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Energy»Green living is not about doing the right thing for the wrong reason

»Tuesday, March 23,2010

Appealing to people's self-interest is a step in the right direction but may distract us from the huge changes that really need to be made

Public belief in the threat of climate change has been rattled lately by all sorts of things – hacked emails, errors over the science, a cold winter, the economic downturn, disaster fatigue, and on and on. I'm worried by this, but I'm also concerned by a growing reaction to it.

Edward Langley, Ipsos Mori's head of environmental research, recently said: "It's going to be a hard sell to make people make changes to their behaviours unless there's something else in it for them - [such as] energy efficiency measures saving money on fuel bills." Can appealing to self-interest really be the best response to this shift in opinion?

Talk of self-interest has always been in the mix, but it is getting louder – maybe the debate really is shifting away from warnings about environmental catastrophes to "what's in it for us". Barack Obama promised in his presidential acceptance speech to confront the challenge of "a planet in peril", but now the White House talks about breaking America's dependence on foreign oil, creating new jobs in a clean energy economy, and reducing energy bills. Green campaigners are pushing different buttons too, finding new ways to motivate a shift towards environmentally friendly choices which leave starving polar bears well out of it.

What's wrong with that? No one wants to hear yet more environmental doom and gloom. If people make a start on green living for selfish reasons, at least it's a step in the right direction. But if you make a start on doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, you can end up far short of actually doing the right thing.

Here's a cartoon example which at least makes the point quickly. Imagine a person employing child labour. You might give him self-interested reasons to treat the children better – feed them more nutritious gruel and they'll have the energy to work harder. It's a step in the right direction, I suppose, but it delays what's really required, namely ending child labour. That large step is something undertaken for the welfare of others, not self-interest. Small, self-interested tweaks are not significant enough when it comes to climate change. To see what I mean, brace yourself for some numbers.

There is a lot of fossil fuel in the ground. There is as much as 50 years' worth of natural gas and 150 more years of coal down there. We probably haven't used half the world's oil reserves yet. James Hansen, director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is not alone in concluding that "we, humanity, cannot release to the atmosphere all, or even most, fossil fuel CO2. To do so would guarantee dramatic climate change, yielding a different planet." We have to find reasons to use much less than we've got.

Using much less can seem a distant prospect when you think about the number of people who join us on the planet each day. At the start of the 20th century, there were about 1.5 billion human beings on Earth. There are now almost 7 billion. The UN estimates that there will be as many as 10 billion people by 2050. These new people will have natural desires not just for food, water, and shelter but for the material trappings of a good and decent life – things we presently secure almost exclusively by burning fossil fuels.

Will self-interest, finding something in it for us, really be enough to stop 10 billion people from burning most of the world's fossil fuel reserves?

The good news is that human beings are nudged into action for all sorts of reasons – it's not always self-interest. Sometimes the reasons pile up – one or two won't do it, but eventually we cave in under the weight of enough of them. I hope that those responding to shifts in opinion see that self-interest can only be part of our motivation for green action, not the whole of it.

We not only need to do the right thing, we have to do it for the right reasons – we have to go green, at least partly, for other people, not just to save ourselves money.  Otherwise we won't go far enough.

Acting in our own interests got us into this mess. It's unlikely to get us out.





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