Leading article: The seeds of hope

Sunday 29 November 2009 01:00 GMT

The good people of Todmorden are living a modern version of the Good Life. As we report today, more of them are growing their own vegetables, keeping chickens and buying local produce than, well, a long time ago. The Incredible Edible project to promote food self-sufficiency may sound to sceptics as if it is too good to be true. Some reactionaries may be equally irritated by the right-on Sir Paul McCartney's plea at the European Parliament for us to eat less meat, which we also report today.

But remember that these doubters are the same red-faced sceptics that will rant on about how human-caused global warming is a conspiracy, without ever explaining why nearly all climate scientists should want to invent such a thing.

Here, you will read a more evidence-based view. The Independent on Sunday believes that climate change is a planetary emergency. Next weekend we shall be publishing a special report on the eve of the Copenhagen conference explaining, in what we hope is a calm and clear way, why; and what we can expect the world's leaders to do about it.

But today we are celebrating the action of individuals and small groups that help to make change possible, from the bottom up. Of course, Todmorden's experiment in self-sufficiency, or one person's decision to give up meat for three days a week, is not going to make much difference to the sustainability of human life on the planet if American air conditioning stays on high, or China carries on building a new coal-fired power station every week or the world's population keeps growing at the present pace.

Big changes in the greenhouse effect require big decisions by national governments acting in concert. The price of carbon needs to rise; technological change needs to be subsidised; forests need to be preserved and planted. But that does not mean that personal and local action is pointless. Far from it. It is projects such as the one in Todmorden that act as an exemplar to Britain and the world.

Given that the high-level policies to deal with global warming imply big changes in people's lifestyles, local schemes of this kind provide a template for what might be achieved. And, by showing what people are prepared to do for themselves, they add to the pressure on politicians to pass the laws that would spread greener lifestyles more widely.

A ComRes poll for this newspaper earlier this year found that 83 per cent of Britons say that they are "ready to make significant changes to the way I live to help prevent global warming or climate change". (This is interesting in the light of other opinion polls that suggest that about one-third of British people believe that the risks of global warming have been "exaggerated".) But it needs organisation from the ground up as well as from the top down to mobilise that willingness to change.

Todmorden is valuable too in setting an example to the rest of the world. Global green action is plausible only if the citizens of rich countries show a willingness to make bigger and earlier changes to their lifestyles than those demanded of the developing world. At a national and continental level, Britain and the European Union have set impressive targets for meeting the challenge of climate change; so far, however, they lack credible evidence of change on the ground.

That is why the Todmorden project is worthwhile – along with the hundreds of similar grass-roots initiatives that are springing up all over the country, including the "transition towns" movement, which aims to build a critical local mass for plans to make the transition to low-carbon living. Of course, greater food self-sufficiency is only part of the bigger picture, but cutting food miles is as good a place as any to start reducing carbon dioxide outputs. It goes with the grain of the desire for more authentic, trusted food. Sir Paul McCartney's campaign is quite a good place to go to next. It goes with the grain of greater concern for animal welfare: more expensive meat, less intensively farmed; less of it but better quality.

It is a long journey from a small town in the Pennines to the grand deliberations of global leaders in Copenhagen; a long chain of causation from the choices of individuals to global decisions for the planet. But every journey starts with one step, and every great cause starts with small decisions.

Today, Todmorden. Tomorrow, the world.

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