Green lifestyle choices won’t solve the climate problem

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“Contrary to the famous Dick Cheney quote, energy efficiency is not a matter of personal virtue. The answer to collective political failure is political action.”

by Gar Lipow
Grist, Nov. 8, 2011

Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan, aka the Greenie Pig, is feeling guilty about her plane trip to a friend’s wedding and decided to try to make up for it by rolling her own carbon offsets — that is, skimping on car travel and other energy use to make up for all that jet fuel she helped burn. While I appreciate her avoiding offset schemes, I think rolling her own misses the point, and it makes her life harder than it needs to be.

Elisabeth doesn’t have much to feel guilty about, really. I guess instead of taking a plane, she should have taken the high-speed rail. Oh wait, we don’t have any existing true high-speed rail lines in the U.S. Well, certainly she could have taken light rail from the airport to her final destination, or maybe rented an electric car. Oh wait, again. There is no light rail on that route. The airport doesn’t rent electric cars, plus we don’t have the infrastructure to fast-recharge or swap an electric battery several times between the airport and the wedding location.

In short, Elisabeth had no better choice. And offsetting her carbon emissions does nothing to change that. After all, we did not get into this mess via individual consumer choice, and we won’t get out of it that way either.

The road to our current predicament was long, and built on public policy and public investment. Take the gradual reduction of freight rail in this country, for example. We have less than half the miles of freight-rail track we had at the peak of freight-rail shipping; that is a result of a massive public investment in public highways — which do not in fact pay for themselves [PDF]. In our system, rail pays property tax and highways don’t, much of the so-called gas tax is really diverted sales tax, and railroads also pay fuel taxes but don’t get fuel tax money back the way highways do.

Similarly, passenger rail in this country suffers from that same competition for public resources by highways. It also competes with massive subsidized parking for cars and trucks [PDF]. It further still reels from the deliberate destruction of trolley systems that once existed all over the country. The latter happened due to a combination of a requirement that electric utilities (which owned many of the trolley systems) divest them, with a campaign to purchase and destroy trolleys by General Motors, Standard Oil, and Goodyear Tires.

The bottom line: Consumer demand follows spending on public goods. It does not lead it. For instance: At a certain point, consumer demand may have driven the growth of the internet, but it came into existence, and grew large enough to attract consumer demand to begin with, almost entirely due to military and university spending.

In this context, how do we drive change?

The climate crisis is one of the great issues of the 21st century. Slavery was one of the great issues of the 19th. Certain utopian communes at that time raised their own cotton and avoided buying any slave-made products. They were pioneers in treating political issues as a matter of personal consumer virtue. In contrast: Harriet Tubman, who wore slave-made cotton clothes, actually infiltrated slave territory and freed hundreds of slaves. Frederick Douglass, who wore slave-made clothes and used slave-grown sugar, was one of the great orators of his era and successfully promoted the abolitionist cause.

If you were supporting the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century, where would your money have been better spent — supporting the communes that ran on the principles of personal virtue, or backing Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass? If you wanted to go beyond donations to personal action, which example would have been better to follow? I would have to go with Tubman and Douglass.

Setting an example by doing some simple, logical things to reduce an individual environmental footprint is wonderful. But ultimately, we will not make up, through private spending or lifestyle changes, for the fact that we currently don’t invest enough in public goods. Nor will we privately make up for the fact that much of our public spending is directed to the wrong public goods.

Contrary to the famous Dick Cheney quote, energy efficiency is not a matter of personal virtue. The answer to collective political failure is political action.

It is not as though most of those concerned with airline emissions want to eliminate air travel. We want to keep it from growing beyond its current level, and to substitute land-based electric transportation where possible. Some of us want to put an end to stupid wars that are responsible for many aircraft emissions. Some of us also want to curtail the tax breaks and airport space for corporate and luxury jets — air yachts.

Instead of either purchasing offsets or rolling her own, Elisabeth might consider donating to the Institute for Policy Studies, Rising Tide, or other groups that combine concern for the environment with opposition to war and opposition to the growth of the 1% at the expense of the 99%.

This article is reposted with permission from the author, Gar Lipow, a long-time environmental activist and journalist with a strong technical background, who has spent years immersed in the subject of efficiency and renewable energy. His new book Solving the Climate Crisis will be published by Praeger Press in Spring 2012. Check out his online reference book compiling information on technology available today.