A case of green fatigue

Obsessing about lightbulbs and air miles is not going to make a big enough difference
October 21, 2009

I used to write a column for the Saturday Times called “Eco Worrier,” advising readers on how to green their lives. Yet now I find myself questioning its worth. While I still class myself as an eco-optimist, I can’t help wondering how much difference I have made composting my kitchen scraps, diligently sorting my household waste and installing gloomy low-energy lights. When set against the huge task faced at Copenhagen, there are moments when I suspect my daily actions are irrelevant.

Like others, I’m suffering from green fatigue. New research by the IPPR concludes that while most people believe in climate change, many are bored of hearing about it. “It’s one of those things you think about for a few minutes, get depressed and move on,” said one respondent. Not enough people are taking the green living advice—turning their heating down a degree, cutting back on short-haul flights—to make a big enough difference.

We’ve also begun to mistrust the ways that companies try to look good by flagging up their green credentials—known as “greenwash.” With an increasingly sceptical media and a host of NGOs and campaigning bodies such as Greenpeace and Ethical Consumer magazine, greenwash is not the problem it used to be. But the perception still exists that the green movement has been taken over by PR froth.

A fairer accusation might be that it has become a lifestyle choice—and one which requires deep pockets for a Toyota Prius or a weekly organic veg box. Ethical consumerism also encourages preachy self-righteousness. As neighbours compete over their reclaimed wooden floors and chemical-free cleaning products, the assumption is that we can consume our way to ethical heaven. But we can’t. The one change we should be aiming for is to consume less—buy less stuff, use less energy, produce less waste, eat less meat and travel less. This is not a sexy message; it sounds puritanical and penny-pinching. And, as it doesn’t sell advertising, it is at odds with an economy that relies on consumer spending.

Many letters I received from readers over the years showed how the minutiae of green living can obscure the bigger picture. One reader’s love of low-energy appliances led to barely used products being packed off to landfill to be replaced by ones with marginally superior energy ratings. Of course we should recycle, reuse and reduce, but some things are more important than others. If I could encourage people to do only three things at home, they would be to compost (because food waste produces the potent greenhouse gas methane when it rots in landfill); to grow a few easy vegetables, such as rocket and spinach, which only require a window box; and to reduce energy consumption—watching your meters is a good start. Buying pricey “eco” products or obsessing over air miles is less useful because there are many other factors that contribute to an environmental footprint.

If we are to meet the target of reducing emissions by 10 per cent before 2010, we will have to do more than micromanage our own lives; we will have to work together. One encouraging example is the success of the “Transition Towns” movement, which is based on a 12-step guide to a fossil-fuel free economy. Schemes like these highlight the potential in community-led action because they offer something that everyone can get involved with, whether it’s launching a local food market or voting in a town councillor who will push green issues. So far, more than 400 towns in Britain have signed up. And beyond Britain, green community projects are taking root too. The urban farms movement, pioneered in Havana, was imitated in Chicago in 2005, where flowerbeds in Grant Park was replaced with vegetables to feed its citizens. Soon after, Middlesborough council followed suit, allowing edible crop-growing to take over two of the city’s green spaces. With the pressure on to feed our growing cities—food production and transport accounts for Britain’s greatest use of carbon dioxide—other towns are catching on.

Individual effort is still needed, but the time for relying on worthy souls to front the nation’s green battles is over. Only if we look to collective action, and the brute force of government legislation, will we be able to make a meaningful difference.