A major focus of the mainstream environmental movement is to encourage individuals to change their behavior, shrinking their carbon footprint by changing their light bulbs, buying local food, and driving hybrid cars. Some environmentalists present these minor lifestyle changes as the solution to climate change, but for a number of reasons, they will do little to solve the problems. Though individuals choosing to live slightly less destructive lifestyles is marginally beneficial, to stop climate change we need structural change.

Some of these changes are definitely positive and will be a part of a zero-carbon future. Deciding to eat local, non-industrial food is one of them. Industrial agriculture is incredibly destructive, requiring massive amounts of fossil fuels, for transportation, fertilizer, and pesticides. It has also lead directly to the dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, local organic food is luxury some can’t afford. While it is definitely good that the rich are supporting local farmers and doing something to reduce their enormous impact on the Earth, we need to have local organic food for all. Doing so will require a structural change, away from subsidies for industrial agriculture and towards a support and expansion of local agriculture, including urban farms to provide food for (and ideally be run by) local communities.

Other lifestyle changes are much less useful and do more to distract us from necessary changes rather than to help the Earth. Hybrid cars are a good example. Trading in your SUV for a hybrid SUV (or for a Prius) is an option that is only available for the rich, does little to reduce carbon emissions, and distracts us from the necessary structural changes our transportation system needs to be drastically changed. The construction and distribution of cars, including zero-emission cars, takes massive amounts of resources and reinforces our current car culture. Resources should be invested in finding ways to make cars unnecessary, and to create an equitable and clean public transport system.

Another much-promoted and misleading lifestyle change is saving our dwindling water resources by taking shorter showers, turning off the water while shaving, etc. While these are clearly things that should be done– and unlike the others actually save money– they do a great deal to obfuscate the real issues of resource consumption. More than 90% of water consumption is used by industry and agriculture, often for astoundingly bad ideas, such as mining coal and growing cotton in Arizona. (Cotton is an extremely thirsty crop– it takes more than 700 gallons of water to produce the cotton for one t-shirt.) The remaining 10% of water is split between households and commercial and non-industrial uses, such as golf courses. Shortening your showers will make little difference if we are still reliant on industrial agriculture and building golf courses in the desert. Similarly, turning off your lights makes little difference while aluminum smelters, which primarily produce cans and aircraft, are powered by up to 500,000 tons of coal a month. The average US household uses the equivalent of a half a ton of coal per month.

If we believe that personal actions are the solution to the climate crisis, it follows that individual actions are the cause of it. This is not the case. It is nearly impossible to live in our society without living an incredibly destructive lifestyle. Dropping out, Into the Wild-style will not help the planet. The person who has to drive to work to support his or her family is not to blame for climate change; the industrial capitalist system encouraging the growth of exburbs is.

Obviously, we should all do everything we can to live in the most sustainable way possible. This article is not an excuse to buy a Hummer. But we should do this because it is the moral thing to do, not because it will save the planet. If we are serious about stopping the destruction of the environment and the human suffering accompanying its destruction, it is our duty to work together and build a movement for the structural change of our society.

  • Andrew Dominguez

    A couple questions that I think you fail to address in your article:

    Can localized food production sustain cities the size of LA, Chicago, or New York? If not, then people would have to emigrate to less populated areas using countless amounts of fuel for transportation (a scenario similar to the urbanization foreseen in China’s future) , and reversing the centralization of talent and industry that cities have achieved in the last century.

    Also, in case of natural disasters and unpredicted droughts or floods there will necessarily be food shortages in some affected regions. And, of course, people would have to give up some pleasures like tropical fruits.

    So, what I picture as a result from dismantling industrial agriculture is a nation of people scattered all over the land in small clusters, most of whom spend their days farming and harvesting, with a small minority taking care of other necessities such as education. I guess clothing would be pricier and less comfortable too with the reduced amount of cotton. Reminds me of the civilizations I read about from several hundred years ago.

    That, of course, is my 2 cent, generally uninformed conclusion. Is this an avoidable situation, and how can it be avoided?

  • Roger Smith

    Transportation and building energy use are responsible for the vast majority of US global warming emissions (and in CT are well over 80% of the problem).

    The “structural” change we need will put mandatory limits on CO2 emissions and change how we live, how we use energy, and how we move around. What we can do is change the choices that people have today.

    On the building side that can look like incentive programs for efficiency and renewable energy (like solar electricity and hot water), education on how to cut energy use (pull down shades, how to use a programmable thermostat), economic incentives (tiered pricing where the more energy you use, the higher the rate you pay), and regulations requiring increases in product efficiency, mandates that buildings be built or renovated to an efficient standard, and eventually even be required to incorporate renewable energy sources (as Hawaii is doing now for solar hot water heating).

    Ultimately a combination of mandates and incentives will transform how we use and think about energy. If done right our children will wonder how we ever lived differently.

  • Lemuria Mu

    Cities are inherently unsustainable because they rely on imports. No place for them in a post-carbon world. Obviously this is bad news for the urban poor.
    With all due respect Mr. Smith I think you really missed Jon’s point. In 50 years it won’t make any difference whether we recycled or not, pulled down our shades, drove a Hummer or bought organic. None of these lifestyle changes address the critical reality that our way of life–industrialism/mass society–is not sustainable. The earth cannot take it much longer.
    This whole deal is going to stop working in our lifetimes, the only question is how difficult we want t0 make that inevitable transition.

  • Noah C

    Well said Jonathan, and Lemuria, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Great piece!

  • Jane Mercaldi

    If we had only listened to Helen Nearing!
    Helen Nearing, “Living the Good Life” 1954.
    Chapter 6:
    “..seven procedures which will maximize the stability and security of livelihood:
    First, regulating the sources of livelihood in such a manner that all able bodied adults will render a service in exchange for income, thus eliminating the social divisions which develop when a part of the community lives on unearned income while the remainder exchanges labor power for its livelihood.
    Sixth, practice economy, conserving resources, producing and consuming as little as necessary rather than as much as possible”

  • Dan

    Hey Jon,
    Great work as usual. Stumbled across this delicious piece in the Times today. Good to know Ebay is doing their part! My favorite line is from the RAN guy “let’s not get carried away and say this (Ebay) is the greenest thing since recycled paper.”
    Oh Jesus! Good old Earth Day…Have a splendid break.

  • Rebecca B.

    Lemuria – I would challenge your position on cities. What do you envision as an alternative? Though they do rely on imports, they also concentrate large numbers of people in a single place, which is preferable to unending suburban sprawl. Also, in cities people are generally more interested in having public transportation – in some ways, cities are the best place to begin thinking about these structural changes.