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Put us all on rations

There was a blissful moment on holiday - shortly before a child had to be pulled out of a peat bog - when we paused. Whatever direction we looked in, however hard we listened, the only sign of human existence was our own. Three miles from the nearest road on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland, we were in an eerie landscape of bog grass and huge boulders. Then, above our heads soared three eagles, and not long after, an adder slithered calmly between our feet.

An annual dose of this remote wildness is an essential antidote to inner city life for me. The clouds of midges and rain are a small price to pay for its restorative properties. And the children get to feel rain, sun, wind, and discover wildlife beyond a television screen - childhood experiences which feel like essentials, not luxuries. But there's a fundamental contradiction behind our foray into the wilderness. It entails a round trip of 1,680 odd miles which accounts for almost half the carbon emissions for the year caused by the average individual. The rest of the year, I mostly use buses or cycle, but come the summer, I blow my credit in a spectacular carbon bonanza. How do you justify a journey that will damage the very experience you so much appreciate?

That was the kind of questioning which environmental author Mayer Hillman put to his audience at an uncomfortable seminar to launch his book How We Can Save the Planet last month. A veteran campaigner on environmental issues, he's a Jeremiah figure, lambasting those who will listen for their moral failure to adapt their lifestyle to reduce carbon emissions. For an audience no doubt contemplating their imminent summer holidays, his rage against the scandal of growing carbon emissions from cheap air flights, made for some awkward shifting in seats. He never flies. His message on transport is stark: travel less and best of all, don't travel at all.

The Blairs should be showing the way with a fortnight in Clacton-on-Sea instead of clocking up the air miles on the unforgivable, a twin-destination break in the Caribbean and Tuscany. I should swap holidays in Ardnamurchan for Essex, or better, stay at home.

Hillman's message sounded pretty off the wall coming as it did at the beginning of the summer holidays. It was similarly brave of the Commons environmental audit committee to recommend that despite rising oil prices, the government must increase taxes on petrol to curb the increasing carbon emissions from cars at a time when Britain's roads are heaving with the annual migration.

The unpalatable truth is that unless it hurts it ain't working. This week's hefty price increases for gas and electricity are the kind of thing that by 2010 could be commonplace. The era of affordable energy is drawing to a close and lifestyles built on its cheap abundance will have to be painfully adjusted. Take the simple matter of kitchen lighting (a subject of which I've had to grasp a sketchy knowledge in the past few weeks); while our parents would have happily had a single light bulb, Ikea sells halogen spots in packs of three and before you know it, the kitchen is a glowing festival, courtesy of nearly a dozen lights.

Only excruciating utility bills will check the house make-over enthusiasts. It will take humungous hikes in fuel tax, with punishing electoral consequences, to wean us off the impulse to escape at least once a year from lives which we've made so hectic, we have to have a holiday to restore our sanity. It's a measure of how enormous the gap is between how we live and what needs to change in order to slow down climate change.

Hillman has packed plenty of other tips for low carbon living into his daunting book. Don't boil your kettle so often; turn the heating down in the winter and wear woolly jumpers instead; use those dim, energy-efficient lightbulbs; recycle as much as you can, and take fewer showers. It sounds impossibly worthy, and rather smelly. What will induce people to take his advice? The analogy he draws is with his boyhood experience of rationing in the second world war. The crucial difference is that then the danger was immediate, but by the time climate change has a comparably direct, destructive impact on people's lives, it will be way too late to do much. The kind of odd weather we've had recently may be the first signs of climate change but it's hardly comparable so far to the danger of the Third Reich.

Hillman's preoccupation is to get individuals to take personal responsibility for global warming and he provides formulae by which individuals can calculate their own carbon consumption. That takes him to the idea of personal carbon rations; every service or product we purchase would require not only a swipe of our debit card but also of our carbon card so that the carbon impact of our consumption is deducted. Here, I'm with him.

While I'm sceptical about the value of persuading people of the virtues of fewer showers, in contrast, carbon rations has all the plausibility of an idea which will be commonplace in a couple of decades, perhaps sooner. If everyone is given the same allocation - a big "if" - it has the potential to be a radically redistributive measure with the less well-off able to sell their unused allocation. Until then, the dilemma is that the enormity of climate change makes individual action pretty meaningless.

Giving up my trek to the Ardnamurchan peat bog would be a considerable personal sacrifice, but all the benefit of it would be handsomely cancelled out by a friend's weekend trip to New York (which produces carbon emissions the equivalent to two years' household gas supply). The moral exhortations of Hillman and fellow environmentalists don't gain fertile ground because they make no rational sense.

The analogy of the meaningless individual sacrifices at an international level is that even if Britain blazed a trail of exemplary, carbon-friendly behaviour, all our efforts would be cancelled out by the carbon-belching US. The solutions to climate change have to be collective, involving not just the local community or even nation, but the entire globe. Never before has humanity had to recognise its common identity as a species, over and above race, nationality or creed. It is on this huge challenge to the moral imagination that the rich insect life of that Scottish peat bog precariously rests.

With a kind of savage justice, climate change is an issue which exposes the weakest link in the cultural mindset of western market capitalism: the collective capacity for self-restraint in pursuit of a common good.

· How We Can Save the Planet by Mayer Hillman is published by Penguin

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