Save the planet for entirely selfish reasons

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Climate Change reached a milestone this year. The atmosphere measuring station in Hawaii recorded a global CO2 value of 400 parts per million. The planet hasn’t had that much CO2 in its atmosphere for millions of years. Typhoon Haiyan has just stormed through the Philippines, the strongest storm ever recorded and recent measurements of the Pacific Ocean show that it has warmed 15 times faster in the last 60 years than at any time in the last ten thousand, which is a bit like sticking your aquarium on top of the radiator.

The fact that the developed world (who are doing nearly all the CO2 generation) are carrying on with their day with minimal attempt to reduce their fossil fuel use, in spite of all the evidence of climate catastrophe, is like passengers on a runaway train checking the lunch menu. People! This train is out of control and heading downhill! We’re all going to die and leave our grandchildren orphaned if we don’t do something! No, I don’t care that the steamed mullet is off this week! Neither do I think it’s spiffing that our increasing speed means you’ll get to the next stop quicker! We’re accelerating towards a hairpin bend and will soon be plunging down a mountainside in a ball of fire and twisted metal! No, I am not being negative! No, we cannot assume the railway company is going to fix the problem in the next quarter of a mile by remote bluetooth diagnostics! We have to do something ourselves!

That’s what this article is about. We haven’t crashed yet. We can slow this train. We can change our lifestyles to reduce our carbon footprint. There have been programmes on television in recent years in which members of the public, with the help of a television celebrity, have reduced their energy consumption. Those programmes have made for good telly; candlelit board games, powering kettles with stationary bicycles, extensive knitting. Usually, at the end of forty-eight hours, the participants agree whole-heartedly that they really didn’t need a 42” plasma television so large, beer coasters spontaneously orbitted it like satellites around the Earth, or a chest freezer or beer fridge or the novelty fusion torus that Uncle Ned sent them for Christmas etc etc. They openly state to the presenter, and the millions of television viewers watching, that they’re happy to do this low-carbon thing.

But what would happen if they were asked to do it away from the television’s Glowing Eye of Transitory Fame? How would that person or family get on switching to living with a tiny, size 3, fossil fuel footprint in the dull light of a weekday morning? To try and answer that question, here’s a list of actions a person could carry out to reduce their carbon footprint:

Don’t fly by plane unless absolutely necessary.
Cool the house down to 18 degrees Celsius or less.
Mend clothes rather than buy new ones.
Share a house or live in a small one.
Thoroughly insulate the house.
Travel locally by bicycle, foot or bus.
Eat only a small amount of meat and dairy.
Don’t own a car or at least share one.
Holiday by train, bike or bus.
Have few white goods.
Buy second-hand.

It’s all do-able, isn’t it? It’s not ‘end of the world’ stuff. No one has to look like a tramp that’s been repeatedly dragged backwards through a hedge or develop hypothermia or wear something knitted by his or her Granny. We don’t all have to live in yurts or teepees or wigwams; we can still live in a dwelling that doesn’t have a name that sounds like like a bird-call. In fact, the more environmentally friendly readers of you out there may already be nodding in agreement. But for everyone else, it looks as if there’s one dire implication:

Saving the Planet can make you look like a Total Loser!

Yep, if someone switches to a low carbon footprint in the developed world, they’re likely to look to everyone else in their social circle like a cheapskate tramp who’s not so much kept up with the Jones’s but has fallen so far back, he or she has disappeared over the curve of the horizon. For the vast majority of people out there who can burn up half an oilfield a year if they want to, this can be a big problem.

The desire to keep up with the Jones’s, to measure your success in life by checking how you compare to the others in your social group, is not a feeling to be dismissed lightly. In a recent psychological study, a group of subjects were given a choice as they carried out certain tasks; would they prefer to gain a bit but see the people around them gain more, or lose a bit but see the people around them lose more? The majority of the subjects in the study preferred the latter choice. They’d rather have less, as long as the people around them lost more.

This sentiment is reflected in a Russian proverb. In the story, a villager receives a knock on his door one morning. On the front steps stands the local baron, who explains to the villager that he, as ruler of the area, has a duty, once a year, to visit a random person and grant him anything he wants, with the proviso that he will do twice that to the person’s neighbour. The villager thinks for a few seconds and then says to the Baron, ‘tear out one of my eyes’.

