Many moons ago, I talked about the danger of being distracted by our carbon footprints. I argued that the climate crisis cannot be solved by voluntary action by the (few) people who understand what we’re facing. The problem is systemic, and so adequate responses must be systemic too.

In the years since 9/11, it’s gotten steadily more frustrating to fly, as the lines build up at the security checkpoints, and we have to put more and more of what we’re wearing through the scanners. This doesn’t dissuade people from flying, but it does make them much more grumpy about it. And it doesn’t make them any safer, either. Bruce Schneier calls it “Security Theatre“: countermeasures that make it look like something is being done at the airport, but which make no difference to actual security. Bruce runs a regular competition to think up a movie plot that will create a new type of fear and hence enable the marketing of a new type of security theatre countermeasure.

Now Jon Udell joins the dots and points out that we have an equivalent problem in environmentalism: Carbon Theatre. Except that he doesn’t quite push the concept far enough. In Jon’s version, carbon theatre is competitions and online quizes and so on, in which we talk about how we’re going to reduce our carbon footprints more than the next guy, rather than actually getting on and doing things that make a difference.

I think carbon theatre is more insidious than that. It’s the very idea that an appropriate response to climate change is to make personal sacrifices. Like giving up flying. And driving. And running the air conditioner. And so on. The problem is, we approach these things like a dieter approaches the goal of losing weight. We make personal sacrifices that are simply not sustainable. For most people, dieting doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because, although the new diet might be healthier, it’s either less convenient or less enjoyable. Which means sooner or later, you fall off the wagon, because it’s simply not possible to maintain the effort and sacrifice indefinitely.

Carbon theatre means focussing on carbon footprint reduction without fixing the broader system that would make such changes sustainable. You can’t build a solution to climate change by asking people to give up the conveniences of modern life. Oh, sure, you can get people to set personal goals, and maybe even achieve them (temporarily). But if it requires a continual effort to sustain, you haven’t achieved anything. If it involves giving up things that you enjoy, and that others around you continue to enjoy, then it’s not a sustainable change.

I’ve struggled for many years to justify the fact that I fly a lot. A few long-haul flights in a year adds enough to my carbon footprint that just about anything else I do around the house is irrelevant. Apparently a lot of scientists worry about this too.When I blogged about the AGU meeting, the first comment worried about the collective carbon footprint of all those scientists flying to the meeting. George Marshall worries that this undermines the credibility of climate scientists (or maybe he’s even arguing that it means climate scientists still don’t really believe their own results). Somehow all these people seem to think it’s more important for climate scientists to give up flying than it is for, say, investment bankers or oil company executives. Surely that’s completely backwards??

This is, of course, the wrong way to think about the problem. If climate scientists unilaterally give up flying, it will make no discernible difference to the global emissions of the airline industry. And it will make the scientists a lot less effective, because it’s almost impossible to do good science without the networking and exchange of ideas that goes on at scientific conferences. And even if we advocate that everyone who really understands the magnitude of the climate crisis also gives up flying, it still doesn’t add up to a useful solution. We end up giving the impression that if you believe that climate change is a serious problem you have to make big personal sacrifices. Which makes it just that much harder for many people to accept that we do have a problem.

For example, I’ve tried giving up short haul flights in favour of taking the train. But often the train is more expensive and more hassle. If there is no direct train service to my destination, it’s difficult to plan a route, buy tickets, and the trains are never timed to connect in the right way. By making the switch, I’m inconveniencing myself, for no tangible outcome. I’d be far more effective getting together with others who understand the problem, and fixing the train system to make it cheaper and easier. Or helping existing political groups who are working towards this goal. If we make the train cheaper and easier than flying, it will be easy to persuade large number of people to switch as well.

So, am I arguing that working on our carbon footprints is a waste of time? Well, yes and no. It’s a waste of time if you’re doing it by giving up stuff that you’d rather not give up. However, it is worth it if you find a way to do it that could be copied by millions of other people with very little effort. In other words, if it’s not (massively) repeatable and sustainable, it’s probably a waste of time. We need changes that scale up, and we need to change the economic and policy frameworks to support such changes. That won’t happen if the people who understand what needs doing focus inwards on their own personal footprints. We have to think in terms of whole systems.

