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We Can't Do It Ourselves

How to live a more sustainable life? By placing responsibility squarely on the individual, attention is deflected away from the many institutions involved in structuring possible courses of action.

Illustration by Diego Marmolejo.
Illustration by Diego Marmolejo.
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How to live a more sustainable life? This question generates a lot of debate that is focused on what individuals can do in order to address problems like climate change. For example, people are encouraged to shop locally, to buy organic food, to install home insulation, or to cycle more often.

But how effective is individual action when it is systemic social change that is needed? Individuals do make choices, but these are facilitated and constrained by the society in which they live. Therefore, it may be more useful to question the system that requires many of us to travel and consume energy as we do.

Climate Change Policies

Policies to address climate change and other environmental problems are threefold: decarbonisation policies (encouraging renewable energy sources, electric cars, heat pumps), energy efficiency policies (decreasing energy input/output ratio of appliances, vehicles, buildings), and behavioural change policies (encouraging people to consume and behave more sustainably, for instance by adopting the technologies promoted by the two other policies).

The first two strategies aim to make existing patterns of consumption less resource-intensive through technical innovation alone. These policies ignore related processes of social change, which perhaps explains why they have not led to a significant decrease in energy demand or CO2-emissions. Advances in energy efficiency have not resulted in lower energy demand, because they don’t address new and more resource-intensive consumption patterns that often emerge from more energy efficient technologies. 1 2

Likewise, renewable energy sources have not led to a decarbonisation of the energy infrastructure, because (total and per capita) energy demand is increasing faster than renewable energy sources are added. 3

Consequently, the only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to focus more on social change. Energy efficiency and decarbonisation policies need to be combined with “social innovation” if we want energy use and carbon emissions to go down. This is where behavioural change policies come in. The third pillar of climate change policy tries to steer consumer choices and behaviours in a more sustainable direction.

Behavioural Change Policies

Instruments and policy packages designed to achieve behaviour change vary greatly, but most can be categorised either as “carrots, sticks, or sermons”. 4 They can be economic incentives (such as grants for “green” products, energy taxes, soft loans), standards and regulations (such as building codes or vehicle emission standards), or the provisioning of information (more detailed energy bills, smart meters, awareness campaigns).

Example of a behavioural change campaign.
Example of a behavioural change campaign.
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All these policy instruments are focused on what are thought to be the determinants of individual behaviours. 5 6 7 8 9 They assume that either individuals take rational decisions based on product price and information (the homo economicus model), or that behaviours are the outcomes of beliefs, attitudes and values (various value-belief models). According to these dominant social theories, people engage in pro-environmental behaviour for self-interested reasons (because it is enjoyable or saves money), or for normative reasons (because they think it’s the right thing to do).

Behavioural change policies assume that either individuals take rational decisions based on product price and information, or that behaviours are the outcomes of beliefs, attitudes and values

However, many pro-environmental actions involve a conflict between self-interested and normative reasons. Pro-environmental behaviour is often considered to be less profitable, less pleasurable, and/or more time-consuming. Consequently, people need to make an effort to benefit the environment, and this is why, according to behavioural change researchers, pro-environmental values and attitudes are not necessarily matched by individuals’ behaviours — a phenomenon they call the “value-action gap”.

To close this gap, two strategies are proposed. The first is to make normative goals more compatible with self-interested goals, either by decreasing the costs of pro-environmental actions, or by increasing the costs of harmful actions. The second strategy is to strengthen normative goals, in the hope that people will engage in pro-environmental behaviour even if it is more expensive or effortful. This is usually pursued through awareness campaigns.

Individual Choice

However, the results of behavioural change policies have been disappointing so far. Two decades of climate-change related awareness campaigns have not decreased energy demand and carbon emissions in a significant way. The reason for this limited success is that existing attempts to change behaviour rest on a very narrow view of the social world. 10

Behavioural change policies are based on the widespread agreement that what people do is in essence a matter of individual choice. 4 11 12 For example, whether people pick one mode of travel or another, is positioned as a matter of personal preference. 4 It follows that agency (the power to change) and responsibility for energy demand, consumption, and climate change are ultimately thought to lie within individual persons.

