors outweigh individual human agency. Unfortunately, ‘tragic’ narratives happen in the world all the time and the fact that many people find those stories less entertaining doesn’t stop them from being true. IMHO this portrayal of climate change as part of a dramatic narrative of individual heroism makes tragedy becomes more and more likely.

R.K. April 30, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Another reason people are psychologically resistant to the idea that you have to ‘go big or not go at all’ is that they like to believe that they are in control of their lives. What happens when you think about all the infrastructure that supports you is you realize that your freedoms to choose are a lot more constrained than you thought.

It also diminishes the degree to which you can feel superior to your neighbours, because you live a ‘greener’ life. Like it or not, feelings of superiority drive a lot of ‘environmental’ behaviours.

Tristan April 30, 2009 at 10:58 pm

“Why do price-motivated actions have more impact than ethically motivated ones?”

What?

alena May 1, 2009 at 12:39 pm

If we as individuals in a comparatively affluent and wonderful society are unwilling to take actions and make excuses that it will not make any difference in the large picture, how can we expect anything to change? Social activism is the only effective way to bring about change. It may be slow, but it also gives the people who engage in it a purpose and a hope. Without hope we may as well close up the shop. The attitude change needed for huge changes towards our treatment of the environment do not come easily in a self-centered, profit oriented world. My hope is unshaken.

Tristan May 1, 2009 at 1:25 pm

“If we as individuals in a comparatively affluent and wonderful society are unwilling to take actions and make excuses that it will not make any difference in the large picture, how can we expect anything to change?”

1789? 1848? 1871? 1917? 1933?

There have be lots of massive social changes in history. None of them that I can think of, however, occurred as a result of “comparatively affluent individuals” in a “wonderful society” making sacrifices, as individuals, to bring about change.

Also, the world has been self-centered and profit oriented (i.e. power thought in terms of money) only since the rise of the middle class – a comparatively recent phenomenon. It’s certainly not essential to the “world”.

Emily May 1, 2009 at 2:11 pm

“Sometimes I wonder if we can better understand people’s views about this by looking at what kinds of stories they like … Unfortunately, ‘tragic’ narratives happen in the world all the time and the fact that many people find those stories less entertaining doesn’t stop them from being true.”

Having any kind of hope now makes you look like you only read the novelized Indiana Jones’ series?

We’re not talking about the triumph of the individual, we’re talking about communities drawing together to support a movement, and to fight off a sense of powerlessness.

It is not difficult to understand Milan’s argument. But we forget that not everyone is a single, young, well-educated individual. To cast our glances over to the hopeless ‘mass’ that just won’t get their act together and dismiss their ‘token gestures’ seems to be counter productive.

Imagine you are trying to support 2-4 kids on a single family income, as well as work a full-time job, and pay for rent during a recession. You decide that instead of buying from Wal-mart, you’re going to buy local and organic, and even start your own garden. Even if it makes life more expensive, more difficult, and is more time-consuming.

These are efforts that demonstrate a real commitment to the cause, and self-sacrifice. To just wave those off and say ‘Oh well, she’s not pummeling oil company tycoons’ does a disservice to her as well as ourselves. Even if it doesn’t make a significant change, I am not under the delusion that it will, you have there one more person devoted to the cause, willing to accept change, and ready for more drastic change when the people who have a better chance at influencing outcome organize things in a way that she can co operate with more effectively.

It’s less of a “cause = effect” type of thinking and more of a “cause = demonstration of willingness for more significant effect” type of thing.

Emily May 1, 2009 at 2:15 pm

This idea that the only people who matter are those motivated, young entrepreneurs attempting to pull the strings (in the tradition of Defoe) against the tradition of the old is absolutely individualistic.

I don’t suppose you’ve read the novel version of the Last Crusade recently?

Tristan May 1, 2009 at 2:21 pm

“To cast our glances over to the hopeless ‘mass’ that just won’t get their act together and dismiss their ‘token gestures’ seems to be counter productive.”