There is a caveat: sacrifices such as temporarily giving up flying are worthwhile if done as a way of understanding the role of flying in our lives, and the choices we make about travel; they might also be worthwhile if done as part of a coordinated political campaign to draw attention to a problem. But as a personal contribution to carbon reduction? That’s just carbon theatre.


  1. Sure, if I avoid flying, that plane will still fly just as much and emit (almost) as much carbon as if I bought my ticket. But I’m not sure I follow your argument:

    First, the same could be said about vegetarianism –that saying No to that steak won’t bring back the cow or something like that. But today, there are enough vegetarians by choice (by sacrifice, really) that they make a noticeable impact in our food system. Not enough to overturn the system, of course, but enough to make a significant contribution. Personal sacrifice contributes to solve the problem, even if it doesn’t solve it completely.

    Second, it seems to me that reducing our emissions by 80-90% can only be achieved through a combination of policy making *and* personal sacrifice. Awareness of other people’s efforts helps –I fly less because of Jon Pipitone’s influence, and became a vegetarian partly through yours; I know I’ve influenced people in similar ways, too.

    So I wouldn’t dismiss this kind of commitment as theatre. It’s not enough to solve the problem, but it helps.

  2. Along the lines of this topic, I’d recommend the book “The Rebel Sell” by Heath and Potter (titled “Nation of Rebels” in the U.S.). It’s not specifically about climate change, but does contrast the sort of feel-good personal decisions versus the public policy stuff that is actually able to effect meaningful change. And I believe Heath is a colleague of yours.

  3. Jorge: The vegetarianism question is an interesting one. For me, being vegetarian is easy, because I prefer vegetarian food (I could never stand the taste and texture of meat, even as a kid). For other people I know, it’s a lifestyle choice that’s important to them in terms of identity and culture. And that’s great. But for many people, this switch is almost unthinkable. We could fix the system to make vegetarian food significantly cheaper, more convenient, more exciting, more culturally acceptable, etc. Which would then reduce the total amount of meat consumed, without necessarily converting large numbers of people to strict vegetarianism. But without this broader system change, only a tiny minority of people are ever likely to voluntarily become (and remain) vegetarian. Which therefore means its utility as a strategy for tackling global warming is close to zero. The fact that it’s not actually zero means that it’s still worth doing if you find it easy to do, or if you have other reasons as well to choose vegetarianism. The point is that it’s not worth spending a lot of time worrying about and stressing over. If it’s easy do it, if it’s not, don’t. But save your big efforts for things that can become systemic changes.

  4. (Warning, this started out as a short reply, but suddenly became long. Guess you hit a nerve!)

    Hmm… nope, I’m not happy with this post.

    I agree that “we need changes that scale up, and we need to change the economic and policy frameworks to support such changes” and that “we have to think in terms of whole systems.” Clearly this problem is one that’s bigger than any one of us, but that doesn’t imply there is no place for strong individual action.

    I know, I know.. you’re not saying that, but you are saying something essentially like that though when you say that personal actions to, in this case reduce your carbon footprint, are “a waste of time if you’re doing it by giving up stuff that you’d rather not give up”.

    What worries me about what you’re saying is the implication that the conditions under which personal actions are acceptable is only when they are easy. I’m particularly concerned about your statement that large scale changes won’t happen “if the people who understand what needs doing focus inwards on their own personal footprints.” This is just bogus and frustrating because it supports this weird idea we all have some finite reservoir of energy which we can either invest in changing ourselves or changing the world, but not both. Plus, it also suggests that somehow taking those personal actions which result in sacrifices are somehow always draining. I don’t agree with any of that.

    Firstly, I think it is possible to take personal actions, to be deeply concerned about the them, AND to also, at the same time, engage with creating systemic change*. Those actions that are difficult may be difficult at first and may be mentally taxing to some extent, but not always, not forever, and not to the exclusion of any other work. I’m sure you can think of many people you know who are like this. In fact, many of the people I know who are engaged in working to create systemic change are also very conscious of their own lifestyles and habits, and are constantly making personal choices (and sacrifices) that reflect their views on what makes the world a better place.

