We can’t buy our way out of climate change

Let’s not be under any illusion that cutting our personal energy consumption — no matter how noble — is going to slow the actual pace of global warming. Our individual lifestyle changes will be more symbolic than substantive. 

–Paula Simons, Calgary Herald, You probably won’t love the new carbon levy. And that’s OK, December 26, 2016.


There are a couple of things wrong with this statement. First, personal energy consumption is not limited to the cars we drive or how we heat, cool and power our homes. Personal energy consumption includes the energy costs to produce virtually everything we lay our hands on: food, furniture, clothing, housing, gadgets, you name it. Unfortunately, these connections are rarely made in the media when energy conservation is discussed, as though the energy it took to produce your DVD player or your favourite pair of socks simply didn’t exist.

The second thing wrong with Simons’ statement is that if real energy consumption changes were made, they would not be merely symbolic; if one actually counted up all the ways in which we consume energy, individual lifestyle changes would be very substantive.

So let’s cut the crap. The Earth doesn’t care about us; it’ll continue to roll through the universe, with or without us. Yes, we are screwing around with its atmosphere, but Earth is not a the-tickhuman being, so stop anthropomorphizing it like it was some Greek goddess. There is, however, a very good reason to give a rat’s ass about it and that’s because, to paraphrase The Tick, the Earth is where we keep all our stuff.

Take a look at all the stuff in your house. Where was it made? How was it made? Does the country of manufacture have sufficient laws to protect against slave wages, poverty, environmental degradation, etc.? Chances are that a good chunk of your stuff was not made in your own city or even in Canada. Inspect the edibles in your kitchen. How many thousands of kilometres did that banana travel? That bunch of spinach? That tin of salmon. All that stuff represents energy consumption.

Now, as you paw through your stuff, ask yourself: Did I really need it? Or did I want it in the moment? Did I pay for it on a credit card at 19% interest?

See the trouble isn’t that there is global warming. There is and we have to deal with it. Given our history, climate change was inevitable. We humans are a rapacious bunch and can’t ever seem to leave well enough alone. Individually, we are pretty darned smart; collectively, we are so amazingly stupid at times that it defies explanation.

The real problem is that we want too much. I am not suggesting for one minute that we should stop buying anything or that we should only buy local. We live in Canada; if we could only buy local food in February, we’d be living on root vegetables. My point is that mindless consumerism has become a past time, like coin collecting or downhill skiing. Somewhere along the line, we turned the amassment of stuff into some kind of patriotic act and we seem absolutely unwilling or unable to change that. And like a screaming toddler who doesn’t yet truly understand consequences, we seem to think that we can have all of our toys without ever giving up a single thing in return or working for it.

I have had people argue this point with me, saying that if everyone stopped buying stuff the economy would come to a crashing halt. It wouldn’t, because if everyone only used what they needed, the world would very quickly have a vastly different kind of economy. It would be one based on the sustainability of the planet’s systems; it would be based on taking only what we needed and leaving the rest alone.

Too many people believe that climate change should be addressed only by governments and corporations, anyone but us. Yes, governments and corporations have a lot to answer for, but we forget that we elect our governments and that we buy what corporations sell. If we were more involved in politics, perhaps we would elect better politicians; if we chose not to buy so much crap corporations might actually sit up and take notice. Planned obsolescence would be a thing of the past.

But until that day arrives, please stop telling people that reducing personal energy consumption doesn’t matter. It does and at the end of the day, it’s going to be the collective actions of billions of individuals that make the difference. We can’t buy our way out of this one.

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