We need to think seriously about what counts as “productive”. What if token gestures make it less likely that substantial political change will occur? Alternatively, what if token gestures make it more likely? The answer to this question matters, and it can’t be answered by talking about how difficult the token gestures are to make. There are lots of difficult tasks, there are lots of good intentions – but what matters is good effects.

Tristan May 1, 2009 at 2:27 pm

“This idea that the only people who matter are those motivated, young entrepreneurs attempting to pull the strings (in the tradition of Defoe) against the tradition of the old is absolutely individualistic.”

Did I advocate this position? Is this even true for any of the events I referred to?

Emily May 1, 2009 at 2:34 pm

I was speaking to Sarah’s comment: “The emphasis on individual action to tackle climate change resembles the classic upbeat Anglo-American drama of individual heroes making a difference against the odds”

I was just arguing that you take the *most* classic individualistic stance when you say “only priveleged people in priveleged positions can make change, not *those* guys”

Emily May 1, 2009 at 2:38 pm

(Classic 19th c. privelege being: young, upwardly mobile, middle-class, white)

Tristan May 1, 2009 at 4:11 pm

“I was just arguing that you take the *most* classic individualistic stance when you say “only privileged people in privileged positions can make change, not *those* guys””

When did I say anything about what class of people could make a difference? I’ve been emphasizing the results of actions, not who does the actions.

I find it absurd that these discussions are carried out without historical analysis of past changes. Who caused the French revolution, 1848, the commune, the Russian Revolution (in its various stanges?) Was it individuals? Was it groups? Both of course – but crucially, it was not large groups of people acting individually – it was large groups of people acting as groups, together. That’s why it’s called “social change”. Building a solar shower is not social change even if everyone does it so long as its done individually. However, a community getting together and helping each other all install solar showers in each others houses – that would be social change. Individuals seem to have power, especially in October 1917, because they speak a democratic language that gets society on side. That’s why Lenin declared all power to the Soviets (workers councils) during the revolution – but as soon as it was over, took away all their power, and dissolved them when they came into conflict with the party.

. May 1, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Massive economic and policy reform: Easier than you think

Posted 6:12 PM on 30 Apr 2009
by Sean Casten

It seems to me that we suffer from a failure of imagination.

We dream of a low-carbon world, but can’t quite fathom how to get around the massive lobbying clout (and inertia) of the coal lobby. We dream of a world with no more utility obstacles to energy efficiency, but can’t imagine how to undo laws in fifty states (plus the feds) to undo utility disincentives. And we dream of a renewable future, but find it implausible that the tiny amount of solar currently on the grid can be scaled up to a level that matters in any reasonable time frame.

And so we scale back our ambitions. Rather than confront the coal lobby, we craft carbon bills with escape hatches and allowances to buy off the biggest carbon sources. We encourage decoupling, but don’t confront the regulatory paradigm of regulated utilities. And we throw a few incentives out for renewables, but still send most of the DOE budget to the nuclear industry.

Big changes are not easy. You can’t force the economy (or the federal government) to change course on a dime. But that doesn’t mean big changes are impossible—it just means we don’t anticipate them.

alena May 1, 2009 at 8:13 pm

I did happen to live through a revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and a few years earlier. It started with very small gestures like rejecting the compulsory Russian language at school and it grew and grew until it was dangerous and pivotal to huge changes around the world. It started at a grass roots level and inspired people to remake their society. There were very few fatalities involved. Perfectly feasible and democratic changes were crushed by fearful political leaders. The Prague Spring was more an intellectual revolution than a proletarian uprising , yet people from all walks of life embraced it.

