Why “every little bit helps” may not with climate change

Marc Gunther runs a new sustainability blog for The Guardian, and brings an acerbic intelligence to the topic — no little b.s. stories about how a tiny innovation or change will save us from a big problem. 

Example: plastic bags. Adam Corner for the blog writes:

In 2014, England will follow the example set by Wales and Scotland and introduce a carrier bag charge. If the Welsh and Scottish experiences are anything to go by, the policy will drastically reduce the number of bags in circulation, keeping unnecessary waste out of landfill and removing a little polythene from the diet of our cities' seagulls.

Like recycling, re-using carrier bags has become something of an iconic "sustainable behaviour". But whatever else its benefits may be, it is not, in itself, an especially good way of cutting carbon. Like all simple and painless behavioural changes, its value hangs on whether it acts as a catalyst for other, more impactful, activities or support for political changes.

The evidence from Wales is not encouraging. My colleagues at Cardiff University analysed the impact of the introduction of the carrier bag charge. Although their use reduced dramatically, rates of other low-carbon behaviours among the general public remained unaffected.

To be clear: fewer plastic bags would be a small, good thing. But as a major two-day conference at the Royal Society headquarters in London this week made clear, "every little helps" is a dangerously misleading mantra when it comes to climate change.

Of course, it's always possible that cloth or old shopping bags will open the door to something bigger, and there's no harm in it. Just a tinge of frustration. Can't we sacrifice just a little for the planet? Is this the best we can do? 

But my fav Gunther piece came right at Thanksgiving, on the eve of Black Friday, where he opened a column with a blast of sarcasm at those who would shop their way to happiness:

Ah yes, ’tis the happiest time of year, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas when people buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to create impressions that won’t last, on people they don’t care about. 

The older I get, the less Christmas shopping seems to matter.

Some people disagree:


Kidding. It's from Wes Craven, who tweets: "Let's keep it civil out there."

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