Who Is To Blame for Environmental Change?

By David L. Brown

Whose fault is it that global warming and climate change are threatening the future of humanity? Well, there’s a loaded question for you. It is easy to see it from the point of view of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He believes it’s, well, everybody’s fault.

Upon arriving at the recent meeting of the International Panel on Climate Change in Valencia, Mr. Ban had just returned from a fact-finding trip to Antarctica and South America. According to BBC News, he stated:

“I come to you humbled after seeing some of the most precious treasures of our planet threatened by humanity’s own hand,” he said. “All humanity must assume responsibility for these treasures.”

It is hard to argue with this point of view, because it is indeed the impact of ballooning human numbers and the environmental changes we as an entire species have wrought that our Earth is undergoing changes that could threaten the very existence of civilization. All humanity must indeed share blame for the problem.

And yet I must point out that “all humanity” is responsible for the destruction of our environment in the same way that each molecule of water in a tidal wave is responsible for a tsunami, or that each flake of snow must bear the blame for a winter avalanche. Most human beings are oblivious to the problems represented by climate change; many are incapable of understanding it even if one were to try to explain it to them; and most are completely uncaring because they live in ignorance (which, we must never forget, is bliss).

Yes, our tendency to over-breed and to act out of self-interest are part and parcel of the problem — but these are merely natural human traits. In the developed world, for example, individuals are not necessarily greedy per se, but simply acting as the good consumers that our “leaders” tell us to be.

Remember that President Bush’s first response to the terror attack of 9/11 was to exhort Americans to head for the mall. That provided an important hint that our “leaders” see individuals merely as members of Homo Economicus, necessary cogs in the grinding machine of monetary activity that in the view of politicians and economists is the be-all and end-all of everything that is good in the world. “I shop, therefore I am,” to misquote Descartes, might be an apt motto for today’s realpolitik. No thinking required; please check all brains at the door.

So let’s examine the view that it is “all humanity” rather than world leaders who are responsible for the looming environmental catastrophe. Let us concede that Mr. Ban’s is a valid conclusion, for even if poor choices have been made by our leadership, it is after all only by the tacit or active permission of the masses that those leaders have taken control of the reins of governance in the first place. If mistakes have been made at the top, we should all share responsibility. And, surely, Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo the Possum had it right when he famously said “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

But if top-down leadership has failed us, and if humanity has learned to behave like a vast herd of sheep, how can we expect change to come from the bottom up?

First, we must consider the very important fact that although humanity may act as a somewhat mindless whole while under the thrall of political and economic leaders, that model is not fixed and absolute. The model in which individuals are as mere molecules of water or flakes of snow is not the only possibility, because human beings do not comprise a hive-like, unthinking mass. We may have lost sight of the fact, but humanity consists of a diverse and adaptable group of individuals. It is only when we look at the human race through that end of the telescope that we can see the true picture of how humans eventually can and will react to the environmental challenges we collectively face.

Simply put, in a bottom-up model individuals will act individually in response to the social, economic and environmental clues they receive. The result is quite different from the mass psychology model which caused our President to instruct us to go shopping on 9/11.

Let’s take as an example energy use, a subject that is gaining vast importance as the Oil Peak passes and supplies fall behind demand. It is becoming clear that we have become dangerously “addicted” to cheap energy. Like Pavlov’s dogs trained to salivate at the sound of a bell, we have been conditioned to shape our lifestyles on a foundation of cheap gasoline, diesel fuel and heating oil. We are merely acting as our “leaders” in politics and industry instruct and encourage us to do, like good little consumers

As individuals, we have committed ourselves to the cheap oil model in many ways; for example by accepting compromises which lock us into long driving commutes; choosing to live in extreme climates; and driving inefficient vehicles. Now that oil is no longer available in quantities sufficient to meet the growing demand, many of us will soon be faced with some hard decisions about prior lifestyle choices.

Let’s focus on gasoline. Gas at $3 a gallon is not enough to change our world entirely, but it is a start. What will it take to create real change … $5 gas, $10 gas? As gasoline becomes more dear, at each price level more people will be forced to change, to opt out of the existing model. Eventually, only the more fortunate will be able to continue to consume gasoline as we have all become accustomed to doing. Demand will fall, due less to choice than from necessity, and that will make a difference because those of us on the lower economic strata will have reined in our use of the scarce and expensive product.

Sadly, our “leaders” will probably do everything they can to delay that positive change — by placing price controls on gasoline (which is kind of like King Canute attempting to hold back the ocean’s tide), dumping our strategic reserve, or instituting rationing schemes — but in the long run, the inflexible laws of supply and demand will force the changes.

And, in reaction to those changes, humans will begin to act as individuals rather than members of a crowd.

Those changes might not be so terribly difficult, really, once they start to be made by people acting as individuals, rather than like participants in a sheep herding exercise. The power of that model of bottom-up action by individuals is that when many single human beings act on their own initiative, the overall effect could be more dramatic than all the political forces of recent history.

Here’s what I mean: When an individual American moves closer to his or her job and buys a bicycle to eliminate the need for a daily drive, that will make a tiny difference, hardly anything worth noticing. It doesn’t really matter, does it? But imagine that a million, or ten million, or a hundred million individuals should make such fundamental lifestyle changes? That would make an enormous difference.

Here’s another example that would directly impact industry: When a single person opts to trade in a gas-guzzler for an economy car that gets 60 or 80 m.p.g., that again would make a small, insubstantial difference. But should a million, or ten million, or a hundred million individuals express a strong desire to do so it would send a devastating message to the automobile industry. It wouldn’t take them long to realize that they must change or die, and PDQ. The overwhelming power of the message is that it will come from the bottom, not from the top as has heretofore been the rule. Individuals would no longer be following but leading, and that is as it should be.

About 25 years ago a British economist named E. F. Schumacher published a marvelous book entitled “Small Is Beautiful.” The theme of his treatise is reflected in the book’s subtitle: “Economics as if People Mattered.”

“People” — that is what has been missing from the political and economic model under which the world has been careening toward disaster. Only when individuals begin to act as individuals in response to the realities of the Earth, instead of flocking like rats to the Pied Piper’s tune, can true change begin to take place.

Those environmental realities are moving us steadily and inexorably toward the time when individuals will once again count, and when that sea-change occurs our “leaders” in the administration, Congress, industry and the halls of academe will need to shift their gears pretty fast if they want to get back in front of the parade, which to their great chagrin will be moving in the opposite direction and leaving them in the dust.

Yes, “all humanity” can share responsibility for climate change — and the corollary to that is that only “all humanity” can reverse and correct the damage. It will be neither easy nor painless, because we have already gone much too far down the wrong path. But in the end (assuming it is not already too late) the proven ability of individuals to act on their own initiative to adapt to new conditions could prove to be the salvation of our species.

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