Sarah May 1, 2009 at 10:19 pm

I am startled by Emily’s accusation that my criticism of individualistic hero narratives is elitist. Speaking as a trade union activist, it seems to me that disadvantaged people are far, far better able to exercise influence when they act collectively. Of course I’m not arguing that the lone parent in your example is incapable of making a difference, although speaking as someone who was raised by a single mom on a low income I’d be damn surprised if people below the poverty line can spare the time to grow their own veg or money to buy fancy groceries. What I am arguing is that people can make more of a difference by acting collectively e.g. to change building regulations to require better insulation for rented accommodation in their city and to better enforce existing standards, or campaign for better public transit, or start a walking bus to get kids to school instead of parents driving, or form a union at their workplace so that they can influence their working conditions & employer’s policies. Feel-good rhetoric about individual shopping decisions changing the world is all very well, but the evidence doesn’t suggest that minor, incremental and uncoordinated changes of that kind will be sufficient to avert catastrophic climate change.

Tristan May 1, 2009 at 11:37 pm

“It started with very small gestures like rejecting the compulsory Russian language at school and it grew and grew until it was dangerous and pivotal to huge changes around the world.”

This is exactly what I mean – the small gestures have to grow to something embraced by a large group. The individual gestures need to become a social movement – people have to see the general strength of the movement as something they put their individual interest behind.

I don’t see much reason to think that eco-consumerism could spread in this way.

Emily May 1, 2009 at 11:44 pm

“Feel-good rhetoric about individual shopping decisions changing the world is all very well, but the evidence doesn’t suggest that minor, incremental and uncoordinated changes of that kind will be sufficient to avert catastrophic climate change.”

I feel like maybe I am poorly articulating my point. I’m not trying to say “If you, an individual out of 6 billion, ride your bike to work you are saving the world”, I’m trying to express that if enough individuals, uncoordinated or otherwise, are making the decision to sacrifice to transition to a carbon neutral society, then that is an encouraging sign: a sign that coordinated change, by those who are in a position and inclination to organize, is more and more possible and likely.

Also, a higher number of individuals who represent, co ordinated or unco ordinated, the desire for change, in a democracy, is encouraging.

People need encouragement, and people need community support, and people need hope, and they are more likely to co operate together with those things.

To simply pawn off their optimism to the (let’s be serious) low-brow medium of pulp fiction, or just demand that they organize – despite what we have both accepted are overwhelming challenges (in the case of the single mother, which likely represents a large portion of Canada) seems like an unlikely way of stimulating change.

Yes, we need co ordinated action. Co ordinated action grows more and more likely when we see communities demonstrating active concern.

Emily May 2, 2009 at 12:09 am

I also agree with Alena’s assertion: “There is no question in my mind that individual effort, no matter how small, is never trivial and insignificant.”

Perhaps it would be helpful to come up with a list of efforts from least impactful to most. I think maybe a lot of the tension in this discussion comes from the perception that there is an equating of something like planting a tree to forging a glorious eco-revolution, or placing the two contributions on a similar ‘effectiveness’ scale.

Tristan May 2, 2009 at 12:37 am

“Yes, we need co ordinated action. Co ordinated action grows more and more likely when we see communities demonstrating active concern.”

Do you have any evidence for this? Do you mean that seeing groups demonstrate active concern begets more people to join that group? That seems wrong – there are tons of totally active groups at York, but their demonstration of themselves as active doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll grow. And if they do grow, it’s incremental – none of them become massive social changes. For a community demonstrating active concern to turn into a social turning-around, a revolution of sorts, there needs to be something about the way it demonstrates active concern that connects with people – that people are ready for. I know we’d all love the environment to be an issue like this – but it’s too abstract, to alien from our everyday lives.

“There is no question in my mind that individual effort, no matter how small, is never trivial and insignificant.”

There are certainly lots of individual efforts which end up trivial and insignificant. Bad ideas done with good intentions which don’t produce results are by definition insignificant. Maybe someone could learn from their mistakes – but this seems like quite a minimal significance, not the kind we want here.

