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Climate change: the difference between blame and responsibility

December 16, 2013

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.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. NevenA permalink
    December 16, 2013 10:34 pm

    First of all, let me repeat:

    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.

    Because it can’t be repeated enough.

    Second, although I agree that that Guardian editorial is just skimming the surface and lacks depth, I think that you can’t underestimate the power of conditioning. We were not brought up to just “learn, work, save and spend”. We were brought up to produce and consume, because we will get rewarded and mum and dad and all other people will love us the more we comply (that’s the secret message). Or at least it was like that for my generation (I was born in 1974). For my daughter’s generation it’s even worse, and after wandering for a couple of years through Europe, I was scared to see that it’s the same everywhere.

    Both things go hand in hand in my view, the child-like desire for novelty, and the shameless advertising and planned/perceived obsolescence by gigantic as well as smaller corporations. I don’t know about mobile phones (don’t own one), but I have also built low power computers for a couple of years and know that computer companies could build computers that are much easier to upgrade hardware-wise, component for component. But it’s more lucrative to have the entire PC shredded and recycled by 5 year-old West-African/Pakistani fingers.

    If you have the time and haven’t watched it yet, I can recommend the documentary The Century of the Self that traces the origins and history of PR.

    Thanks for another great and though-provoking blog post.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 17, 2013 6:42 am

    Hi Neven – delighted to see you here, and thanks very much for the comment. I can only agree that conditioning plays a crucial part in shaping what we believe we need – brainwashing would also be an appropriate term. George Monbiot wrote an excellent critique of the role of advertising a couple of years ago (Advertising is a poison that demeans even love – and we’re hooked on it), writing with sufficient irony to note that even as he damned advertising, he also depended on it to fund his columns. He also wrote a recent piece about the insidious way children are being targeted, (Hey, advertisers, leave our defenceless kids alone).

    My own experience was a little different from yours. Born in 1952, I was a child of post-war austerity; although rationing was over, the necessary frugality that imposed was evident throughout my childhood. The work ethic was still a powerful factor too – work was not something we were supposed to do to ‘produce and consume’, but a duty we had to society, the state and the Queen (yes, really!). My generation was constantly reminded what the previous one died for, and you can’t really argue the toss with people who fought a terrible war knowing that without them and their sacrifice, I probably would not be here.

    Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. For my part, I’m obliged to tell you your work is absolutely invaluable, and I routinely read your commentary about the Arctic conditions. I think you’re on the front line – like a guy manning a radar station in WW2 – and your observations are a key part of our early warning system. It must be maddening to be so crassly ignored by so many foolish people, but this writer is grateful for your tireless work. (I’m sounding like Eli now, writing about myself in the third person… :) )

  3. NevenA permalink
    December 17, 2013 10:24 am

    I agree it’s different for your generation. You’re from my parents’ generation who have seen nothing grow, grow, grow to everything they possess now. I’m glad to see that unlike my parents you’re getting it. And there are quite a few who already understood many decades ago. In fact, some of the best books on the subject have been written around the time I was born.

    It must be maddening to be so crassly ignored by so many foolish people

    It’s more maddening to see that even the good people ignore the fact that “a fundamentally different economic system is required”. As for the sea ice, I’m just a conduit. When a lot of it melts, a lot of people visit the blog (lot of journalists and scientists too). If in coming years the record gets broken again and ice-free conditions come close, there will be a lot of attention, and I count on the inkblot to spread even further.

    But then, just like in a Rohrschach test, I want people to see that that inkblot actually means that “a fundamentally different economic system is required”. That’s where it becomes difficult. :-)

  4. markhb permalink
    December 23, 2013 9:42 pm

    mmm – a fine article and comments as usual Graham, thank you, and hard to disagree with any of it; however I think its the part where a fundamentally different economic system is required that many (dare i say most) people get lost and simply refuse to engage. Partly of course because the present one works for them, and partly because the “new” system is yet to be defined. Personally I often find myself arguing against the watermelons (green on the outside and red on the inside) because by insisting on the red they seem to slow down progress on the green, and alienate many who would otherwise support them. Additionally there is the concern of many that this fundamentally different economic system might be in some way communist or revolutionary and we all know how revolutions end up – with la guillotine or the Tsar being shot in a basement and some unelected dictators telling us all what to do and usually end up in tears with famine or hyperinflation or war. Change is inevitably scary, and evolution is so much easier to accept and understand.
    Small steps are also much simpler to take than giant strides. Solid incremental policies are much more palatable that fundamental systemic changes. Those who are economically at least semi literate & run businesses or households will of course also wonder how “nurturing well being” will be recognised in their balance sheets, and how they will pay the bills if they run out of cash whilst nurturing the well being of others. Many pensioners will rightly wonder how their cheques will keep arriving when the oil companies which pay the majority of their dividends are restricted in their activities. There are entrepreneurs who will wonder how the innovations needed for a sustainable future will be incentivised under a fundamentally different economic system. There are leaders who will wonder what will happen to their national economies if they unilaterally introduce such measures.
    There is even a minority (and i am proud to count myself one) who already run successful businesses which heal the environment, fix (thousand of tonnes of) carbon in the soil, encourage biodiversity and facilitate social engagement, who internalise some very real environmental & social costs and who effectively sell to other businesses and consumers. It is clear to me that putting a “price” on those costs is an obvious way forward, whether this is a “carbon tax” or some other method of accounting, does need to be detailed. Carbon Tax has been effectively introduced in many jurisdictions but doesn’t have global acceptance and has certainly provoked furious reactions in Australia. I like Hansen’s fee & dividend proposals but they don’t seem to have gained much traction. I somehow doubt whether either represents the type of fundamentally different economic system that is needed, possibly more like tiny intermediate tiptoes towards that end.
    Great ideas are wonderful, but small pragmatic steps like changing lightbulbs or banning plastic bags are things which governments can encourage people to do without scaring too many horses. We need to urgently move on from there and raise our game, but in a solid and tangible way which really does make a difference. As you rightly note Graham, we are an immature species, whose technological capability to soil our home planet has outgrown our responsibility and our economic system is no longer fit for purpose. The next few steps are vitally important.

