Most of us accept the need for a more sustainable way to live, by reducing carbon emissions, developing renewable technology and increasing energy efficiency. But are these efforts to save the planet enough?
A growing band of experts argue that personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is built on the assumption of growth, and if we are serious about saving earth, we must re-structure our economy.
What can you do to help this process? We asked some movers and shakers for their recommendations. Here is what they said:
"Buy less stuff. Join and support Friends of the Earth."
Herman Daly, ecological economist, University of Maryland, US
"Vote. Or better yet, get involved in politics at any level and advocate green economics."
Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature
"In a speech in April 1967, Martin Luther King called on the US to undergo a radical revolution of values - to shift from a 'thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society'. It is a message that resonates with today's challenges."
John Beddington, chief scientific adviser to HM Government, UK
- "Join www.1sky.org
- Get involved in US politics - get Obama elected!
- Cut your personal consumption of meat in half
- Go outside much more and connect with the environment."
Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
"It's very hard to change anything by yourself. But I don't want to discourage people from making personal changes, so I think people should pick some aspect of the crisis they're interested in-environment, poverty, trade, labour, whatever and join an organisation that tries to do something about it. Lots of people feel they don't have time, but they can send a cheque and keep themselves informed. I didn't do what I'm doing now when I had three small children either. The other thing is to contribute to building alliances - today none of the groups can win by themselves - we have to work together."
Susan George, chair of the board, Transnational Institute
"Buy strategically. At the moment it's essentially impossible to live a consumer lifestyle and do no harm, so the best you can do is nudge the market in that direction. Buy products that not only do their job more sustainably, but send market signals back through the economy that are likely to result in more meaningful systemic changes.
"We can't achieve these results single-handedly, but we can work together with others who share our values to exert enormous leverage on the marketplace. The most surprising result of strategic consumption could be that shopping, that traditionally most narcissistic of consumer actions, may actually lead us to civically reengage."
Alex Steffen, executive director, Worldchanging.com
"Stay connected with like-minded people and organisations. This will help you to stay better informed, act collectively and in doing so alleviate the problem of feeling that one person as an individual is powerless to do anything, cultivate a sense of belonging, extend networks and thus power. Collective action will be necessary in order to really bring about the very drastic changes needed at the national and international level."
Jeff Turk, economist, The Green Economics Institute
- "98 months and counting... On current trends and using IPCC definitions, by the end of the year 2016 the world will enter a new, more perilous phase of risk of climate change. Launched on the 1st August 2008, you can sign up to take monthly actions and be kept informed at www.onehundredmonths.org - named after how long was left to go. You can do things like download the countdown clock, run it on your computer, or project it somewhere to help focus people's minds on the urgency of climate change
- Consume less, feel better. Take a simple survey at www.happyplanetindex.org to find out how efficiently you're using the planet's resources to give yourself a good life, and get some tips on how to feel better while lowering your environmental impact.
- Join an existing Transition Town initiative, or begin one of your own."
Andrew Simms, policy director and head of Climate Change programme at the New Economics Foundation
"I lived with a tribe of people in the Amazon called the Pirahas' for 30 years. Their lives are 100% sustainable.
"The biggest recommendation I think that a Piraha would make is to live a less pampered life. Toughen yourself. Live with less food, live with less of everything - except family and enjoyment of nature. This includes the advice (Pirahas', not mine - I am a horrible softy to them) to avoid all accumulation. Have confidence that you can provide for yourself each day without excess storage of resources.
"The Piraha goal is to be 'tigisai' - 'hard'."
Daniel Everett, linguist, Illinois State University, US
"Stop using tropical hardwood, which is the main reason for logging primary rainforest, which is a contributing factor to bushmeat hunting, which threatens to wipe out many primate species, including the great apes."
Frans de Waal, primatologist, Emory University, Atlanta, US
"Require retailers to display labels on consumer durables specifying the period they are expected to last without major repairs."
Tim Cooper, Centre for Sustainable Consumption, Sheffield Hallam University
"Disconnect yourself from the cyclical system of 'desire and disappointment' that fosters unhappiness and frustration with the products you already have, and creates tension between 'actual' and 'desired' states of being that, over time, manifest as a continual dissatisfaction with the now."
Jonathan Chapman, sustainable designer, University of Brighton
"If we all spend a few moments learning and thinking about the consequences of the choices we make each day – what to buy, where and how it was made, whether it had caused human (e.g. child slaves or sweat shops) or animal (e.g. intensive farming) suffering or environmental damage (e.g. use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers etc) - and finally, and very importantly, think about whether we really need it – this would result in many small changes and ultimately to larger ones."
Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace
- "Change the economic role and value of women in the economy. Women are better equipped than men to look after the world's resources, and more likely to share them out so every one has enough (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and the International Food Policy Research Institute). We need a policy of 'enoughness', rather than economic or resource surplus in an age of reduced growth.
- Educate women and girls globally – this will help to reduce birth rates, which directly affects resource consumption.
- Stop travel agencies and companies forcing employees to fly everywhere. Instead, allow for slower and more carbon-friendly travel, or having a telephone call instead."
- "Start defending tribal peoples' right to survival and to live how they want to live: they point to the future, not the past, and are the living embodiment of real sustainability.
- Ask the UK government to ratify international law on tribal peoples (ILO 169). If the UK signs up to the law, it will be harder for British companies to destroy tribal peoples' land: under ILO 169, development projects cannot take place on tribal peoples' lands without their free, prior and informed consent.
- Join Survival International and help tribal peoples defend their lands and their rights. Research has shown that the most effective way to stop logging in the Amazon is to protect Indians' land - but the land of many tribes remains unprotected."
"Why not set out to reduce your consumption of meat by a third – or even a half – over the next year? Lots of benefits for you (in terms of reduced health risks) and for the environment (in terms of reduced carbon footprints and other pollution problems). If you want to see the full picture as to why this makes such good sense, check out details of the 'Eat Less Meat' campaign on the Compassion in World Farming website."
Jonathon Porritt, founder director of Forum for the Future
- "Vote for a national leader who has long-term and global vision on climate and energy issues: there's no point in planning for the next 4 years in office without planning for the following 56 as well.
- Invest in alternative energy research, either directly or through green energy tariffs."
Catherine Brahic, environmental reporter, New Scientist
- "Start repairing things that can be repaired
- Go to the World Social Forum
- Lobby for all parties representing major shades of green to be publicly funded, so they can afford to stand in elections."
Liz Else, editor, New Scientist
"One thing people should do is to make sustainability a core part of those decisions in their lives that have a long-term impact. This could be by making 'green investment' decisions in selecting and designing their homes; buying their cars or choosing a washing machine (remembering that the price of natural resources will increase as they become scarce, so what costs a little more now will seem cheaper later on); by voting for and speaking up for those politicians brave enough to suggest things like energy and carbon taxes; vocally opposing those that complain about increased fuel prices; or choosing to support and reward those companies and organizations that are helping us to build a future by making sustainability central to the way they do business."
"Set up a modest pilot project to invest in natural capital, focusing on what's most important in your community or sphere of work - like forests for climate stabilization, wetlands for water purification and flood control, or scenic hedgerows and natural areas in rural countryside for crop pollination, tourism, and recreation. Then scale up."
Gretchen Daily, director, Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University
"I generally regard individualist, voluntarist actions as worthy, but limited in their capacity to bring about the kinds of structural changes that are necessary to move towards ecologically-constrained capitalism.
"But if I had to think of something: start a political campaign to transform the way we measure genuine progress so that we have the framework and indicators to guide us towards ecologically- and socially-responsible savings, investment, production and consumption. This will also provide the basis for designing the regulatory context that will address one of the problems at the heart of the capitalist dynamic: the privatisation of gains and socialisation of costs (in space and time)."
Robyn Eckersley, head of political science, University of Melbourne
- "Cycling to and from work would be a great start, since this would help with fitness and obesity; reduce dependence on oil; decrease greenhouse gas and other emissions; lower infrastructure (roads, parking stations) development and maintenance; encourage a more distributed or decentralised urban form; require much less volume of materials (and potentially harmful chemicals) than in cars; chew up time (yes, taking longer to cycle means there is less time for people to consume other things or contribute to production of material things!); potentially be a more social activity by talking with other cyclists; connect people with the environment (rather than shielding ourselves within air conditioned cars, houses and buildings).
- I would also suggest simply buying far fewer things, say 50% less, and getting involved in reading, art, music, craft, home gardening or family activities – basically activities that use fewer resources, but connect people and take more time, which is important because there will more (conventional) unemployment if consumption of material things is decreased, and unemployed people need to be engaged meaningfully.
- More generally, people could avoid efficiency in the workforce, since efficiency is a growth engine for the economy – money saved gets 're-invested', often on consumption that re-employs workers previously made redundant by efficiency gains."
Graham Turner, team leader, Stocks and Flows Frameworks, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems