Voluntary actions didn't get us civil rights, and they won't fix the climate

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Mike Tidwell

Mike Tidwell is director of the U.S. Climate Emergency Council and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network based in Takoma Park, Md.

Strange but true: Energy-efficient light bulbs and hybrid cars are hurting our nation’s budding efforts to fight global warming.More precisely, every time an activist or politician hectors the public to voluntarily reach for a new bulb or spend extra on a Prius, ExxonMobil heaves a big sigh of relief.Scientists now scream the news about global warming: it’s already here and could soon, very soon, bring tremendous chaos and pain to our world. The networks and newspapers have begun running urgent stories almost daily: The Greenland ice sheet is vanishing! Sea levels are rising! Wildfires are out of control! Hurricanes are getting bigger!

But what’s the solution? Most media sidebars and web links quickly send us to that peppy and bright list we all know so well, one vaguely reminiscent of Better Homes and Gardens: “10 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet.” Standard steps include: change three light bulbs. Consider a hybrid car for your next purchase. Tell the kids to turn out the lights. Even during the recent Al Gore-inspired Live Earth concerts, the phrase “planetary emergency” was followed by “wear more clothes indoors in winter” and “download your music at home to save on the shipping fuel for CDs.”

Nice little gestures all, but are you kidding me? Does anyone think this is the answer?

Imagine if this had been the dominant response to racial segregation 50 years ago. Apartheid rules across much of our land and here are three things you can do: Take time, if possible, to feed three negroes who seek food at your lunch counter each month. Consider giving up your use of the N-word, or at least cut down. And avoid vacationing in states where National Guardsmen are needed to enrol blacks in public schools.

Obviously, there are times in history when moral, economic, and national-security wrongs are so huge that appeals for voluntary change are not only wildly insufficient but are themselves immoral as a dominant national response. By 1965 we had appropriately banned racial discrimination in housing, employment, voting, and other realms of national life. The majority of Americans understood this to be the only appropriate response to a colossal national injustice.

Meanwhile, global warming represents an even greater source of potential human suffering, not just to us, but to all humans — and not just now, but for centuries to come. And yet there is precious little popular discussion of banning the abusive practices that directly create violent climate change. Like Jim Crow practices, we must by law phase out completely the manufacture of inefficient light bulbs and gas-guzzling cars, as a serious start to fighting this problem.

Next time Aunt Betty goes to buy bulbs at the CVS, there should only be climate-friendly fluorescents for sale. When she shops for her next car, there should only be 50-mpg models across the lot, the sort even Detroit admits it can readily build.

Of course, there are politicians and activists already out there passionately calling for dramatic statutory responses to global warming. But they are mostly drowned out by the “10 Things You Can Do” chorus. And it turns out the voluntary “green your lifestyle” mantra may in fact discourage even individual change. One British study found that people tend to respond in one of two ways when told simultaneously that global warming is a planetary emergency and that the solution is switching a few light bulbs: they conclude that a) the problem can’t be that big if my few bulbs can fix it, so I won’t worry about any of it; or b) I know the problem is huge and my little bulbs can’t really make a difference, so why bother?

While I do believe we have a moral responsibility to do what we can as individuals, we just don’t have enough time to win this battle one household at a time, street by painstaking street, from coast to coast.

The problem at hand is so huge it requires a response like our national mobilization to fight — and win — World War II. To move our nation off of fossil fuels, we need inspired leadership and sweeping statutes a la the Big War or the civil-rights movement.

So frankly, I feel a twinge of nausea now each time I see that predictable “10 Things You Can Do” sidebar in a well-meaning magazine or newspaper article. In truth, the only list that actually matters is the one we should all be sending to Congress post haste, full of 10 muscular clean-energy statutes that would finally do what we say we want: rescue our life-giving Earth from climate catastrophe.

From Grist, Sept 4 2007. Reprinted with the author’s permission.


  • Hello,good post. I would add that the voluntary-orientation and the 10-things-you-can-do-to-stop-climate-change-isms are a manifestation of the consumer sovereignty paradigm dominant pretty much everywhere nowadays. A shifting of responsibility onto individuals constructed as consumers (the voting with your wallet approach) is aggressively ongoing, as encouraged by industry, governments and even a good number of NGOs. Carbon-neutralize-your-life is a practice spreading like wildfire (i.e. a very profitable business), where consumers are encouraged to keep consuming mindlessly as they can put their sense of guilt to rest by paying a premium and offset the carbon footprint of their holiday flight, their car, their life! But this is really the key to sustainable consumption and production policy as stemming from OECD (OECD Environment Directorate Program on Consumption, Production and the Environment, “Policies to Promote Sustainable Consumption: an Overview”, 2001) and UN (Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, 2002) documents. The former states for example that “The concept of eco-efficiency from the perspective of the consumption side means that the somewhat unworkable goal of “changing consumption patterns” can be rephrased into a little bit more concise and operational target, namely inspiring consumers to contribute to more efficient consumption patterns“, and further more “consumers should continue to satisfy their needs – not necessarily with fewer products – but with products or services requiring fewer natural resources and causing less pollution”. The UN document itself also refers to the need to “increase eco-efficiency”, which implicitly means focusing on the concept of “intensity” (ratio emissions per unit GDP) as opposed to that of scale (absolute levels of emissions). This lies behind the fact that the dominant international and national policy responses to climate changes are based on market-driven mechanisms (emissions trading, CDM, JI, green and White certificates etc.). Voluntary agreements, public-private partnerships, transversal partnerships of industry and NGOs are the order of the day in a society dominated by political apathy and consumerism fueled by manufactured needs and by manufactured notions of inevitable trade-offs between employment and environment, social equality and climate, food security and social security and where economic growth still is the dominant aim of economic development policy, and furthermore where consumption (and production, and the whole economy for that matter) is increasingly more disembedded from social, ecological and cultural realities.To conclude, to advocate what Mike Tidwell advocates means to engage individuals politically as citizens and not passively as consumers; it means recognizing that we should not face the choice between several kind of tomatoes ranked by their socio-environmental impacts (food miles, fair or unfair trade, wasteful packaging, GMO, organic etc.), a choice which all too often is regressive and driven by financial factors (poor and low-income families very often cannot afford to be green or fair!); it means to begin facing the music and make the eminently political decision to change the framework within which we operate so that we – and not our wallets – will make decisions about our environment, socio-economic relations and our life.Vito De Lucia http://www.cicedu.org

  • Not to mention that every time someone buys a hybrid or switches to energy efficent bulbs the reduction in consumption simply reduces demand and therefore, reduces the price and facilitates others to continue in a wasteful manner with no economic consequences. It is practically a subsidy from those who care to those who are wasteful.