A man I know who works for a large, multi-national corporation recently took the decision to trade in his people carrier for a Toyota Prius. Very eco-friendly, you might think, but as with so many apparently "green" consumer choices, there's more to it than meets the eye. For one thing, his girlfriend was so cheesed off--she wanted him to get a BMW--that he bought her a Mini Cooper by way of compensation. And the waiting list for Prius's is so long that for the foreseeable future both he and his girlfriend will be driving cars that run on carbon fuel.
Needless to say, the fact that he's actually increased his household's carbon emissions hasn't prevented him from lording it over less enlightened mortals. He has already announced that for Christmas he's going to buy everyone a copy of Field Notes From A Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert's tub-thumping book on climate change. No doubt this will go some way to salving his conscience as he relaxes on a mountain-top in Bhatan where he's planning to take his three children and girlfriend to celebrate New Year's Eve. As far as I know, he isn't intending to travel by land.
This is an extreme example of the lengths to which some people are prepared to go to appear green, irrespective of the impact on the environment. But can an individual's effort to reduce their carbon emissions ever make a difference? In an attempt to answer this question, I invited a "carbon coach" to give my house the once-over last week. The idea was that she'd poke around for a couple of hours and then tell me how to make my home more "carbon efficient".
The results of her survey were fairly predictable: replace my sash windows with double-glazing, get rid of the tumble dryer and install energy-efficient light bulbs. When I balked at the cost and inconvenience of these measures, she made the standard argument that unless everyone is prepared to make some sacrifices we're headed for disaster. To ram the point home, she even quoted Sir Nicholas Stern, the head of the Government Economic Service who recently compiled a report on climate change at the behest of Gordon Brown. According to the Stern Report, unless emissions are brought under control in the next 10-20 years, the social and economic impact in this century and the next will be comparable to the effect of the great wars and the economic depression in the first half of the 20th Century.
Alarming stuff, admittedly, but not really a good reason to get rid of my tumble dryer. My household is responsible for such an infinitesimally small percentage of the overall total that any reduction I might make is almost entirely pointless. It would be a bit like saying I'm going to do my bit to combat racism by banning anyone from using racial epithets in my home.
Needless to say, she had an answer to this. Of course reducing my carbon emissions is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it will still make a difference, albeit a very, very small one. Given the urgency of the problem, I should do whatever I can.
Aha, I said. But what if the good I do is counteracted by the behaviour of others? What if my next-door neighbour trades in his Ford Mondeo for a Chelsea Tractor? Unless I can be confident that he's going to follow my lead, all my sacrifices will have been in vain. Tony Blair made a variation of this argument recently when he pointed out that if Britain were to reduce its emissions to zero the beneficial effect on the environment would be wiped out by just two years of growth in China's emissions.
This is the famous "prisoner's dilemma" and it helps explain why the United States failed to ratify the Kyoto Agreement. As The Economist put it in an editorial last year, "Attempts to get agreement on whatever replaces Kyoto will face the same fundamental difficulty as Kyoto did: how to get the world's biggest polluters to sign up to a deal that will require them to agree to bear short term costs in return for uncertain long-term benefits which will accrue only if other big polluters do their bit."
It wouldn't be accurate to say my carbon coach ran out of arguments at this point, but she did run out of patience. To find an answer, I had to turn to my old friend Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall--or, as he was called at Oxford, Hugh Fairly-Long-Name. Much to the annoyance of everyone who knew him back then, Hugh has attained god-like status within the green movement. Indeed, one mutual friend reported that when he accompanied Hugh on a shopping trip to his local village, pilgrims dropped to their knees in front of him.
"It goes back to the basic tenets of moral philosophy," he said. "Is it all about the practical results or is it about your intentions? In my view, it's about trying to be good. If you're trying to be good, even if you're making a really bad job of it, then you're good."
But surely, if your actions don't bring about the desired intention, namely, an overall reduction in the levels of carbon emissions, your sense of moral superiority is based on very little?
"Who's to say your actions won't make a difference?" he responded. "If a critical mass of people think these things are important then they can put a Government in place that actually can do something about it. All movements that eventually make a difference have to start like that."
I'm not entirely convinced by this argument, but in the course of talking to Hugh another, more compelling reason for being green occurred to me. Hugh is what the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen would have called a "high-status individual" and in the past twelve months or so it has become de rigour among Britain's movers and shakers to espouse the environmentalist cause. Even if I remain a bit of a skeptic, shouldn't I at least pretend to be green for reasons of status advancement?
In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Veblen coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" to describe the wasteful habits of those at the top of American society. In his view, the reason the rich and powerful spent so much more than they needed to on things like house wares was to display their membership of the leisure class. Silver knives and forks, for instance, might not be as practical as cutlery made from steel, but their very impracticality made them a positive status indicator. According to Veblen, wasting money and resources was a way for the privileged elite to advertise their superiority.
At the beginning of the 21st Century, the exact opposite is true: conservation, rather than waste, is the credo of the ruling class. For that reason alone it's high time I jumped on the bandwagon.