Individual versus social solutions to global warming

April 26, 2008

The following is an abridged version of a talk given by Terry Townsend at the recent Climate Change — Social Change Conference in Sydney. Townsend is a long-term member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective and the managing editor of Links online journal (<>).

There is, by now, virtually unanimous agreement among scientists and activists, and increasingly among millions of ordinary people, about the seriousness of climate change and the time frame we have to make fundamental changes to address it.

The main "solutions" being offered by the capitalist class, its politicians and the corporate-dominated mass media — and endorsed by some key peak environmental organisations — are consciously designed to shift the responsibility for, and the major costs of, addressing global warming away from the most polluting corporations. The measures they advocate ensure the basic structure and mechanisms of Western capitalist economies are preserved. They are also designed to delay the necessary political, economic and social changes for as long as possible, and to keep them to the minimum that are compatible (in their assessment) with both the survival of capitalist society and the amelioration of the worst of climate change.

One of the establishment's favoured — and ultimately counterproductive —"solutions" is the push for all individuals to voluntarily consume a little less, and "buy green" whenever they can. The answer to global warming, the argument goes, is for all of "us" — consumers, workers, residents, pensioners — to voluntarily change our wasteful behaviour.

Despite its benign aura of commonsense advice, this is a massive ideological campaign to drive home to "us" that it is ordinary working people who are ultimately to blame for climate change, and that it is "us" who must pay for its solution. It is part of the ruling class' overall offensive to shift the blame and cost of addressing global warming away from itself and its intrinsically environmentally destructive economic and social system.

As Mike Tidwell aptly noted in the usually system-friendly Grist ezine on November 15, "every time an activist or politician hectors the public to voluntarily reach for a new [fluro] bulb or spend extra on a Prius, Exxon Mobil heaves a big sigh of relief" because it diverts people's attention from what is really necessary to address the crisis, and from who is really responsible.

Another radical commentator, George Marshall, has described this ideological offensive as "death [by] a thousand tips". He is referring to the literally tens of thousands of newspaper articles and web pages that, after having outlined the severe crisis we face and the sharply diminishing time society has to respond, direct the reader to a snappy, upbeat sidebar or list entitled "10 easy tips to save the planet" or some variation thereof. The same sort of lists have been the core of government-sponsored campaigns across the globe, including Australia.

Standard items include "change your light globes", "turn off unnecessary lights", "don't leave your appliances on stand-by", "adjust your thermostats", recycle, compost, drive a fuel-efficient car, or drive less. Yet extremely rarely do these helpful hints mention political action, let alone make concrete demands on governments or business. On the odd occasion they do, it is vague and tokenistic.

Of course, there is a place for action by individuals, and it should not be discouraged. It does make sense in terms of saving energy and water, reducing waste and saving money. Educating and facilitating such behaviour on a mass scale is a significant part of what is needed to halt global warming. But such suggestions should not be counterposed to, or used to drown out calls for, the urgent need for mass political action to force the necessary cuts to emissions demanded by the science. And they should not be cynically presented, as they are by the corporate media and capitalist politicians, as the way to save the planet.

In Britain, the government spent £22 million on a "Do your bit" campaign and had to admit that it produced no measurable change in personal habits. A poll in 2007 indicated that this campaign had miseducated people, with more than 40% saying that recycling household waste — which would result in a relatively small reduction of emissions — was the most important thing they could do. Only 10% nominated the far more effective regular use of public transport.

That £22 million would have been better spent organising a movement to demand an end to the massive and wasteful packaging and advertising industries, or to demand the mass expansion of public transport.

In Ireland, faced with greenhouse gas emissions that have increased 25% since 1990, the government's response was to launch a multimillion euro "the power of one" campaign in 2006, which provides — yes, you guessed it — "10 top tips" to "make a difference". Among the revolutionary actions suggested were: don't overfill your kettle, but fill your dishwasher before use, and unplug your mobile phone charger.

As Marshall quips, all "that sounds much nicer than curtailing road building or industrial growth. They are not called 'easy tips' for nothing".

On October 15, the UN Environment Program organised a "Blog Action Day" in which some 15,000 blog sites offered more "tips" to web surfers, from the inevitable changing light globes to one of's "tiny actions [that] can save the world": quit your job requiring a long commute and start up a home-based business! Copyblogger's not alone in making "tips" that are simply beyond the means of most debt-strapped working people in these days of widespread "mortgage stress" and rising interest rates. Common "tips" include buying more expensive hybrid cars and building architect-designed "carbon neutral" houses.