Emily May 2, 2009 at 1:20 am

First of all, we are just talking ourselves in circles. What’s the goal? A carbon-neutral world, right?

How do we get that? We keep talking like we expect a glorious revolution to just spring up out of the masses.

Milan outlined a bunch of things we can do to help in important ways.

Maybe incremental change is too slow, but incremental change is still worth supporting.

Who will lead this great social change? You? Me? How do we effect this great social change? With megaphones on the street corner?

Becoming politicians? Becoming influential vice-presidents?

I’m less interested in what we can’t do, and more interested in what we can. Yes, people can’t effect change if their ideas of how to make effective change are distorted: but there needs to be a cohesive outline for the kind of actions that are the most effective, so people can do those things.

My point is, as it has been all the way through this discussion, that people are demonstrating the desire to make a difference – there just needs to be a plan for us to make a difference most effectively.

Tristan May 2, 2009 at 10:41 am

“Maybe incremental change is too slow, but incremental change is still worth supporting.”

NO. If Incremental change will lead to run-away climate change, then it is NOT worth supporting. It is a waste of our energy! Our children are condemned anyway!

Incremental change is worth supporting only if it leads to run-away-political-force-to-deal-with-climate-change.

The standard for acting has to be what’s effective. Do we know what’s effective? Well, right now people are supporting incremental change even if it isn’t effective – so the first hurdle to clear is to not support things even when we accept they are not effective – and the second thing is to figure out what is effective.

alena May 2, 2009 at 11:21 am

Tristan, what troubles me most about your arguments is the pessimism of your message. Anyone who is educated can find a theory to negate someone else’s idea and to shoot them down. In my view, there is too much shooting down going on already. People need dreams and that is why Obama was elected. Greed and exploitation of people and the earth have gotten us into this mess in the first place; why not try a little self-sacrifice and idealism? I agree with Emily that we “cannot look at what we can’t do, but rather at what we can do.” Even if it does not solve all of our problems, it will give more meaning to people’s lives. Those of us who have given life to children have to hope that there can be a future for them and for their children too. Fatalism will not bring that about.

Tristan May 2, 2009 at 12:20 pm

There is nothing fatalistic about setting a standard for what kinds of actions we should try to achieve. It seems to me the fatalistic position is to keep working on a project after it’s been revealed to be inadequate to its own task. The point of mitigating climate change is not to give meaning to our lives – there are many ways we could do that.

Obama was elected because he ran on another campaign of empty slogans – but one which connected with people’s disenchantment of the political system. The Obama wave of support occurred because a message was carefully constructed to correspond with what people would take up and assert as their own message. The Democrats are back in power because they took a page from the Republicans playbook – elections are not about policy, but festivity. It’s absolutely not a grassroots movement – it’s a top-down precipitation that gives people the feeling that they are involved in something from the root – when in fact, they are the product.

Milan May 4, 2009 at 11:27 am

Maybe incremental change is too slow, but incremental change is still worth supporting.

As I said before, incremental change isn’t the wrong approach because it is too slow. It is the wrong approach because we can never reach the destination of a low-carbon world through this approach. I think my ship analogy is an accurate one.

I continue to believe that encouraging people to take actions that are psychologically positive for them, rather than those that make an actual difference, is dangerous and self-defeating. Those with an interest in perpetuating the status quo (at the eventual cost of destroying the planet) are aided most by those who have the will and desire to resist them, but devote their energies towards incremental changes rather than driving societal ones.

. May 4, 2009 at 2:54 pm

One Simple Act simply self-mockery
Individual conservation measures will do little to counteract industry consumption
Graham Thomson, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Tuesday, June 03 2008

There is something oddly simplistic about “One Simple Act” — the Alberta government’s new policy to help save the environment.

The program is like something your earnest kindergartner would bring home decorated with smiley faces and rainbows.

Who can argue with the government’s suggestion that we take shorter showers, turn down the thermostat at night and turn off the tap while brushing our teeth?