It is this concept of choice that lies behind strategies of intervention (persuasion, pricing, advice). Given better information or more appropriate incentives, “badly behaving” individuals are expected to change their minds and choose to adopt pro-environmental behaviours. 11

The fact that most people do eat meat, do drive cars, and are connected to the electric grid is not simply an isolated matter of choice. People are often locked into unsustainable lifestyles.

Obviously, individuals do make choices about what they do and some of these are based on values and attitudes. For example, some people don’t eat meat, while others don’t drive cars, and still others live entirely off-the-grid. However, the fact that most people do eat meat, do drive cars, and are connected to the electric grid is not simply an isolated matter of choice. Individuals do not exist in a vacuum. What people do is also conditioned, facilitated and constrained by societal norms, political institutions, public policies, infrastructures, technologies, markets and culture. 10 13 14

The Limits of Individual Choice

As individuals, we may have degrees of choice, but our autonomy is always limited. 13 14 For example, we can buy a more energy efficient car, but we can’t provide our own cycling infrastructure, or make car drivers respect cyclists. The Dutch and the Danish cycle a lot more than people in other industrialised nations, but that’s not because they are more environmentally conscious. Rather, they cycle in part because there’s an excellent infrastructure of dedicated cycle lanes and parking spaces, because it is socially acceptable to be seen on a bike, even in office wear, and because car drivers have the skills and culture to deal with cyclists.

For example, Dutch drivers are taught that when they get out of the car, they should reach for the door handle using their right hand — forcing them to turn around so that they can see if there is a cyclist coming from behind. Furthermore, in case of an accident between a car driver and a cyclist, the car driver is always considered responsible, even if the cyclist made a mistake. Obviously, an individual in the UK or the US can decide to go cycling without this supporting infrastructure, culture, and legal framework, but it is less likely that large numbers of people will follow their example.

Bicycle parking in Ghent, Belgium.
Bicycle parking in Ghent, Belgium.
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People in industrialised countries are often locked into unsustainable lifestyles, whether they like it or not. Without a smartphone and always-on internet, for example, it is becoming difficult to take part in modern society, as more and more daily chores depend on these technologies. Once the connected smartphone is established as a ‘necessity’, an individual can still choose to buy an energy efficient device, but he or she can’t do anything about the fact that it will probably stop working after three years, and that it cannot be repaired.

Neither do have individuals the power to change the ever increasing bit rates on the internet, which systematically add to the energy use in data centers and network infrastructure because content providers keep “innovating”. 15 An individual can try to consume as little as possible, but he or she shouldn’t expect too much help because the dominant economic system requires growth in order to survive.

Blaming Each Other

In sum, individuals can make pro-environmental choices based on attitudes and values, and they may inspire others to do the same, but there are so many other things involved that focusing on changing individual “behaviour” seems to miss the point. 4 Trying to persuade people to live sustainably through individual behaviour change programmes will not address the larger and more significant structures and ideas that facilitate and limit their options.

In fact, by placing responsibility — and guilt — squarely on the individuals, attention is deflected away from the many institutions involved in structuring possible courses of action, and in making some very much more likely than others. 11 The discourse of sustainable “behaviour” holds consumers collectively responsible for political and economic decisions, rather than politicians and economic actors themselves.

By placing responsibility — and guilt — squarely on the individuals, attention is deflected away from the many institutions involved in structuring possible courses of action.

This makes pro-environmental “behaviour” policies rather divisive — it is the other individuals (for example meat eaters or car drivers) who are at fault for failing to consume or behave in line with particular values, rather than politicians, institutions and providers which enable unsustainable food and transport systems to develop and thrive.

As this example makes clear, individual behaviour change is not just a theoretical position, it is also a political position. Focusing on individual responsibility is in line with neoliberalism and often serves to suppress a systemic critique of political, economic and technological arrangements. 4 10 11

Beyond Individual Behaviour

If significant societal transformations are required, it makes more sense to decenter individuals from the analysis and look at the whole picture. Other approaches in social theory suggest that rather than being the expression of an individual’s values and attitudes, individual behaviour is in fact the observable expression of the social world, including socially shared tastes and meanings, knowledge and skills, and technology, infrastructure and institutions. As such, behaviour is just the “tip of the iceberg”, and the effects of intervening in behaviour are limited accordingly.

