Climate Change Begins at Home: Life on the Two-Way Street of Global Warming

  • Dave Reay
; Macmillan: 2006. 224 pp. £8.99

In most industrial countries the public has very limited knowledge of the causes and consequences of climate change. In the UK, for example, over half the population questioned in a recent survey thought that the main benefit from tackling climate change would be a 'cleaner atmosphere', appearing to confuse global warming with the causes of smog formation. The pollsters MORI recently reported (in “Tipping Point or Turning Point”) that “the public largely consider climate change to be a problem for the future”. But we shouldn't be too pessimistic. Whether or not they understand the difference between the troposphere and the stratosphere, increasing numbers of people recognize that climate change is happening and humankind needs to react. The leap to accepting personal responsibility and taking action, however, remains an obstacle. Most people still assume that the government should be the instigator of action, followed by large corporations. Every one of the increasing numbers of research surveys into green attitudes shows confusion and a lack of knowledge of how individual actions can affect emissions, combined with a rising, though still tiny, level of willingness to take painful personal action.

Dave Reay's book has an interesting approach to dealing with poor understanding of climate change issues. He gives us the tools to become more carbon literate and tries to encourage us into a view that tackling personal emissions can be both profitable and fun. This book is aimed squarely at those non-scientific readers with a nagging concern that climate change is happening and that current Western lifestyles, with their frightening reliance on fossil energy, are not generating improved happiness.

Reay's tactic is to invent a family in the southern USA that lives the typically prosperous middle-class lifestyle of modern Americans. Energy inefficient cars are combined with long commuting distances. The house is loaded with appliances that take increasing amounts of electricity to run, or just to keep in passive standby. Heating and air conditioning are prodigious users of fossil energy. He shows how the carbon footprint of this family group is built up — which lifestyle decisions matter and which have little relevance. Like the people in today's British opinion polls, this family initially thinks that recycling domestic rubbish is more important to climate change than the energy use from personal travel or home electricity. Reay gradually educates them into realizing what really matters.

Reay's tone is gentle, humane and funny and he wears his learning lightly. He deftly switches between the main categories of energy use, both the traditional villains of cars, air travel, home heating and electric appliances and the new demons of office energy consumption and the still largely invisible impact of modern agriculture on emissions, a subject on which Reay has published widely in scientific journals. This is not a book that simply offers the top 100 tips for reducing your footprint, nor is it a dry listing of the energy consumption of the main electric appliances. It is a wise and thoughtful look at how modern lifestyle has brought with it a huge inflation in the need for energy use. If we are to retain our social status we need to show our wealth by consuming increasing amounts of energy. Work life requires us to travel more to maintain contact with colleagues. Even socializing means flitting in our cars from place to place with little thought for the consequences for energy use. Reay's American family members gradually begin to see how their lifestyle affects their carbon emissions.

Then Reay moves on to suggest that we would all be happier if we consumed less and took better care of the atmosphere. His pleasant and well-meaning family don't really want to spend money to keep up with the social demands placed upon them. Neither do they enjoy travelling long distances or shopping in over-crowded supermarkets. You don't always need to attend international conferences, he says, and is honest enough to note that climate change scientists are usually far from innocent in this respect. We're told it's fun and profitable to work to reduce your energy use.

I'm not sure I really believe that Reay holds this view himself. Hidden among the spirited and fast-paced paragraphs of this book are little hints suggesting that he knows deliberate withdrawal from participating in conventional materialist society is difficult and painful. Every ten minutes on the TV screen are advertisements for desirable foreign holidays, gorgeous new electric appliances and sleek motor cars. For a modern family to adopt a monastic lifestyle is vanishingly rare. I think deep down Dave Reay knows that our competitive fast-paced material economy holds us in addictive thrall.

Of course publishers and readers don't want books that exude a pessimistic sense that the world is going to have to really change to meet the global warming emergency. They hope for texts that say small adjustments are going to be enough. Nevertheless, the next time he writes a book for a general audience, perhaps Dave Reay should say that prosperous societies need sharp redirection of the trends in our agriculture, travel and domestic energy use as well as a huge reduction in material consumption. I finished his current book thinking that this is what he really wants to say.

Chris Goodall is the author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life: the Individual's Guide to Stopping Climate Change