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Feel Good or Do Good

Entry 1998, on 2019-08-30 at 22:52:45 (Rating 4, Politics)

Many people find the leadership qualities and progressive attitudes of prominent activists today to be quite inspiring, especially when the activist is a young person. For example, Greta Thunberg is a teenage (born 2003) climate activist from Sweden who has gained worldwide fame for her tough talking about climate change, even to world leaders (for example, she spoke at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference).

Her direct (and occasionally almost incoherent in some interviews I have seen) way of speaking might be partly due to the fact that she seems to be on the autism spectrum, which is a little bit concerning because it might indicate that her rhetoric is primarily due to lack of careful consideration, especially of social factors, rather than a thorough analysis of the facts.

So, what has she achieved? Well, she persuaded her parents to give up air travel and eating meat to help reduce their carbon footprints, was largely responsible for the current trend of school strikes for climate action, and recently travelled to the US by solar powered yacht to participate in climate change action meetings.

If you follow this blog you will know I am a science-based person and fully support the scientific findings on the reality climate change, so you might think I would be a big fan of Thunberg, and other young people engaging in similar political action. Or maybe not...

Because, I don't find this kind of activism particularly compelling. Making symbolic changes which make no difference at all to the big picture (this is "global" warming we are talking about, after all) is often not only unproductive, it is actively counter-productive.

Look at all the supporters of Thunberg et al, and you will see a bunch of people who are already "on-board" with the need for action to reduce or prevent climate change. But these aren't the people who need to be persuaded. Those who really need to change their mind are not going to be convinced in any way by a naive and simplistic campaign apparently being run by children (I say "apparently" there because there are reports that Thunberg is simply a mouthpiece for the real activists behind the scenes - I'm not sure how true this is, but it doesn't really affect my argument anyway).

All most activists of this type are doing is having themselves, and their admirers, indulge in symbolic gestures without really achieving anything. They prefer to "feel good" rather than "do good". The people who do this think they have made a difference, but all they have really done is assuage their guilt without doing anything truly useful.

I'm not the only one who thinks this, either. Journalist Christopher Caldwell wrote in the New York Times that he thinks Thunberg's "simplistic, straight-forward approach to climate change will bring climate protesters into conflict with the complexities of decision-making in western democracies". And French philosopher Raphael Enthoven claims that many people "buy virtue" with their support for Thunberg, but don't actually do anything to help.

Also, Thunberg has spent a lot of time criticising western countries about their carbon production, but is this fair considering that in the last 20 years the CO2 emissions of both the USA and Europe have dropped by 10% and 16%, but the emissions of India and China have increased by 155% and 208%? To be fair here, I do admit that different countries started at a different base in 2000, so these numbers don't tell the whole story, but surely the biggest polluters should be the biggest targets for criticism. Or is criticising non-Western countries too politically incorrect?

I don't mean to sound too critical of activists in this area, because they do generally have the best interests of the world in mind, but good intentions don't make up for bad outcomes. And I think that anyone - even a young person - who gets involved in a political debate like this, has to expect to get caught up in some backlash, especially if she speaks directly and forcefully herself, she can hardly expect others not to react in a similar way.

I should say that most of the extreme negative reactions have come from people who really are hopeless cases - such as climate denial groups and far-right political parties - and their opinions are of no real importance because they have a particular agenda which is unlikely to be affected by anything. But it is the "silent majority" (who aren't always silent and might not technically be in the majority) who I am more concerned about. They are the ones who might actually take climate change less seriously because it is being championed by some naive children.

And even if the world did follow these activists' advice, where would we be? No better off really, because making token gestures like declaring a climate emergency, buying an electric car, or becoming a vegetarian makes no real difference. Because the unfortunate fact is that there are too many humans, and this is by far the biggest cause of our environmental problems.

In 2017 some Canadian researchers evaluated carbon reduction strategies which might be used in modern western countries. They identified the following actions which might be taken, and showed how much atmospheric carbon they each might save per year...

Upgrade light bulbs: 0.1
Recycle: 0.23
Wash clothes in cold water: 0.247
Eat less meat: 0.8
Buy a more efficient car: 1.19
Buy green energy: 1.5
Avoid one trans-Atlantic flight: 1.6
Don't own and use a car: 2.4
Go vegan: 3.76
Have one fewer children: 58.6

So having an extra child is 5 times more costly in carbon that everything else combined!

At the beginning of this post I listed some things that Thunberg's parents had been persuaded to do, ostensibly to help prevent climate change, but do you know what they could have done that would have made far more difference? Not had any kids!

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Comment 1 (5079) by Anonymous on 2019-09-17 at 11:15:14:

Not sure if you have noticed but the problem is excessive breeding in the wrong places, not too many people in general.

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Comment 2 (5080) by OJB on 2019-09-18 at 10:13:27:

Well, yes. The overpopulation problem is uneven because many "first world" country populations aren't increasing substantially. There are 2 issues here, which are really whole blog posts in themselves: immigration where people escape overpopulated countries and make others overpopulated instead, and the requirements of capitalism for increased population as an easy way to stimulate growth.

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