Posted by & filed under CSAG Blog, Frontpage.

It feels like time to write another post that challenges myself as much as anyone else.

I know there has been a lot of positive press about the recent climate marches around the world with the march in New York gathering somewhere close to 400,000 people. There was a march here in Cape Town though I don’t know what the estimated numbers were. I’m certainly not going to criticise those marching or the idea of the march itself, I’m just struggling a little bit to understand what they are supposed to achieve. I’ve scanned the official site (see link above) and its very strong on getting people active and starting the movement but its a little unclear what that movement is supposed to really look like.

Recently a friend and colleague pointed me to an article that describes, amongst other things, how humans are wired to detect and home in on external threats to their well being. We are very quick to identify “enemies” like corrupt politicians, evil capitalists, subversive journalists, incompetent service providers. But we are particularly bad at identifying ourselves as a threat to ourselves. The article doesn’t tread on this territory and I am not an expert but observing myself and others really does seem to confirm that we are very good at carrying on with behaviours that are bad for us and those around us. Blind ignorance at best, apathy, or even worse, blatant denial is the order of the day.

In my own context, in South Africa, I see this a lot, in myself and in those around me. Everyone is very quick to complain about Eskom in particular. “They burn all this dirty coal you know. Tut tut tut. Lets turn on the kettle and have another cup of tea. Oh’ no, a power black out. Eskom!”. And of course the solution is to use renewables. Why doesn’t Eskom scrap its bad dirty coal power plans and just put in lots of solar panels? Or wind farms. Well it is of course but the numbers are tiny. The new Medupi power plant will produce 4800MW of power and cost around R170 billion (current estimates). The larget wind power farm planned is the Sere on the west coast which will have an installed capacity of 100MW but with a capacity factor of 27% actual production is around 27MW. It will cost an estimated R2.7 billion. So Medupi produces 28MW/billion Rand and Sere will produce about 10MW/billion Rand. That’s a factor of nearly three times more expensive.

Currently South African electricity is about half the cost of electricity in Germany, a country with one of the most successful implementations of renewable generation in the world. So where am I going with this?

My main point is that perhaps instead or as well of marching about climate change, we should all be looking at ourselves and asking what are we personally willing to sacrifice to slow down climate change. Given the above very sketchy and I’m sure very contestable (go for it!) analysis, one possibility would be that South Africa doubles its cost of electricity. Would you, in the interests of slowing global warming, reducing environmental injustice, slowing the loss of species, etc. be willing to pay double for your electricity? Nay, not just pay, support and march for the doubling of the price of electricity?

Or perhaps a more tangible challenge. Now that you have, or haven’t, marched for change. How about the following challenges:

  • Take 30 cold showers (turn off your geyser) before the end of the year
  • Take public transport or cycle to work 10 times before the end of the year
  • Don’t take the next international flight you have planned

Anyone up for the challenge?

PS: I know this is all simplistic and the reality is very complex. But its all to easy to hide behind “its complicated” isn’t it?
PPS: This doesn’t just apply to Climate Change. What about issues of social justice and poverty? Or your own “favourite” issue? What real sacrifices or reductions in quality of life are you willing to make for the sake of the issues you complain about?
PPPS: This post is aimed at myself as much or even more than anyone else!

10 Responses to “Time for a cold shower?”

  1. Piotr Wolski

    I guess what I was trying to say is that we (individuals) wield a considerable power to shape our future through our (individuals’) decisions. But as things stand now, this power has to be channeled through governance structures. No green revolutions. Or only these which are “approved” by the banks… Yes, we could be innovative and change the rigid mindset. But how? What can we achieve, how far can we go within the current economic framework?

    And yes, I believe that equality (or almost) and sustainability is possible, but only if we think of “us”, rather than “I” (as in “Go alone – go fast. Go together – go far”). The key question, thus, is “at what level of resource use?” Why R500/month? Why not R100/month? or 50? Is 50 too difficult to accept? Do you (the reader, not CJ) think a person who spends R5000/month would find it easy to go down to R500/month? Don’t you think person who does not have electricity at home wouldn’t want to be able to use an equivalent of R50/month? Do you think 80 years ago R50/month wouldn’t be considered acceptable (read: a level corresponding to dignified, secure lifestyle)? Do you think 50 years from now R500/month will be considered acceptable? Just some food for thought…

  2. Piotr Wolski

    @ CJ
    Well, I agree, the economics aspect is perhaps less relevant overall. And redirecting spending, if done at an appropriate pace, will have little effect. However, imagine this situation – a naked cycle campaign catches fire on FB, and a large portion of population (individuals) decides to ditch cars, and ride, or walk (naked, or clad, whatever…) from now on. Car sales plummet… There is a shortage of bicycles all right, but it takes faster to bankrupt a factory, than to build another one. By not buying cars, we (ok, it’s “we”, not “you”) can probably cause a global economic crisis within 3 months…

  3. Willem Stefaan Conradie

    CJ appears to have found the formula for a blog post that starts an interesting discussion in the comment section…@Piotr: Do you think it might be possible to change according to which metrics we try to “keep up with the Joneses”? Or is that fanciful thinking?

