Why The Planet Doesn’t Care About Your Eco-Friendly Lifestyle

Gernot Wagner argues that small individual actions—like eating local—make people feel better at the expense of creating real change. What’s the solution, and what can you do to help?

Gernot Wagner doesn’t drive. He doesn’t eat meat either. But he’d be the first to tell you that those gestures don’t really make a difference. In his new book But Will The Planet Notice?, Wagner, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, argues that to stave off catastrophic climate change, we need more than well-meaning environmentalists—we need smart economics.

Co.Exist:What does the average environmentalist get wrong?

Wagner: Environmentalists, all too often, think that the best way to go about solving the problem is to get everyone to do as they—we, I included—do. I don’t eat meat. I don’t drive. But individual do-gooderism won’t solve global warming.

And it may actually be counter-productive, for two reasons. First, there’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon called "single-action bias." You do one thing, and you move on. You carry your groceries home by foot, in a cotton canvas bag, and you think that single act of environmental kindness makes up for other sins.

Second, you spend all your energy thinking about these tiny things. Should you buy the local apples that have been stored for months in a cool house somewhere, or should you buy the fresh apple flown in from across the world? Or should you not buy apples at all when they are not in season and risk not getting enough vitamins?

You’d go positively crazy trying to figure out what to do, and you’d miss the big picture: That, at the end of the day, none of that really matters.

Instead of individual volunteer environmentalism, you advocate "smart economics." What’s an example?

Turns out Washington, D.C.—the city government, if not the federal government—is taking a lead here and showing the way. In 2010, it introduced a tiny fee—5 cents—on disposable bags (paper and plastic). It’s the kind of fee that shouldn’t make a difference. You don’t notice 5 cents on your $100 grocery bill, and implementation is spotty. But still, it appears to be making a real difference. Conclusive data on D.C. aren’t in yet, but Ireland, which introduced such a PlasTax in 2002, managed to decrease plastic bags by 1 billion bags a year. That’s a decrease of 90%. That, too, won’t stop global warming, of course, but it shows the way to the kinds of policies that do work.

If you could design a carbon policy for the United States, what would it look like?

It would be a firm limit on overall carbon pollution with the maximum flexibility possible to achieve that limit. It would be what Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich supported before they started running for president and running from their environmental records: cap and trade.

Which countries are getting carbon policy right?

There are plenty of examples. Europe, of course, has long been a leader. Half of its global warming emissions are covered through the E.U.'s Emissions Trading System. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. It puts a price of about $15 on each ton of carbon dioxide.

India has a coal tax. China is looking into emissions trading for carbon pollution. Australia just passed a carbon price. California is now putting in place what will likely be the world’s most comprehensive emissions trading system. New Zealand, Brazil, Mexico, and a few other countries are actively looking into systems like this. Washington is falling behind.

The bag tax in Washington, D.C., is great, but how do we clear the political hurdles to get to something like a national cap-and-trade system?

Policy incrementalism. Show that this approach can and does work in situations small and large.

Does capping carbon mean moving to a low- or no-growth economy?

No! It means moving to a smart growth economy. We know that infinite material growth on a finite planet isn’t possible. By some measures, we are already using 1.5 planets or more to support our current lifestyles—and that’s in a world where billions still live in abject poverty. So yes, dematerialization is the word of the day.

Are you optimistic about our ability to stave off catastrophic climate change? Will humanity make it?

I’d love to be optimistic here. MLK gave an "I have a dream" speech, after all—not an "I have a nightmare" speech. Sadly, we are so far down the high-pollution, low-efficiency path that even if we turned the ship around today, we’d have considerable global warming and sea-level rise.

There’s a reason why many of the best climate scientists have essentially moved on. They don’t think the world can rein in climate changing pollution on time to avert the worst and are instead looking to geoengineering, shooting particles into the upper atmosphere to deflect sunlight, as a stop-gap measure. No one knows whether it will work. Very few think it’s a good idea. Yet that’s where science is heading.

None of that means that we can just sit and watch the scenario unfold. But we do need to realize that even with the best policies put in place now, we are still in for a world of pain.

What got you into climate issues in the first place?

Every 6-year-old is an environmentalist. I just never grew up.

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  • Sensatesensei

    Does capping carbon mean moving to a low- or no-growth economy?

    Wagner's "smart growth economy" is similar to the sovereign right to development in international law.  However, Price wasn't asking about development, but growth; and I think it's telling that Wagner's policy prescriptions ultimately insist on "dematerialization." 

    The thing that got materialism to the top of the economic heap was the fact that, once basic needs are met, all people are driven to maximize convenience (as convenience is seen as both a proxy for quality of living AND maximizing productive efficiency.)  A village could share one truck, but not without understandable frustration by individuals within that community for having to wait their turn.  Thus, in a "free" world, the only thing able to reign in consumption is depression (and a certain level of poverty beyond basic needs.)

    Emissions forecasts have only been over-estimated during times of economic recession/stagnation.  Thus the former Soviet Union is treated by most international emissions protocols as a rich source of cheap carbon off-sets; industrial production in the U.S.S.R. was much greater than it is now and most international agreements give them credit as though their industrial sector wasn't already collapsing before the wall fell.

    If we look at growth (not development, but growth,) it is impossible to see how we can do away with materialism without limiting productive efficiency and participants' quality of living, nevermind the fact  that we're competing in a global market overflowing with people whom have already surrendered to more frugal, "lower quality" lifestyles.

