On Green Earth Day, a reminder of how we struggle to understand ‘green’

Needle about to pop a green balloonToday is Green Earth Day and there are things happening all around the world and people are marking the occasion in many ways. The organisers claim one billion people will be active in 190 countries and so too will be many firms. Serviced office provider Regus, for example, is offering free use of its business lounges for one day. There is no such thing as ‘environmentally friendly’. The best we can hope for is to minimise and mitigate our impact on the environment. The problem with the idea that anything we do can be described as ‘environmentally friendly’ in any way is this: our existence is inherently damaging to the world in which we live. We do it some damage each time we get in a plane, train or automobile; every time we make or buy something; every time we eat, drink, breathe or fart. So if you want to be ‘environmentally friendly’ my advice is this. Resign from work. Then, go home, throw yourself on a compost heap and wait to expire.

I don’t really expect you to do this, obviously, but we should see the claim of ‘environmental friendliness’ in any commercial venture for the hollow corporate speak it is. Kudos to Regus for their own initiative and for being realistic about what people will achieve by taking advantage of their offer, but is it entirely altruistic?

So we should be striving for a balance between the impact of our existence, our eco-footprint, and the Earth’s ability to deal with it. While the figures, causes and effects of climate change are a source of ongoing debate, the figure that seems to loom large in many eyes is that the Earth’s capacity to function requires us to emit no more than 9 billion tonnes of CO² a year, a level which would lead to a stable concentration of the gas in the atmosphere. In population terms that means around 2 billion people emitting 4.5 tons of CO² a year. You can judge how out of whack that all is when you realise that the current population of the Earth stands at around 7 billion and the average American emits around 17 tons a year, the average Brit about 8.5 tons. In the expanding economy of China it is already over 5 tons per person.

James Lovelock, whose Gaia Theory transformed the language of environmentalism

James Lovelock, whose Gaia Theory transformed the language of environmentalism

Just over a week ago the United Nations published its latest report into climate change and the language it uses is very instructive. There is no longer much talk about reversing the situation, but instead mitigating its worse effects by keeping a lid on things. Similarly the latest book from James Lovelock who developed the Gaia theory of the Earth as a self-regulating system, looks forward to a world in which we adapt to the inevitable catastrophic consequences of a new climate.

As a species we tend to deal with such issues in an inadequate way, and for reasons that may be hardwired into us. In the face of the threat of environmental catastrophe, there is a temptation to ‘do your bit’. This is the level of eco-awareness that encourages companies to use recycled paper and toner cartridges, to send cans and plastic cups for recycling and so on. Welcome though this is, it is essentially a salve for the conscience rather than salvation of the environment. This meagre response to a major threat is spoofed by the comedian Sean Lock here (strong language).

But what could really make a difference means some very difficult decisions for business owners, organisations and policy makers. Commercial buildings, for example, are responsible for around 14 percent of the UK’s carbon emissions and so for their owners and managers there is a genuine need to address their impact on the environment, tied up with the drive to reduce costs.

As well as the issue of reduction, there is also that of mitigation. So one idea that became popular some time ago was carbon offsetting. It became something of a cause celeb with bands such as Coldplay launching ‘carbon neutral’ albums. The idea was to wipe away the tracks of your eco-footprint by investing in programmes that offset your carbon emissions by planting trees or investing in other schemes aimed at improving the environment.

SunriseAt its simplest level this may mean buying a number of trees calculated against your carbon emissions. Inevitably, carbon offsetting has had its critics. Among them have been Friends of the Earth who argued that the forestry business seemed suspiciously keen on the idea, that it was wrong to set up companies that profit from it all, that offsetting may not have the desired effect anyway.  And, of course, it also seems very easy and makes it more likely that people will buy the 4×4 anyway, drive the kids the 500 yards to school in it each day, then invest in a few trees in Bhutan so that they can pretend it’s all OK.

While we should try to avoid too much cynicism (the pros and cons of such schemes are laid out here) the issue of offsetting at least illustrates the major issue with how we approach the issue of environmental risk and our response to it. According to a recent report from the Economic and Social Research Council, we often struggle to make rational decisions on major issues for a number of reasons not least a series of fallacious mental equations, evasions and equivocations that leave us exposed to genuine disaster while taking misguided steps to address the issue.

So the challenge is to become aware of the fallacies that underlie our inappropriate responses to risk and take meaningful action to balance it all out properly. The compost heap is not an option but neither is a response that does the little things and ignores the more meaningful ones.