CLIMATE CRISIS 101
(A.K.A. ENGLISH 23)
Across the planet, the youth are rebelling!
This probably comes as little surprise, as you may well have heard of Greta Thunberg, the Sunrise Movement, and are likely aware that their generation is more than a little concerned about the state of our planet and its climate.
The fact that they are now rebelling should come as little surprise either. For decades, we kept telling yourselves that we needed to change the reckless way that we were inhabiting our planet – not for ourselves, but, as we kept saying, for our children.
Well, we didn’t. And those children, who weren’t necessarily even been born at the time, are now here – and coming of age. And they’re upset that we didn’t adequately address this issue decades ago. Let’s be honest, they’re pissed, really pissed – and rightfully so. We are handing them a planet that is well on its way to becoming uninhabitable, certainly unwelcoming, for our species.
If you look at the circumstances surrounding the climate crisis (which, as we shall see, are more than a little unusual), the emergence of a youth rebellion at this moment in history, from this particular generation, was almost inevitable.
In the next five segments of Climate Crisis 101 we will be considering the generational aspect of the climate crisis and why people of my generation failed to act – and are still, even now, not adequately acting.
Which means that the responsibility for sweeping action now falls to new generation coming on the scene, that of my students. Consequently, as far as I am concerned, the youth movement is a very good thing indeed. We should all, for the sake of our planet, welcome and do what we can to support it.
It’s true. The climate crisis was principally brought about in a single lifetime. Contrary to what you may have heard or thought, for the most part the climate crisis was not slowly caused over centuries by many generations of human beings, but rather in a single lifetime. Which means, of course, that the people who largely caused this problem are still alive – and still making it worse.
I want to talk about how this happened. Not the mechanics of how greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere, but how this was allowed to happen, why no one stopped it – and why, even today, we are not doing nearly enough.
Let me be clear at the onset that I am confident that it is not too late to act – there is still time – though, as we shall see, the solution to the climate crisis that I am going to propose may seem…well…radical.
The circumstances that made the climate crisis possible (perhaps even inevitable) are striking – and more than a little unusual. Even though we have been bringing about this crisis for quite a few decades now, to many people along the way it really did seem that there were few consequences to these actions.
This was largely because of an unusual time delay that challenges and confuses our ordinary temporal perception of cause and effect. It is important to understand this issue, as it can help explain our decades of inaction – as well as suggest how we can finally, adequately, and quickly mobilize. Allow me to explain.
If you pour a quart of oil down a storm drain, the consequences will soon be obvious, as it can quickly contaminate as many as a million gallons of water – it’s true. Release a billion times that amount of CO2 into the atmosphere (carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas causing the climate crisis), and there will be little impact, anywhere on earth. Hence, it may seem that there is little need to worry about the wholesale dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. For decades, we kept telling ourselves that there wasn’t much to worry about.
But, there was. If you keep releasing enough CO2 into the atmosphere (which we did), the impact will be felt everywhere on the planet, but there will – and this is important – there will be a significant time delay before the consequences are felt.
I would argue that this time delay played a major role in bringing about the climate crisis – without it, I doubt the situation would have gotten anywhere near this far. The delayed impact also set the stage for an extraordinary generational split on the climate crisis that is now revealing itself across the planet.
In order to understand how all this works, imagine that you could indulge in some sort of self-destructive behavior, say cigarette smoking, but without any consequences, whatsoever.
You could smoke three, four, even five packs a day without significantly harming your health – every day for your entire adult life – no strings attached.
Ok, imagine one string: while you would suffer none of the consequences of your actions, your children would suffer them all.
Cancer, heart disease, emphysema, stroke – you get the idea. They wouldn’t have to wait for the symptoms to show up later in life, they would experience them from birth onward.
And, not only your children, but your grandchildren – and, moreover, every subsequent generation of your descendants for hundreds of years.
Here’s another twist, if enough people did it, then not only the descendants of the smokers, but every child born on the planet for the next few hundred years would suffer the consequences.
We are by no means talking about a majority of human beings here. Not half, not even a quarter. If just one in eight people on the planet did it, this would be enough to make every child born for hundreds of years suffer for their entire lives.
One last twist: not only would subsequent generations of human beings suffer for hundreds of years, but all life on the planet will be profoundly impacted, from the heights of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. Thousands upon thousands of species would suffer, many would go extinct.
Unfortunately, this is not a thought experiment. This is how anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) climate change works. The abused substance in question is not tobacco but fossil fuels.
During one lifetime people enjoy, dozens of subsequent generations suffer.