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 26, 2013 8:53 am

    Hi Mark. Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response; I hope you won’t think I’m being disagreeable if I put some counter-arguments?
    Much of what you say reflects what I believe to be the most difficult aspect of this topic; the way we come to accept certain aspects of the way we live as ‘inevitable’, as if the premises of our arguments must always acknowledge certain inevitable ‘truths’. (Dialectic materialism in all but name, to get pretentious about it!). Chief among these inevitabilities is the primacy of economics as the metric of pretty much everything: of personal, institutional and national success; of sustainability; of progress and social (civil) stability. For example, you discuss the ideologies that either help or hinder ‘progress’, which you define in economic terms. You discuss ‘change’ in an economic framework, wondering how businesses will assay their balance sheets when their purpose in running the business might become conflated with philanthropy, how invention and innovation might be funded if an economic imperative doesn’t apply. And the first half of your post ends contemplating these issues at the national scale.

    So your post, one way or another, can be characterised as being about money. Both the revolution and evolution you discuss is one where the role of money changes, or the amount of it, or our ambitions to get it, or spend it, or hoard it. You write about economic change, from one economic paradigm to some other, different, economic paradigm.
    Here’s my argument; we should be changing from an economic system to a cultural system, from the primacy of money in our lives, to the primacy of well-being, of egalitarianism, of fairness and morality, where culture and its development through art and science is the aim of our global civilisation, and the metric by which we measure progress in all things. Adopt that metric, and instill it in the population at large, and most of the problems you describe cease to exist. It is the belief in the overarching importance of economics that compound most of the problems we now face. You rightly observe that our current economic system is no longer fit for purpose (was it ever?); the solution is not a different ‘economic’ system, because that’s still about money. The solution is a system in which money is just a tool used to develop culture, a means to an end rather than – as it is right now – an end in itself. The growing inequality between rich and poor is predicated on money as the goal; your businessman would not be confused if his balance sheet comprised contributions to culture and wellbeing on the profit side, instead of just more, or less, money.

    I would also like to take issue with something specific you said:

    “…we all know how revolutions end up – with la guillotine or the Tsar being shot in a basement and some unelected dictators telling us all what to do and usually end up in tears with famine or hyperinflation or war.”

    That’s a convenient generalisation but not accurate. I can name several ‘revolutions’ in my lifetime whose outcome was very different from your characterisation. In no particular order, consider civil rights in the US, the end of apartheid in S.A., and the ripping up of the iron curtain. In each case, change was forced on governments who, in the end, acquiesced. There was violence in every case, great dissent and disturbance, and each movement was revolutionary (OED definition of revolution: “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system “ and “a dramatic and wide-reaching change in conditions, attitudes, or operation”). None of these, or other ‘revolutions’ in recent times, entailed the establishment of oppressive regimes: quite the opposite.

    To conclude: I repeat the central contention of my recent articles, and of course the book I wrote a decade ago. Materialism is not a worthy ambition for mankind. The problems you describe are a function of measuring everything we do in terms of money. If we sought something more worthy, none of the arguments you made here would be sustainable, because their premises are economic. We do not need a ‘better’ economic system. We need a system that places something more valuable at the core of everything we do, everything we want, and everything we wish for our children.

    And one last thing: happy new year, and thanks so much for talking to me. I really value your contributions over the years.

    My best regards to you and yours.

    Graham

  6. markhb permalink
    December 30, 2013 11:12 pm

    Hey Graham, on the contrary, as you know i think constructive discussion is fantastic and my only motivation is to advance our thinking, and i do consider that you are at the very cutting edge of where i can at least engage. Thats why I propose these “difficult” questions. The only inevitable truth in my mind is that we are where we are and we need to move on in the direction you propose (where cultural development is the dominant metric) as fast as possible. You might enjoy this link to Star Trek economics which I find instructive and even a little inspirational, though i am not sure if links work in this format. http://www.kernelmag.com/features/report/4849/a-guide-to-star-trek-economics/#
    To a certain extent it illustrates an issue in that so many are without basics that they may find it hard to focus on the cultural. Another issue is the speed of refocus required in the face of climate change. The good news from my perspective is that so many young people seem to be instinctively heading in the direction that we advocate, and prioritising things other than the purely economic. Could I recommend Quadruple Bottom Line Accounting as a way forward? Its a development on Triple Bottom LIne that is still formative. Happy New Year to you and yours, and do keep the essays coming. Very Best Mark.

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