Gernot Wagner, an Austrian economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, is a staunch advocate for living green. He takes public transit, recycles, and totes a reusable shopping bag to Whole Foods. But he's well aware that his deeds aren't even beginning to have a serious impact on the health of the planet. And neither are yours.
His new book, But Will the Planet Notice?, argues that it won't. For the planet to notice our efforts, he says, we're going to have to enact policies that provide the proper economic incentives for far-reaching change. Last week, I sat down with Wagner at the Climate, Mind, and Behavior conference, where he was giving a talk. We discussed why you can recycle and compost all you want—but the planet could care less. Watch:
These ideas make many environmentalists deeply uncomfortable—and they probably should. It's hard to accept the fact that our personal dedication to living in a planet-friendly way doesn't even begin to register on a global scale, and it's indeed depressing to consider that you could spend your life recycling, composting, eating organic food, taking public transportation, getting your power from solar, and biking, and essentially have no discernible impact on the planet. At all.
Like Wagner says, that's all important stuff—and we should all be doing it!—but it all needs to happen on such a massive scale that limiting our contributions proactive individual lifestyle choices simply isn't going to cut it. For the kind of large-scale, planet-saving that's required to address a problem like climate change, we're going to need smart government policy. And, Wagner would argue—the right economic incentives.