Climate change: the difference between blame and responsibility
In my previous post (Climate Change: Beating around the bush won’t put out the fire) I discussed the problems that arise when we focus on supply instead of demand. Consideration of supply is usually an attempt to support some kind of ‘business as usual’ scenario. It also embodies the dubious virtue of seeking to assuage demand rather than curtail it.
This is an untroubling message for the public at large, because in effect it says ‘hey – climate change is coming, but we’re going to figure out how you can carry on doing exactly what you’re doing now (more or less’). In other words, the solution is to find a ‘sustainable’ way to carry on consuming, and the public are required only to change a few light bulbs, stop leaving the TV on standby, put some insulation in the loft and drive a bit slower, and all will be well. Or something.
The other message – the one I’m touting – isn’t so easy to digest. The message is plain enough, as my last post made clear: we individuals are the problem. We are the drivers of climate change, of all environmental degradation, because it occurs on our behalf, collateral damage caused by the lifestyles we’ve become accustomed to, the endless consumption that so many of us now regard as a right. The indigestible part of this message is that we must change, that we must demand less, want less and accept less ‘things’, for it is the fulfilment of our desires that, in the end, will render them unobtainable for future generations.
Too many commentators come at this problem from the wrong perspective. Consider the allocation of responsibility. In my previous post I expressed contempt for a Guardian article that tried to argue climate change was the fault of those who dug fossil fuels out of the ground. To repeat the obvious point: climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels, not merely digging the stuff up.
What causes people to expound arguments based on such spurious premises? I think it is motivated by a desire to avoid playing the blame game.
There is an interesting distinction between ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility'; ‘blame’ addresses a moral fault or a wrong, where ‘responsibility’ denotes duty. The Guardian article I mentioned sought to allocate the blame for climate change on the commercial behaviour of the fossil fuels companies, as if the extraction of fossil fuels was morally reprehensible. Frankly, this is nonsense, and as I’ve already said, it ignores the fact that all extractive industries are driven by demand. If we didn’t use the stuff, they’d soon stop digging it up.
Some commentators do get it right. Adam Corner, writing in the Guardian last week (‘Every little helps’ is a dangerous mantra for climate change), made some astute observations on this very topic, consigning the banning of plastic bags to the same category as the light bulbs and the TV on stand-by – well-intentioned but wholly inadequate. He writes about a pretty radical agenda fostered by the Royal Society no less, hosting a two-day conference actually called ‘The Radical Emissions Reduction Conference’. I’d quote the entire article if I was allowed, but here’s the gist. After lamenting the same trivial ‘solutions’, he reports on the outcome of the conference thus (my emphasis added):
“The Radical Plan meeting featured contributions from across the physical and social sciences, as well as civil society. The organisers – Professors Kevin Anderson and Corinne Le Quere of the Tyndall Centre – posed contributors a brutally simple question: what would need to happen if we were to do more than simply pay lip service to the idea of avoiding dangerous climate change?
“The answers were undeniably radical – and none mentioned re-using plastic bags.
“Scientists and engineers described the unprecedented scale of energy system change necessary to decarbonise rapidly. Social scientists argued for a transformation in the way we view ourselves, our consumption, and our role in society. Economists demolished the idea that economic growth could be maintained forever in a fossil-fuel driven, finite world. Policy experts questioned whether our current carbon targets were fit for purpose.
“But across almost all of the papers presented at the conference, there was an inescapable consensus: a fundamentally different economic system is required, if we are serious about avoiding dangerous climate change, based on nurturing wellbeing rather than stoking corporate profit“.
Corner also makes a key point regarding democracy and how it gets tied in knots when radical change is required:
“Clearly, economic systems do not overhaul themselves – and in a democracy, majority support is a prerequisite for any significant societal shift. Politicians do not take risks if they don’t think the electorate will support them.”
This is the main reason our governments are failing to take the radical actions needed to address climate change; the lack of political support for a complete revision of our economic systems, in which we largely abandon the primary raison d’etre for the whole shebang: the perpetual increase of personal wealth, underwritten by cheap fossil fuels. Of course, we can’t support this agenda when we’re so badly informed of the need for it, and that’s where these crazy messages conflating blame and responsibility do the most damage, by failing to tell the truth about the situation we find ourselves in, and blaming all and sundry in the supply chain instead of those whose demands they service.
While Adam Corner does the decent thing and tells it like it is, there are those on the Guardian’s editorial staff who need a slap on the head, Jethro Gibbs-style (NCIS TV series reference, in case you’re wondering). Only days after Corner’s article, the Guardian published a deeply conflicted editorial whose attempts to allocate blame were as inept as Corner’s discussion of responsibility was apt.
