Carbon Dioxide quota and environmentalist hypocrisy
In 1990, an unprecedented number of mainstream scientists confirmed to the world that global warming was a reality. The IPCC (the UN's Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) recommended the minimum reduction - 60% - in CO2 emissions that would be needed just to stabilise the gas at its present level. If we divide the remaining 40% by the probable number of people on Earth, we get an indication of how much CO2 each one of us can emit per year. It is measured in units called Daubs, and is (due to uncertainty in mathematical models) somewhere between 5 and 10 daubs per person. The current US average emission per person is about 97 Daubs, and for the UK it is around 47. Most people on earth already emit less than 10.
The concept of a personal equitable quota of fossil C02 fascinated me. Here, I thought, for the first time, was a credible and definitive indication of where the true threshold of sustainability lay. What more convenient and representative overall single indicator of environmental impact could there be than fossil fuel use? Since we all already knew our environmental impact had to he reduced, the only thing left to tell anyone seemed to be, "by how much?" Between them, the IPCC and the Global Commons Institute (who first proposed the personal quota) had provided an answer. I decided this was something I should tell people about.
About two years ago, I produced the first photocopied version of a single A4 sheet explaining the C02 quota. Although not particularly glossy, it provided enough information for anyone who could press calculator buttons to work out their C02 emissions from the main direct sources - use of utilities, transport etc - and compare these against the apparent sustainable threshold. First, I gave them to my friends in what might be called the "climate change campaigning community". The first batch of photocopies went a surprisingly long way, and I was pleased to see that a project I regarded as uniquely important was costing so little to implement. Months after starting to distribute the sheets, I still had not run out of copies. Somehow, they always seemed to find their way back to me, if indeed they ever left in the first place. If I gave one to any visitor to my flat, I often found it laid somewhere after they had gone. Elsewhere, when I was the guest, I kept on finding I somehow still had the paper myself after I had left. Sheets were generally either handed back immediately without comment, or else declined on such grounds as the type being difficult to read without glasses, or part of a tree having been used to make the paper. I realised that most people were extremely reluctant to accept my sheets, sometimes even to touch them. More disturbingly, the vital figures on the paper, figures on which the future of the world might depend, seemed to have a natural aversion to human vision. I felt as if I was attempting to hand out crucifixes to vampires. I tried posting the sheets to people, but they reappeared promptly with replies parsimoniously written on the back. I found something to photocopy onto the back, and cynically waited for the messages to move to the margin.
After a while, I started asking people directly what they thought about the idea of voluntary restraint based on the quota. Their replies were vehement. No one liked the idea, it seemed. I persevered, though, and gradually amassed quite a body of objections, most falling roughly into one of the categories below:
Alleged Threshold Miscalculation: Some people asserted (without supporting evidence) that the sustainable C02 threshold does not lie within the range where Working Group One placed it. The true threshold was usually said to be zero.
A very few people argued that quotas should not be allocated on a global per capita basis. Their objections can be separated as follows:
Per Capita Allocation Is Unfair To The First World: First world people consume and hence emit more. To meet the quota, their individual cuts would therefore have to be greater, in both percentage and absolute terms, than those of third world people.
Per Capita Allocation Is Unfair To The Third World: Third world people are greater in number than first world people, so the combined effect of them all doing something adds up to a greater total than the combined effect of all first world people doing something. It would therefore be against the interests of third world people to merely reduce their emissions to the equitable level when, by virtue of their number, they have the ability to do more and thus benefit the climate and hence themselves to a greater degree. (I can't help wondering whether I've misunderstood this one.)
However, objections of this nature were rare. Instead, the vast majority of responses apparently accepted both the threshold calculation and the concept of per capita allocation, but disputed the advisability of individuals unilaterally trying to keep to sustainable levels.
These objections separate as follows:
The Quota Is Too Complex: It is necessary to use arithmetic (of about primary school level, I would guess) to calculate emissions.
The Quota Is Not Complex Enough (ie, too simplistic): The real situation is very complicated, and C02 emissions must not be considered separately from all other environmental issues.