According to the Environment Department’s news release, “Albertans are being challenged to commit One Simple Act to make a big difference for the environment.”

We’re being challenged to wash our laundry in cold water, install a low-flow toilet and compost at home. Apparently, the average family of four can compost 500 kilograms of waste every year which, the news release adds by way of puzzling encouragement, “is about the weight of an adult moose.”

According to the government, Premier Ed Stelmach “made a personal commitment to plant a tree on the Alberta Legislature grounds” and Environment Minister Rob Renner “committed to continuing to replace the light bulbs in his home and constituency office with compact fluorescents.”

This is a program that asks us to do everything but hug our grandmothers and adopt a puppy. It’s disturbingly similar to the government’s simplistic “Healthy U” program of 2003 which, in the middle of the debate over health-care reform, suggested Albertans “eat coleslaw more often” and “make active living part of each day.”

Peter May 5, 2009 at 2:58 am

Tristan,

You are the one-man revolution. In all seriousness, we do need social will, but I don’t think we require the radical dissatisfaction or conceptual breakages of 1789, 1848, or 1917. I think incentivization and social development will be relatively effective. The strategy has been to line up environmental interests with the dominant values of our time, e.i., transition to a green economy for fun, profit and national security. This is distinctly different from challenging class structures, and the will needed completely overturn the existing hierarchy. However, certainly more will is required then http://www.prisonplanet.com/pew-poll-global-warming-ranks-dead-last-as-priority.html

Sarah,

I understand Milan’s arguments and agree with many of his claims, such as the trivial nature of the impact of small actions, the general hollowness of the politics of appearance, and the need for social/institutional change, as well as the relative ease of implementing individual changes if we institutionally incentivize behaviour. My problem is that he falls into the untenable position of claiming that small changes makes don’t make (any) difference and then decides to targets actions rather than the misapprehensions, which are the real cause of the problems he outlines.

This entire debate mirrors the one between Milan and Magictofu on the origin of swine flu, where Milan almost immediately backs off the untenable position. Clearly would should investigate, report the facts accurately, and fully consider all the costs and benefits when deciding what form of agriculture we want. This doesn’t mean we should consider promoting untrue theories about something as positive because we have reified it as evil. The parallels in this case, are that individual actions are harmful if they end up producing more emissions. Empty gestures or small reductions in emissions aren’t harmful, the misapprehensions surrounding them that excuses further action is. Real education requires accuracy; I think it is best to address problems directly.

Additionally, my post was as much theorycraft about how to build a successful political machine. I was pointing out that maintaining an accurate account of how much change each action achieves allows him to remain positive and potentially connect with individuals rather than alienating them, while still combating the misapprehensions that are the real cause of the problems he is concerned about. I don’t begrudge Milan’s condemnation of Earth Hour, especially when people internalize the message that this action is enough, but I am merely pointing out that it only becomes an issue if the misapprehension exists. The pragmatic approach would be, they’re all pumped up over Earth Hour, what can I get them to do now? Can I get them to: Make a small life style change? Make a large lifestyle change? Convince them of the need for societal change? Sign a petition? Mail their representative? Take the petition around? Advocate? Feel free to contradict them if you can’t get them to do anything because they suffer from the misapprehension that Earth Hour is enough. In building the political machine, accuracy and positivity are lexically ordered, so you don’t have to shill.

Milan,

I wasn’t going to post until I finished reading all of the 49 pages of reading you assigned to me, but I couldn’t resist. Making those changes does make an “actual” difference, just not a large one. I think you should remain consistent with your educational approach and report things accurately. Value the changes in direct proportion to how much they reduce emissions. Additionally, the trivial – non-trivial distinction doesn’t track the individual – social distinction because you have recommended individual actions that you judged to have a sizable impact. Not taking a trip on a plane has a larger effect than not using paper plates. I think this is appropriate and the actions should be evaluated in terms of the difference they do make, but they are both examples of individual action. Furthermore, neither will completely solve the problem of climate change.

