To Win, the Green Movement Needs to Understand Leverage, not Just Footprints

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Image credit: OedipuSphinx (Creative Commons)

A few years ago I got into a heated debate about Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth with a green-minded friend of mine. My hippy friend couldn't stand the movie—not because of anything it said, but because of the 'hypocrisy' of flying around the world to preach about climate change. "Doesn't he know this sends his carbon footprint through the roof?!" exclaimed my irate drinking buddy.

"He probably doesn't care." replied I. "Nor should he."I've wondered before why so much of the environmental movement is focused on individual virtue instead of collective success. Yet I'm increasingly realizing that that's just one part of a broader issue I have with greens—we spend too much time talking about impact, and not enough talking about leverage.

The Al Gore debate referenced above is just one example of this. My friend was so focused on what Mr Gore's personal carbon footprint looked like that he couldn't possibly countenance the idea that some people may do more good for the world by traveling, talking, and spreading the word—changing behaviors and winning hearts and minds in the process—than they ever could staying at home and living the green life. (I touched on this when I asked whether it's time to maximize our ecological footprint too.)

Likewise, when some critics argued that solar panels are too expensive, and that feed-in tariffs are consequently a rip-off because the cost per CO2-ton saved is too high—they ignore the idea of leverage and tipping points. As one commenter pointed out, the real role of solar feed-in tariffs is not to cut the maximum amount of CO2 per dollar spent, but rather to keep pushing and pushing technology forward until we reach a tipping point where solar, and other clean tech, can out compete fossil fuels.

Inevitably, if we look solely at 'impacts' and 'footprints'—be they personal, or collective—we end up focusing on incremental change as we lessen our footprint one person at a time, or one community at a time. Yet the urgency of climate change and peak oil are such that incrementalism is unlikely to get us where we want to go. Instead we'd be far better off working to find those points—be they cultural, technological or political—where we can have the most effect, and then apply as much pressure as possible to bring about the change we need.

We should still worry about our personal footprints—but only to the extent that that footprint can help tip the balance on the larger scale, which ultimately is the only scale that matters.

I've said it before—it's not enough to be right, we have to win too.

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