The Quota Is Too Exact (or mechanistic): What really matters is the spirit in which C02 is emitted, rather than the actual quantity released.
The Quota Is Not Exact Enough: Errors and omissions are inevitable in calculating the quota, and the results should thus be disregarded entirely.
The Quota Is Too Forceful (or dogmatic): People should be allowed to decide on their own responses to global warming, without having ready-made conclusions suggested to them.
The Quota Is Not Forceful Enough: Since there is no means of compulsion available at present, it is inappropriate to propagate or respond to information detailing what emissions reduction any individual should make.
There were specific objections to emitting at the sustainable level while others continue to emit higher.
Keeping To The Quota Would Be Too Altruistic: Since virtually everyone else (in the developed world) acts unethically, it is inappropriate for any individual to unilaterally restrict him/herself to ethical emission levels.
Keeping To The Quota Would Not Be Altruistic Enough: Since virtually everyone else (in the developed world) acts unethically, it is inappropriate for any individual merely to unilaterally restrict him/herself to ethical emission levels. Instead, the individual should go further, and attempt to compensate for everyone else's over-emissions.
There were also general social/ideological objections. Typically, people described the quota as "Luddite", "hair shirt" or associable with such things as "open toed sandals". On this basis, together with the minor setbacks to my health (punches on the nose, etc) which I was told were likely to befall me, I was advised not to promote the concept.
So what was I to make of these responses? They did seem disappointingly lacking in cerebral sparkle and moral valour, coming from a part of society which prides itself on having outstanding common sense and a freehold on the moral high ground. So far as I could see, none made much sense. None even seemed logically to justify virtually unrestrained emissions by the individuals who had made them, which seemed to be their main true purpose. But then, perhaps that's why they didn't make sense. Those who made the comments were clearly not willing to consider reducing their emissions by any significant degree at all, let alone consider reducing them to a threshold which might represent some degree of safety. They were thus not as grateful as you might have expected for being told what was, after all, the minimum reduction that they could possibly get away with. Instead, they were irritated and flustered, and prone to some very rickety defensive logic. Here and throughout society, such desperate denial may be the main problem. Apparently lacking is any recognition that, however unprincipled, objectionable, or even downright misguided it might indeed be to stop destroying the world, it is necessary to do it anyway.
Many of the responses listed above came from people who had previously been my heroes. Alan Ereira, who brought the Kogi tribe's televised plea for emissions restraint to us, explained that I had misunderstood the Kogi's wishes. They had never wanted us to restrict our emissions to sustainable levels, it seemed. What they really wanted, it appeared, was for us to get into the right attitude of mind. Alan added a suggestion that more could be achieved by "driving down" consumption by the world's poor than by restraining our own emissions. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that the Kogi would prefer to have their livelihoods destroyed by our carbon belchings, no matter how piously emitted, than to suffer the dreadful knowledge that our restraint to sustainable levels had not been accompanied by the right state of mind. Had I tried, I would have found it even more taxing to imagine the world's poor being forced to cease emitting quantities of gas which they do not emit in the first place.
Richard Douthwaite, author of "The Growth Illusion", had a more colourful, but still not entirely original, objection. While accepting that the reduction in personal emissions would have to come eventually, he objected to any such restraint occurring immediately on a unilateral basis. We should wait, he said, and then, one day, we should all reduce our emissions together.
I found myself wondering who would give the signal to do so, how we would all know it was the right person giving it, and how the person in question would decide when to tell us to make the change. As soon as possible would be a good idea, obviously. Could I give it now, for instance? If so, then this is it!
During the time I had been passing round the sheets, I had also been trying hard to keep my own emissions below the threshold suggested by the quota. However, I now found myself in a strange position. The environmentalists around me were trying to talk me out of it. They wanted me to resume destroying the world as quickly as they were. I began to feel less comfortable in their company, and largely retired from the campaigning scene to think things over. Had the quota revealed more than I intended?
From a distance, many of my former comrades' actions now began to look odd, and even rather questionable. A brand new tropical hardwood door had recently been purchased by someone who had previously been one of my closest allies in the fight against tropical deforestation. It jostled for space in my thoughts, against the cars owned by anti-road campaigners, and the transcontinental air trips continually undertaken by those who said they wanted global warming to stop.
