Monday, July 13, 2009

The Real Issue Behind Global Warming

So let's talk about global warming. I live in one of the most conservative areas in the country. I get a lot of letters to the editor, some from scientists even, talking about what a scam or hoax global warming is. They point out, correctly as far as I can tell, that our planet has always gone through warming and cooling periods. And I agree with them. However they also go so far as to say that the extreme amounts of C02 that we're putting in the atmosphere aren't really contributing to the latest alarming finds in polar icecap melting, extreme climate conditions and rising natural disaster rates (and you know you've all met, hell maybe even been one of, those lovely people who are just sure these are signs of the times and that the end is nigh). And you know I'm not a scientist. I trust the scientific sources who have told me that we're doing some severe harm to our planet, but I admit that if presented with raw data, I wouldn't know what to do with them.

But to me, these scientists and lay people decrying global warming are missing the point. They are missing the point entirely. This planet will survive whatever we throw at it. We may not, and the polar bears may not, but the planet will. But even this is beside the point. The real point is that global warming is a humanitarian issue far more than it is a planet issue. Regardless of how our carbon footprints are affecting the planet, our blatant consumerism is affecting our ability to sustain ourselves on this planet. There are just too damn many of us.

"Wait! Wait!" say the traditional family values folks among us. "America's birthrate, hell the birthrate of quite a few developed nations is in decline! It's those heathen third world countries who are making too many humans!"

This is true. Third world countries do in general have a higher birth rate than developed countries. But I'll be damned if some woman and her seven children living on a dollar a day consume nearly as much as just me and my two kids living on nearly sixty times that a day. You can bet that in clothing, feeding and transporting my kids that I'm consuming way more than my share of the resources. In fact, if I'm honest with myself, I'm probably able to consume this many resources because this woman and her seven children are working on a plantation of some sort, or a brick molding pit or maybe even a clothing factory producing, harvesting or mining the everyday "necessities" that I feel so entitled too.

The reason we need to cut back on our consumption, the reason we need to downsize our lives, is because we are stepping on other people's backs to be here. We are maxing out our planet's ability to support our lifestyle. There are only so many arable acres, and every time a new subdivision goes in, we're limiting our ability to make that land agriculturally useful in the near future. Every time we slash and burn a section of rain forest to grow corn or soybeans, we're cutting out vital ecosystems that do their part to support local climates and maintain those areas' abilities to feed themselves. And every time a privileged First Worlder (myself included, although I made the decision to have kids before I was aware of this) makes the decision to have another child, we're depriving dozens more already living people of the real time stability needed to have even one third of the "necessities" that we take for granted.

So don't talk to me about the "science" that contradicts actual climate change. Tell me how it is you're looking yourself in the mirror knowing that everything you use today probably came off the back of someone working dawn til dusk and getting paid a minuscule wage just so you could have the latest in fashionable clothes, cars or even breakfast cereal.

(And just so we're clear, I'm the uber-hypocrite and actually don't spend a lot of time looking myself in the eye in the mirror, because I'm so ashamed of my apparent unwillingness to change my lifestyle)


mfranti said...

good job.

i don't even bother to have the conversation with those people any more.

they know nothing of science and how these things are rigorously tested.


accepting such things requires massive a world view shift.
and those are never comfortable.

Sean said...

THE VERY BEST THING is when kooky anti-global-warming nuts or conspiracy theorists or whatever come up to the reference desk and want to tell us ALL ABOUT why the Democrato-Socialists are DESTROYING AMERICA.

That's always a treat. Bleh.

Lessie said...

Thanks, Mel. I suppose you're right. World view shifts are never comfortable. Mine certainly wasn't.

Sean, in Idaho they call us Demo-Commies ;-P

G said...

oh, you must have heard the conversation at my latest family gathering.


the really interesting thing for me is what you said about them expecting the second coming like tomorrow. Well, actually, they expect it in about 5 years. seriously. And mainly they are excited about how it will rescue them from the financial crisis.

but I digress.
wonderful post. well done. thank you.

JohnR said...

I'm also a hypocrite. No matter how much I cut back (small apartment, biking, vegetarian diet, etc), I'm conscious that my footprint is still 100 times larger than the average in the developing world. Sometimes I feel like it's the new guilt to replace the Church's.