All such campaigns are premised on blaming working people for global warming, which ignores the source of the problem: the relentless drive for profits and the complete disregard for humanity and the planet, both key features of capitalism.

However well-intentioned, appeals to people to change their individual habits bring trivial results when measured against the problem, and if not coupled to the much more urgent task of politically mobilising to demand serious government action to immediately reduce and rapidly halt greenhouse gas emissions, it derails mass concern about global warming from taking a political road.

It also sells the damaging lie that "clean", "green", "natural" and "organic" commodities are the answer, when they are fundamentally no better for the planet than any other over-produced commodities under capitalism. It plays into the hands of the mega-financed "greenwashing" of an unsustainable economic system by corporations and governments.

If anything sums up this sort of operation, it was the massively publicised "Earth Hour" on March 29. The brainchild in 2007 of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Fairfax newspapers and the Leo Burnett advertising agency, Earth Hour declares on its website: "Created to take a stand against the greatest threat our planet has ever faced, Earth Hour uses the simple action of turning off the lights for one hour to deliver a powerful message about the need for action on global warming." But you will search in vain for any demands for political action, just boilerplate "tips". It states: "Earth Hour is the highlight of a major campaign to encourage businesses, communities and individuals to take the simple steps needed to cut their emissions on an ongoing basis. It is about simple changes that will collectively make a difference — from businesses turning off their lights when their offices are empty to households turning off appliances rather than leaving them on standby."

There was more of the same in the 40-page, full-colour Earth Hour Magazine that was distributed "free" (free, that is, if you don't consider the small forest and who knows how many tonnes of CO2 that were expended in its production and distribution) with the approximate 211,000 copies of the Sydney Morning Herald on March 17. Only one article, by Tim Flannery, made any serious attempt to point out the vested interests that need to be tackled and raised the issues of inadequate public transport, stopping new coal plants and setting adequate emission-reduction targets by 2050.

But his contribution was buried under an avalanche of yet more regurgitated "tips", feel-good stories and gumph such as this: "Many governments and communities have already made big changes to reduce emissions. The use of solar and wind power is on the increase. Other renewable energy sources are being investigated. Millions of dollars are being spent exploring ways to bury carbon dioxide or to produce cleaner coal. But more needs to be done and politicians need to be brave enough to make tough decisions. If those politicians know that a couple of million people in their homeland have joined Earth Hour, they can be confident that the people will support the hard decisions and will applaud leaders who have the will to act."

Don't expect Fairfax to support "hard decisions" that impact on the big end of town, though. "Hard decisions" is code for making us pay higher bills.

The supplement was festooned with full-page ads by electricity suppliers such as EnergyAustralia, Integral Energy and Country Energy — the ones that hawk all that coal power — car companies such as Toyota, Fiat and Hyundai, and even Cascade beer (100% carbon offset beer!).

Corporate and government "greenwashing" was the central goal of the pre-hour hullabaloo. For all the talk of millions of Australians taking part, almost the sole yardstick of the night's success was on corporate office blocks and huge neon advertising signs in the CBD switching off. The participation of major publicly owned landmarks is really what made the impact. Which begs the question, why aren't all these lights and signs switched off every night?

Fossil fuel giant AGL loaned the giant WWF-logoed hot air balloon, which sailed over several capital cities beforehand, producing an estimated 378 kilograms of CO2 an hour. That's the same AGL that is a shareholder in Victoria's largest brown coal mine. Richard Branson gave his grin of approval, ever keen to "offset" the impact of his fleet of 38 747s. BP — the world's third largest global energy company — also promised to turn off all its "non-essential lighting". Let's not mention that BP was named one of the "ten worst corporations" in both 2001 and 2005 based on its environmental and human rights records. Or that it is busy trying to mine the ultra-polluting tar sands oil in Canada.

McDonald's turned off it golden arches for an hour nationally! So the millions of tonnes of useless packaging produced by this lot, not to mention the clearing of Amazonian rainforest for beef for Maccas, is forgiven. Not surprisingly, Channel Nine's support did not extend to urging people to switch of the tellie or to refusing to air the ads of CO2 polluters. Behind the scenes, advertising industry magazine Campaign Brief in league with the SMH offered an incentive to copywriters who "demonstrate the most effective and/or inspirational way to leverage Earth Hour 2008\" — two return trips to Cannes in France!

