Sunday, February 3, 2008



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Anonymous said...

Can this really save the planet?
We are constantly told to switch the TV off standby, recycle our plastic bags and boil less water - but does focusing on the small, easy steps distract us from the bigger picture, asks George Marshall
George Marshall The Guardian, Thursday September 13 2007
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Advertising guide License/buy our content About this articleClose This article appeared in the Guardian on Thursday September 13 2007 on p18 of the G2 features section. It was last updated at 23:55 on September 12 2007. Why is everyone so keen to believe that tiny actions can prevent climate change? We are given easy household tips by campaigners and the government that will help "save the climate". You know the kind of thing - recycle your plastic bags, turn your telly off standby, bring your own cup to work. There is usually a little clutch of them attached to the latest grim news about climate change: it's not all bad news, they plead, you can take these simple steps today and they really do "make a difference".

But do they? Take the plastic bags, for example. We are pestered to re-use them or use designer "bags for life" instead. People get very worked up about this topic. There are eight online petitions on the No 10 website calling for them to be banned or taxed, Ireland has imposed a special bag tax, and a town in Devon has banned them outright.

Yes, they are ugly, wasteful and deadly to turtles. But their contribution to climate change is miniscule. The average Brit uses 134 plastic bags a year, resulting in just two kilos of the typical 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide he or she will emit in a year. That is one five thousandth of their overall climate impact.

And then there is the issue of electronics on standby. This is an attractive example of consumer waste culture and has been aggressively challenged by, among others, the Conservative's Quality of Life Group, which publishes its environmental policy document today. But it is hardly a major source of emissions. The electricity to keep the average television on standby mode for a whole year leads to 25 kilograms of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. It's more than plastic bags, but still very marginal: 0.2% of average per capita emissions in the UK.

Here's another tip that sounds more substantial: fill your kettle with the right amount of water. The government made this one of the core messages of its "Are You Doing Your Bit?" campaign in 1999. A very small bit as it turns out. According to the government's own figures, even if you are constantly boiling full kettles this will save all of 100 kilos of carbon dioxide a year, less than 1% of average per capita emissions.

Please don't misunderstand me. All of these actions are worth doing as part of a greener lifestyle. And I do all of them - I also turn off my tap when brushing my teeth, share my baths, and watch the telly in the dark - wearing three jumpers if need be. But it is a serious distortion to imply, as the top 10 lists of green living usually do, that there is any equivalence between these lifestyle preferences and the serious decisions that really reduce emissions - stopping flying, living close to work and living in a well-insulated house, for example.

Judging by the latest Mori poll data, people have already acquired a severely distorted sense of priorities. Forty per cent of people now believe that recycling domestic waste, which is a relatively small contributor to emissions, is the most important thing they can do to prevent climate change. Only 10% mention the far more important goals of using public transport or reducing foreign holidays.

The easy tips also undermine the wider message on the seriousness of climate change. In its report Warm Words, on climate-change messaging, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) argues that simple actions "easily lapse into 'wallpaper' - the domestic, the routine, the boring, the too-easily understood and ignorable". The IPPR is especially critical of headlines such as "20 things you can do to save the planet from destruction" and said that putting trivial measures alongside alarmist warnings can lead people to "deflate, mock and reject the very notion of climate change".

Lest you think I am being harsh, look at this from a different point of view. Imagine that someone came up with a brilliant new campaign against smoking. It would show graphic images of people dying of lung cancer followed by the punchline: "It's easy to be healthy - smoke one less cigarette a month."

We know without a moment's reflection that this campaign would fail. The target is so ludicrous, and the disconnection between the images and the message is so great, that most smokers would just laugh it off.

So why then do well-intentioned schools, councils and green groups - and let's face it, Live Earth was an eight-hour tip-fest - persist in promoting such ineffectual actions?

Their logic is as follows. Simple actions capture people's attention and provide an entry-level activity. Present people with the daunting big-ticket solutions and they turn away. Give them something easy and you have them moving in the right direction and, in theory, ready to make the step up to the next level.