  4. Chris Jack


    I agree on the selfish genetics issue but not on the economics. Well almost. By not having hot showers or spending money on a steak you free up money to be spent elsewhere in the economy. There are surely loads of ways we can redirect our financial “power” towards reducing inequality and the Gini index rather than using our power to perpetuate the status quo. And money can be used to not only purchase (ie. exchange for goods/services) but just purely to contribute to society. How about micro “angel” investments for small emerging businesses? That isn’t removing money from the economy, its just redirecting it.

    But of course the flip side of the economics thing that no body really wants to face is that we cannot (I believe) reduce inequality to some “acceptable” level (there will always be inequalities) sustainably without the “top” dropping down somewhat. I did a quick calculation yesterday based on the 2011 survey of the number of households in SA and multiplied that by what I know is a relatively normal to low monthly electricity consumption in my socio-economic circle (~R500/month on electricity). The resultant number WAY exceeds the current generating capacity of SA and that’s just domestic consumption which is only part of the picture.

    So we can talk glibly of reducing economic inequalities but are we really imagining what that might look like?

    I actually think there are ways of doing things that are quite exciting and innovative but they do require getting out of our current rigid mindset.

  5. Piotr Wolski

    Ha! interesting stuff indeed. There are two more aspects to consider. Economic paradigms and biology.

    Firstly, by not eating out, not taking the warm shower, and not flying, you are instrumental in weakening of the economy, you are acting against forces that are “supposed” to bring prosperity and equity to the society. This is a bit different issue than implementation of policies towards sustainable society Joe was mentioning, and won’t play well in a society that considers Keynes one of the most important people in history.

    Secondly, each of us is wired by evolution to be the one whose genes are carried to the next generation. Standard of living is not about your comfort. It’s about attracting a mate. It’s like a peacock’s tail. Thus the imperative to “keep up with the Joneses”, and thus any self-reductionist approaches and 10-day cold shower challenges have little chance of catching up in a society that is not equal. It’s only when global Gini index is low (i.e. when everyone tail is equally colorfull) then the collective consciousness may constructively lead to mainstreaming frugal resource use. But by that time, if it ever happens, we would have consumed 5 Earths…

    Pessimistic, I know. But this is the framing of our conundrum…

  6. Alex Shabala

    Thanks Chris, that was good read.

    I watched an interesting video about public perception on climate change. The (sad) reality is, people don’t make the causal link between A and B. The result is that they *think * they’re making a difference, when in actual fact the aren’t.

  7. Bruce Hewitson

    from Bruce by proxy:

    Well, I’ve done one of those challenges this week, but not from the right motivations. And I also marched (in Bristol).

    But the reality, in my view, is that actions need to be weighed against the benefit achieved. So to turn off my geyser and have 30 cold showers before the end of the year, while not publicizing the action, will have zero benefit (my geyser is solar powered). But if I instagram’d each shower (you really don’t want to see that) as a matter of demonstrating principle, and then publicized it as far and wide as possible (like the ALS ice bucket challenge) – that would be different.

    So I agree with the article, but would refine it to say “choose actions that have value outcomes.”

  8. Joseph Daron

    What do we want? “Reduced carbon emissions that don’t increase living expenses or constrain standards of living!” When do we want it? “In a timely manner that allows society to move towards sustainable policies while not placing undue pressure on the economic system that will result in a market crash!” I think that is a march worth joining.

  9. Chris Jack

    Hey Joe. Thanks for the comment. Yes, well, no, maybe. I agree fully that politicians or the political systems are hardly blameless. But while I would also say that I don’t really “believe” democracy as practised is really democratic, there is a strong argument for the view that the populace, or at least the wealthy populace, drives the politics. Politicians want to be re-elected. And we don’t just vote with our ballots but with where we spend our money. Because where we spend our money is revealed in all the economics statistics that drives a lot of politics. Politicians know that people like to be able to afford to go our for a meal so its political suicide to implement policies that would double the cost of that meal by factoring in the true costs of meat production (for example).

    And that is my main point I guess. Eskom are regularly lambasted in the press and in all my social circles (including the rather left/green ones) for continuing to push for tariff increases. And perhaps they should be because a lot of their problems are actually around miss-management and worse. But I don’t think it would matter if the tariff increases were for more “valid” reasons. People (we) want to have their cake and eat it. And in this modern globalised world the wealthy (us) are setting the rules implicitly by our consumption and spending. The most honest chant at many marches should be “Reduce carbon emissions, but don’t increase my living expenses or constrain my standard of living in the process or I won’t vote for you next time!”.

  10. Joseph Daron

    Nice blog Chris! In essence, the solutions are to consume less and pay more for that which we do consume. And if we pay more for what we do consume, the incentive is to use less still. Of course it is not an entirely economic solution but we do (or at least I have done for some time) tend to spend to our means. If I couldn’t afford to go out for a nice dinner once in a while, I wouldn’t. But I can, so I do. And I’m glad and very grateful that I can. The arguments you present on energy are economic – i.e. the cost effectiveness of coal is far greater at present in SA, but these costs don’t reflect “true” costs as carbon (I’m sure you’ll agree) is priced far too low, or not priced at all! And the reason for this, it seems, is political. So aren’t, therefore, people marching to put pressure on politicians to make the necessary changes? I don’t think we should feel bad for “blaming” politicians – it’s their job to set the rules, and the current rules are unfair, unjust even. I don’t think we can rely on ourselves to change behaviour to suffifiently lower carbon emissions. Our track record is not good! Plus, we all like going out for nice meals.