So I was just forwarded an article on the environmental impact of internet usage by a friend. In effect it was calling for people to take responsibility for the heat trapping gas emissions associated with their Google searches and YouTube videos. For some reason the article really pissed me off. Why? Well the road to hell is being paved with personal responsibility.

What could be bad about taking personal responsibility? Well, increasingly it lets the ones who are truly responsible off the hook. To deal effectively with global warming we need the government to set rules which demand that we all act responsibly. Wherever the responsible decision is the more difficult or expensive one to make our society has it wrong.

We live in a world that is incalculably complex. Whether we are deciding how ethanol fits into the alternative energy mix or the pros and cons of buying a used car vs. a new Prius there is a dizzying array of often contradictory data. Taking internet usage as an example, calculating the environmental impact of your online lifestyle means nothing unless you calculate the alternative. How much more would you drive for your information and entertainment? What’s the C02 associated with printing more papers and shipping more DVD’s?

Your personal consumption of fossil fuels is of course your responsibility, but outside of that the failure of the market to reflect the true cost to the environment of our daily activities is something for governments to correct. Our real responsibility lies in holding them accountable.

The problem with organic food isles, green condos, and hybrid cars is that they’ve turned environmental altruism into a marketing niche and left a system that is pushing us to the brink of environmental and social catastrophe virtually untouched. The buck has been passed to the individual consumer, but in the end it’s all of society that will have to pay.

Worse than that, the trend towards so called personal responsibility has paralyzed political discourse and action. Environmental responsibility is now equated with the ability to afford to pay double for your vegetables and drive a Prius. The message that’s driven home every day is that saving the environment costs. Again only one side of the equation is taken into consideration.

When we compare the cost of action vs. inaction paying more at the pumps and eating less imported food is a bargain. No one, especially the poor, can afford the result if the status quo wins the day and we continue to allow heat trapping gasses to accumulate in the atmosphere. Who is going to pay to feed the world as crops fail and fish stocks die? Who will house the billion anticipated environmental refugees?

Everyone does need to do their part to combat global warming but the most important thing you can do is demand that government put an effective cap on heat trapping gas emissions at their source.