The article’s headline alluded to a very worthy cause: “Electronic waste: we must design gadgets that don’t poison the planet“. But while the unnamed author (it’s an editorial) highlights a very significant problem – the vast amounts of toxic waste generated by the disposal of electronic goods – the article lacks even a modicum of the courage needed to address responsibility. Instead, and consistent with the fatuous notion that suppliers should be blamed for supplying, the article manages to avoid any discussion of why we throw away such a huge amount of serviceable goods, instead proposing allocate blame by way of some seriously specious arguments (again with emphasis added):
But there is a downside to the revolution that governments and companies have so far ignored. In the drive to generate fast turnover and new sales, companies have deliberately made it impossible to repair their goods and have shortened the lifespan of equipment.
Hardware is designed not to keep up with software, a computer’s life is now under two years and mobile phones are upgraded every few months. Many electronic devices now have parts that cannot be removed or replaced. From being cheaper to buy new devices than to repair them, it has now reached the point where it is impossible to repair them at all.
First off, the claim that “companies have deliberately made it impossible to repair their goods” is the kind of adolescent rubbish I expect from spotty kids who’ve only just heard of pre-planned obsolescence. It’s too complex to address here, but basically the miniaturisation of electronics via integrated circuits (chips), has made possible generations of increasingly powerful devices, while reducing manufacturing costs and increasing reliability; you need only think of old televisions or radios to gain some perspective on how reliable electronic devices are these days. Anyway, the upshot of miniaturisation and component count reduction is that it’s very hard to repair circuit boards these days, mainly because everything is so very tiny. The claim, however, that goods were deliberately made un-repairable is as vapid as it is inaccurate.
“Hardware is designed not to keep up with software, a computer’s life is now under two years…”
This statement is complete nonsense, from any number of perspectives. Computers are designed with spare capacity based on current application demands. No computers are designed ‘not to keep up’ with anything, since we can’t know what users will want to do in three years time. And the claim their life is only ‘two years’ is contemptible. I run a small repair and upgrade computer company (and I also sell computers). I know from years of personal experience that, for most computer users (excluding gamers), there is virtually no price/performance difference between a computer made five years ago and one made today. We should also be clear about the perception of computer speed; most users now rate their computers not by the internal processor speed, or storage, but by their broadband speed.
So, to be absolutely clear: the claim that computers are obsolete in two years is egregiously ill-informed nonsense, and making such a claim is part of the problem because, once more, it seeks to blame the manufacturers for our profligacy.
“…and mobile phones are upgraded every few months”
And now we come to the part of this editorial that is cowardly. Where is the obvious question “why do we upgrade perfectly serviceable electronic goods and throw away working models?” The answer is almost a conspiracy; mobile networks collude with manufacturers, pricing their services to include subsidies for phones so they can offer them for a fraction of their real cost in order to keep their customers. Manufacturers go along with this of course, because it helps maintain a wholly artificial demand for their products which, if sold in a ‘normal’ way, would not turn over at anything like the current rate – not if upgrades always cost several hundred pounds instead of being free or £35 plus a new contract.
The problem of electronic waste is a function of our obsession with novelty. We are like children, thoroughly dissatisfied with our ‘presents’ about five minutes after we got them. The issues described in this article are caused by our constantly reiterated demands for new things, mainly because that’s how we judge our progress in life – by our ability to endlessly consume, even when that consumption makes little or no practical sense. Climate change is the greater threat that this indulgence promotes, for so much of our emissions are a direct result of making stuff we don’t need, while throwing away the stuff we’ve already got.
Perhaps if we could find some other measure of ourselves than what we consume, what we own, and what we can throw away, then we could solve some of our environmental problems: disposable income never meant we should just chuck our money in the bin, yet that’s more or less what we’re doing now. Manufacturers only make what we want; supply has to be driven by demand. Our immature desires are the problem, and articles like those in the Guardian I’ve highlighted recently do not help us solve it by catering unquestioningly to those desires while perpetrating urban myths about the longevity of consumer goods, providing handy excuses for behaviour that, by now, should be unacceptable. If we’re seeking someone to blame for climate change, a mirror is all we need to identify the guilty parties.
Up until recently, we could not be blamed for doing what we were taught to do, brought up to do, told we should do as responsible citizens – learn, work, save and spend. We did the moral thing (or so we were told), and played our part. Now we know what damage we’re doing, and responsibility is no longer the appropriate term. Our conspicuous consumption is the cause of climate change, and if we carry on being so wasteful, we must also shoulder the blame for the consequences.