It’s a dark tale, but it does match the psychological study mentioned earlier. It tells us that keeping up with the Jones’s isn’t quaint, it’s a deadly serious war of attrition… and also that you can’t teach the Russians much about the dark side of humanity.

Here’s another Russian proverb. In the middle of Summer, a baron gives a man a seductive offer. He can have all the land he can run around in one day. The man eagerly takes up the offer. He sets off at first light and runs, not bothering to take any supplies as they might slow him down. He heads out into the dry, hot forests of the steppe. The day progresses, the sun rising and blazing down on the ground and the man keep running, plotting a huge circle. He runs on into the afternoon, imaging the huge plot of land that he will soon own, while ignoring his dry mouth, throbbing head, hammering heart and aching limbs. As the sun sets, he returns to the place he started. He staggers to a halt, collapses on to the hard ground and dies on the spot. The next morning, the baron gives him all the land he needs, a plot six foot by three foot. As an analogy of modern man’s self-destructive chase after greater and greater material affluence, this Russian proverb of the running man does a pretty good job.

Ending up living out a Russian Proverb doesn’t sound much fun, and I think this is the key to encouraging people to lower their carbon footprint. Cutting back on your fossil fuel use may make you look worse off in the eyes of your social circle…

But, if you switch to a low-carbon-footprint lifestyle, you will live a longer, happier, healthier life.

This sounds hard to believe, but it’s based on scientific evidence. Here’s several reasons why.

First off, affluence doesn’t make you much happier. Once you reach a certain modicum of earnings, any increase in wealth has minimal effect. This is true for individuals, countries and even the same country over a period of decades. Here’s a graph of countries and their levels of happiness. This inability to get happier with wealth is known as the Easterlin Paradox.

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With regard to a country’s happiness over decades, The New Scientist magazine recently reported that in Britain, 1978 was the period of greatest happiness and quality of life, even though the wealth of Britons has gone up hugely since then.

For individuals, here’s a graph of earnings vs happiness, from filipspagnoli.wordpress.com.

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It seems clear that chasing after greater affluence, once you reach a modicum amounts, won’t make you happier. You can stay at a low level of earnings (or, alternatively, a low level of material affluence, which is the key thing for the environment), and you’ll feel just as happy as you would have done if you’d bought the luxury items, the expensive holidays, the bigger house etc.

Secondly, eating lots of meat and dairy increases your risk of contracting many major illnesses.

One symptom of increasing affluence in the world is the consumption of meat and dairy, both of which require huge amounts of land, grain and fertilisers. As China has increased in productivity and wealth, its consumption of meat has shot up. The same is true of India. Eating meat is seen by many in the world as a sign of success. Unfortunately for those people, a diet high in animal protein is linked to a much higher risk of contracting heart disease, strokes, several cancers and other life-threatening illnesses. I’ve talked about the science behind that evidence in earlier blogs on a meat-free diet and the Knives over Forks documentary. In some ways, it’s quite shocking that western countries aren’t mobilising to change their diets to low animal protein, calling for a ‘war on meat and diary’. The evidence is solid, extensive and a national switch to such a diet would transform the health of the country, to a far greater degree than any drug war (well, with the possible exception of alcohol) and also sizeably reduce its carbon footprint.

Thirdly, cycling makes you happy and healthy.

Although cycling has been regarded as a low-status activity for many years (particularly since the rise of car ownership), it’s a much healthier and happier way to get around. Cycling to work makes people happier, according to an Oregon study. BikeRadar doesn’t stop there but produces a long list of the health benefits of cycling in its article. Fortunately, the increasing popularity of cycling in cities is having a knock-on positive effect. More cyclists means more efforts to improve cycle facilities, making cycling safer and easier and so encouraging more people to cycle. The fact that cycling is good for the environment is just an icing on the cake; cyclists are already happier before they even think of that!

Summary

I’ll add to this list in future, as more evidence pops up, but I hope there’s enough info to show that living a low-carbon lifestyle can actually make you happier and healthier, without you even thinking about it benefitting the planet. Once a person overcomes his or her initial anxiety that they will look inferior to their social group (who are invariably also suffering the same anxiety), their levels of contentment, fulfilment, mood and physical health can shoot up. Strangely enough, you can actually adopt a lifestyle that helps the planet, for entirely selfish reasons!

Now that is a message that can really win over modern Western hearts and minds. ;-)