Now, I believe people are inherently good. If a deity visited someone and said "you can personally save the entire planet, but you'll have to make some major lifestyle changes," I think anyone I know would say yes. Despite our differences, we all want the best for all of us.
However, it's not that simple. Even if anyone would sacrifice to individually save the world, that doesn't mean everyone will sacrifice to collectively save the world. Why not? Here are a few reasons:
- We don't know what to do. We know we should consume less, but does this mean we should bury ourselves and fertilize the soil? What does a sustainible lifestyle look like? We don't really know (though some have thought about it!)
- Culture. It's impossible not to at least partially assimilate the attitudes and lifestyles of those around you. Our imaginations are limited, so we're most likely to act similarly to those around us.
- Disconnect between action and consequence. This is a big one, in my opinion. Suppose that every time we drove a car, ate meat, or left a light switch on, we could see the environment deteriorate around us. Or conversely, suppose every time we recycled or biked to work, we could feel the earth gain vitality. If either of these things were true, I'm sure our problems would be gone in no time. But because environmental consequences occur over such large timespans and spatial scales, it's hard to see the effect of anything we do. Positive and negative feedback can change behavior, but only if that feedback is immediate and visible. It's much harder to worry about an incremental change fifty years from now.
- Many other reasons: hopelessness, inertia, not wanting to admit the scale of the problem, not wanting to clean a mess someone else created, etc.
I highlight the first three reasons because they are inherently complex systems issues. Because the physical and social issues around global warming are so complex, the best course of action is not clear (though some actions are clearly better than others.) Because we live in a complex system, our actions are influenced by those around us. And also because the physics of the environment is complex, the consequences of our actions are far removed from the actual action.
So what's to be done? Standard complex systems theory tells us that a complex system cannot be coerced. You cannot force everyone to live sustainibly unless you first convert the world into a totalitarian state, which is a terrible solution. To change the behavior of a complex system you must somehow change the rules of the game, creating incentives and disincentives that promote responsible action. This is essentially the theory behind the Kyoto protocol: don't force nations to change, but give them incentives to live cleaner.
Unfortunately, the carrots and sticks provided by the Kyoto protocol apply only at the nation level. Collective rewards and punishments are not very effective at changing behavior; feedback works best on the individual scale. Eventually we must find a way to trickle these carrots and sticks down to the state, local, and ultimately individual level, so that people are tangibly rewarded for living sustainibly and tangibly punished for not.
Is this possible? It may not be, but I think it's our only hope.