That said, I'm still all for doing the right thing. And the biggest impact in practical terms that we can have is to not let up on our elected officials and to keep public pressure on corporations.

Josh Cogliati said...

I liked this essay, but I have some comments.

"Tell me how it is you're looking yourself in the mirror knowing that everything you use today probably came off the back of someone working dawn til dusk and getting paid a minuscule wage just so you could have the latest in fashionable clothes, cars or even breakfast cereal."

Hm. That is probably true for some of the things that I have used today, but for much of the things I use, they come from people that are getting a semi-comparable amount of wage as myself. For example, your breakfast cereal probably came from farmers using lots of machinery in the US, transferred to food factories in the US and then to the store. The two cereals I looked at in my cupboard where both made in the USA.

When I was in Junior High, our class took a trip to the local medium density fiberboard manufacturing plant. Other than the teacher, the class, and the tour guide, most of the plant was pretty empty of people. It was just machines making fiberboard on conveyor belts.

I am guessing that most of the reason we have our life style is not that other people are doing backbreaking labour, but that machines are doing the work.

I hope that all the people making the products that I am using are doing so truly voluntarily. I wish I had better information on that.

Now, back to global warming. The machines take energy, and the amount of money etc required to get them changed to be powered without carbon dioxide production makes the Apollo program look like child's play.

I realize there are some truly massive imbalances in the world. I think I make more in interest than the poorest 10% of the world lives on. On the other hand, what can I or you do?

Lessie said...

Oh my goodness, Josh! Thank you for stopping by :)

Thank you also for your comment. I suppose you have a point about the cereal. That is probably a bad example. I guess what I was thinking is that our foreign trade policy has made it very difficult for farmers in, for example, South America, to continue to produce grain at competitive rates. And so they're importing our grain but losing their livelihoods. But you're right that grain is so inexpensive to produce here that chances are most cereal is a made in the USA product.

I'm skeptical that our lifestyle is largely dependent on machines. Not that you're not right. Factories in the U.S. are mostly machine powered. However, the amount of resources from around the world that we consume makes it impossible for the world to keep up with us. Perhaps not everything I own/use has come off the backs of someone else, but I really firmly believe that maybe other nations are poor and starving because of exploitative land management not only on the part of their government, but also, again, on the part of our foreign trade policy. We talk about equality and opportunity, but the earth simply can't sustain 6 billion and growing people living the suburban lifestyle. If we want more equality, those of us in these vastly privileged countries are going to have to completely rethink our entitlements.

As for what can you or I do? I admit that here I'm totally flummoxed. In my last paragraph, I mentioned what a hypocrite I am. And that's absolutely the truth. I'm addicted to/dependent on this system. I don't have the money to buy most organic or local foods. I am shamefully addicted to mall store clearance racks and, when I get a little extra bucks, Nike flip-flops on clearance as well. The washer and drier at my apartment are not energy efficient at all. The efficient models I fought so hard for when I got married went with my ex.

I suppose that's what I find so frustrating. Is that I can't seem to escape. I use cloth shopping bags at big-box stores, for the love of christ.

Anyway, thanks again for stopping by and adding some critiques. My blog title, as clicheed as it may seem, is my sincere attempt to be transparent not only in my opinions, but in acknowledging when I'm dead wrong. You've certainly given me some things to think about.

Josh Cogliati said...

I agree that some of the things we take for granted come from others' labour. For example, sewing together clothing is something that is done by hand still since handling cloth is not something that machines can do yet.

I agree that the US does get lots of resources from other countries. Usually this is at least somewhat reciprocal deals where both countries gain at least something.

Economic systems are amazingly good at producing material goods. I think part of the problem is how easy it is to measure somewhat meaningless things like GDP, and how hard it is to measure actual sustainable progress towards a better world. Imagine if the events of the past year had be reported something like this: people now have more time for their families because they are working less. The amount of unsustainable material goods being produced has decreased. Same basic facts that are being reported as very bad economically. (I certainly grant that many individuals have been hit disproportionately.)

I would like to do something other than feel guilty. But figuring out what the problems are, let alone the solutions is challenging.

Lessie said...

Oh, if only we could measure progress that way!

And I agree, I'd like to try and think of something else to do beside feeling guilty. I just honestly haven't figured out what that is yet.