I know: I keep saying just one lifetime? Isn’t it true that our fossil fuel addiction goes back hundreds of years?
Yes, that’s right. In fact, I have written about the first true fossil fuel economy to emerge on earth, which was 400 years ago in Shakespeare’s London.
But let’s look at CO2 in the atmosphere. Although there are a number of other important greenhouse gases (some that you may have heard of, like methane, others that you likely haven’t, such as HFCs – both of which we will be taking up in future segments), CO2 is the most significant greenhouse gas and hence an important benchmark.
For the whole of human history, indeed even before there were modern humans, before there were Neanderthals, CO2 in the atmosphere has held at about 280 ppm.
Then, something happened, something big. A few hundred years ago people started digging up large quantities of fossil fuels. When burned, they released CO2 into the atmosphere.
By 1959 (I’ll explain in a moment why I picked this particular year), CO2 in the atmosphere had risen to 315 ppm, a rise of about 35 points.
If it had stopped there in 1959, it is likely that the consequences for the human race would have been, relatively speaking, minor. But it didn’t stop there.
In fact, it continued to rise – dramatically. During the year that I am recording this (2019), CO2 in the atmosphere reached 415 ppm. So, in the past 60 years CO2 has risen by 100 points. That’s three times more than it rose in the preceding centuries. (It would in fact be much more, except that our planet’s oceans have absorbed a quarter of the CO2 that we have emitted – with grave consequences, which we will be taking up in future segments.)
1959 has particular significance for me: this was the year that I was born.
Let’s just pause for a moment to reflect on this: three quarters of all the CO2 – the principal greenhouse gas causing the climate crisis – three quarters of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by human beings was put there in a single lifetime – mine. Three quarters of it.
Because CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds, even thousands of years, dozens of subsequent generations are going to be impacted by what we have done. Generations of people, animals, fish, insects, plants – every living thing on earth.
Recall the little twist that I added with my example of smoking. I stipulated that not everyone would need to do it for everyone on the planet to suffer. This is how the climate crisis has unfolded on earth.
A quarter of all the CO2 in the atmosphere was put there by one country, my country, the United States, even though Americans constitute just 4% of the world’s population. If you add in the countries of Europe, as well as Russia, in the past 60 years these countries, which during this time formed the bulk of what we called the “developed world,” have been responsible for nearly two thirds of all the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, even though collectively these countries are home to just one eighth of the world’s population.
In contrast, the poorest 3 billion people (“Billion” with a “B” – and that’s approaching nearly half of the world’s population), the poorest 3 billion people on the planet contributed just 5% of the CO2 in the atmosphere, a pretty insignificant amount.
Pause on that: the extraordinary role that one out of eight people on the planet played in the climate crisis, in a single lifetime. For the most part, these people are still alive. For the most part, each day they are still doing exactly what they did to bring about this crisis.
That last point is particularly worrisome, as my lifetime is not yet over. Life expectancy being what it is, I will live another twenty years or so. If we continue on like this, CO2 could rise another forty points, to 455ppm, in what would have been my lifetime. In other words, in the next 20 years human beings (principally those in the developed world) could put more CO2 into the atmosphere than the human race did for the whole of our history up until the time that I was born.
In contrast, nearly half the planet’s people had virtually nothing to do with causing the climate crisis, yet generations of their children will also suffer. And let’s be honest, suffer more than children in the developed world, as all the wealth that our fossil-fuel economy has given us will, at least initially, likely help insulate the developed world from the climate crisis.
Pause on the injustice of that: the wealth and power that the developed world has amassed, which has principally come from our fossil-fuel economy, will help protect us from the worst of what we have done, while the rest of the world will suffer all the more for it. In future segments, we will be taking up this subject, climate justice, in detail.
Never in the whole of human history has one group impacted the planet and its life to anywhere near this degree. It’s not just unprecedented, it is altogether mind-boggling.
In the following segments, I want to propose a solution to at least help mitigate this crisis. The course of action that I am going to suggest is radical. But I see no other course, as little else will likely work.
For now, I want to end with an apology, from my generation to the newest generation emerging into maturity, that of my students. There are, no doubt, better people than I to deliver it. The power brokers in the fossil fuel industry come to mind, as do the politicians that still support them, even now. However, we may be waiting quite a while for their apology.
My generation should be – and I am – ashamed of what we have done. We have left you with a planet on its way to becoming largely uninhabitable, certainly unwelcoming, for our species. What’s worse, rather than correcting our mistakes, we have raised you and the generation before you to keep making the same ones. Instead of teaching you how to live sustainably on this planet, we have done just the opposite. Sadly, as you may have inherited our fossil fuel addiction, many of you may now, like us, be in the habit of casually abusing our planet, our home, Indeed, you may even have trouble imagining a sustainable way of life.
