The word “sacrifice” is used when people want to mock and reject the idea of behavioural change to cut emissions. They say “saving the planet can’t be about sacrifice because no-one will do it”. Then they start talking about sackcloth and hair shirts.
There is another word which gets less press, but is more important: “restraint”.
Whereas “sacrifice” is about suffering in the service of a greater goal, “restraint” is just about holding back and not having everything we want when we want it. There is a huge difference between the two.
Turning the heating down a few degrees is about restraint, not sacrifice. Eating meat once a week is restraint, not sacrifice. Taking public transport is restraint, not sacrifice. Investing in insulation rather than spending the cash on replacing the Iphone 4 – again, this is restraint and not sacrifice.
Restraint is the mark of a great leader: when someone who holds power does not exert the full force of that power, but only wields it to the extent needed. The message is particularly relevant for America’s climate-denying religious right, paralysed with excitement as they wait for Armageddon: As holder of dominion over the planet, man has to exercise restraint. Exercising power like a fox in a chicken run is not great leadership, it is gross wantonness.
Our culture must become one where restraint is a celebrated quality and where prudent care of the environment is seen not as painful sacrifice, but a sensible and admirable exercise of restraint. That will take a lot of courage from opinion formers and people who have influence. But it will be a valuable complement to existing efforts to cut emissions by technological development.
potential emissions reductions from technological developments are small compared to those available through restraint. So technological development may complement restraint, not the other way round.