Christmas carols are loathed by many, but I love them. It’s got nothing to do with any musical or religious values. Instead, like the smell of sunscreen, these songs signal the end of the year’s labours: functional, intellectual, social and emotional. No matter how good or awful, Bing Crosby, Band Aid, Michael Bublé and Wham all bring a sense of delightful nothingness; sincere relaxation.
Stress-free time with family and friends deepens this feeling, as do new books and CDs, board games, old episodes of QI, the long summer days, and briefly ignoring my paunch.
In spite of what critics say—including my inner, righteous voice (the only part of me that can still appear youthful)—Christmas sales shopping is fun, too.
Those of us who understand environmental non-sustainability are often prohibited from such simple pleasures by our own knowledge and principles. But I’m far less imprisoned by these things nowadays.
Logic and ethics are clearly against gratuitous consumerism, but there’s no escaping the fact that it feels nice to buy books and CDs, and to have new clothes and household items, even when we have ample selections already.
How do we reconcile these pleasures against our desire to act in accordance with nature?
There’s a lot going on when we’re implored to make environmentally-conscious spending decisions. We know it’s right and hence we feel empowered when we act consistently with ecological facts. We control certain environmental outcomes, and this satisfies our desires to be persons of ethical integrity and to show our peers that we’re intelligent and principled.
We should remind ourselves of these positive feelings so we can decide in a rigorous way whether or not to mine non-essential goods from the open-cast shops.
Unfortunately for nature and those who are most affected by non-sustainability, those positive feelings of integrity may not be as strong as the pleasures we derive from buying stuff like The Beatles’ back catalogue, as I did on Boxing Day.
However, feeling guilty when we make ecologically impure decisions is counter-productive.
When we claim ownership of environmental problems as individuals, we are at the same time removing responsibility from those who have the greatest powers for minimising the impacts of human beings’ naturally-inclined behaviours: governments and industry.
The decline of all environmental indicators over the 50+ years since Silent Spring* proves that our decisions are doing very little to solve the biodiversity, water and climate crises. They are assisted, slowed down and delayed, but clearly not stopped or reversed.
The potential benefits of centralised decision-making eclipses that of individuals’ collective actions.
Take transport, for example. At a recent meeting of a climate change-focused NGO, a participant suggested that the organisation should look at making everyone use bicycles. I asked, “And how will I get my daughter’s rowing team to regattas?” and the well-meaning young chap slumped back into his chair and said, “I guess I didn’t think of that.”
Whilst walking, cycling and public transport are critical parts of the overall puzzle of sustainable transport, the problems are systemic, not individual. An ethical government could quite easily implement a suite of policies aimed at making our cars—technologies that are absolutely essential for 21st Century urban life—run on sustainable energy, whether renewable electricity (electric cars), renewable liquid fuels (biofuels), or both.
Take electricity as a second example. I’ve written previously on how solar energy does nothing in New Zealand to reduce a home-owner’s carbon footprint and might, in fact, increase the global carbon footprint. The idea of generating your own renewable electricity sounds powerful, but you’re only avoiding the use of centralised renewables—hydro, wind and geothermal—and therefore saving no greenhouse gas emissions. If New Zealand decides to progress from its current 80 percent renewable electricity to 90 or 100 percent then, again, an ethical government could quite easily implement a suite of policies that make that happen.
In these examples of sustainable transport and electricity, the benefits of individuals’ actions are negligible, at best, and pale in comparison to the potential of government intervention.
That’s not to say that our individual decisions don’t matter. They absolutely do. As much as I enjoy V8 cars, I would never buy one because they are plainly unethical. As much as I enjoy hamburgers, eating beef is plainly unethical. Our individual decisions have some effect on the demand for non-sustainable goods; they satisfy our sense of self; and they help educate the people around us. We should continue to make ethical individual decisions.
At the same time, however, we should be alert to the fact that most causes of our non-sustainability are systemic and, critically, could be solved by the ordinary machinery of government policy-making. Quite easily, in many instances.
For example, the decision to subsidise insulation has led to, in just 7 years, nearly 300,000 homes (about 20 percent of all New Zealand households) being warmer and healthier, and demanding less electricity. The impact of this large-scale programme has included reducing New Zealand’s demand for electrcity at peak times (morning and evening), thereby removing any need for new large-scale generation. Without that government intervention, perhaps a few thousand households would have done this on their own accord. Instead, the centralised policy decision created these enormous private and public benefits.
Collective Responsibility, Not Individual Guilt
Instead of feeling guilty about hopping into your car and zipping into town to replace the coffee table you’ve had since you were a student, remember that the question of ecological integrity rests with government and industry far more than it rests with us because of the simple matter of their powers compared to ours.
Balancing our needs for global responsibility and personal pleasure in an informed and ethical way helps us live with integrity, but more happily. And it reminds us that, ultimately, we need to put the onus on governments to intervene scientifically in environmental stewardship.