The Cult of Self Sustainability (updated March 2011)

When it comes to climate change, the 'doing our bit' approach to saving the planet has more in common with medieval theology than it does with any kind of progress in reducing global emissions. As a response to manmade climate change, the 'Cult of Self Sustainability' is ineffective, self indulgent and downright dangerous.

Like our more pious ancestors who struggled to adhere to the rules of Christian morality, it is virtually impossible for the majority of us to live a carbon free lifestyle. Eat meat? A kilogram of beef has the same footprint as a three hour car journey. Vegetarian? You might eat a lot of cheese and yogurt and many these products have a larger footprint than eating poultry. Drink alcohol? It's produced from crops grown on land that could otherwise be used for food or that could have been preserved as forest. Own a pet? The carbon footprint of a dog can nullify whatever efforts you've made to live sustainably. And wherever you are, it's pretty much guaranteed that some of your favorite fruits - whether avocados, tomatoes, oranges or mangoes - have been flown in from somewhere very far away.

One of the most common accusations I've come across about climate activists is that we are all guilty of a kind of eco hypocrisy, for reasons like some of the examples listed above. And if we can't convince the public that we're free of carbon sin, how are we meant to convince them to live sustainably and to pressure our leaders to adopt radical policies to tackle climate change? The answer is simple: we can't.

Jon Stewart (the host of The Daily Show) and James Hansen (the renowned NASA climate scientist) have both described the carbon trading system as a 'market for indulgences' akin to the commodity of dispensations sold by the medieval church to offset the sins of wealthy patrons. In this blog post - hopefully the first of many - I want to build on this comparison and extend it to the paradox of 'carbon sin' and what I'd like to call the 'Cult of Self Sustainability'.

Just like medieval Christianity, the Cult of Self Sustainability encourages a 'holier than thou' approach that promotes those individuals who follow a specific set of guidelines to a position of moral authority. A recent Now Show sketch parodied the classic 'Four Yorkshiremen' (youtube video - skip to 3:10), with four eco-conscious Yorkshiremen competing over who is the 'greenest' with examples of self-sacrificing and carbon counting that are increasingly ridiculous as the debate gets hotter. Here's an excerpt:

A: Still, a bike made out of metal, plastic and oil? See, I had it tough. I had to walk.
B: That's nothing. I shot down a plane then crawled 'ere. My hands and knees are rubbed raw, not from the pavement, but from t'essian-sacking clothes I wear that show how much more I care about the planet than you do!
C: Right! I got up at 4 AM before th' were lights in order to operate in dark to prove that I don't use light bulbs at all. I am full of locally-sourced, organic fair trade dirt, I closed an airport, then tunneled t'studio, using a shovel made out of pure smugness, while holdin' me breath an' plantin' a tree ev'ry two foot between 'ere and my house.
D: But if you told that to the eco-bores of today, they'd still try and outgreen you!

There are two components here that (at least to me) are both funny and poignant. First, the lifestyles become more and more impossible as the conversation goes on. The third Yorkshireman would be the greenest of them all but the narrative he's given of his morning is dubious. In fact, most of the assertions by the different characters, like riding on a bike with no saddle and just one pedal, refer to activities that are impossible for humans to carry out (although I'd like to see someone try the bike with no saddle). The second point of interest is the competition between the characters to come across as the "greenest" of the bunch. But the harder they try to come across as carbon free, the more they sound like they're from another planet, alienating the listener. Obviously this sketch is exaggerated, but I do think that it's a useful critique of what it means to be "green". It's also easier to take in when you know that Marcus Brigstocke (who wrote it) frequently rants about inaction on climate change and this particular episode is sandwiched into a diatribe against EDF's greenwash.