However, you consistently revert to an extreme and untenable best summarized in this quote:

“I think saying that such steps make a difference is damaging and dishonest.”

This isn’t accurate, and mistakenly places the evil in the action rather than the misapprehension surrounding the action. If the action was trivial, explain why it is trivial. If an individual believes that these small actions solve the problem, or has discharged him of his moral responsibility, explain why this is not the case. I fail to see how even a trivial reduction in greenhouse gases can be damaging and dishonest if reported accurately.

“It is the wrong approach because we can never reach the destination of a low-carbon world through this approach.”

This is true, but small reductions in emissions do ease the problem. I’ve never disputed that institutional change is necessary and in many ways can be easier (not easier to implement, but places the workload on companies instead of individuals), but that doesn’t negate the sum benefits of individual actions. Reduction won’t solve the problem by itself, and renewables also won’t completely solve the problem, and technological innovation is unlikely to completely solve the problem, but clearly these areas are valuable in the sense that they are parts that combine to form a potential solution to the problem.

Before you do something I’ll come to regret, like tossing me another analogy to establish a premise that wasn’t in conflict, and assigning me more reading that is marginally related, it is important to clearly analyze your analogy. Institutional change is required and it is harmful if we assume that our individual action, or even that the sum total of individual actions will be sufficient, but your analogy only works because you’ve presented a scenario where the activities are mutually exclusive, and the preoccupation with individual action prevents the power of the engines (metaphor for institutions) from being engaged. Presumably the passengers aren’t fashioning their homemade anchors while convincing the crew to change direction, but they could be. I’ll go further and point out that as long as the individual anchors have some effect, then the optimal strategy when the turn needs to be as quick as possible (which I believe is a recurring theme on this blog) is to convince the crew to change the course of the ship, while individuals provide additional drag. In the real world, advocating for institutional change and making individual changes doesn’t appear to be mutually exclusive and tends to be self-re-enforcing. I think Emily’s point is that we don’t have to posit a model of political action where enthusiasm and action are in zero-sum relation. The institutional change only occurs if people lobby. People only lobby when they are interested. Those who are concerned about the issue and are willing to make the largest individual changes are likely (though not necessarily) to be the strongest advocates and promoters of social change. As people get more interested, they tend to act more, as they get more involved, they tend to become even more interested. While the individual actions might be small, they aren’t negated, and at the very least you should encourage people to stop throwing homemade anchors off the wrong side of the boat.

I was stressing accuracy and appealing to (for lack of a better term) the aesthetics of political mobalization, I didn’t make any ethical claims. Before I get even more reading, to allay fears, I understand the basic line of argumentation evoked by reference to the three posts. Since you believe that combating climate change is a moral obligation, any individual starts at a deficit and shouldn’t be praised for trivial actions that he mistakenly believes relieves his obligation. If someone starts at a negative and is still at a negative overall, why go out of your way to praise their behaviour? I agree with much of what you said in the posts (except I’m not a utilitarian, and I hold the alternative option requirement as slightly more important than you – which is somewhat relevant here), but none of the ethical considerations contests the pragmatics of positive re-enforcement, real returns and the need for accuracy.

. May 7, 2009 at 12:17 pm

One Hard Thing You Must Do to Save the Planet
May 7th, 2009

In “25 Easy Things One Hard Thing You Can Must Do to Save the Planet,” Jimmy Seidita disses the Earth Day lists of 10 simple things that you can do to save the planet and then (wisely) argues:

Ready for your one hard thing that you must do to save the planet? Here it is:

1. Actively support the Obama administration’s efforts to limit carbon emissions.

That’s it. That’s all you need to do. But really do it. Talk to your friends, relatives and neighbors about it. E-mail your congressman about it. Tell him you want action on climate this year, even if it means paying a little more for gas or electricity. Write your local newspaper. Join a climate organization. [JR: Support the Center for American Progress Action Fund!] Wear a button. Put it on your Facebook. Twitter it, goddammit, whatever that means. Do all that, and you can leave the old light bulbs in place, give your kids the bottled water, and drive your SUV to the end of your driveway to pick up the mail. Just do everything you can to help the administration pass its climate program this year.

