Going Green

| Sun Dec. 6, 2009 3:31 PM PST

When I saw this headline above Mike Tidwell's op-ed in today's Washington Post:

To really save the planet, stop going green

My heart initially sank.  Another piece of dumb contrarianism?  As if we don't already have enough of that?

But no.  In fact, he's making a very, very good point:

Instead of continuing our faddish and counterproductive emphasis on small, voluntary actions, we should follow the example of Americans during past moral crises and work toward large-scale change. The country's last real moral and social revolution was set in motion by the civil rights movement. And in the 1960s, civil rights activists didn't ask bigoted Southern governors and sheriffs to consider "10 Ways to Go Integrated" at their convenience.

....For eight years, George W. Bush promoted voluntary action as the nation's primary response to global warming — and for eight years, aggregate greenhouse gas emissions remained unchanged. Even today, only 10 percent of our household light bulbs are compact fluorescents. Hybrids account for only 2.5 percent of U.S. auto sales. One can almost imagine the big energy companies secretly applauding each time we distract ourselves from the big picture with a hectoring list of "5 Easy Ways to Green Your Office."

As Tidwell says, personal change is still a good thing.  But it's nowhere near enough.  Not enough people are willing to do it on their own, and even the people who do don't do enough.  Partly this is because calculating carbon footprints is really, really hard, and partly it's because most of us just don't have a good gut feeling for the tradeoffs.  It's like dieting: unless you really pay attention and do the work up front to figure out what you can and can't do, you're going to screw it up.  A week's worth of good eating can be blown in an hour.  And dieting is way easier than cutting your carbon use.  As David Roberts says about building efficiency, which is one of the best and easiest ways of reducing carbon emissions:

The most puzzling behavioral phenomenon to understand when it comes to building efficiency is that Most People Won’t Do Sh*t (MPWDS). “Most people” includes people who could make money by doing sh*t, people who say they will do sh*t, even people who have promised to do sh*t. I’ve heard from people who write about energy efficiency for a living, know exactly what to do to make their homes more efficient, and still don’t do sh*t. It’s hard to disentangle the reasons why — some mix of status quo bias, hyperbolic discounting, and loss aversion to begin with — but it’s clear that public surveys and polls about this tend to be misleading. What people say they’re willing to do and what they demonstrate they’re willing to do are very different things. Attitudes don’t translate into actions.

The only real way to address climate change is to make broad changes to laws and incentives.  It puts everyone on a level playing field, it gives everyone a framework for making their own choices, and it gives us a fighting chance of making the deep cuts we need to.  So listen to Tidwell: "Don't spend an hour changing your light bulbs. Don't take a day to caulk your windows. Instead, pick up a phone, open a laptop, or travel to a U.S. Senate office near you and turn the tables: 'What are the 10 green statutes you're working on to save the planet, Senator?'"

But go ahead and caulk your windows too.  It won't save the planet by itself, but it still helps.

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