I wonder, I wonder how history will remember my generation…
All that I can say is that I am sorry and that some of us in my generation are with you in this fight – and will be as long as we have breath in us.
In the previous segment, I noted that climate crisis was principally brought about in a single lifetime, mine. Today, I would like to address the question of why we’re not acting. As it turns out, this is arguably a generational issue.
First, allow me to quickly recap what I noted during the last segment:
Three quarters of all the CO2 (that’s carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas causing the climate crisis) was put into our planet’s atmosphere in the 60 years of my lifetime. Most of it was put there by the developed world. In contrast, the poorest half of humanity had virtually nothing to do with bringing the climate crisis about – though they will suffer the most.
An unusual time delay is partly responsible here. For decades, massive amounts of greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere, seemingly without significantly impacting the global climate. Many people, ignoring the warnings of scientists, simply didn’t believe that doing this was a problem, as the consequences of our actions had not yet caught up with us. Now that they are quickly arriving, coming to grips with what we have done is…well…difficult. It really is mind-boggling.
Mind-boggling for everyone, but, in a certain way, especially for my generation in the developed world: those most responsible for this crisis. How can we even begin to come to grips with what we have done?
Is it surprising that many of us are in a state of denial? Deep, deep denial.
We hear a lot about denial of the climate crisis nowadays. Usually this refers to theories that are advanced, often by or for fossil fuel interests, that in some way deny that the climate crisis is happening, or deny its severity, or that it is human-caused, or something of the sort.
To many people, these attempts at denial sound pretty outlandish, as they fly in the face of reason and the facts. However, to some individuals, those who are themselves in a state of denial, often deep denial, they provide a way out: a way to not face up to what we have done, as what we have done borders on the unthinkable.
Is it at all surprising that those in denial would question the truth?
Of course, since before I was born, scientists have been alerting both the public and policy makers to the problem. Perhaps not surprisingly, those in denial often lash out at these messengers. You may have heard some of them. They can sound something like this:
“After all, I have lived all my life without seeing any significant consequences from the burning of fossil fuels. Sure, there have been some pretty bad storms and crazy weather lately, but there have always been bad storms and wild weather. Who’s to say that they were caused by human action? Scientists? Who’s to say they’re right? Maybe their instruments are wrong. Maybe their theories are wrong. Maybe their computer models are wrong. Maybe this hasn’t been caused by human beings at all. Maybe it’s just the natural cycles of climate. Maybe it’s sunspot active. Maybe, maybe the scientists are corrupt. Maybe they’re part of some insidious global plot to undermine democracy.”
I know, this can sound pretty silly. However, all of these theories denying the climate crisis have not only been advanced, they have all gotten significant traction with certain segments of the public: often, those in denial. Incidentally, and perhaps not surprisingly, denial of the climate crisis is most common in the developed world – which, perhaps not surprisingly, largely brought about the crisis.
Even if individuals in my generation move past denial, there is the real danger of delay, climate delay. In other words, if we come to grips with the fact that the climate crisis is upon us and that we have caused it – and hey, that’s a lot to come to grips with – then how should we proceed? Slowly, with caution? Or decisively, as time is of the utmost essence?
Simple answer? My lifetime was the time to have acted. The six decades that I have lived was the time to have acted. The time for successful climate intervention is now receding quickly; we simply cannot delay any longer. As we shall see throughout this series, we need to fundamentally rethink and change the way that our species relates to this planet – and we need to do it now.
Although different in a variety of ways, climate denial and climate delay can result in the same thing: Nothing. Inaction.
There are three groups that should be particularly and profoundly upset about all this.
First, the half of the world’s population that had a minimal impact on CO2 rise, yet will suffer its consequences the most.
Second, let’s not forget all non-human life on earth, who hold no responsibility for CO2 rise. They will never know why this is all happening, yet are suffering and dying en masse already.
The third group is the children of the people who did this. In speaking to my students, I am for the most part speaking to this group (although, as they hail from all over the world, some of my students come from places that did little to bring about this crisis). While many of this group may have benefited from the fossil fuel economy, they largely had no choice in the matter. After all, parents do not generally decide whether or not they are going to buy a McMansion or gas-guzzling SUV based on the input of their children.
This last group is also in many ways currently leading the worldwide revolt against the climate crisis.
