A weight on whose shoulders?

Yesterday I sat in on a presentation from Jon Clark and Steve Izzo, members of the York chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonprofit organization that works to effect legislative action to promote a sustainable climate.

The group’s purpose is summed up in its slogan, or catchphrase, if you will: “Political will for a livable world.” They’re focused on the big picture, on government policy and legislative action.

One bill they talked about in particular is called “fee and dividend,” which would charge a certain dollar amount per ton of carbon dioxide that is generated by burning fossil fuels. That fee would then be returned to Americans. The idea behind the bill is that by adding this fee to CO2 emissions, fossil fuel-based energy becomes more expensive, and clean energy starts to look more competitive. The dividend returned to Americans would help offset the consumer’s increased energy costs.

Whatever your beliefs on the Obama administration’s environmental record may be (and the opinions are varied, as displayed during a Yale Environment 360 panel held in July), and however you may view this new fee and dividend plan, my question is this:

How far does personal responsibility go before we need wide-sweeping policy changes?

Many groups are quick to note that if every person in the U.S. walked to the grocery or biked to work instead of driving for one day, it would be the equivalent of taking x number of cars off the road permanently. Or if every American switched to CFL bulbs, we could save x number of dollars on our electricity bill. TheĀ  statistics are always staggering, but I often think, “Oh, if it were only that easy.”

In my family of five, we often find it hard to agree on which restaurant to eat at (and a strong-willed 9-year-old seems to get his way more often than not). How do you get an entire country — even an entire town or family — to agree to quit using plastic water bottles, or use their bicycles more than their cars, or start buying local foods instead of ones that have been trucked across kingdom come to get to your grocery store? I’m not saying there haven’t been movements in the right direction: reusable bottles are now sold everywhere, cars are getting better gas mileage and multiple farmers markets are popping up, often in the same town.

But at a certain point, do we also need legislative actions to make a larger difference? To push companies and corporations to comply with restrictions that will reduce CO2 emissions? To create incentives for clean energy, bigger investments in alternative fuels, cars that run on electricity or biofuel instead of gasoline?

I don’t have these answers, and in fact, I’m not quite sure what I believe myself. But it’s an interesting point to think about: Does a “green” revolution start from the top down, from government action — or does it start from the ground up, from consumers and everyday Dick and Janes making small lifestyle changes that begin to snowball? Or really, is it both?

Sarah Chain

I'm an avid reader and book lover living and working in downtown York. Follow me on Twitter at @sarahEchain.

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8 Responses

  1. This fee & “dividend proposal” as well as any other similar proprosals that would get America started on the road to reducing global warming emissions is not just a good idea, it is an imperative.

    No matter what you may hear from the global wariming deniers, this thing is very real and very easily measured with simple, recorded climate data. And we all hope that the author, Sarah Chain, will soon makes up her mind and join the fight to bring some hope for the world that our children and their children must live in.

  2. We need it all. We need top down action – wide sweeping policy changes. We need bottom up action – lifestyle changes, grass roots activism. The thing about the situation being as dire as it is – and it is dire – is that wherever you look, there is work to be done. We need it all. There are those of us who are working really hard, in our own homes and outside of them, to promote a livable future. But it’s not enough – as a people we’ve been indoctrinated for too long into a lifestyle of apathy and acceptance. So while there are those among us who will answer the call to personal responsibility, we need responses on a governmental level to engage those who have not yet reached the point where they look around at what is taking place and say to themselves, “This is not acceptable.” We need it all.

  3. Mary Jenkins says:

    If we were starting from scratch, I’m sure individual efforts would be harnessed to meet the challenge. But individual efforts are completely hampered at this point by the ways we have all chosen to live, to create our communities, to subsidize the energies we do. Blame won’t help…we all created this situation (mostly before we were aware of what we were doing). But at this point, without changes in the structures we all rely on, individual efforts will not move fast enough. We need to use legislation, incentives of all kinds, and education to make individual efforts more likely and more effective.

  4. Tony Robalik says:

    I think it takes both, but it definitely won’t happen without grassroots, citizen pressure. I think the idea of a “cap and dividend” bill is a great one, and wish it could get more exposure. That might start with news organizations, like this one, deciding not to ignore it and putting it in print.

  5. L Ferree says:

    Most of the corporations in question have enough money that to redefine or dismantle the company and transform into a renewable energy company would not make a dent in the pockets of the individuals involved. So, logically the argument of greed does not even hold bearing. I believe the problem lies within the articles of corporation, and the laws supporting it. Legislation to change the way corporations work would be a huge step towards clean energy, as well as improved regulations, correct and fair subsidies, etc.
    I, for one, like living here on earth, and i need the earth to live.

  6. Francie Delaney says:

    I also believe we need both as most of us have been seduced for too long into thinking individualism is more important than community building & accumulating material goods will make us happier than sharing the wealth. Government could help remove the “blinders” & give incentives to corporations to play on a level field. Local “grass roots” efforts can offer us a strong foundation to move into a more earth friendly living phase: opening our eyes to our most important priorities – respecting the earth & eachother. These groups can support eachother through the rough times while sharing pertinent, sustainable skills we’ve learned in the past & refitting them with improvements from the present.
    Back to the author, you have a hidden jewel & wonderful challenge in your own midst -your son!!! Harness that creative energy from your 9 year old to help mould a more empathetic, environmentally sound future! By thinking “outside the box” & reaching out to others who have already made that leap, you’ll find you have the fortitude, the knowledge, & the support right here in York county. For our children are the future – set your own good example for them, “educate” them well & you will have surpassed one of the biggest hurdles. Your local community is counting on you!
    We can point our fingers at others til the cows come home but we are the ones that got ourselves into this predicament, (by choosing to use cars & airplanes, buy materials made across the world, etc.) and we are ultimately the only ones (with a little help) who can pull ourselves back out. (Check out the NO Impact project for ideas.)

  1. October 26, 2011

    [...] In a blog post few months ago, I asked, “When it comes to living sustainably and protecting the environment, how far does personal responsibility go before we need wide-sweeping policy changes?” [...]

  2. November 6, 2012

    [...] while back, I asked the question of whose responsibility it is to push forward on sustainability — the individual or the government? It’s a big question that I don’t have the [...]

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