“Don’t you have a car?” a friend was asked by a co-worker after sharing an opinion against approving any new oil pipelines. “Isn’t it hypocritical to oppose pipelines when you drive, too?” Ouch!
The question seems reasonable on the surface — and I bet lots of people get asked that by co-workers and friends. After all, “green consumerism” is a major strand of both the environmental movement and corporate marketing. We’ve been told repeatedly to make the right choice to make a better world by purchasing an option that is lighter on the planet in some way. Companies promote the choice option as a more fair alternative to government banning or regulating the more offensive option. Often the right choice, say a reformulated cleaning liquid, costs more and when consumer purchases go down when a recession comes along, the company withdraws the choice from the market. Some choice.
In the case of carbon consumption, the “hypocrite” accusation avoids the big issue: it’s up to government to lead the way to reduced carbon emissions in a country so dependent on oil, gas and coal. The accusation is designed to shut down reasonable debate about an important issue. It is the nuclear option of come-backs — hit this button and blow up the conversation. No need to engage in a fact-based argument. Just call your opponent a hypocrite and you can go back to feeling smug and superior without examining your own energy use or what should be done to reduce global warming.
More importantly, the posture is both obnoxious and fatuous. It ignores the critical issue, which is the whole context in which we live: a carbon economy. The Western world depends on fossilized sunshine to power the machinery of industry, transportation, and home life.
Perhaps even more troubling, the oil, gas and coal industries have huge influence over individual politicians and even entire governments and a vested interest in maximizing reliance on carbon-based fuels. Environmentally concerned U.S. citizens have long been frustrated by the power of “Big Coal.” Recent rhetoric and tax threats aimed at environmental groups by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet have clarified for Canadians just how much our government is either under the influence of, or aligned with the world-view of, the energy industry.
How are most people, average people, realistically able to change their energy consumption habits when the system is deeply entrenched? The game is rigged. Where are the realistic alternatives to most people’s gas-hogging cars and homes? Face it, public transit in most cities, yet alone suburbs, is inconvenient and underfunded. It costs too much for average people to convert our homes — and workplaces — from carbon fuels to solar or geothermal power.
Sure, we should all use transit and reduce our home energy consumption. And it will make a difference if enough of us do it, of course. That’s a big if. There are limits to what green consumerism and individual actions can accomplish. And besides, U.S. studies as far back as the 1980s find that households account for only one-third of energy use and between six percent and 51 percent of emissions of five air pollutants with the higher emissions coming from automobiles.
Research show that people don’t want to give up their car if their neighbor gets to keep theirs. That’s understandable: people in North America and Europe expect government to pull the starter-pistol to trigger the race for reducing carbon. They’re waiting for, and expecting, meaningful action from government. People also know that industry won’t change unless government intervenes, and people want that intervention.
“Personal action was seen to be pointless in isolation,” write researchers Irene Lorenzoni and Nick F. Pidgeon about their study of U.S. and European attitudes about climate change. “A responsible government was called for to lay the foundations to meet the collective interests of society through policy and by enabling individual duties. Yet political institutions were said to be absolving themselves of that role and responsibility.”
Only government can impose mechanical efficiency regulations, fuel consumption regulations, green taxes, cap-and-trade programs, energy-efficiency building requirements, and pour large sums into a massive expansion of our public transportation infrastructure. And let’s not forget a roll-out of wind, solar and tidal power generation—and, arguably, nuclear power. Those are the measures that will reduce carbon emissions.
If you take individual action from recycling to driving an electric car, you deserve kudos for doing your bit. But if you’re ready to do your bit but feel discouraged by government dragging their feet, don’t feel guilty. Instead, make the government do what’s right. That’s our role as citizens in a democracy. That’s what the ballot box is for. And the law courts. And the court of public opinion.
Daily now, some of our neighbors are doing what they can to stop a dozen proposed pipelines from carrying various liquid and gaseous carbon across North America. They’re working to smother the possibility of new carbon sourcing, transporting, exporting and burning. They’re building alliances with other concerned people to force government to shift from pleasing the carbon-energy industry today and instead towards what we all need for a livable future tomorrow.
Making government respond quickly to climate change: that’s the real issue, not whether you have to drive a car to work today and so should shut up in shame.
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Gareth Kirkby is a Webster-award-winning journalist and professional communicator. He is a candidate for the M.A. in Professional Communication at Royal Roads University, Victoria, Canada. His thesis explores the impact on charity groups of recent federal policy and enforcement changes, audits, and anti-charity rhetoric.