    Also: I find there is often great rewards that comes from the work of investigating my life, personal choices, habits and compulsions. Not flying across the country recently was a big decision in a way. It meant sore legs and broken sleep for three days… but I got to meet some fascinating people, see some amazing parts of the country and spend lots of time being slow and reflecting. So, I’m partly saying “look on the bright side” and “it’s not as bad as it sounds” but I’m also saying that I think we humans are capable of more than you’re giving us credit for. Taking the train may suck at times but, ultimately, so what? We deal with discomfort and sacrifice all the time and still achieve great things.

    That said, I think it’s important to recognise that dealing with the discomfort in a healthy way is where the real work in taking personal action has to be done. “Worrying and stressing” over your actions isn’t, on it’s own, going to lead to much personal good — it’s probably going to leave you drained and despairing. I suppose what I’m saying here is that I disagree with you and think difficult personal actions are important and manageable *if* you approach them with the right coping skills and attitude. That’s my caveat.

    But more so, I think that making positive systemic changes which stick is greatly aided by the people involved in making the change having a mindset consistent with that change. That is to say, if you’re interested in creating a more sustainable world it helps (but is neither necessary nor sufficient) to have the mindset of living sustainably and be deeply familiar with the intricacies and difficulties of the changes you propose. Making personal choices exercises that new mindset. It puts into practice, “in the small”, the kind of thinking that needs to happen “in the large”. This is especially true of personal actions which are difficult and challenging: that’s when you learn the most.

    Anyhow, I think I’m veering slightly away from your point. I don’t disagree that there is plenty of green theatrics being played out. It’s seemingly done by people and organizations that want to appeal to the spirit of sustainability without having to actually make the difficult and tricky systemic decisions, commitments, and changes that have to be made. And, as you said in your original post on the matter, the conversation about personal choices (personal carbon footprints) often distracts us from the important work that has to be done systemically. Not only is it distracting, but it also makes us feel like our only way forward is through personal actions (which is both silly and harmful, as it puts the all the weight of the world unfairly on each of our shoulders).

    So, I agree: theatre for the sake of selling false action and distracting us from conversations about systemic change: bad. But taking personal action and responsibility does not always mean you’re buying in to what’s on stage. I think taking personal action (even if it is, at times, difficult) is crucial aspect of understanding the problem and solutions, as well as, of course, making immediate, positive impact.

    * If you’re wondering, I’m not saying this as a knock against hypocrisy: I think there’s a great place for hypocrisy in the world. You can’t always do what you think is the right thing, but that shouldn’t mean you don’t talk about it and promote. But that’s another thought entirely.

  5. Jon: Yes, I’m not 100% happy with the post either, but I decided to hit ‘publish’ on the basis that if I don’t risk being wrong, I’m probably not saying anything useful. Most of what I want to say is directed at how we scale up action to things that very large numbers of people will be willing to do; all that you say about the value of learning through personal action is quite true. It’s not that we shouldn’t do it if it’s not easy; it’s that we shouldn’t expect others to follow unless we then find a way to make the path easier.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that whatever personal action each of us takes, we should continually ask ourselves how such an action could scale, and what it would take for that to happen. And devote our energies to designing scaleable solutions (or systemic changes that enable them), rather than optimizing personal footprint reduction.

  6. IMO Jon’s position doesn’t acknowlege the economic concept of “return on investment” – that if you have N hours to spend on “greening up”, those N hours are best spent lowering the barriers to *everybody* greening their lives, rather than just your own. “Don’t just be the change, mass-produce it.”

    Also, “single-action bias”; if people really do typically only do one thing, better it be the thing that has most effect.

    re Jon’s “the implication that the conditions under which personal actions are acceptable is only when they are easy” – no, when they make it easy for *everyone*.
    …otherwise we risk counterproductive hairshirted holier-than-thouism…which I think George Marshall stepped right into.

  7. Steve,

    I think I disagree with almost everything you say in this post (which is quite unusal), but I would in particular like to comment on your assertion that “You can’t build a solution to climate change by asking people to give up the conveniences of modern life.” (a variant of “The american way of life is not negotiable”).

