Johann Hari: We'll save the planet only if we're forced to

Share
Related Topics

Do you check every item you buy to make sure it is green and planet-friendly? Do you buy carbon offsets every time you fly? Stop. It is time to be honest: green consumerism is at best a draining distraction, and at worst a con. While the planet's fever gets worse by the week, we are guzzling down green-coloured placebos and calling it action. There is another way. Our reaction to global warming has gone in waves. First we were in blank denial: how can releasing an odourless, colourless gas change the climate so dramatically? Now we are in a phase of displacement: we assume we can shop our way out of global warming, by shovelling a few new lightbulbs and some carbon offsets into our shopping basket.

This is a self-harming delusion. It's hard to give a sense of the contrast today between the magnitude of our problem, and the weediness of our response so far. But the best way is offered by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen.

He explains that until 10,000 years ago, the planet's climate would fluctuate violently: sometimes it would veer by 12 degrees centigrade in just a decade. This meant it was impossible to develop agriculture. Crops couldn't be cultivated in this climatic chaos, so human beings were stuck as a tiny smattering of hunter-gatherers.

But then the climate settled down into safe parameters – and humans could settle down too. This period is called the Holocene, and it meant that for the first time, we could develop farming and cities. Everything we know as human civilisation is thanks to this unprecedented period of climatic stability.

Today, we are bringing this era to an end. By pumping vast amounts of warming gases into the atmosphere, we are creating a new era: the Anthropocene, in which man makes the weather. There is an imminent danger of it bursting beyond these safe parameters, and bringing about a return to the violent, volatile variations that prevented our ancestors from progressing beyond spears and sticks.

Those are the stakes. Every week, there is greater evidence that we are nudging further from our safety zone. The hottest year of the 20th century – 1947 – is now merely the average for the 21st century.

And what are we doing? Many good, well-intentioned people are beginning to grasp this problem – and then assuming green consumerism is the only answer to hand. They shop around for items that have not been freighted thousands of miles to make it to their supermarket shelves. They change their lightbulbs. They turn down the thermostat a few degrees. They make sure they buy products that don't sit on electricty-burning standby all day. They buy the more energy-efficient cars, and scorn SUV drivers.

I don't want to attack these people. They are an absolutely essential part of any solution. But we have to be honest. This is not even the beginning of a solution – and by pouring so much energy into it, we may actually be forestalling the real solution. I know a huge number of people who are sincerely worried about global warming, but they assume they have Done Their Bit through these shifted consumption patterns. The truth is: you haven't.

In reality, dispersed consumer choices are not going to keep the climate this side of a disastrous temperature rise. The only way that can ever happen is by governments legislating to force us all – green and anti-green – to shift towards cleaner behaviour. Just as the government in the Second World War did not ask people to eat less voluntarily, governments today cannot ask us to burn fewer greenhouse gases voluntarily .

It is not enough for you to change your bulbs. Everyone has to change their bulbs. It is not enough for you to eat less meat. Everyone has to eat less meat. It is not enough for you to fly less. Everyone has to fly less. (And yes, I hate these facts as much as you do. But I will hate the reality of runaway global warming even more.)

The only way we will get to the situation where we are all required by law to burn fewer greenhouse gases is if enough people pressure the government, demanding it. Green consumer choices often drain away people's political energies to do this. You have a limited amount of time to spend on any political cause. If you have an hour a week to dedicate to acting on global warming, and you spend it scouring the supermarket shelves for the product shipped the shortest distance, that time and energy is gone; you feel you've done what you can. Part of you might also assume: I've made these choices; other people will too; in time, we'll all be persuaded. But we don't have time.

There is a much better way for you to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Every minute you would have spent shopping around for a greener choice, you should spend volunteering for Greenpeace, or Friends of the Earth, or Plane Stupid, or the Campaign Against Climate Change. Every hundred-pound premium you would spend to buy a greener product, donate it to them instead. Why? Because by becoming part of this collective action – rather than by clinging to dispersed personal choices – you will help to change the law, so everyone will have to be greener, not just nice people like you.

It works. Green campaigners from Australia to Canada to Japan have successfully banned the old lightbulbs, so only the energy-saving lightbulbs are on offer there now. Green campaigners have prompted the Mayor of London to force SUV drivers to pay a punitive £6,000-a-year premium to drive through our city, forcing many of them to shift to greener cars. These are the first tiny steps towards banning – or massively restricting – the other technologies that are unleashing Weather of Mass Destruction.

Of course, some sincere and well-intentioned people have libertarian concerns about this approach at first glance. Why should we force people to choose the green option? Isn't it better to rely on persuasion and voluntary choice? But even the most hardcore libertarians agree that your personal liberty ends where you actively harm the liberty of another person. Greenhouse gas emissions are undeniably harming tens of millions of people – and endangering the ground on which all human liberty rests: a stable and safe climate.

Just as no libertarian would argue you should have the right to buy and fire a nuclear weapon, no libertarian should argue you have the right to burn unlimited greenhouse gases. Once confronted with this argument, the only people who cling to a libertarian defence of fossil fuels are people who take money from the fossil fuel industry itself, like Spiked Online. They have to scrape together any old excuse.

So enough with the placebos. Enough with the fake-libertarian excuses. As the climate that sustains human life unravels around us, we are long past the moment when we need real medicine – and the only one we have is hard government legislation.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

LSA Level 3 required in Caerphilly

£50 - £60 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: O...

Welsh Year 6 Teacher required in Barry

£100 - £110 per day + Plus travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

£100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pro-democracy protesters fill the streets in front of the Hong Kong government offices on a third day of the Occupy Central campaign  

Hong Kong protests: Why are we obsessed with the spread of democracy abroad when ours is failing?

Amit Singh
 

Daily catch-up: ugly buildings, fighting spirit, and a warning on low pay

John Rentoul
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?