Like the Four Eco-Yorkshiremen sketch, the Cult of Self Sustainability places far too much emphasis on the contribution of the individual. Let's return to medieval theology. During the middle ages, the path to heaven was viewed as an internal struggle: physical hardship and political turmoil were part of the landscape of a temporal world that was irrelevant to the welfare of the soul. Salvation was far more important than temporary satisfaction, so people accepted their place in the social order and rarely challenged it. Without challenge, the feudal political system exploited the vast majority of the European population. And when there was that rare show of resistance, it was almost always crushed before it could incite real change. When social change did eventually arrive in the early modern era, it was economic factors - not ideas or principles - that contributed to the demise of the feudal system.

I won't go so far as to suggest that someone has deliberately invented the concept of sustainability to keep humans under control. But this ideology is preventing environmentally-conscious global citizens from making real, effective change. Most of us want to think that we are doing 'our bit' for the planet. But if 'our bit' is just reducing our carbon footprint, writing letters to politicians and participating in the occasional large non-confrontational rally, then this is not going to create the change we need. By going green in our private lives, we are excusing ourselves from the system that is killing the planet. If the doomsday scenarios materialize in the future, we'll dodge the guilt and blame everyone else for complicity. I'm not saying that we shouldn't make an effort to cut back on emissions at an individual level, but self sustainability becomes a destructive distraction when being green doesn't go any further than that.

Let's step back again and consider all the greenwash we've been bombarded with, particularly from energy companies like E.ON, EDF and npower. These companies make money by selling power, so why have they pumped millions into a massive PR initiative to convince the public to conserve energy? And this isn't confined to the energy market. Corporate greenwashers like RBS, Tesco and Shell encourage us to look inwardly for the change that needs to be made and, in appearing to champion sustainable living, misrepresent themselves as positive forces in the fight against climate change. Climate Week, sponsored by RBS, EDF and Tesco, was a perfect example of this. The head honcho for the event, Kevin Steele, argued that their involvement facilitated educational events across the country and at all levels of society. But education can also be a form of control, and not one credible environmental group or NGO endorsed the event.

The reality is that damaging the earth in return for short term profit is more lucrative than ever. In indulging egotistical assumptions of self sustainability, these companies are diverting the attention of the public from the catastrophic damage they have subjected our planet to.

Local and national governments have colluded with, and even encouraged, destructive business interests. Tony Blair appears in the picture of the oil deal signed between BP and Libya. Chris Hume, the energy secretary, facilitated the (now failed) partnership between BP and Rosneft. Canada abandoned the Kyoto Protocol because it compromised their interest in expanding tar sands extraction in Alberta. As long as we allow these institutions to carry on as usual, our inaction will encourage them to increase - not decrease - the level of their carbon emissions. This reality was apparent at the COP15 climate negotiations in Copenhagen, where we saw a group of world leaders and big business interests undermine the democratic process by ignoring the voices of thousands of protesters, by refusing entry to previously approved delegates during the last few days of the conference and by relying on a brutal local police force to crush popular dissent.

We shouldn't discard the drive to minimize our individual carbon footprint. But we should accept direct action as an essential component of this process. And we also shouldn't be afraid to point fingers at the larger business institutions and governments - provided that we are prepared to utilize direct action as a tool to change the system that they have created.

An ideology that focuses heavily on individual guilt will not be an effective shield from climate change. But we can offset our individual carbon footprint by mobilizing ourselves, shutting down coal power plants and doing everything we can to make it more difficult and expensive for the bad guys to profit from exploiting the planet. We can hijack their narrative and use it against them - this was successfully done by a large coalition of NGOs and activists in advance of and during Climate Week. As a result, RBS has arguably come out worse from the whole thing than it would if it had avoided the event altogether.

There are many different ways of taking action, from exposing greenwash, to shutting down coal power plants and oil refineries, to helping out at a local transition town like Lewes or Grow Heathrow. All of these options involve cooperating with other people. Fighting for environmental justice is not about "doing the right thing" to absolve your conscience. It's about bringing out the best in ourselves by acting collectively while maintaining our own sense of independence. And it's far more comfortable than a bike with no saddle.


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