    Since you seem to agree that climate change is a real problem, let me ask you what you think would happen if, to make sure that we do not ask too much from people, we just let everyone go on with their current lifestyle?

    If you think that everything will be fine, then clearly climate change is not an issue, and we should simply stop worrying about it.

    If you think that big problems lie ahead, then you clearly see that your position is untenable: solving climate change *will* require us to change our lifestyle, and it is quite possible that, as a result, we won’t enjoy ourselves as much as we do now. But there really is no other choice if, as I believe and you seem to believe too, we are currently living beyond our means. Claiming, like you implicitly do, that we will find a solution to climate change (or energy supply, for that matter) without giving up *anything* is a very dangerous fallacy.

    Maybe, just maybe, we will be able to find a magical solution, but promising it before we actually have it is, in my opinion, quite irresponsible.

  8. Michel: I’m not arguing that we can carry on living as we have been. Systemic changes are needed everywhere, as we have to give up our over-production, over-consumption, and our obsession with economic growth. Our lives will change dramatically as we take on this challenge. I’m arguing about strategy – how we get there, rather than what the destination looks like.

    I’m arguing that we won’t effect such changes on a global scale by voluntarily trying to live greener lives. It takes a strong commitment to live that, because it’s counter-cultural. A small number of people are capable of such commitment, and I admire them for it. But that’s not an adequate solution to climate change because it doesn’t scale – you cannot get large numbers of people to make such changes to their lives while those changes require that much effort and commitment. The challenge is to find things that do scale.

    Whenever you make any change in your personal lifestyle to make it greener, spend time asking yourself what would it take to get very large numbers of people to do likewise. What would remove the barriers for people who don’t have your passion and commitment? And then work on getting rid of those barriers…

  9. Ok, it seems that we agree more than I thought, so I probably misunderstood you, sorry for that.

    That said, if we agree on the fact that systemic changes are required, then I think that individual efforts are very worthwhile for at least two reasons.

    First, they set examples and show that it is indeed possible to live (happy and fulfilling) lives that have a much lower carbon footprint than the average. This will motivate a few other people to change their lifestyle, which in turn will motivate more people, and so on. Many people are afraid to do something they consider radical unless they have a model to inspire and reassure them.

    Second, as early adopters of “the new lifestyle”, people who try to reduce their carbon footprint make the process easier for the ones that follow them. Just like early adopters of new technology, they identify the problems and, by their feedback, they help improving the situation. They gradually build a critical mass that encourages both the market and the politicians to take this new class of people seriously, and to cater to their needs.

    Basically, I think that the systemic changes that you mention won’t (and can’t) happen overnight. For that reason, someone has to take the lead and adopt a different lifestyle before it has become the norm, and even before it is comfortable to do so. It seems this is precisely what the actors of your carbon theatre are trying to do.

  10. I loved this post. Steve has identified the key element in our modern life: “convenience”.

    “You can’t build a solution to climate change by asking people to give up the conveniences of modern life…”

    The biggest challenge for scientists is to keep the convenience unchanged when trying to reduce the carbon footprint. If we put our SE glasses on, “public convenience” is actually one of the biggest Requirements that must be satisfied by any solution to the energy problem. I believe formulating such a requirement is an an interesting subject on its own.

  11. Folks in the comments who think Steve is off-base need to understand Jevon’s Paradox:

    The Jevons Paradox questions the pervasive assumptioin — common in colloquial discourse and even in many academic discussions — that sustainability emerges as a passive consequence of consuming less. This assumption comes in two versions. The pessimistic version suggests that it is necessary for people voluntarily to reduce their resource consumption in order to become more sustainable. Examples might include taking shorter or colder showers, using public transportation, drinking tap water rather than bottled, or eating less meat. This is sometimes known as the sackcloth-and-ashes approach to sustainability. The optimistic version, preferred by many economists and most politicians, is that a future of technological innovations and the shift to a service-and-information economy will reduce our consumption of resources to such an extent that we will become sustainable without requiring people to sacrifice the things that they enjoy.
    — The Jevons paradox and the myth of resource efficiency improvements

    Hand-wringing about personal carbon footprints and overconsumption reminds me of Stein’s law: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

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