That is the theory, but, as plentiful social research confirms, it doesn't work. For one thing, making the solutions easy is no guarantee that anyone will carry them out. The government spent £22m on the Do Your Bit campaign and has subsequently admitted that it produced no measurable change in personal behaviour.

And there is a greater danger that people might adopt the simple measures as a way to avoid making more challenging lifestyle changes. With recycling, Mori concluded that it was becoming an act of "totem behaviour" and that "individuals use recycling as a means of discharging their responsibility to undertake wider changes in lifestyle". In other words, people can adopt the simplest solutions as a part of a deliberate denial strategy that enables them to feel virtuous without changing their real behaviour.

Governments and businesses are, if anything, even more prone to tokenistic behaviour than individuals. Encouraging small voluntary actions by the public, customers or staff looks good and is much safer than passing restrictive legislation or rethinking your entire business model.

So what we need is a sense of proportion. The great advantage that climate change has over other pressing issues is that the gases that cause it can be measured down to the last gram. People can make informed decisions in the knowledge that, say, a return flight to Australia will have the same climate-change impact as 730,000 plastic bags or 176,000 overfilled kettles.

We also need to rethink the way we talk about climate change. It is insulting to assume that people can only be energised with the pint-sized options. We need to present all lifestyle changes as part of a radical vision for a smart, healthy and just 21st century. And let's be clear that voluntary action will never be enough - we will need radical political, economic and social change. So let's start by doing away with that wretched phrase "you can save the planet"

· George Marshall is the founder and director of projects at the Climate Outreach and Information Network ( Read Bibi van der Zee's response to this article at

· Post questions and answers to Ask Leo The Guardian, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1 3ER Fax: 020-7713 4366. Email: Please include your address and telephone number.

Anonymous said...

George Marshall – Founder and Director of Projects |

George has seventeen years experience in research and campaigning and outreach for environmental and indigenous rights organisations. He has worked as a senior campaigner for Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, and as a policy consultant to the German and Papua New Guinean governments. He has authored fifteen major reports and won nine awards for his video documentary work.

Before joining COIN George was one of the founders and co-ordinators of Rising Tide, a national network of grassroots climate change campaign groups. He has spoken and written widely on climate change issues and sustainable lifestyles including articles for The New Statesman, The Guardian, and The Ecologist.

Anonymous said...

DREAMS of climate change anxiety and global warming panic:

Nina from BC writes in her blog:

"A few days ago, I had a very weird experience: I gasped awake from a dreadful nightmare. This is weird, because I never remember my dreams. Well, this one was vivid and had me roiling in emotional turmoil. It began vaguely with me and my family in a restaurant in some unrecognizable part of town…it was midday and we were watching an alarming news release about linked turbulent weather patterns all over the globe.

The tension that emanated from everyone was palpable, as though I could feel the tension of every person on the planet.

I noticed that the sky looked queer, strange.

It had grown dark like a deep sea storm and I noticed the clouds flaming with crimson.

Drawn by curiosity mixed with dread, I slipped outside to get a better look and walked up the hill a bit to see beyond the building.

What I saw was spectacular at first then terrifying: the flame-rimmed clouds were racing across the sky at breakneck speed and against them in gold ochre shades I could make out the silhouettes of the continents, as though the burning sun had flung them up there (okay, so this is a dream, folks!)…

As I stared up, dumbfounded, at the clouds speeding across the dark sky, I suddenly realized with gut-wrenching alarm that it wasn’t so much the clouds racing across the sky as the planet speeding up!

I could actually feel its rotation speeding up! I could feel the centrifugal pull of its motion unbalancing me.

When I awoke, a dark heaviness and foreboding clung to me that I found hard to shake. It stayed with me the rest of the day."


