More from MacKay:
We’ve established that the UK’s present lifestyle can’t be sustained on the UK’s own renewables (except with the industrialization of country-sized areas of land and sea). So, what are our options, if we wish to get off fossil fuels and live sustainably? We can balance the energy budget either by reducing demand, or by increasing supply, or, of course, by doing both.
Have no illusions. To achieve our goal of getting off fossil fuels, these reductions in demand and increases in supply must be big. Don’t be distracted by the myth that “every little helps.” If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. We must do a lot. What’s required are big changes in demand and in supply.
“But surely, if 60 million people all do a little, it’ll add up to a lot?” No. This “if-everyone” multiplying machine is just a way of making something small sound big. The “if-everyone” multiplying machine churns out inspirational statements of the form “if everyone did X, then it would provide enough energy/water/gas to do Y,” where Y sounds impressive. Is it surprising that Y sounds big? Of course not. We got Y by multiplying X by the number of people involved – 60 million or so! Here’s an example from the Conservative Party’s otherwise straight-talking Blueprint for a Green Economy:
The mobile phone charger averages around … 1W consumption, but if every one of the country’s 25 million mobile phones chargers were left plugged in and switched on they would consume enough electricity (219GWh) to power 66 000 homes for one year.
66 000? Wow, what a lot of homes! Switch off the chargers! 66 000 sounds a lot, but the sensible thing to compare it with is the total number of homes that we’re imagining would participate in this feat of conservation, namely 25 million homes. 66 000 is just one quarter of one percent of 25 million. So while the statement quoted above is true, I think a calmer way to put it is:
If you leave your mobile phone charger plugged in, it uses one quarter of one percent of your home’s electricity.
And if everyone does it?
If everyone leaves their mobile phone charger plugged in, those chargers will use one quarter of one percent of their homes’ electricity.
The “if-everyone” multiplying machine is a bad thing because it deflects people’s attention towards 25million minnows instead of 25million sharks. The mantra “Little changes can make a big difference” is bunkum, when applied to climate change and power. It may be true that “many people doing a little adds up to a lot,” if all those “littles” are somehow focused into a single “lot” – for example, if one million people donate £10 to one accidentvictim, then the victim receives £10 million. That’s a lot. But power is a very different thing. We all use power. So to achieve a “big difference” in total power consumption, you need almost everyone to make a “big” difference to their own power consumption.
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