A much better target for sustainability is the socially embedded underpinning of behaviour — the larger part of the iceberg that is under water. 13 This might entail focusing not on individuals and choices but on the social organisation of everyday practices such as cooking, washing, shopping, or playing sports. How people perform these practices depends not only on individual choice, but also on the material, social and cultural context. 1013

Illustration by Diego Marmolejo.
Illustration by Diego Marmolejo.
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For example, the practice of car driving requires “stuff” (cars, roads, parking spaces, gasoline stations, oil refineries), competences (driving skills, knowledge of traffic rules), and meanings (ideas of freedom, car driving is the “normal” thing to do, not having a car means you have failed in life). It makes little sense trying to convince people to drive less (or not drive at all) when these systemic issues are overlooked.

If social practices are taken to be the core units of analysis, rather than the individuals who perform them, it becomes possible to analyse and steer social change in a much more meaningful way. 10 13 By shifting the focus away from individual choice, it becomes clear that individual behaviour change policies only represent incremental, minimal or marginal shifts at the level of a practice. At the same time, it reveals the extent to which state and other actors configure daily life.

By shifting the focus away from individual choice, it becomes clear that individual behaviour change policies only represent incremental, minimal or marginal shifts at the level of a practice.

For example, the idea that a car equals personal freedom is a recurrent theme in car advertisements, which are much more numerous than campaigns to promote cycling. And because different modes of transport compete for the same roadspace, it is governments and local authorities that decide which forms get priority depending on the infrastructures they build.

When the focus is on practices, the so-called “value-action gap” can no longer be interpreted as evidence of individual ethical shortcomings or individual inertia. Rather, the gap between people’s attitudes and their “behaviour” is due to systemic issues: individuals live in a society that makes many pro-environmental arrangements rather unlikely.

The New Normal

In conclusion, although individual behavioural change policies purport to address social and not just technological change, they do so in a very limited way. As a result, they have exactly the same shortcomings as the other strategies, which are focused on efficiency and innovation. 2 Like energy efficiency and decarbonisation policies, behaviour change policies don’t challenge unsustainable social conventions or infrastructures.

They don’t consider wider-ranging system level changes which would radically transform the way we live — and that could potentially achieve much more significant reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, recycling garbage does not question the production of waste in the first place, and even legitimizes it. By diverting attention away from systemic issues that drive energy demand, behavioural change policies frequently reinforce the status quo. 11 12 13

In contrast to policies aimed at individuals, policies that frame sustainability as a systemic, institutional challenge can bring about the many forms of innovation that are needed to address problems like climate change. Relevant societal innovation is that in which contemporary rules of the game are eroded, in which the status quo is called into question, and in which more sustainable practices take hold across all domains of daily life. 11

A systemic approach to sustainability encourages us to imagine what the “new normal” of everyday sustainability might look like.

Social change is about transforming what counts as “normal” — as in smoke-free pubs or wearing seat belts. We only need to look back a few decades to see that practices are constantly and often radically changing. A systemic approach to sustainability encourages us to imagine what the “new normal” of everyday sustainability might look like. 13 A sustainability policy that focuses on systemic issues reframes the question from “how do we change individuals’ behaviours so that they are more sustainable?” to “how do we change the way society works?”. This leads to very different kinds of interventions.

Addressing the sociotechnical underpinnings of “behaviour” involves attempting to create new infrastructures and institutions that facilitate sustainable lifestyles, attempting to shift cultural conventions that underpin different activities, and attempting to encourage new competences that are required to perform new ways of doing things. As a result of these changes, what we think of as individual “behaviours” will also change.

This article was written for the UK’s Demand Centre.


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Joshua Spodek

Social changes having happened in my lifetime such as wearing seat belts and public smoking tell me it’s possible here. I created the Leadership and the Environment podcast to help with the third pillar in a way you didn’t mention (still supporting the other pillars).

Changing the behavior of people on the scale of nations and the planet means leadership. I believe a leverage point of systems of environmental behavior is the behavior of existing leaders – that is, people skilled and experienced at leading others. They’re generally not scientists, professors, and legislators, but people who lead businesses, celebrities, athletes, performers, and such. Think Oprah, LeBron, Elon, and others that hundreds of millions of people know and follow.

If they don’t change, people who feel “I want to change but if others don’t, my change won’t matter” will keep feeling that way since their roles models aren’t changing. That is, Google may make itself carbon neutral, but if Google’s 3 Top Executives Have 8 Private Jets (see, people will aspire to be like them.

One of my goals is to lead leaders at leverage points to change, to help people start to feel, “Sergey and Larry [or whoever] changed. I can too.” They may feel meaning, purpose, and community replace guilt.

Then people may change their behavior, support legislation as you described above, and so on – that is, cultural change.

This is the tip of the iceberg of the podcast and its goals. More than followers, I hope to find more leaders to create podcasts to reach audiences I don’t with leaders in other areas: Leadership and the Environment [X], where X can be Europe, Africa, Silicon Valley, Elderly, Younger, Women, etc.

I don’t mean to promote, but I believe this is a useful approach, just starting, and that listening will reveal more than I can describe here.


" And as for Alain’s suggestion that a one child policy is a good idea, check the Chinese, who have been doing it for about forty years. Forced sterilizations, forced abortions…and they are abandoning it because their population pyramid is now upside down. Not to mention thirty or forty million excess males. But no problem there either. They can be disposed of in the next war. "

Hello Janet,

Hope you are well. A one child policy is the ONLY approach that will get us out of this sustainability issue. All the rest is “fucking around” the core issue.

Every WEEK, 1 500 001 new kids are born on the ONLY home we have (EARTH). What do you propose to do, to stop the ongoing destruction of our ONLY world, knowing what each person requires on a yearly basis to stay alive, and knowing we can’t ship them off to Mars or Venus, so we are stuck on Earth all together, with FINITE resources to cater to a constantly growing pile of very hungry folks, that are constantly bombarded with buy this do that messages, to keep the consumerism programs and system in place, coz the current system can’t deal with a complete economic collapse ?

All stop breathing for the next 20 minutes ?

I personally am old enough to not worry about that end scenario, and given that I haven’t any kids on my own (officially), my slate is “clean”.

Before you “fight” back, know that I am a white male European that was born and grew up in Black Africa, saw there back then what a 15 million people “town” means, and I am now living in Europe (not in a big city), drive a small 16 years old diesel VW golf with only 150 000 km on the dashboard, coz I use my bike and my legs a lot to shop around nearby. I paid to get solar PV panels put on my home roof, supplying my very well insulated home with sun generated electricity since 2011, paid for a 10 000 Liters (4000 Gallon) buried rain water storage tank, has also a water well, both used constantly, to reduce city water use to the max, no need to flush toilets and do your laundry, and spray the vegetables with city water, huh . . .

I now eat 100% vegetarian coz of cholesterol health issues in the past, meat also requires 7x the energy to be grown compared to a similar protein intake sourced from plants, per equal protein weight unit. Yes, I can understand you crave your hamburgers. Me too, but they were killing me slowly but surely. That’s why I switched to nuts, olive oil and other fat containing but healthy food items. Lost 25kg / 50 pound in excess body fat in the process, and my heart beat went from over 70 to under 60 beat per minute, while my shopping bill decreased nicely too.

As far as the Chinese are concerned, well their poly-tic-ians did more to save our earth than whatever other nationality poly-tic will ever do. How they did it is very very open for discussion, but what can you expect from a top to bottom ruling system, that didn’t supply any birth control pills to their ladies, coz it were all males on the top who did take the decisions, and they were only concerned with avoiding yet another revolution or famine, hence the birth controls using “any” blunt means available …

And with this I will end my reply additions to this blog comment section, coz I won’t be able to do more than swipe before my door, try to think for myself instead of swallowing whatever message is issued by the system programs, through all the media channels we are constantly exposed to.