  • radio pirate

       The solution I seem to get from this post is more taxes----hmm? As we're not taxed enough allready. Alas, it's always the government that can only solve it. Sorry, but government couldn't find their backsides with both hands in the dark even if you handed them a flashlight/torch. They know nothing but spending and expanding the dependency base--doesn't matter if your repub or lib...

       I wish there was a technology that could replace independent travel and where I live, I can ride mass transit (electric train) occasionally. But the direction I go doesn't exist. I'm sorry folks but pie in the sky hydrocells and all electric cars are way out there...yeah I know dedicated electrics are out there but who, on average can afford one? (Price a Tesla lately-- if you can even find one?) Even the Chevy Volt requires a 2100$ U.S. installer in your parking space and where does that 8 hour charge come from? Coal plants and Nuc Reactors.Even the range on this transport stinks... Electric at this point, is a zero sum game people. The cost to produce this energy to feel "green" far out weighs the benefit.

    I would think the vehicle manufactures would see the benefit of producing natural gas cars in mass.
    It's alot less polluting and I've seen the benefits first hand with city and government fleets---besides, it's CHEAP... and this worlrd isn't getting any better financially...dependency on for foriegn oil imports will suck nations dry.



  • Judith Landsberg

    I agree with every word - except the bit about a "smart growth" economy. There is very good evidence that we can and should move towards a NO-GROWTH economy. GDP growth is a very poor indicator of societal health and a successful country - we need to work towards a different measure of success. It is possible and necessary for real sustainability

  • South Asian

    Judith: You are right, and GDP is a poor measure of well being. However, countries like India do need to "grow" so their citizens can enjoy at least some of the prosperity we take for granted in the Western world. So, advocate for low growth/steady state in the West, but be careful not to extend it worldwide. 

  • Not_Too_Smelly

    If everyone voluntarily eschewed plastic bags, we wouldn't need a
    5-cent tax.  If everyone chose to live in dense urban environments and
    to eschew cars, we wouldn't need a carbon tax (at least, not on fuel). 
    If everyone voluntarily ate vegetarian, we would solve a lot of our
    environmental and energy problems.  But people like their beef!


    I think what Mr. Wagner is saying is that we need government to coerce
    people to make more environmental choices that they don't naturally
    feel like making.  He calls this "smart economics", but I just caution
    him that this line of argument might be a hard sell politically.  What
    about the people's disutility from the added inconvenience?

    Note: I am vegetarian and I don't drive.   :-)  I do appreciate the
    value of plastic bags for cleaning my cat's litter box, though.  :-)

  • EcoGrrl

    people thought curbside recycling was an inconvenience at one time as well. not everything has to be freedom of choice. 

    ps - use newspaper to pick up the poop in the litterbox.

  • KSea

    You' ve fallen for the Global Warming falsehood and favor Cap and Trade without knowing that it won't work in a world economy. Look at Europe tring to implement an airline pollution tax as one of the latest blatent examples of ignorance and stupidity

  • UncleGroOve

    Yes BUT....
    take the always-so-perfect swiss... They balk - ferociously - at even just one cent increase in gasoline or diesel cost "just because those damn greenies... bla bla".
    I do believe that govt's can and should do more - but I feel strongly that an overlay of behavioral change on part of millions of individuals would take us to a positive tipping point in terms of overall sustainability.
    And by behavioral change I also include the fact of  being aware of the many "tiny details"; at the beginning it takes time, after a while it's just second nature. Just like coupon collecting and deal-surfing. What's the difference?....

  • Ken

    All religions are about making you feel better.

    The new secular religion of eco worship is no different.

    Laser Guided Loogie

  • Pete M

    People are exceptionally human, Mr. Steen, and they will respond to problems in their own selfish, idiosyncratic ways - do you not believe global warming will be a problem for us all in the future if we don't find some way to abate it?

  • Bill

    Everything makes a difference. Every small act of responsibility to the planet helps in a real way both to raise consciousness and to physically effect the environment. Why make light of any positive action?

  • EcoGrrl

    i think what they mean is not to stop your individual actions but to remember to focus on the bigger impact things, like getting large-scale laws passed, from the plastic bags to curbing industrial polluters.

  • findyournature

     Everything matters but not everything matters the same. Some things don't matter enough to bother with. Wagner's argument (I think) is that the little, nearly meaningless things numb people into believing they've done something when, in fact, they haven't.

  • Mike O'Brien

    It's a false dichotomy. In order for political and economic systems to make the large-scale choices Gernot advocates, there has to be a basis of understanding and support among stakeholders. Yes, there is confusion about choices, but that is working itself out over time, and it's good practice for the world of extreme weather and change that is our future. It's also a rational response to otherwise feeling disenfranchised and powerless.

  • Gernot Wagner

    It often comes down to what I call the "single action bias," which is, of course, a sadly well-documented psychological phenomenon. We'd all like to think we can overcome it, but I sometimes find myself caught in the same trap: refuse the plastic bag at the take-out counter and then walk the lunch onto a plane.

    But the real problem or question, rather, is what to do to convince the marginal voter. I doubt it's by telling them to recycle more.

  • Andrew Price

    Clearly one can recycle and support cap-and-trade policies simultaneously. I agree that "either live green or adopt smart economic incentives" is a false dichotomy.

    Wagner would probably argue that the emphasis on individual voluntary lifestyle changes, which can't on their own solve the sustainability problem, gets people stuck thinking on entirely the wrong scale.

    I myself see efforts to live sustainable on a personal level and support for smart, market-based public policy as complementary.

    (Also worth remembering that books with contrarian arguments are easier to market.)