I was reading The Sunday Telegraph earlier today and I came across an article which raises some questions which are related to the issues that we have recently been considering. Here is the gist of the article:
hidden in the small print of the Budget, were new figures for the fast-escalating tax the Government introduces next week on every ton of CO2 emitted by fossil-fuel-powered stations, which will soon be adding billions of pounds to our electricity bills every year... the Coalition is... hell-bent on driving our... coal-and gas-fired plants out of business.
So we are doomed to see Britain’s lights go out, all because the feather-headed lunatics in charge of our energy policy still believe that they’ve got to do something to save the planet from that CO2-induced global warming that this weekend has been covering much of the country up to a foot deep in snow. Meanwhile, the Indians are planning to build 455 new coal-fired power stations, which will add more CO2 to the atmosphere of the planet every week than Britain emits in a year.
(‘Chilly, isn’t it? It’s payback time for our energy policy’,
Christopher Booker, 24 March 2013, p. 34)
Christopher Booker, 24 March 2013, p. 34)
There are a couple of important points arising from this article:
1. The article provides further evidence of the unhelpful and misplaced media concentration on short-term factors (the weather today!) in the debate concerning global warming. Recall that in the last article I wrote that:
A study carried out at the University of British Columbia concluded that the local weather (particularly temperature) plays a major role in influencing public and media opinions on the reality of global warming.
The Sunday Telegraph article is a very good example of this, attempting to discredit the reality of global warming because it is currently snowing in parts of England! One cannot take such a connection remotely seriously, but it is an example of the (problematic) way that the human mind works, overly concentrating on the very short-term, the immediately experienced reality.
2. The article highlights the continued strength of the force to environmental destruction. In the UK we might be facing future power cuts due to the attempt to reduce CO2 emissions, but at the global level (and the broader UK level; e.g. the number of UK airplane flights) these efforts are dwarfed by the larger reality. As Booker says in the article:
the Indians are planning to build 455 new coal-fired power stations, which will add more CO2 to the atmosphere of the planet every week than Britain emits in a year.
One might be troubled by this and one should be troubled by this. One might be environmentally aware and want to ‘do the right thing’ relating to the environment; one might try and live sustainably by minimising one’s ‘carbon footprint’; one might feel that one should make an effort. If so, one probably rationalises the situation as follows:
What I do might be miniscule in the bigger scheme of things (environmental changes at the planetary level) but if enough individuals act like me then it will make a significant difference.
However, within one there is likely to be a nagging doubt, a sense of one’s actions being ultimately futile, simply a gesture which makes one feel better about oneself (I have purchased a reusable supermarket bag so I must be a good person!). At a deeper level the nagging doubt exists, the realisation that all that one has done is buy a shopping bag, whilst in India 455 coal-fired power stations are about to be built (just one example of the larger reality), and that one’s lifestyle is still highly unsustainable (on the one hand a reusable shopping bag, on the other hand all of the supermarket packaging on the products that get put into the bag, the air miles of this food, the air miles of one’s holidays, the car journey to the supermarket and to work, etc., etc.). One should realise that, in reality, one really is insignificant in the bigger scheme of things. One should realise that one is especially insignificant if one thinks that one’s attempts to be environmentally-friendly make any difference whatsoever to global-warming at the planetary level.
There is a seemingly contrary view, a view which asserts that everything that everyone does is of significance. A good way to think of this view is through Chaos Theory and the ‘butterfly effect’. According to this way of thinking, the universe is intimately interconnected to the extent that one tiny action, such as the flap of the wings of a solitary butterfly, can be the catalyst for a massive distantly-located change, such as the coming into existence of an enormous hurricane at the other side of the planet. In the realm of human action relating to the environment, it could be thought that the actions that a single human makes in reducing their carbon footprint could prevent a tipping point from being passed. The passing of the tipping point could, let us suppose, result in a runaway greenhouse effect; this means that every action that every human takes can certainly be thought of as potentially of great significance. And, in one sense, this is true. Individual humans acting in accordance with the inner drives and motivations that the universe has endowed them with, is the force which propels human civilization forwards. Every environmentally-friendly action taken by every individual, when aggregated, forms part of the force to environmental sustainability. This force is important, so the individual actions which constitute it are also important.
Can this seemingly contrary view be compatible with the view that one is insignificant in the bigger scheme of things? I think so. If an environmental tipping point is passed, this will certainly be due to a single action or event. However, when we consider the immensely powerful forces that are driving the evolution of the planet – biological evolution and cultural evolution – then we can see that this trajectory, which includes the passing of tipping point thresholds, will not be meaningfully altered by the actions of particular individuals. In other words, both the force to environmental sustainability and the force to environmental destruction, whilst being constituted by individual actions, are not in any meaningful way affected by individual actions. In other words, an individual lacks the ability to change the trajectory, or speed, with which these forces unfold and evolve.
A useful analogy might be to imagine that one is in the centre of a thousand people who are packed together like sardines, and who are all running in a particular direction. It makes no difference to one’s trajectory of travel if one decides that one would like to move in the opposite direction, one will still be carried along with the crowd. It is only when a large enough number of the thousand people decide that they would like to move in the opposite direction that one’s desire will translate into action. Analogously, only when the time is right will the force to environmental sustainability be powerful enough to challenge the force to environmental destruction. And the timing of this time will not be affected by the desires or the actions of particular individuals. Another way of putting this is to say that if an individual, or a family, or an entire town, suddenly acts one way rather than another (for example, the individual/s concerned might stop driving, flying, buying imported food, and so on) then this will make no difference to the way that the future trajectory of human cultural evolution will unfold.
We really need to face the reality of the situation we are in rather than put our hope in trivial and futile gestures which are ultimately insignificant. You might be aware that I divide environmental problems into two categories. When I talk of “trivial and futile gestures” I am referring to actions which are aimed at addressing the problem of global warming (the first category environmental problem). An action which is trivial and futile when it comes to this problem might not be so when it comes to the second category of environmental problems (all non-global warming environmental problems). For example, using reusable shopping bags is trivial and futile when it comes to addressing the problem of global warming, but it is not trivial or futile when it comes to other environmental problems, such as the problem of escalating waste in landfill sites.
The reality of the situation, in the face of the global warming problem, is that the human species needs to actively technologically regulate the temperature of the atmosphere of the Earth for the benefit of life on Earth. This is a positive outcome, not a measure of last resort which should be adopted out of despair. The sooner this is fully realised and accepted the better. When this time comes we can stop pursuing futile carbon-cutting policies and replace them with the required geoengineering policies.