Having done as much as I can already within my very limited means, this is the end of the subject as far as I am concerned. I wish you a good buy, Janet.

Kind regards,


Janet Wilkie

I subscribed to Low Tech Magazine to get ideas for self sufficiency, and for intellectual stimulation. Up until now, this worked very well.

Totalitarian life control based on the most currect, and endlessly mallleable, ideas is not what I signed up for.

Most of the ideas seem to come from people who live in the cities. No cars? How will the tens of thousands of people who live in my semi-rural location get to work? No meat? Check your ancestry. But one size fits every cultural, regional and genetic situation, so no problem.

And as for Alain’s suggestion that a one child policy is a good idea, check the Chinese, who have been doing it for about forty years. Forced sterilizations, forced abortions…and they are abandoning it because their population pyramid is now upside down. Not to mention thirty or forty million excess males. But no problem there either. They can be disposed of in the next war.

I am extremely disappointed in your view that what we need is even more government control of our personal lives. Have you not noticed that government is generally against low tech, off-grid solutions?

Elaine Codling

Very interesting. Systemic change is forbidden ground. The focus is on the individual so that ’the system’ (and the political and economic elites that profit from it) gets a free pass.

There are very good proposals such as David Flemming’s Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) that incentivize reduced consumption across the board without dictating behaviour or limiting creativity (Lean Logic Chelsea Green 2016). TEQs ration energy based on average consumption and can be bought and sold. Those who use less energy can profit from their excess quota. Energy quotas are reduced annually in a targeted reduction plan that can be staged to speed up as change happens.

The system is elegant, egalitarian, and simple but then that might be the problem.

Keith H. Burgess

Excellent post, thank you. Society needs to change in more ways than one to solve the problems we have, having a totally corrupt to the core government makes this almost impossible.

Regards, Keith.



Perhaps this article should have been subtitled “no man is an island”.

An interesting example of the limits of individual action compared to Government action is the UK (actually just in England. Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland had already changed their laws) ban on free plastic carrier bags in shops. For many years people have campaigned against free carrier bags & encouraged people to take their own bags to the supermarket. I’ve done this myself for over 20 years. A certain amount of change was achieved but what really changed things was a recent change in English law whereby 5p had to be charged for bags.

The number of carrier bags used has plummeted. Bad news for bag producers but good news for the environment.

I think its reasonable to argue that individual action along with the changes implemented by the Scottish & Welsh devolved administrations proved that the sky wouldn’t fall in if people re-used carrier bags & so helped build the argument.

As a historical note bags used to be charged for (5p in the 1970s) until sometime in the 1980s I think when technology improved and bags could be made from thinner material.

John Mawhorter

I guess I’m saying I agree entirely with your point, but that there is a next step to the argument that is super important and many environmentalists seem to overlook. Systemic change requires massive political upheaval and violence if it’s going to happen fast enough to matter. As for Janet, obviously the current government is against decarbonization because it’s supported by the oil industry and other large corporations hugely invested in our current infrastructure and the status quo… but how do you expect to regulate and transform our massive energy infrastructure without government… it’s not about us vs. them, us being the goody two shoes liberals who drive Priuses and them being those dirty rednecks who drive trucks, most of the carbon as Alain points out comes from industrial transport, manufacture, power generation etc. not from me or you deciding to bike to work (I would point out that in line with the whole point of the article, it is due to a whole century of investment in car-based (ie gasoline based) urban planning and transportation infrastructure development, most Americans even in cities don’t have the option of forgoing a car to commute). Don’t even get me started on the Great Streetcar Conspiracy (one of the few widely-recognized conspiracies that actually happened and is accepted as true by the courts and historians), where Standard Oil, GM and others bought up all the streetcar lines and let them fail so they could replace them with buses instead. None of these important decisions are made by individuals, the challenge of global warming is a collective challenge that requires collective solutions. If the word collective scares you that’s probably a symptom of US culture and education’s emphasis on the individual, which is exactly the problem. Also Joshua, name a famous celebrity who started wearing his seatbelt or not smoking that really caused the cultural acceptance of seatbelts and disdain for public smoking… I can’t think of one. Enlisting celebrities to help with changing public opinion is all well and good, but you are falling into the exact same individualist trap as the rest. Cigarette taxes, the association of poverty and smoking, and a whole lot of government effort went into making that happen, seatbelts wasn’t just laws but auto regulation, people actually realizing they help safety, etc.

Joshua Kaufmann

I wholeheartedly agree with (3), Janet Wilkie,

Localism, direct-democracy local government and low-tech, self-sufficient communities that form local, sustainable economies are the answer to the problem, not more government control and ‘green’ taxes slapped on by people who haven’t got the foggiest when it comes to even the basics of engineering and chemistry.

The promotion of one-child policies in the comments of a low-tech blog surprises me greatly. You do realize that the government is the first to embrace new technology in its ever-growing search for more areas of life to tax and control? License-plate scanning camera’s, CCTV all around English cities, electronic voting … You name it, the government wants it or already has it.

Brian Young

I agree that individual actions are not enough to avert disaster - that approach inevitably means too little too late. We know that human population coupled with runaway capitalism/consumerism looks pretty well unstoppable or would take strife-filled decades to turn around.

Basically there are just too many people heedlessly pursuing what seemed like a good idea once upon a time.

This is also a problem that can’t fully be addressed by government policy, regulation, social engineering or changes in attitude (“nudging” via incentives is one of the approaches often discussed).

Even under the most dictatorial kind of world government, slowing the advance of global warming would require a Stalinesque imposition of austerity where humanity would be reduced to lives of minimal activity and impact. Wonder how that would work out?

I think we’re looking at the problem from the wrong perspective.

WE are the problem.

The dreadful corollary is that we can’t of our own volition and action “solve” US.

The Chinese had an inkling of this when they imposed the one child policy 40 years ago - with its unintended consequences. If we had started the much vaster and more unthinkable project of dealing with our wasteful lifestyle back then, we might not be in such a pickle today, but I doubt the situation would be much less severe.

Global warming as measured by atmospheric CO2 has been building for centuries and accelerating exponentially in the last 30 years. The elastic nature of the change will mean it will continue and worsen for decades or centuries to come, even if we could stop our GHG emissions tomorrow. (Don’t forget that about 1/4 of the CO2 load on the planet over the last decade has been absorbed by the oceans. They have a finite capacity to deal with this rapid increase and have suffered greatly from it. Think food chain, if dying coral reefs don’t touch you.)

In short the problem for life on our planet isn’t global warming.

The problem is us.

Human population has doubled since 1970.

The “solution” to the “problem of us” is already in gear and it’s not a pretty one.

The solution is global warming itself.

And we know that will not have the same impact on everyone everywhere, but all of us will suffer.

So, of course we must continue to aggressively seek out and engage in the many solutions that human ingenuity, science and society, and just plain luck come up with: conversion to solar and other sources of renewable energy, changes in personal transportation, living locally and, dare I say, modestly, investing in the commons, respect for human rights, supporting those most severely affected by droughts, floods, food scarcity, etc., etc. It might even be that we can slow down the rate of change wrought by our accustomed lifestyle and the global economy - a least we can convince ourselves that this is possible.

And yet as time passes, the harshest of the conditions we experience this year will seem mild in retrospect. The increased stresses, deprivations and outright disasters are going to happen to more and more areas of the planet. And so, it is how we react to these changes that will be a test of our character, our mettle, our humanity. We need to prepare ourselves to face worsening conditions not competitively but with compassion for each other and most importantly with plans for sustaining what remains of life on our planet.

The alternative is too dreadful to contemplate.


What is wrong with eating meat? We have been eating it for millennia and it is sustainable assuming it is a pastured meat, not a factory one. Ruminants make soil and when pastured lead to CO2 sequestration in the soil.

Migrant Worker

Janet Wilkie, most ideas come from people who live in the cities simply because most people actually live in the cities. There is no need to be upset about mathematics.

