The Planet Hasn’t Noticed Your Green Lifestyle

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 wonít solve global warming. . . .[T]hereís a well-documented psychological phenomenon called ďsingle-action bias.Ē 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). Itís the kind of fee that shouldnít make a difference. You donít 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. arenít in yet, but Ireland, which introduced such a PlasTax in 2002, managed to decrease plastic bags by 1 billion bags a year. Thatís a decrease of 90%. That, too, wonít 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.

Related stories:

The Convenience Button and the Ethics of Climate Change

Who Are the Real Advocates For Oil?

Top Industry Experts: “Green Energy is a Smart Investment”

Photo credit: NASA


Alina Kanaski
Alina Kanaski4 years ago

Great article!

Evgeniia Romakhova
Evgeniia R5 years ago

btw, the chain of Stop and Shop in Connecticut offers a 5 cent discount for each reusable bag you are using. I use this discount with pleasure - each time :)

Evgeniia Romakhova
Evgeniia R5 years ago

i always go to any grocery store with my three reusable walmart bags, have my coffee in my own mug and bring all the plastic bags (transparent - for weighing produce) back to store to recycle them. Nobody needs to show me an example, but i am glad to know that i am not alone! Thank you for the article!

vee s.
Veronica-Mae s5 years ago

Larry - what a pessimistic chap you are. First of all it does NOT cost more to be careful about the only environment we have. And secondlly - what about setting a good example which others will eventually follow ? Those of us doing our bit are not about to roll over and just let things happen without putting up a fight. We are doing it on YOUR behalf as well you know - even if you do not appreciate it. If you were on a sinking ship, would you not at least TRY to bail out the water and put a patch on the hole ?

Larry R.
Larry R.5 years ago

All these little 'green' things you do have no effect whatsoever except they make you feel good. For every little green thing you do, somebody in India is having 12 children or somebody in the Philippines is using cyanide to catch exotic fish in a coral reef, thereby wiping out your efforts 100 times over. But if feeling good about yourself is more important than the practical effects, go ahead and raise your costs and inconvenience yourself.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W5 years ago

The planet is so polluted that noticing any difference will take a long time...

Lee Witton
6 years ago

Stephan - I love that idea and we need to follow through. I carry my own organic bags in my car and after unloading products, I fold them and lay them on top of my purse so I remember to put them back in my vehicle. We all have to be of the same mindset and that is not going to happen as long as stores continue to pander. Not only would it says stores a whole lot of money, the environment will also appreciate and benefit from our efforts. On occasion, I've forgotten to take my bags in the store so I have the clerk just load everything in the cart (without being bagged) and once I get to my vehicle, I place the items in my own bags. Simple.

Stephen Gyetko
Stephen Gyetko6 years ago

With regards to the grocery store conundrum of 'paper or plastic or bring your own bag': I love it when 'green' needs and the 'bottom line' needs of businesses intersect. 'Greens' want to save the planet, grocery stores are a business that wants to maximize profit. Hey, how about a store announcing that after a certain date, the will offer no bags at all, paper or plastic. However, up to that date, they will offer good canvas bags with their logo on it (free advertizing when people see you carrying it) or will allow the customer to come in with any kind of reusable bag they want. The 'greens' are happy because it produces less waste and the business is happy because it has just eliminated an ongoing expense, which helps their bottom line. Win-win, everbody's happy!

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim6 years ago


Louisa D.
l Drake6 years ago

How will more be done if no-one will do the basics? There is one fundamental flaw in the human nature...