I borrowed today's post title from a New York Times op-ed contribution with the same title, written by Gernot Wagner, an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. (Thank you, Colin, for sending this article to me.) The article makes for an interesting read, but it raises several issues of individualism and collective action that I do not agree with, since they stem from an old mindset of large-scale regulation driven by neoliberal economics, the same economics that has gotten us into this mess.
I agree with Wagner's sentiment on the importance and need for collective action. Of course we need collective action in the face of collectively-made problems. But Wagner almost belittles individual effort, because, it doesn't affect change. He writes,
"But, sadly, individual action does not work. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough. Self-interest, not self-sacrifice, is what induces noticeable change. Only the right economic policies will enable us as individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the planet."
I do not agree with him. He is saying that the agency for change is not us, that individuals have no agency, but rather economic policies are what will free us from ourselves. Unfortunately, the economic system that is vague and murky, the policy of which is set by economic wonks in secrecy (look at the Federal Reserve). I agree that individual action doesn't add up when we are not communicative of our efforts, when we are not consciously trying to instill change in others. Of course it wouldn't work, because such individual action is almost selfish and elitist. I have mentioned this several times.
"And economics teaches us that humanity must have the right incentives if it is to stop this terrible trend."
Wagner implies with this statement that humans are "rational" actors, and act rationally when shown a price of their choices. Nothing could be further from the truth, because no one really acts rationally. Look at how many people smoke, and how many eat unhealthily, how many people continue to buy Hummers even when gas "prices" are so high. Furthermore, the costs for environmental compliance are terribly low. Many factories find it cheaper to pay fines for breaking regulations than upping their standards and complying. The boundaries between domestic law and transnational law further provide little incentive to think about cumulative impacts of choices. Law and economy are set up with loopholes - you can prove your case not to pay, or be luckily powerful, or just pay your way out of your problems.
Wagner raises how economic incentives allowed us to get rid of lead from gasoline. But the economy didn't stop us from creating another problem. The economy is not self-correcting, and our faith in it cannot be blind. The reason why all of these problems keep arising is because we have a structure in place that allows them to pop up. As soon as the "problem" of climate change is "solved," something else massive will come up. I know it. Because unless we change the foundation, the offspring are all rotten.
What such articles have the tendency to do is put the burden on the governing elite. But as President Obama said tonight, we all have responsibilities. I have continued to believe in the ability of human emotion and benevolence. Constantly we are surrounded by stories and images and media that tell us stories that are inspiring, not because a price is put on their actions, but because they speak to something deeper, something that is more powerful than rational action and choice. We are guided ethically and emotionally as individuals, so why should we be guided by "rational market principles" that in no way question the status quo? Aren't we more than that? I am not convinced that we are. We are animals, and we have a conscience. It is for that reason we find things beautiful, and some things despicable. Unfortunately, right now, such emotion shows up only when we are manifestly and tangibly distressed, when we actually see something going wrong in front of us.
As individuals, we cannot act in isolation. Rather, we must recognise that we are a part of a community - of people, of species, of ecosystems - forming this Earth. A restructuring of our lives, individual and collective, is in order.