I admit it: I am one of those people who likes to make himself feel environmentally virtuous by using less stuff.
Most of my trips are taken on foot, on bicycle or by bus. I don’t buy much at all, unless I’m going to eat or drink it. My wife and I have our household electrical consumption down to one-third of the local average (despite the energy demands of a home office). Since we started a worm bin for food scraps, our weekly garbage is usually little enough to fit in a single standard plastic grocery bag.
At the same time, I know that all these efforts are barely a scratch on the all-consuming back of the beast we call industrial civilization.
I am one American in 300 million. Even in the unlikely event that 10 million other Americans joined the low-car, lower-carbon, minimally consumerist, minimal-trash club, it would hardly affect the consumption trajectory in a country where people think they have a right to air-conditioning in the desert and fresh strawberries in Boston in February.
So does that mean I shouldn’t bother? I’d argue not. One, reducing one’s environmental footprint is the right thing to do. Two, in doing so I might learn things that help others do so, or at least set a good example.
But there are two pitfalls to a focus on individual initiatives.
One is the risk of feeling that because you’re controlling your consumption as best you can, you’ve done your bit.
The problem is that, while it’s understandable that some of us have given up on trying to change the laws or other people’s and corporations’ behavior, the way the economy is set up, those voluntary efforts are unlikely to amount to much. Until it really costs people to pollute, most will keep doing it.
The second problem with what I call the Individualist Fallacy is cultural.
Individualism is a hallmark of Western Civilization, and it’s an even stronger ethos in the U.S. than elsewhere. We have totally internalized the ethic of personal choice. We believe our impact is limited to consumer decisions (buying local, organic, nontoxic).
The flip side is that we feel ourselves responsible for ”choosing” in choiceless situations.
You own a lightbulb … therefore you have no right to criticize coal-burning power plants. Drive a car for your Saturday errands? Shut up about the BP oil spill, already: After all, you’re partly to blame. This the club with which apologists for natural-gas drilling and household toxins beat critics.
I admire anyone who opts out of any part of our environmentally destructive ways. But to get to the root of the problem, we have to get past the idea that it’s all about individual choices. Barring a mass conversion to a truly green ethos, the only way we’re going to get where we need to go of our own volition is if we make it so that decisions that harm the environment are more expensive than ones that don’t.