In response to a Twitter conversation with Ben Werdmuller, he's written a blogpost about living sustainably in a digital society, and this is my response to that. Go and read his post first, and then come here.
Ben, I completely feel your pain. I see in the decisions you're making and the issues you're covering some of the uncomfortable choices I've had to make in the past couple of years.
I'm especially aware from your tweets that you've had family illnesses that necessitated a lot of travel, and I think that everyone's situation is different when it comes to that.
So I don't want to directly disagree with anything you've said, because it's drawn from your own experiences, but I do want to elucidate the following points. They started off as a comment, and now they're basically a long, bullet-pointed comment, so do excuse the mental sprawl:
- I honestly believe that we can have a sustainable society. Sustainability is not about zero carbon emissions: it's about ultimately emitting at less than or equal to the rate that the biomass can clean up, so that we progress within that bound. Futurists have been going on about this idea of a progressive steady state for years and people have lapped it up; so why not in the context of carbon emissions? I agree that we do need efforts from government, but I also think that people who appreciate the problem have an absolute and individual moral duty to make their lives more sustainable: for the sake of the future of the projects they themselves would like to begin, of the children they've begotten, and of the wonderful, glorious culture that we'd love to still be growing and developing in a thousand years' time.
- You're here now, and it's a powerful place to be. You now have knowledge which can make your life sustainable. But a personal move to sustainability is not accomplished in a step change (indeed, if you change too much, too soon, you're liable to react against it.) It begins with an acknowledgement of an unsustainable lifestyle, moves through an investigation of that lifestyle, and results in a re-evaluation of it in sustainable, thousand-year terms. And maybe your values will change along the way: outside of the moral duty we have to our fellow man, there's nothing more or less worthy about a sustainable life; but what you attach worth to can change.
- If you're not sure what to do, and especially if the problem seems far too big - which is how I see you reacting to an understandably difficult situation - then remember that we've advanced in leaps and bounds in the past five or ten years, in terms of the tools people can get to fix this. Lots of people are where you are; some of them have been gnawing at this problem for decades; and others are just coming to it with no real understanding at all. There are tons of resources on these ideas nowadays (I help run a local blog and community action group called Sustainable Witney on this very subject), and I can especially recommend the Carbon Conversations, which I'm only just completing. All these things give you tools to change your life for the more sustainable; which I think we both agree means for the better.
- Measuring is the first and arguably the most important step. When you measure something, and it's something you have bad feelings towards, you'll find it miraculously reduces. As a starting point, the ratio of UK "non-essential" GDDP to UK carbon emissions is around 0.5kg of CO2 for every pound sterling spent. So start tracking your non-essential purchases. Aim to reduce them by 10% per year. Put them in a Google doc; do basic analysis if you like; weight electronics purchases by an extra 20%, and lighten sustainable purchases by a similar amount. To give you an idea of what you can achieve through measurement (almost) alone, I started a Google doc of my commutes to work three years ago, and I've just passed the 90% cycling barrier this year. Also, if you're interested in measuring other aspects of your carbon emissions, sign up to the Carbon Account or iMeasure. Go for it.
- The "cheapness" of high-carbon living you talk about is partly true - aviation is massively over-subsidised - but it's also partly smoke and mirrors on the part of the vested interests. I can't ever demolish the myth completely, but here's an important point. When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, and we were running around like lunatics trying to find flights to go to Barcelona (like you, I'd conscience flying in a medical emergency) we worked out that before supplementary charges it would cost over £600 for Kate and I to fly to Barcelona and back at such short notice; factor in trains or coaches either end, taxes and the rest, and we were looking at close to £800. When we booked the train instead, we got first class sleeper carriages there, two-bed sleepers on the way back, for around £1000 door to door. So while airlines might favour people who book early, they afford it by stinging people who book late. Overall, I doubt if people end up paying as low a price as you might think.
I think we can indeed live sustainably. Ultimately, if one person can live sustainably in a digital society, then two can; if two can, then four can; if four can... then apart from anything else, then if the issue is indeed overconsumption and not overpopulation, then eventually we'll surely hit some economy of scale!
The political will to do it is a different question, but a lot of changes that can be made do not have to wait for the political will, and I think while we'll ultimately need the government to change a lot of it, we don't have to sit around waiting for them to do that.
I would also say that we recently managed to stop a potentially detrimental road scheme in Witney, even though people kept telling us to give it up: there wasn't the political will to stop it, they said. It's made me think quite differently about whether or not you need to get the political will before you start trying.
None of these are killer arguments to convince you, or ideal solutions to fix our world: I do realise that. Like I said in reply to your tweet about technological improvements: we are too late for a silver bullet. I think that's true in rhetoric as much as it's true in technology. But we can change our lives; we will have to change our lives; and the sooner we start, the easier it will be.