And last but certainly not least, the eco-friendly Department of Defence signed up to participate in Earth Hour. Federal Labor defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced: "Defence takes its obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions seriously and will have over 1330 buildings across Australia participating in Earth Hour", according to the March 29 online Brisbane Times. The minister of war also reported that the department had launched the Combat Climate Change initiative (clever pun) to provide information and "tips" to defence staff in the "workplace" and home to reduce energy use. Here's a "tip" Joel: get all troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and end all support for those wars for US imperialist control of energy sources.

In the end, despite the hype and PR, the Earth Hour results were hardly impressive. In the hour, electricity consumption across whole of Sydney and the Illawarra dropped just 2-3%, while in the CBD it was just over 8%. Nationwide figures put the drop at 3.6%. Based on a survey of 3000, WWF claimed 59% of Sydneysiders took part — a figure that doesn't gel with the marginal power drop, if simply turning off lights is the way forward.

Anyway, it seems that the WWF and Fairfax were not going to let their advertisers down and were going to declare the night a success whatever the result. The online Fairfax-owned Brisbane Times reported that "Brisbane made history this evening with the city's first official Earth Hour going off without a hitch. Kellie Caught, of Earth Hour organiser World Wildlife Fund, said she was thrilled with the response". Only problem was, this was published on March 28, 26 hours before Earth Hour had even taken place!

The last word on Earth Hour should go to Jimmy Yan, a member of the Glen Waverley Secondary College Eco-Committee, whose excellent critique was carried on the committee's blog: "Earth Hour rests on the assumption that the environmental movement can make any real progress without looking at the deeper social and political institutions and systems within our society that cause our environmental problems, one of them being a system that seeks to accumulate as much profit as possible for the sake of more accumulation and more competition irrespective of the human, environmental and social cost. Our environmental problems become another commodity that is bought and sold on the market ... Ultimately, events like Earth Hour ... rest on the idea that we can trust and work with those responsible for environmental destruction without holding them accountable for their crimes and the assumption that ordinary people are too stupid and naive to go beyond just turning off their lights for one hour."

We have to convince millions of people and build a mass movement for emission-reductions that genuinely address the real problem. For Australia, that's at least 90% by 2030 — not Labor's anaemic 60% by 2050. Such a movement must demand that governments impose far-reaching measures that force giant industrial polluters to rapidly and massively slash their emissions, at the risk of massive fines. And if they refuse, they should be nationalised and run in the interests of workers and consumers.

All public subsidies and tax concessions for the giant fossil fuel industries and resource corporations — which amount to billions of dollars — should be redirected to research the development of publicly owned renewable energy sources. We could help ordinary people implement individual actions, by supplying free or at a massive subsidy to all households solar water heaters and water tanks. There should be a massive reorganisation of society to move away from private-car-based transportation to free and frequent mass public transport, and we should redesign our cities to put people's homes close to work and shops.

We need to think about ways of linking these wider demands with our more immediate campaigns. For example as we fight to stop the Tasmanian pulp mill, oppose power privatisation, end coal and uranium mining, and to stop the building of new freeways and toll roads, we have to also convince people that the workings of capitalism itself is both responsible for the crisis and also the main obstacle to its solution.

Through struggles for immediate and broader demands, masses of people can come to understand that the source of the problem lies with capitalism itself.

Many in the environment movement argue that with the right mix of taxes, incentives and regulations, everybody could be a winner. Big business would have cheaper, more efficient production techniques, and therefore be more profitable, and consumers would have more environment-friendly products and energy sources.

In a rational society, such innovations would lower the overall environmental impact of production. Unfortunately, we don't live in a rational society. Any energy and money savings made through efficiency are used to make and sell more commodities.

It is becoming abundantly clear that the Earth cannot sustain this system's plundering and poisoning without humanity sooner or later experiencing a complete ecological catastrophe.

To have any chance of preventing this, within the 10-30 year window that we have in relation to global warming, humanity must take conscious, rational control of its interactions with the planet and its ecological processes, in ways that capitalism is inherently incapable of doing.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.