That’s right, I am slaughtering the Progressive Liberal’s sacred cow. I have been freaking some people out (including last night at a panel discussion after the excellent documentary film, Merchants of Doubt) as I tell them that all those individual efforts we make in our North American and European homes to lower our personal carbon footprints don’t really add up to much in light of the extreme amounts of greenhouse gases that get emitted from the existing energy infrastructure all around us. Shocking I know. It’s not that lowering our individual output of fossil fuels is a bad thing–it is noble and the right thing to do, BUT it is the tiniest of baby steps. For so long we have embraced an eco-myth that if we each did our individual part, we will lick this fossil fuel pollution problem.
I tend to think of lowering our carbon footprint as bootcamp workout for the future. We are in training for living in tomorrowland, a time after we transition form dirty to clean energy. Greenhouse gases will likely rise in price, and our energy expenses at home will also rise. More importantly these prices will rise for businesses and government. Plastic packaging, transportation, heat, street maintenance, and electricity may very well shoot up in price thus forcing governments, businesses, and folks on the ground like you and me to conserve and pursue alternative clean energy.
But this notion that if we all just do our part in our own homes–recycle, lower the thermostat, live without air conditioning, dry our clothes on a line somewhere, go vegan, buy green products–that it will magically all add up and BAM we will have addressed fossil fuel emissions is a Big Myth. Now myths about tooth faeries and ghosts don’t really cause much harm, but when we conserve at home and feel we have done our part, we undermine the essential work that needs to be done. In fact, we engage in another form of Climate Denial; we do not recognize the seriousness and the scale of the problem. We end up making no real difference.
Lowering my carbon footprints feels like eco-masturbation to me. Satisfying, pleasurable, and relaxing. But if, for example, as an LGBTQ activist, I believed that by wanking in the privacy of my own home, I somehow address justice issues around sexuality and identity, well, then my masturbatory fantasy life is really out there. Similarly, those private eco acts we perform at home feel good but do virtually nothing to address the the world outside our homes that is fueled and maintained by greenhouse gases. It may not be the perfect analogy, but the next time you recycle consider if you are indulging in eco-masturbation and if there is something more you can do to address the climate crisis.
Not that we are helpless victims in the face of a fossil fuel intensive world order. We have agency; we have work to do.
In Episode Six of Climate Stew I talk to an atmospheric scientist, Kathy Straub, who gently but directly helps me understand why while personal energy adjustments are woefully inadequate in dealing with our current climate crisis. We talk about the issue of slavery in America and how an entire money making institution had to be challenged socially, outside of the comfort of abolitionists’ homes. The show also reveals some practical steps that can radically address how to lower emissions on a large scale. In just 12 minutes (which includes humor and hope and music) this Climate Stew episode helps to dispel the myths while providing a path forward.
I also take this issue on in a recent Huffington Post piece I wrote, I Confess: I am a Climate Change Hypocrite.
Have a look and listen. Feel free to disagree, but let’s look at global warming honestly and without myths.