Because my generation has not acted, I am speaking to this younger generation. Not only in the classroom, but here, as I imagine you as the principal audience for this prerecorded talk.
The problem is that my generation is still largely in power across the planet.
Consider the U.S. federal government. The average age of Congress is around my age, 60. The Supreme Court is nearly ten years older, pushing 70. And, of course, Donald Trump was the first person ever elected President of the United States in his seventies. We could continue with state and local governments (the average age of a Governor is early sixties), but the story is much the same, as it is in the corporate world. The average age of a CEO of a major corporation is 56.
Of course, it does not necessarily follow from this that my generation cares little about the climate crisis. Unfortunately, polls reveal that this is in fact often the case.
A recent poll by Yale and George Mason Universities asked voters what will be the most important issues for them in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Among my generation, so-called “baby boomers,” global warming ranked number 18 out of 29 as an area of concern. Instead, the leading issues were the economy, healthcare, and Social Security. Other concerns ranked ahead of global warming included terrorism, immigration reform, and border security. The generation after mine (so-called Gen X – basically people who are now in their forties through mid-fifties) did not rank global warming much higher as an issue of concern: for them it is 15 out of 29. Finally, the generation before mine, people the age of Donald Trump and older, ranked it lowest of all: 23 out of 29 .
It’s not that these folks necessarily deny that anthropogenic climate change is taking place. According to this poll, 70% of registered voters in the U.S. now believe that the climate is changing because of human action, which is up from what it has been in recent years. While this might seem heartening, the problem is that the climate crisis, although now increasingly acknowledged as real, is just not much of a priority for many people. Sadly, as this poll reveals, this is a generational issue: the older you are, the less urgent you will likely find the climate crisis. People forty and above just don’t see this as very important, at all.
In many respects, this is hardly surprising, as these older generations lived their lives largely without seeing the consequences of their actions because of that strange time delay – which lasted for decades – that we took up in the previous segment.
But perhaps polls aren’t all that revealing, perhaps the generation in power has been acting, has been lowering CO2 emissions. After all, isn’t that what the Paris Accord signed at COP21 is all about? Didn’t the nations of the world agree to limit global temperature rise to a reasonable 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit)? In fact, they did agree to this.
The problem is that global temperatures have already risen by two-thirds this amount, by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. When did all this happen? You guessed it: principally during the six decades of my lifetime.
Not only are CO2 emissions on the rise, but they are – astonishingly – rising far more quickly now than when the Paris Accord was signed. At that time (2015), CO2 emissions were rising at less than half a percent per year. Last year (2018), global CO2 emissions rose by a staggering 2.7%. That’s five times as much as when the Paris Accord was signed. In case you’re wondering, even though there had been a lowering trend in the U.S., 2018 was well above the world average with a 3.4% increase.
Simply put, during my lifetime we (and by “we” I principally mean the developed world) have been dumping vast amounts of CO2 other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each and every year – and every year we have on average been dumping significantly more than the year before. As last year proved, we have by no means been slowing down since the Paris Accord was signed.
How far off are we from the target of the Paris Accord? The goal is to reduce emissions to between 80-95% of the levels that we had thirty years ago, back in 1990, back when I was thirty.
So, no, the people in power are not sufficiently addressing this issue – not by a long shot.
What, then, do we need to do to keep this crisis from becoming even worse? In the next segment, I will be taking up this question – and offering a radical answer.
In the previous two segments, I noted that even though the climate crisis was overwhelmingly brought about in a single lifetime, mine, my generation sees the problem as a low priority and, consequently, is doing little to mitigate it.
In this and the next segment, I want to suggest an admittedly radical solution whereby the next generation can avert the worst of this crisis
Just to recap, allow me to repeat what I said in the last segment: “Three quarters of all the CO2 (that’s carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas causing the climate crisis), was put into our planet’s atmosphere in the 60 years of my lifetime.” Ironically, for the most part the people who currently wield power on the planet are from my generation. And for the most part, they are not sufficiently addressing on this problem – not by a long shot.
I think of myself as a scholar-activist. In the previous segments I have been talking to you principally as a scholar (and teacher), laying out the facts, explaining the situation. When I’ve done this in person, students often ask me what they should do, what action they should take. I am going to respond to that question now as an activist, by suggesting an action.
Here it is, my radical suggestion. It, and what follows from this point onward, is spoken for my students (and your generation):
You need to take control of this planet – or at least set your sights on that goal – and you need to start now, today.
