What is to be done? The first thing to do is to admit that Dick Cheney is right. ‘Conservation may be a personal virtue,’ he said in 2001, ‘but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.’ Rephrase that sentence to state that conservation is indeed a personal virtue, and both halves of it are, it seems to me, true. But there is also a problem with the notion of conservation as a personal virtue. The risk is that awareness of global warming and of the need to act to counter it can be reduced to a form of personal good conduct; to membership of the tribe of the virtuous. It is a good thing to choose to pollute less, to ride a bicycle and take the train and turn down the thermostat, and to fit low-energy lightbulbs, but there is a serious risk that these activities will come to seem an end in themselves, a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change. They aren’t. The changes that are needed are global and structural, and anything which distracts attention from that is potentially damaging. There is a parallel of sorts between militant conservationism and driving an SUV. The SUV driver is consciously choosing to worsen the environment, and to harm the planet, and is trying at the same time to send a signal – a signal to herself – that even if climate change comes she will be able to protect herself from it. Look, the huge car says: I can protect myself and my family, whatever happens. That is a falsehood, and it is a falsehood related to the idea that our individual choices are of any consequence. I’ve just switched my electricity supply to a green company. I did it to give myself the feeling that I’m doing what little I can. But this, too, is a kind of category mistake – the SUV driver isn’t protecting anyone, and neither am I.
Beware misinterpretations of the Jevons Paradox, otherwise described as a rebound effect or moral licensing.