Also, if there are no solutions for rural problems then surely you can get rich by providing one, eh? ;)

Göran Rudbäck


the climate scare for ruminant meat is due to a mixup of the concepts of “addings” and emissions. In a continuous production of ruminant meat, there are no Carbon Equivalents. CE’s are, due to the construction of the concept of Radiative Forcing, and therefore Global Warming Potential, only applicable to what is added, that is, increases of the amount of the GHG in question in a more or less permanent way. The methane from a constant sized, continuous production of ruminant meat - or swamps for that matter - does not give an increase the amount of atmospheric methane on a yearly basis, because of the atmospheric short lifetime of methane and the continouity of the meat production. A one-off increase of meat production will yield an increase of methane emissions, and that increase is measurable in CE’s for some decades, but not the emissions as a whole.

Of course you can convert the emissions of ruminant methane to Carbon Equivalents, but that figure will have nothing to do with the actual climate effect of ruminants. So, the demonization of ruminant meat is due to a flawed use of Carbon Equivalents, not its actual climate effect.


Re: overpopulation

When we don’t address this issue, those of us who push our lifestyles very far down the resource ladder are just creating a resource niche that will be filled by another human. An eventual climate refugee, perhaps, banging on the door of our peaceful low-tech communities. What do we do then?

We may not like government meddling in such a sensitive area, but honestly when your options are waiting for everyone to take the high road or waiting for half the human population to be wiped out by war or some kind of environmental catastrophe, how good are those “choices”?


I am going to echo some of Janet Wilkie’s points above.

Central planning by green technocrats sounds about as likely to succeed as every other authoritarian good intentions scheme that’s been tried over the past couple of centuries, that is, there’s zero chance.

It’s an enduring delusion that government and politicians or other similar institutions and people are going to carry out your good intentions. “No we just need ~good~ politicians in charge.” Then, “Oh crap. They’re crooks” Again and again.

Israel Walker

Fossil fuel consumption currently kills about 16 million people a year.

Please explain to me why this central planning of a small number of energy company CEO, so that they can have more money, is better than central planning by a small number of government officials so that humanity can live longer and with less suffering?


“They don’t consider wider-ranging system level changes which would radically transform the way we live – and that could potentially achieve much more significant reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Who is they? They wouldn’t happen to be individuals, would they?

Larry Smith

“Behavioral change” is just sugar-coated fascism. It’s high time you admitted that global warming, never more than a minor statistical anomaly, has now been proven to be all but unconnected to CO2, the global warming models have failed to predict ANYTHING right since they started over a quarter century ago, and you have created large fake industries for solar, wind, electric car, climate “studies”, professorships in global warming and hundreds of thousands of True Believers who have been outed as fudging your collected data, everything from out and out fraud at the UNCC, to NOAA disappearing low temperature records from their database, to unexplained and undocumented “adjustments” to raw data creating a heating bias not shown in collected data and which is never explained, to leaving temperature recording equipment in circumstance KNOWN TO CAUSE HIGH READINGS. Your narrative is shot, people know and THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR CLIMATE WORRIES ANY MORE! At least, not for anything but an excuse for socialism, as the UN admitted.


As demonstrated already by comments, these are some of the most contentious and difficult ideas to work with. I think this is at root not just the “rights and responsibilities” or “individual freedom / social cohesion” questions but because it confronts our (strongly held) ideas of what “we” and “I” actually are - and everyone has a viewpoint on this (“how could anyone else know better than me / us?”). The comments have already covered a few of these (“people need leaders”, “you’re part of the Matrix”, “rules lead to totalitarianism”, “government is essentially crooked”, “we need a revolution”… or the slightly more neutral “no man is an island”.

Gently closing that (enormous) Pandora’s box, the following thoughts on achieving change - in the smaller, more limited context of cycling for transportation, in the UK - might be of interest:

“So you want to change the world?” -

Don’t blame individuals, look at the system -

It’s interesting to note that in the context where the most dramatic change in this field has occurred (The Netherlands) there appear to be a range of “causes” or reasons for the change. These include the initial state e.g. historic / existing environmental factors (original high cycling use, terrain and population density - although these have sometimes been overstated), “impersonal” factors (oil crisis), social (characteristics of the society and social movements) and “personal” (e.g. campaigns or changes driven by individuals).

