A Website Celebrating Car-Free Culture

System Change or People Change?

15th May 2023:

It’s a common misconception among the general population that things like recycling, switching light bulbs, or buying food free from plastic packaging are good ways to reduce your carbon footprint. This is not surprising given that most of the sources of information out there, from governments to NGOs to textbooks to websites, all basically tell you that this is what to do, and largely fail to inform you of the real scale of changes needed to address this crisis.

The biggest four actions an individual can actually take to reduce their carbon footprint are to go vegan, give up the car, stop flying, and (drum roll please) … limit yourself to a one child family. Yup, you want to really address the climate and ecological crisis, then these are the things to get busy with. Things like recycling generally only amount to a few percentage points of the total carbon footprint, whereas owning a car might amount to 25%, depending on what country you live and its average per-capita GHG total. Having multiple children… well, that results in a huge carbon footprint.

We all know these things are not popular. That’s why a lot of organisations don’t bother mentioning them and instead focus on relatively trivial things like switching light bulbs and recycling. Okay, it’s not that those things are not worthy things to do, there are lots of reasons why they are important environmentally, it’s just that they are not important when it comes to reducing your carbon footprint. On that scale, they are minor issues. Recycling is not a response to climate change. Changing light bulbs is not a response to climate change. To deal with climate change we require much bigger changes.

So yeh, okay, the real actions that deal with climate change are not popular, but how unpopular are they? A recent poll across the European Union (Germany, UK, Italy, Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden) found that between 9% and 19% of the population were supportive of voluntarily having fewer children or of going meat free. Only one third of respondents on average showed a willingness to switch to an electric vehicle. Support for going car free in France, Spain and Italy, was similarly around one third, whereas in the UK, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, support dropped to about one quarter. And as for a blanket ban on fossil fuel cars altogether, surprisingly, in Spain and Italy more people were in favour than against, whereas in the other EU countries the opposite was the case, and in places like France and Germany that opposition was 60%, double that of those in favour.

So, what to make of all this? I think first off it’s worth noting how insane this is. I mean, let’s turn the question around and ask the following: how many people want their descendants to live on a habitable planet with other living creatures and green plants with a stable and pleasant climate, and how many want them to live in a future ecological and climate dystopia so that today we can carry on driving and eating meat? Apparently, most people across the EU are in favour of the latter. That is, they would rather curse their children and their children’s children to living their lives within future dystopia’s if it means they can continue driving, flying, eating meat, and having as many kids as they want. Yeh, that’s right, as many kids as they want, despite the fact they don’t seem to care at all about the future of those children. Is having children today the same as having a pet: something done purely to satisfy your own narcissism, to prop up your own flagging ego, to provide yourself with love, etc, and with little regard paid to the needs or care of the other? It seems so, given the lack of any sense of duty shown by the average European to their own future generations.

After reading the poll, I have to say, I wasn’t feeling very proud about being human. This was not a time to celebrate the human race. I mean, how can you, this is just disgusting. People are not just playing dice with the fate of life on earth, they are willfully selling it out for the right to be Kings and Queens of their own plastic castles within the time-frame of their own brief existence.

These kinds of attitudes and behaviours are inhuman. What else can you call them? Can you say that these attitudes and behaviours are humane? Thoughtful? Considerate? Compassionate? Kind? Generous? Wise? The answer each and every time is no. There are no humane attributes that you can point to to explain these widespread attitudes and behaviours. If we were talking about goblins and orcs, it would be different, then we could say hey, these are goblins, what else do we expect of them?

Are we then surrounded by goblins? Goblins who look human, but inside, they have lost their humanity, and turned into goblins. Is that the state of the world?

Yeh, I think it is. Intentions change people, and over time those changes affect the soul. Oscar Wilde had it right with The Picture of Dorian Gray. If we had such a supernatural portrait for the average European, one that showed not the outer visage, but the inner, I wonder what it would look like? Judging by these polls, it would look like a goblin.

They say in the mystery traditions, as above, so below, so maybe this is just an example of that: the adverse changes to the global ecology and environment is mirrored by equally adverse changes to the human spirit, the inner climate. As above, so below. That’s a grim fact to contemplate, but a reality nonetheless I think.

But before you fall to despair, there were a few rays of hope, signs that the inner goblin has not completely taken over, and that maybe the inner human is mounting a comeback. A late comeback, for sure, but a comeback nonetheless. After all, in some countries, the majority were in favour of giving up the car altogether. That is pretty amazing. I wouldn’t have expected it, and okay, they say they are willing but clearly, they don’t actually follow through, so it sounds like empty gestures, but still, that’s a sea change from ten or twenty years ago. And wow, in most countries 10% or 20% of the population would consider going meat free or having fewer children. I mean, that’s a lot bigger than I thought. These are not minor percentage figures, and while okay, it’s just words, not action, still, the fact is there is the seed of some kind of aspiration, a humane aspiration, that still exists out there. These are things we can work with. I mean, if we can get those 10% or 20% to actually follow through, that is a major game changer, because that 10% or 20% will have massive repercussions on the rest of society. We are social creatures, and our social habits create norms that affect the attitudes and behaviour’s of the rest of society. Conforming to social norms, abiding within the margins of social acceptability, these are forces more powerful than the authority of tyrants and dictators.

So while I am dismayed at the goblinesque stature of the average European, I see at the same time hope for the nearly extinct human within. As someone who has spent the last 15 years focused on achieving behaviour change within the general population, these figures give me a huge benchmark to work with. This is like 20% of the European population saying hey, we are willing to change, at least to consider at, but we need help and encouragement to do so, as we’re not strong enough on our own. That’s a huge potential swing that can be achieved, and if you achieve a swing of that magnitude, then you enter a totally different ballgame. As I said, that would be a game-changer.

If we could only shut down corporate advertising and its corrupting influence, we might just have a chance.

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