The power of sustainable thinking

| 20th February 2009
From carbon trading to embodied emissions, our difficulties would be greatly reduced if we changed the way we perceive our own beliefs, says Bob Doppelt

‘Cap and trade’ is seen by many people today as a climate saviour. But emissions have risen, not dropped, as a result of the European Union’s programme, indicating that cap and trade faces rough sledding. This should not be a surprise. Global warming, at its core, is not actually a technology, policy or even an energy problem. It is the greatest failure of thought in human history. Attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will fail unless people first alter their thinking and behaviour.

The Earth is warming because humans, primarily in industrialised nations, suffer from systems blindness. We have failed to recognise the effects of our insatiable use of fossil fuels, massive resource consumption and huge emission of greenhouse gases on the social and ecological systems we are dependent upon for life. Only after people recognise the destructive effects of their current beliefs and assumptions and make the shift to ‘sustainable thinking’ will successful solutions to the crisis emerge.

Systems blindness seems to permeate all facets of western society today.

Much of the trouble with the EU’s carbontrading programme can be traced to the fact that many of the regulated industries see it simply as another government programme to be manipulated for their financial benefit. Others are pursuing the large-scale use of dubious offsets, indicating that they intend to maintain business-as-usual. Corporate interests are also lobbying the EU to prevent meaningful change to the programme, potentially undermining the entire escapade.

These companies cannot grasp how their production and use of fossil fuels adds more heat-trapping CO² to Earth’s thermal blanket, threatening the human and ecological systems that they and their customers are enmeshed within. They also cannot comprehend the fundamental economic restructuring that is needed to ensure their own survival. EU government regulators, for their part, seem blind to the systems they are charged with regulating.

Pollution markets were first developed in the US to control emissions from power plants that produced acid rain. The US sulphur dioxide (SO²) trading programme achieved a 60 per cent reduction in emissions from power plants, and the nitrogen oxides (NOx) programme achieved a 40 per cent reduction, primarily through the use of well-known, mature technologies.

This approach will not work as well with CO² because most of the technologies needed to capture CO² at power plants and factories and sequester it are still in their infancy, with no guarantees of success. Government bureaucrats don’t seem to recognise this fact, however, dimming the prospects of much-needed emissions reductions.

It’s not just big business and government that suffer from systems blindness: consumers are also afflicted. Extensive effort is underway in many western nations to reduce domestic emissions. Much of the success, however, may be an illusion. This is because western consumers buy thousands of products that have significant ‘embodied emissions’ – i.e. the greenhouse gases generated in developing nations such as China to manufacture the goods used in the developed nations.


Emissions embodied in imports of IT, telecom and consumer electronic equipment to the US in 2006, for example, were 3.5 times larger than all emissions from electric power generation in California, according to a 2007 study by the Joint Global Research Institute. The report also noted that total US imported embodied emissions have grown almost threefold in the past decade.

In the UK, even though national CO² emissions declined by five per cent from 1992-2004, embodied emissions from consumed goods and services rose by 18 per cent, or 115 million metric tonnes, according to a recent report by the Stockholm Institute on Sustainable Development and the University of Sydney for the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Few nations count embodied emissions, which makes their domestic inventories misleading. Western nations are simply exporting their emissions overseas, but most consumers remain blind to the effects of their consumption choices.

This form of systems blindness is reinforced by blindness about the true purpose of many foreign policy and poverty-alleviation programmes. Few taxpayers realise that their money is used by the World Bank, IMF and other agencies, in cahoots with multinational corporations, to create huge indebtedness among developing nations in order to gain cheap access to their oil and natural resources.

The cost of this economic colonialism on the poor, the climate – and ourselves – is enormous. Many developing nations must allocate a majority of the revenues to debt repayment, leaving little for nutrition, healthcare and housing programmes. Growing poverty, in turn, increases deforestation and other problems that reduce nature’s capacity to absorb CO². In addition, export credit agencies – private institutions that act as intermediaries between national governments and exporters to provide export financing – fund or support nearly half of all new energy intensive projects in the developing world, according to attorney Bruce Rich of the US-based Environmental Defense Fund.

Until the public sees our foreign policy and development financing for what it is, poverty and greenhouse gas emissions alike will continue to grow, threatening everyone.

Is it possible to overcome systems blindness? Can we think and act sustainably? Yes. As I point out in my book, The Power of Sustainable Thinking (Earthscan), the key is to understand that humans progress through a normal series of stages whenever they make a fundamental change in their thinking and behaviour. Using appropriate change mechanisms at each stage can move people toward greater awareness. With persistence, most eventually begin to account for the effects of their thinking and behaviours on the climate and others, and act to alleviate them.

If humanity is going to stabilise the climate, we must remove the blinkers that prevent us from seeing the harm caused by our current thinking and behaviour. The future will be powered by sustainable thinking – or it will not be much of a future at all.

Bob Doppelt is a writer and director of the Climate Leadership Initiative at the University of Oregon, Eugene

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009


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