Animal rights activists don't eat steak (so far as I know) so why do environmentalists see nothing wrong in driving cars, flying around the world on holiday, and pouring unsustainable soya milk and cane sugar into their tea? If they want the world saved, then why are they continuing to destroy it?
The environmental movement does, apparently, already have answers to this. A common one seems to go something like this:
Although the consumer is the one who actually does the consuming, he or she is not to blame for doing so. Consumers cannot be much to blame because there are so many of them, and the blame is thus shared only thinly between them. (This seems to be the reverse of the argument which says third world people should reduce their emissions below the equitable threshold because there are so many of them.) Instead, the blame for consumption lies mainly with other links in the supply chain, where there are fewer people to share the guilt. Manufacturers and suppliers are thus largely to blame, and managers particularly so. The government is also to blame, because it does not prevent consumers from consuming, or suppliers from supplying.
Of course, a few consumers do not just shut up and consume. Even while they consume, they direct a stream of criticism at the government and at their suppliers. These people hope that their words will have more influence in stopping the supply than their actions have effect to the contrary. Instead of simply reducing their own destructive consumption to acceptable levels, consumers attempt to persuade someone else to force them to do so. It seems a rather round-about way of achieving the desired result, but that is not necessarily a criticism. After all, many cultures have what seem like odd and circuitous ways of doing things. The real question is, will it ever work?
I say no, and this is why:
First, in the chain of supply and consumption, the consumer is the only link which cannot be bypassed. If the individual consumer stops consuming, nothing can be done about it, except to try and persuade someone else to increase their consumption to compensate. At present, everyone else is already being persuaded pretty much as hard as possible anyway, so that won't have much effect, even if the message to stop consuming does not also spread. This situation does not, however, apply to other links in the supply chain. Nor does it apply to governments. Get rid of one destructive widget manufacturer, and there are usually a million more manufacturers (or potential manufacturers) waiting in the wings to take his place. In other words, consumption is the limiting factor, not supply. Similarly, if the entire government died of some unfortunate disease overnight but there was no change in the popular ideology, an almost identical government would be installed immediately after the election.
Second, politicians, advertisers and businessmen are not stupid. They know what I was too naive to realise until the revelations of the quota made it inescapable. They understand the depth of hypocrisy lying behind all the environmentalist's accusations. They know that virtually no one, not even the environmentalists themselves, is actually willing to live sustainably. No one really wants the world saved, not if it will significantly restrict their gluttony. All anyone really wants is someone else to blame. So the producers and politicians serve us doubly. While fine-tuning the machinery of destruction for us to fuel and drive, they receive the wrath which we aim at them. Perhaps we have actually come to believe in our own condemnation of our suppliers. Perhaps these career scapegoats even encourage us, by adjusting their rhetoric so as to continue to attract our anger. After all, they wouldn't want us to face reality, would they? Whatever the case, having established our supply of excuses, we continue to buy whatever we like for ourselves, rewarding the politicians with votes for a job well done, and blessing businessmen with an uninhibited market. Even the environmental pressure groups now find a comfortable nest in this collective rottenness. They soon learned that subs and fame came only from telling the sort of truth that people wanted to hear. We were thus instructed to direct our hatred at governments and multinationals. With our lifestyles quantitatively exceeding sustainable levels many times over, the most that mainstream environmental groups thought we should have to cope with was the suggestion that we put our bottles in a different shaped bin, or pump up our car tyres properly. Pleased with their words, we gave them some money. Pleased with our money, they gave us newsletters full of invective about big business, and coloured stickers to stick on our unsustainable cars.
It is logical enough, I suppose, that our environmentally corrupt society should have an even more corrupt environmental movement to protect it. Perhaps everyone else has known this for years, but it is new to me, and something of a shock.
[The editors of Do or Die use and fully endorse the excuses described in this article. If you'd like a copy of the quota sheet, with full instructions (batteries not included), send a self addressed envelope and two 1st class stamps to Do or Die. Brighton Sorting Office is taking on extra staff to cope with the anticipated demand.]