Another Inconvenient Truth: Green Lifestyles Won’t Save the Planet
Saving energy and water may make us feel good and they can have some positive effects on local ecosystems. My wife and I have been doing a lot of it over the years: we have 28 photovoltaic panels, an expensive reed-bed greywater recycling system, solar hot water, a passive solar house, wood-fired hydronic heating, energy-efficient appliances etc. However the objective fact is that all these efforts can change very little in terms of our central socio-ecological challenges of preventing climate chaos and further land degradation, adapting to peak oil and increasing water scarcity.
Too much community and individual effort focussed on conservation efforts and promoting a ‘green lifestyle’ can in fact serve as a welcome distraction for the powers-that-be. While we are busy recycling, energy auditing and having corporate-sponsored turn-off-the-lights ‘Earth Hours’, the power elites can continue with their profitable business-as-usual of making all the important economic and political decisions that are leading us into ecological and social catastrophe.
Too much focussing on personal efforts at ‘green lifestyles’ just fritters away precious time and energy and distracts from the collective efforts that are really needed to achieve sustainability: efforts to change the economic and political system of profits, oligarchic power and blind markets that is inherently geared to unsustainable production, consumption and growth. This system needs to be replaced with one that is ecologically sustainable, radically democratic and socially just. In the One World we now live in, this new system will have to be both globally interconnected and re-localised. To change the present unsustainable system will mean collective social action in addressing and overcoming the deep disparities of wealth, consumption and power that characterise our industrial capitalist economies in the affluent countries.
Apart from its distracting functions, why can a primary focus on reducing personal energy and water use not really help save the planet? The answer is a quantitative one. The facts speak for themselves. Consider the case in Australia.
Never mind just changing your light bulbs. If you went to the extreme trouble of cutting ALL your electricity and gas use, you would still miss 81% of your personal emissions-related carbon footprint.
Never mind just buying a Prius or driving less. If you went to the extreme trouble of cutting ALL your electricity use and no longer travelling AT ALL, you would still miss 65% of your personal emissions-related carbon footprint.
This perhaps surprising fact is because you only have direct ‘control’ over about a third of the energy you use, and the corresponding emissions you produce. (In absolute terms: over 7.7 t CO2-e of the 21.9 t Co2-e the average Australian emits every year).
The other two thirds of your total personal emissions (14.2 t CO2-e) are indirect, i.e. derive from the energy embodied in the products and services you buy. The big items here are food from industrial agriculture (especially meat, dairy, cereals) and energy-intensive everyday goods and services. Think of all the vast amounts of energy needed to produce, transport, process, package, cool and retail that supermarket steak, breakfast cereal, can of coke, mobile phone. Even from a purely energetic perspective, industrial agribiz and mega-retailing are unsustainable; Peak Oil and attendant skyrocketing energy prices will very soon demonstrate that for all to see.
To personally reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, it thus makes much more sense to look at your consumption of energy-intensive processed foods, supermarket products and gadgets than it does to change your light bulbs or even drive less.
However, even that would make little difference to the national emissions. The fact is that individual household savings make very little difference to overall national emissions.
Even if EVERY household in Australia stopped using ALL direct fossil-fuel energy and stopped travelling AT ALL, overall emissions in Australia would only be reduced by 7-8%!
If, heroically, indirect energy use were also totally cut by ALL households (i.e. no more purchase of any food and services as well), national emissions in Australia would only be reduced by 20-25%.
This is because 75-80% of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia are not produced by households but by power stations, industries, agriculture and mining. Of course there is some degree of overlap here, as power stations produce electricity that is also consumed in homes. Taken by themselves, residential emissions are about a quarter of those produced by power stations alone, less than half those produced by manufacturing and mining taken together and just over a third of those produced by the primary industries.
Whatever the precise figures are when households’ and power stations’ emissions are disentangled from one another (I have found no statistics that do that), it is clear who are by far the largest national emitters of greenhouse gases. It is certainly not households. While households can play their part, in order to achieve any real contribution towards reducing global carbon emissions to 350 ppm as soon as possible it is clear where the biggest Australian reductions are going to have to come from: power stations, industries, mining and agriculture. Household savings per se can make only a small difference.
Interestingly, the situation here is very similar to that of energy use. Individual households can do very little directly to affect the completely unsustainable level of water use in Australia. Even if EVERY household in Australia stopped consuming any mains water AT ALL, there would only be a drop of about 9% (2,182 GL, 2000-2001) in national consumption.
This is because households directly consume only that percentage of water in Australia. Power stations and manufacturing together also consume only about 10% (2,554 GL). Over two thirds of water (67%, 16,660 GL) in Australia, the driest inhabited continent, is consumed by industrial agriculture. Particularly water-intensive agricultural products are beef (particularly from feedlots), dairy products, irrigated vegetables and fruit, cotton, rice, sugar.
Again, with regard to individuals and households, the embodied (or ‘virtual’) water in your indirect consumption is thus of much greater overall significance than your direct water use. Growing more of your own food and eating less beef and supermarket food will have much more of a quantitative effect on your personal water footprint than will fitting water-saving showerheads and gadgets at home. (The latter will of course still have a positive effect on levels in urban storage reservoirs).
However, until rivers and wetlands are re-naturalised and the anti-ecological, market-driven, industrial system of producing food is changed into an ecologically sustainable one (organic, diversified, locally adapted, ‘perennialised’, soil and water-conserving), there will be no significant change in overall water (and soil) degradation and depletion in Australia. The great Murray-Darling system, Australia’s food bowl, will continue to collapse from the triple whammies of deforestation, over-regulation/over-irrigation and climate change.
The above are facts not often, or ever, focussed on in the corporate media, or even by environmentalists and the transition town movement. Most focus on individual consumption and the false panacea of ‘green’ technologies. If green technologies are high-tech (photovoltaics, wind farms etc), their productive life cycles from mining to decommissioning need huge quantities of fossil fuel or nuclear energy, and often water, and thus also pollution. They are a form of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Someone else has to pay their real ecological costs.
Perhaps we need to look at another ‘inconvenient truth’ not mentioned by the corporate carbon trader Al Gore: there is no real alternative to collective action for deep social change and democratising the economy, more equitable sharing of increasingly scarce resources and living better with less.
 Information from the University of Sydney’s Integrated Sustainability Analysis Group at www.energysave.energyaustralia.com.au
 Based on the figures from The Integrated Sustainability Analysis Group’s 35% direct personal energy use figure above and the 20-25% residential contribution to greenhouse gases given by implication in the 2006 national sectoral distribution of greenhouse gases provided at www.epa.vic.gov.au.
 CO2 emissions 2005 per sector: Australian Greenhouse Office (2007) National Inventory by Economic Sector, cited in the Ascent Fact Sheet Eco-Friendly Diet at www.ascent.org.au
 All water figures (2000-2001) here from the NSW State Government’s State of the Environment report 2006 at www.environment.gov.au/soe/2006