Milan May 7, 2009 at 12:23 pm

I wasn’t going to post until I finished reading all of the 49 pages of reading you assigned to me, but I couldn’t resist.

Before you do something I’ll come to regret, like tossing me another analogy to establish a premise that wasn’t in conflict, and assigning me more reading that is marginally related, it is important to clearly analyze your analogy.

I am not sure in what sense I could have ‘assigned’ any reading to you. When I put links to relevant articles below posts, it serves the dual role of allowing me to track them down more easily in the future and allowing people who wish to learn more about a topic to do so. They certainly shouldn’t be considered mandatory reading.

. May 7, 2009 at 5:04 pm

But unfortunately your “everyone just needs to do personal behavior modification” isn’t nearly enough. I’ve seen numerous reports, and even a BBC documentary about a family doing everything they could to reduce their footprint, where it doesnt measure up because of the large scale institutional carbon producing in the background. The personal behaviors were noble but quaint next to what needs to be done at the large legal level. So, putting pressure on these congressmen and women in the summer of 2009, just before Copenhagen, is VERY relevant.

Peter May 7, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Milan,

“I am not sure in what sense I could have ‘assigned’ any reading to you.”

Relax. It is just my offbeat sense of humour at work. It was pure rhetoric primarily designed to lead to a comment about the analogy and to set up this point,

“but none of the ethical considerations contests the pragmatics of positive re-enforcement, real returns and the need for accuracy.”

Although, the glimmer of truth is that I didn’t find the analogy particularly useful. I often find that matters of disagreement aren’t so much resolved in these discussions, but subtly shifted to other positions of agreement. I don’t disagree with the premise behind the analogy, but didn’t find that it directly address the previous issue. I’m usually left somewhat confused by what I perceive to be replies (although this might be the error, maybe that and others aren’t direct replies). It is like using the line “blue is a colour” as a counter point. I have no choice to agree, but that doesn’t really speak to the point of contention. So, I tend to have a little fun with myself by abusing the phrases I use.

. May 11, 2009 at 11:21 am

This Is Your Brain on Climate Change…
by admin

By Drew Monkman, originally posted to the Peterborough Examiner

I have wondered for many years why it is that the environmental movement has generally failed to bring about any substantive change in human behaviour or, by extension, in laws and regulations. Why, for example, are we so slow to heed the advice of climate scientists?

Only two years ago, it seemed that Canadians had finally woken up to the reality of climate change with public opinion polls showing the environment at the top of our list of concerns. People said they were ready to support tough government action on this problem, even if it might affect their own pocketbooks. How quickly things change. The idea of a carbon tax was soundly defeated in the last election, and a recent poll shows a majority of Canadians would choose to save money instead of buying environmentally friendly products if they cost more.

Certainly the present economic crisis is part of problem. However, I believe it goes much deeper than that. Clearly, knowledge of impending doom is not enough. Science has known for nearly 40 years what’s in store for us with climate change and what we have to do to mitigate the worst impacts.

Milan May 25, 2009 at 11:28 am

A couple of sentences from James Gustave Speth’s The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability seem to represent a good synthesis of the ideas expressed above:

“The other road [an alternative to business-as-usual], a rocky one, winds towards a future where environmentally concerned citizens come to understand, by virtue of spirited debate and animated conversation, the ‘consumption problem.’ They would see that their individual consumption choices are environmentally important, but that their control over these choices is constrained, shaped, and framed by institutions and political forces that can be remade only through collective citizen action, as opposed to individual consumer behaviour.”

(p.154 hardcover)

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