Why I’m not an eco-angel

contraction and convergenceI gave up flying a few years ago, and my carbon footprint is 46% lower than the UK average. I really like this calculator and action plan tool, which helps individuals work out how they can reduce their carbon emissions and ecological footprint. But I’ve gone past the suggestion that it’s our individual responsibility to somehow reduce our impacts down to a sustainable level on our own. Not only is this message impossible to sell to anyone outside the “keen green” demographic (because it’s too hard); it’s also fundamentally wrong!

Here are 3 reasons why:

  • We won’t change people’s values by being angelic, we merely reinforce how different we are to the norm, which is heavily marketed by government and business. It’s good to avoid charges of hypocrisy, but it’s also important to explain with humility why you — like most other people — find it hard. That takes the conversation to the more important changes we need to enable and facilitate sustainable lifestyles in the mainstrem.
  • We lack the infrastructure and services to make many sustainable lifestyle choices. Our towns and cities embed the car as the most convenient mode of travel; moving to living streets, car and bicycle clubs, better public transport and so on enables people to make a shift. Without the infrastructure and services those choices remain very unlikely outside of the keen green demographic. So long as this remains the case, our super-sustainable choices will be of little consequence because they won’t spread out to the majority of the population. Better to work on the underlying causes, and make your own life easier as a result;
  • Upstream efficiency in the supply chain reduce the impact of your lifestyle choices. Eating less meat and dairy is definitely necessary; but if farming, your cooking and every process in between are made more efficient you need to make less of a reduction through your food choices. If you want to reduce your transport emissions to a sustainable level today you get a budget with zero flying miles, zero foreign train holidays and a few train holidays around the UK, with the majority of commuting by bicycle or foot. If you model resource efficiencies throughout the economy, you suddenly get to travel quite a lot more;

The changes we need in the economy, political systems, civil society institutions, neighbourhoods and personal values are complex and profound. Insisting that we all “walk the talk” not only backfires as a strategy, it’s also a self-deception.

3 Comments

  1. […] We must individually do our bit, consuming less and better, but let’s not worry about being angelic! Sign up to 10:10 because it asks individuals, organisations and governments to join together. […]

    15th September 2009
  2. […] another reason not to try and terrify people out of conspicuous consumption, aside from the basic flaws in the “eco angel” approach and recent evidence that moralising is putting people off […]

    11th January 2010
  3. Tom said:

    Hello old boy.

    I pretty much agree with your sentiment here. I think that the main point to convey is that it’s one of shared responsibility rather than individual responsibility.

    I’m not sure that I agree with your statement that you can’t change peoples values by being angelic. I think that’s a lot in Ghandi’s argument that we should be the change that we want to see in the world. . . I think you’re right about approaching it with humility though,

    Following our conversation from the other night a final point that occurs to me is that just because consumption isn’t a black and white issue and deciding what constitutes an appropriate level of consumption is effectively an arbitrary process it doesn’t mean that we can’t have a sense of what an appropriate level of consumption is. Just as we have a sense of what constitutes greedy behaviour when it is not really possible to define moderation so to can we obtain a sense of what is moderate behaviour from a environmental consumption perspective. If we are to make any headway in tackling climate change then I believe that these sorts of social Norma will need to be established.

    22nd July 2010

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