Seven reasons why your light bulb matters

In recent times there’s been an interesting – and welcome – shift as regards the terms of the environmental debate. Arguments against taking action on our environment have shifted to a large degree from “it doesn’t matter” to “even if it does matter, you can’t do anything about it”.

So rather than denying global warming outright, sceptics more and more deploy arguments along the lines of, “well changing your light bulbs isn’t going to do any good given how many new power stations China is building”.

Although this argument is normally presented as a matter-of-fact, 100% watertight, no doubts entertained, copper-bottomed case, it is deeply flawed. And those of us who want to secure more and quicker action to tackling climate change need to engage it head on.

So here are my seven reasons why that argument is wrong:

1. Perhaps the biggest obstacle we face to getting more green policies in place in developing countries is the tag of hypocrisy and greediness. We in the developed world did all sorts of environmental damage when getting rich and industrialised – so why should we then turn round and stop others doing the same? That’s why showing that we too are taking action is important. Imagine if George W Bush came over to the UK and lectured us on reducing fuel consumption – would his lectures sound more persuasive if he was telling Americans to do the same or if he was telling American they don’t need to do anything?

2. Small actions add up. Just as the old joke goes – you eat a big elephant in small mouthfuls. Changing one light bulb at home today won’t do much to save the world, but changing more light bulbs at home overtime and having more and more people change their light bulbs too – that does add up. And it’s not just in area you can take small actions but across a whole range of areas. Done the light bulb? Now how about making sure your tyres are at optimum pressure? And maybe next month start recycling your glass jars? And perhaps something else a few months after that? All those little steps add up as little step follows little step.

3. As regards air travel – the basic argument rolled out against taking action on the environmental damage caused by flights is that they make up only around one in twenty parts of the UK’s CO2 emissions. True – but this will grow to one in four by 2050 at current rates. So small actions now with only small immediate effects can have a massive long-term impact if they help head off huge growth.

4. It’s good for our economy to take action now. The more that we do and the sooner that we do it, the greater the boost to the British economy and British firms who produce environmentally friendly goods and services. Greater support for tidal power is a good example – it won’t just help the environment but it will also help ensure that UK jobs are gained by getting a bigger share of the international market for such technology. There is an example for us to follow in Denmark, which is now a world leader in wind turbine technology and reaping the jobs and profits that go with that. The UK could easily have been – we have just as much wind as they do – but chose instead to stand on the sidelines whilst others developed that industry.

5. It’s also often good for our own wallets right here and now. Changing light bulbs or using more fuel-efficient vehicles saves you money. Even though the low energy bulb costs more, you’re quickly into profit from the lower fuel bills and longer bulb life. Keeping your tyres at the right pressure, driving in a fuel efficient way and when you next change cars switching to a more economical one all saves you money in petrol bills. So you don’t have to like the planet – you can just hate petrol taxes! It’s a win for you even if you don’t worry about pollution.

6. It’s right in principle. All my previous points are about pragmatic decisions. But sometimes it’s right to do the right thing just because it is the right thing, regardless of what impact it may or may not have.Living our own lives in as considerate and caring way as possible is the right thing to do – even if there are others who aren’t doing that.

7. And finally – as you might expect a politician to say! – politics matters. Governments set thousands of law, tens of thousands of regulations and spend billions of pounds. That all adds up to a massive amount of influence and power, and it is under the control of politicians. But even this is amenable to the collective voice of many people all taking small actions themselves – both in the ballot box(putting a cross on a piece of paper once every few years is a pretty minimal degree of effort for having a say in how billions of pounds are spent!) and in their own lives. Because the more individuals are seen as taking action in their own lives, however small, the more politicians will be convinced that people do care about the issue and will react and change.

So next time you are sat there staring at your light bulb – don’t worry about the Chinese power station that is out of your control, but remember all the power that lies with you.

This article first appeared on the New Statesman blog.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007