Why reduce your energy consumption? One natural reason is that you don’t want to cause climate harms. You don’t want others to suffer from droughts, floods, and extreme weather because of you. But, upon reflection, it’s not plausible to think that you have such an impact in the first place. It’s not likely that, because you ate that steak or took that flight, you made any difference; that, had you not done it, people would suffer less. The thing is: climate harms depend on what billions of individuals, companies and governments on the planet together do, not on you or me alone.
Another natural idea is that, even granted you make no direct difference, you might still make an indirect difference. That if you skip that steak or flight, you might still infect others with your boycott, and so, in the end, prevent some amount of suffering. I won’t rule out that this might happen. There could be cases. However, more often your influence is negligible, and climate harms remain unchanged regardless of what you do.
Suppose these claims are plausible. Then what? Well, nothing. You should reduce your energy consumption all the same.
In the realm of reasons, avoiding harm constitutes only one reason to act in some way. Another reason is this: you should reduce your energy consumption because you want everyone to reduce their energy consumption and shouldn’t make an exception of yourself. Another example: you shouldn’t litter because you want others to do the same and shouldn’t make an exception of yourself. This reason holds even if no one else in fact litters, and there won’t be any pollution (and related harms). Littering and holding onto a carbon intensive lifestyle are what philosophers call “not universalizable”. The exact details of such reasons are controversial, but the basic thought is not. Try to imagine that everyone would do the same as you.
So, should you reduce your energy consumption even if doing so makes no difference? Yes, you should.
Admittedly, this thought is not easy to grasp. It’s so natural to think that you should act in some way only if doing so makes a difference. To make the thought more intelligible, I have asked Yormie Aboe Dzaki to present it in the form of a short story. Sometimes philosophical ideas are so abstract that they call for something that makes them visible. The tale features someone – Tony / Rico – who’s on the right track, morally speaking, even though he fails to make a difference, directly or indirectly.