Weathercocks, Signposts, and Compact Fluorescents

alex steffen as marvin photo

We at TreeHugger promote a lot of small steps toward sustainability, thinking they lead to comprehension and then to political action; we wouldn't have much of a website without our Wattsons and, um, solar bikinis. Bill McKibben thinks small steps are like calisthenics, getting us ready for the big changes we’re all going to have to make.

Alex Steffen at Worldchanging doesn't think much of small steps at all: "change your light bulb today, and you'll move to a walkable neighborhood and sell your car before you know it!" He derides solar bikinis and energy trackers, suggesting that small steps don't make much difference and that "Indeed, between greenwashing and green fatigue, emphasizing little behavioral changes may actually be hurting." He is, I think, counterproductively negative and sounding a bit like Marvin the Paranoid Android again.

cover of wwf report photo
He quotes a report by the World Wildlife Fund in the UK, Weathercocks and Signposts, which includes statements like "car sharing may not lead to net environmental benefits if the money that an individual saves by selling their own car and joining a car-share scheme is spent on buying into a time-share apartment in Spain" or "Having installed CFL bulbs, a consumer may then plow the money he saves on his power bill into purchasing a new plasma-screen TV"

Alex and co-author Julia Steinberger spoke with the report's author, Tom Crompton, and say that there is "some evidence that … individuals rest on their laurels," Crompton says: consumers often make some small steps and stop." and "Spending too much energy on relatively marginal changes "is a diversion from greater acceptance of the need for more radical environmental change in our democracies."

Does this mean I shouldn't be insulating my attic when I should be manning the barricades? That I should forget about evolution and go straight to revolution?

The report is strongly critical of "green marketing" that induces us to consume more, and suggests "an alternative approach to motivating pro-environmental behavioural change. This approach draws not on analogies from marketing, but rather from political strategy." It also presents evidence that appeals to individualism are unlikely to be adequate, but that many people have a more "inclusive" sense of self-identity,- one that may include closer identity with other people, or with other people and nature."

But that is exactly why I think the lightbulb theory works- it is like the membership card in a new club, the first step to becoming part of a community working for change. That is why right-wing politicians call them Gorebulbs and propose "lightbulb freedom of choice acts" -they know that every step is a political act.

Some are doing it with lightbulbs and clotheslines; others are doing it by consuming less, going vegetarian or planting a garden. But every one of those little steps is the start of political awareness, as people learn that every light bulb has a coal fired power plant at the other end, that every vegetable can have a carbon footprint and that every hamburger embodies a bushel of corn. It is all about political strategy. To deride a small step as useless is to deride a single vote as ineffective, but that is what will make change happen.

PDF of executive summary and PDF of full report