I used to get together with a friend to argue over coffee at least a couple of times per month. Yes, that’s right. Argue over coffee. What do you do with your friends?
The question we would always come back to was grassroots activism versus government legislation. He would talk about public transit and bike paths, locally-sourced food, and reduced meat consumption. I would say, “Yeah, that’s all great. What about the 95% of people who won’t do those things?”
Of course I had to email him when I came across this interview with Gernot Wagner the other day (read the whole thing, it’s worth it). Wagner is an economist who works for the Environmental Defense Fund. His book, “But Will the Planet Notice?“, suggests that the bottom-up approach is simply taking too long. It’s not that it isn’t changing people’s behavior, but it isn’t doing so fast enough to avert catastrophe. From the interview:
[I]ndividual do-gooderism won’t solve global warming. . . .[T]here’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon called “single-action bias.” You do one thing, and you move on. You carry your groceries home by foot, in a cotton canvas bag, and you think that single act of environmental kindness makes up for other sins.
This is more or less in line with my argument. It’s too little, too late. What I hate about arguing this point is that I feel like some of the other people I know who rationalize their own laziness by saying that nothing matters. One person told me environmentalism wasn’t on the radar for him, because with China out there doing what they want, it doesn’t even matter what our country’s policies are, let alone our individual behavior.
But this is a conclusion of convenience for someone who doesn’t want to change their lifestyle. It’s not what Wagner is getting at with his argument, nor I. Scattered lifestyle changes in a green minority won’t do it. Therefore we have to do more. What’s needed are policy changes which instigate mass action. Again from the interview:
In 2010, [the Washington, D.C. municipal government] introduced a tiny fee–5 cents–on disposable bags (paper and plastic). It’s the kind of fee that shouldn’t make a difference. You don’t notice 5 cents on your $100 grocery bill, and implementation is spotty. But still, it appears to be making a real difference. Conclusive data on D.C. aren’t in yet, but Ireland, which introduced such a PlasTax in 2002, managed to decrease plastic bags by 1 billion bags a year. That’s a decrease of 90%. That, too, won’t stop global warming, of course, but it shows the way to the kinds of policies that do work.
One of my “friends” on Facebook was cluelessly complaining about one of these fees recently. She thought the store which had begun charging for its bags was interested in a money grab. Of course it’s not about money, but getting people to think. For decades shoppers have left the grocery store with a dozen brand new plastic bags that will be used only once. An insignificant fee is enough to get 90% of people to question their way of doing things, and start bringing their reusable bags.
What effect might a combination of fees and tax rebates have on rush hour traffic? There are millions of single-occupancy vehicles making a twice-daily trek in any mid-sized city. What if there was a tax rebate for people purchasing bicycles? What if there were toll booths set up on the freeways, but car-poolers and drivers of hybrids received a discount?
I don’t want to be a hypocrite, which is why I try to live as sustainable a lifestyle as I can manage (though I have my lapses). But I’m not counting on the apathetic majority to follow suit — not spontaneously, at least. The strategic focus of any grassroots movement has to be influencing our elected representatives at the policy level. That’s the only way to get everybody on board with what needs to be done.
Photo credit: NASA
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