Friday, January 30, 2009

Pop Quiz: What's the #1 Thing You Can Do to Slow Climate Change?

A. Replace all your light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescents (CFLs)
B. Trade in your car for a hybrid such as the Toyota Prius
C. Conduct a home-energy audit, add insulation, and install double-paned windows
D. Plant a vegetable garden and try to rely mostly on locally-sourced food

According to Bill McKibben, the correct answer would be E, none of the above. In a recent article in Orion, he argues that the immediacy and scale of the climate crisis turns the old adage, "think globally, act locally" on its head. What's needed most urgently is not little practical steps, but concerted political action to influence legislation in favor of limiting carbon emissions.

He makes an excellent point. Dedicated environmentalists make up a small percentage of the population. Alone, all their efforts to reduce their own carbon footprints add up to, well, just about zilch. By all means, people should keep doing what they can to reduce their own impact. But "the trick is to take that 5 percent of people who really care and make them count for far more than 5 percent." And that can only happen when they mobilize politically.

This argument makes intuitive sense. For every environmentalist out there counting every pound of carbon he or she emits, there are twenty others who could care less. So until the laws change, nothing changes.

Yet environmentalists are often timid in voicing this reality. They don't want anyone to stop doing these little things so they frame the issue in terms of mostly superficial individual actions. "Change your light bulbs, put out your recycling, and you're doing your part" seems to be the message.

The first order of business is for that dedicated 5 percent to dedicate more of their energy lobbying for structural change--the most important of which right now is a steep price on carbon.

At the same time, we might also inject a bit of reality into the conversation about what constitutes "saving the planet." If environmentalism's main message is that changing light bulbs and other slight modifications to business as usual is enough, then that's all we can expect people to do. If we admit that individual actions such as these are futile without accompanying changes to our laws, some people may indeed stop bothering to make even these small concessions. But a few may add their voice to that dedicated 5 percent and rally for real change.

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