It’s also maybe salutory to note that to go with their high use of bicycles (for an industrialised 1st world nation) the Dutch also still make heavy use of motorised transport. The car hasn’t disappeared at all - they just tend to do more small errands and shorter trips by bike. (Plus of course children, old people and the disabled now have “bikes” or low-powered transport as an option for independent travel). This can be seen in the graphs of transport “modal share” e.g. at:

Israel Walker

I would like to add something, to perhaps further close the box.

All organizations use force against their own members and those outside the organization, it is there nature: businesses, churches, the Red Cross, nation-states, revolutionary parties, websites etc. It is impossible to run an organization without some force over others.

Force is amoral: it can be used to help or harm. When the United States legalized inter-racial marriage, for instance, most Americans opposed it. When it desegregated schools it could only do so by defacto invasion, marching federal troops into the state of Arkansas to overcome the Arkansas Guard. Elitist, anti-democratic action and credible threat of military force was, in those cases used for good. American history also provides many examples of anti-democratic and military action being used for harm as well.

Government force is force, but let us not forget that market force is force as well. Organizations apply force, and force is credible threat of harm. Without a doubt, a socialist system would cause harm. Equally without a doubt, the existing capitalist systems we have ALSO cause harm. The question is not one of harmful vs harmless, because all organizations, even ones which do good, must do some harm, even only to the enemies of good. The question is “What system provides the most benefit for the least harm?”

The goal of capitalism is the pursuit of profit. The goal of communism is “From each according to ability, to each according to his need”. That goal is inherently less wasteful than profit for all. Without a doubt, the Leninist/Stalinist and Maoist system caused harm. But without a doubt the capitalist system has caused (and continues to cause) harm.

For the first several thousand years of human history, constructing flying machines only resulted in harm. As late as the 1950’s flying machines probably killed more people than they helped, but with time, practice, and improvement, they began to help humanity in the form of weather information, ambulances, forest fire prevention, the Berlin Air Lift, etc. Capitalism has be continuously improved and intensified over a multiple centuries. Socialism-towards-communism has been tried in a small minority of countries, for less than a single century. It is so absurd to believe that Russia and China are to a better social system what Icarus and Lileinthal were to human flight?


People in rural or distant areas, can always choose to move nearer work.

Why should their choice of lifestyle be subsidised? EVs male a lot of sense for replacing tractors and the like as well as for the occasional person who really does need to serve multiple sites.. However countries with extensive transport systems serve their rural areas as well as their cities. Buses can work well of their is limited other traffic.

Malcolm Drake

Do both. Demand changes from The Machine, but it’s hypocritical not to participate and n. Personal level. A good start? In some states, you can get a solar electric (PV) system with low or zero interest loans, and you’ll be MAKING money from day one.

Here in Oregon, my most recent system paid itself off in a mere five years, after which it’s been about $400 per year pur profit.

I’ve got two, 3000 Watt syst ms, the first being almost 20 years. Maintenance costs, so far? ZERO!


One of my favorite articles of all time is by an economist, Charles Hugh Smith, “The Source of Failure: We Optimize What We Measure” Quote from the article “Our failure stems from a much deeper problem: we optimize what we measure. If we measure the wrong things, and focus on measuring process rather than outcome, we end up with precisely what we have now: a set of perverse incentives that encourage self-destructive behaviors and policies.”

If we are answering the wrong questions, we cannot possibly get anything but the wrong answers. If we are asking things like “How much money do we make?” then we will get very different information than we if ask “How happy are we in our lives?”

Quote from this article that made me write this is: “A sustainability policy that focuses on systemic issues reframes the question from “how do we change individuals’ behaviours so that they are more sustainable?” to “how do we change the way society works?”. This leads to very different kinds of interventions.”

We need to learn to ask better questions, and part of that is we need to start measuring very different things in our lives.

If it were up to me, one of the things we would question/measure is “How much did I learn today?” That one question would change the world.

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