Voluntary Footprint Cuts: Because Waiting for New Laws is Like Playing Russian Roulette and Occasionally Adding Bullets

I’m a manic advocate of voluntary personal emissions cuts. I keep my emissions low (farts notwithstanding) and try to convince others to do the same, often fruitlessly. Among the counter-arguments I hear, a common one is that individual change is meaningless, and that what’s needed are new laws that discourage carbon emissions. Well, maybe. But consider this:

Whether we change voluntarily or in response to law, our individual behaviors must change, because they’re a big part of the problem. So the real question is: would you rather change voluntarily or in response to legislation?

Consider driving. Ask yourself: what law would convince you to drive, say, half as much as you do, and would you like living under it? How high would a gas tax have to be to force you to reduce your driving by half? You might not like it. It also might ruin the lives of many who now live in poverty1

Compared to that, voluntary change looks good, if we can convince ourselves to do it. We’re not there yet. But we may be closer to that than we are to passing a suitably high gas tax, because have you seen congress lately?

So if you don’t like taxes, start driving less right now and try to convince everyone you know to do the same. Insulate your house and turn down the heat. Buy less stuff. Monitor your carbon footprint. Etc. Because sooner or later, probably following a crisis like soaring food prices, this is going to get real, and if we haven’t changed by then, painful laws will force us to. Don’t get me wrong, those laws will suck less than being obliterated by runaway climate change (if it’s still avoidable), but they’ll suck nonetheless.

You might argue (again, taking cars as an example), that we wouldn’t have to change our personal habits if there were laws mandating higher fuel efficiency, or mandating a transition to electric cars. The argument is wrong, because:

  1. The technology doesn’t exist to make fuel efficiency as high as it needs to be, given our present driving habits, and we don’t have time to wait around for it to develop.
  2. Electric cars aren’t clean. The electricity still comes from power plants, most of which still burn coal. There is no fast way to change our coal-based energy infrastructure. Or at least, not nearly as fast as just using less of it, which we can do today if we decide to.

This isn’t to say that mandates aren’t needed. They are. But they’re not enough and they’re not fast enough. We can change our habits this instant, and we should because waiting is like playing Russian Roulette and occasionally adding bullets.

You might also argue that widespread voluntary change is just impossible: not enough of us are willing. You may be right. But let’s also remember that it’s happened before. Spanking children was once far more common than it is now. Same with foot binding in China. These things changed because one by one, individuals changed and urged others to change, often as a matter of honor. In fact it often happens that voluntary, individual changes pave the way for changes in law. Personal actions aren’t just personal. Culture precedes Law.

And it’s not hard. A lot of us have it in our heads that if we drive less, for example, life will be drained of vitality and we’ll end up lifeless husks, quivering in our bedrooms. My experience driving less suggests not. Not only has driving less not hurt my life, it’s made it better. I spend less time sequestered inside my little box on wheels and more time out in the world, more time jetting around on my bike in fresh air, more time hanging out with neighbors, more time living the good life, to say nothing of the thousands of dollars I’ve saved. It baffles me that more people don’t understand how awesome it is to drive less2

I use driving as an example, but everything I’ve said applies to other areas of our lives as well.  Home efficiency, our buying habits, and so on.

I don’t have a snappy conclusion for this post. My cleverness peters out quickly. Just: please consider changing your life if you’re not doing so already.

-From the Sea

1There are gas tax proposals which may protect the poor, like the fee-and-dividend system, but there’s no certainty that this is the tax system we would actually get. It’s easy to see how such proposals might smack of the dreaded “socialism” to a certain block of law-makers, rendering them non-starters.

2Ok, I understand why those living way out in the exurbs or rural areas have less to gain from reduced driving. My argument is mainly for the hordes of city- and near-burb-dwellers who think they need cars but don’t.

Posted March 03, 2011 in Random Thoughts | No Comments on Voluntary Footprint Cuts: Because Waiting for New Laws is Like Playing Russian Roulette and Occasionally Adding Bullets


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