"Around the same time that I had experienced my nightmare,.... a close friend of mine had an accident at her work place. She manages a crew at one of the world’s busiest courier service airfreight centers in America, where it isn’t unheard of that a million parcels move through their unit during a person’s shift. Amidst the bustle, a piece of equipment swung down and hit her on the head, knocking her off balance and throwing her—almost—off the platform. To keep from falling, she did some impressive Michael Jackson move and pulled a muscle in her leg.

What does the dream and my friend’s accident have to do with each other?

Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

Here’s what I think…

I’ve been pursuing a dizzying schedule both as a scientist at my environmental consulting job.... and as a writer promoting my current release, Darwin’s Paradox, amidst writing my current book and trying to lead a normal life as mother, wife and friend.

The dream was a clarion call for me.

I don’t remember my dreams often, so when I do, I take them seriously.

And my dreams are usually about things of large scope…not sure why…

This dream followed the wake of a significant conversation I’d had with two scientist/artist friends of mine at Starbucks the night before.

We’d been discussing global warming and the general health of the planet, how disconnected so many of us have become with nature and life’s natural cycles in general.

My dream was a clarion call for the speed of my life, the speed of all our lives. The speed of this planet. We are all living fast.

And when we do, how do we find time for the stillness of life? That place where we find quiet depth and peace. We cram in a quick latte before the hectic drive to work… we jostle for the best position on the commuter train and ignore our neighbor… we scan our blackberry sixty times a day to tell us what we are actually doing in a day stuffed with so many activities we can’t possibly keep track of them… we multi-task using cell-phones, wireless laptops, and blackberries to accomplish what three people would otherwise do to impress our boss and keep our job… we organize then reorganize our spouse’s and children’s daily activities so they don’t get bored…

We are a whole planet careering toward burn-out.

Have you ever seen the 1982 movie, Koyaanisqatsi? I’d mentioned this film to my colleagues at Starbucks that night too. Directed by Godfrey Reggio with cinematography by Ron Fricke, the film is a time-lapse rushing flow of cities and natural landscapes to the hypnotic music of minimalist composer Philip Glass. The visual tone poem uses no dialogue or narration to depict our relationship with nature and technology. Its compelling imagery and hypnotic score portrays a frantic society on the move. And on the brink.

The word Koyaanisqatsi means 'life of moral corruption and turmoil, life out of balance' in the Hopi language; and the film implies that modern humanity is living that way.

A similar film, Baraka (1992) directed by Ron Fricke, evokes sensual emotion through similar time-lapse footage of various landscapes, churches, ruins, religious ceremonies, and cities thrumming with life. Using a rich and evocative score by Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard, the film (which again contains no dialogue) captures the flowing imagery of a pulsing humanity as it flocks and swarms like a self-organized organism in daily activity (Wikipedia).

The film features a number of long tracking shots through various settings, including one through former concentration camps at Auschwitz (in Nazi-occupied Poland) and Tuol Sleng (in Cambodia), over photos of victims, skulls stacked in a room, to a spread of bones.

Baraka searches for a universal cultural perspective: for instance, a shot of an elaborate tattoo on a bathing Japanese yakuza mobster is followed by one of Native Australian tribal paint. The word Baraka means blessing in many different languages and this movie seems to me to indeed portray us more hopefully.

It's all a balance, isn't it?

In a previous post of mine, entitled Sacred Balance, I muse on this often elusive state: "We all knowingly or unknowingly strive for balance in our daily lives—that sacred but sometimes messy place where yin and yang joyfully collide: a place and time where the heavenward strain for perfection is tempered with the ponderous scent of soil and dirt… where dark and light blend in a chiaroscuro of infinite possibility…We strive for balance because it is wholeness—the mandala—and wholeness brings us peace, joy and understanding. So, why do so few of us achieve it? I think that is because, ironically, balance incorporates paradox, which is difficult for us to embrace. Balance is complex; it requires creativity, innovation, and an open mind. Because balance is always shifting and redefining itself."

Well, tomorrow I intend to heed my clarion call and get out for a nice long walk in the fresh air…After I do my Chapters signing, that is…

By the way, my friend is okay. Thankfully.