You cannot wait for the normal course of events, which would bring you to power when you’re my age, or nearly so. As we shall see throughout this series, this situation is simply too urgent for that. You do not have decades. You do not even have years to act. You need to act now, in the upcoming months to have as much impact as is possible. The future – and by that I mean sustaining a reasonably habitable earth for human beings – depends on it.
Sadly, you cannot wait for my generation to act, as we have had decades to act, but haven’t. In fact, as I noted in the last segment, during our watch we continued to make this situation worse and worse every year. And even now we see this as an alarmingly low priority.
In suggesting that you need to take control of this planet, I do not mean to suggest that human beings should take control of even more of the earth. Our species already controls over 80% of our planet’s landmass. I am simply suggesting that that control needs to be transferred to a generation that grasps the enormity of this crisis – and will thus hopefully be better stewards of this planet.
Also, let me be very clear, when I suggest that you take control of this planet, I am not in any way implying that you resort to violence to do so. Seriously, violence never solves anything. And, fortunately, throughout the developed world that principally caused this problem, democracy is for the most part still working reasonably well – though, as we shall see in future episodes, fossil fuel interests and others are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to subvert it.
The 2018 U.S. midterm elections can be seen as a proof-of-concept of what can be done. A month after the youngest woman was ever voted into Congress, she co-introduced the most sweeping U.S. legislation ever to address the climate crisis: the Green New Deal. The fact that she did this in her twenties is not, I think, coincidental.
Throughout this series, I am going to suggest a number of things that you can do to help take control of this planet. These will range from activism to engineering sweeping cultural change through decisions that you make on where you live, how you get around, what you eat, what you wear, the stuff you buy, etc.
However, political change is of central importance, even on the local level. You may trade your car for an e-bike (a great thing to do), but if your local politicians are committed to car infrastructure rather than bicycle paths, you may have real trouble getting around on that bike and even be unsafe sharing overcrowded roads with cars.
In short, one of the simplest, quickest, and most effective things that you can do to work toward taking control of this planet is to vote – and to urge five of your friends to do the same.
There is a particular urgency in doing so that is worth noting, as my generation is leveraging democracy to its advantage and interests, which is away from the climate crisis and toward things like Social Security and healthcare. How is this happening?
In the aforementioned 2018 midterm election, voter turnout in the U.S. was generally up. In the case of 18 to 29-year-olds, it was way up, having increased more than any other age group, as over a third voted. This is great, undeniably. However, the problem is that two out of three people over the age of 65 voted. As a group, their voting power is thus twice as great as the youngest generation of voters, simply because they are voting twice as much. My generation is not only effectively in control of this planet, we are significantly leveraging that control – two-to-one in the case of political power, which is all important – and which is, of course, exercised through voting.
It is not my intent is to cause generational discord. Moreover, I am not echoing the 1960s adage that you should trust no one over 30. I am, after all, delivering this message at twice that age. And there are plenty of people in my generation and even older, including politicians, that are deeply committed to addressing our climate crisis. Al Gore and Bernie Sanders, both in their seventies, come to mind.
Nonetheless, the bald fact is that we will be dead and buried when you will be dealing with the worst of this. We haven’t and simply won’t significantly suffer in our lifetimes. However, you will. Though we brought about the greatest catastrophe ever caused by human beings on the planet, the climate crisis wasn’t really much of an issue for my generation, as paradoxical as that may sound. This is arguably largely because of the time delay that I elaborated on in the previous talks. Even today, as polls reveal, it is still not much of an issue for my generation. It will, nonetheless, likely be THE defining issue for you, and for many generations after you.
Is it even possible for your generation to take even partial control of this planet? Frankly, I am not sure. However, I am decidedly of the “aim high” camp when it comes to tackling problems. Even you do not succeed at this incredibly ambitious goal, you may still have a profound impact.
Consider the last great youth rebellions in the U.S., which occurred in the 1960s and ’70s. True, political power was not transferred from one generation to another at this time. However, these youth movements, which in many respects had their center in colleges and universities, were able to exert tremendous political pressure that ultimately resulted in significant cultural and political change.
This not only included the ending of the Vietnam Conflict through the withdrawal of American troops, but also a range of additional cultural changes, such as for civil rights. Especially for people of color, for women, for the LGBTQIA community, we live in a better world because of the youth rebellions of the 1960s – though, of course, still hardly a perfect world.
The simple fact is that, as a result of these rebellions, America was in many ways fundamentally, profoundly changed – for the better.
Even if you do not succeed in taking even partial control this planet, you can have a profound influence on the older generations. Interestingly, you are uniquely positioned to do so.
A recent study found that, when its comes to promoting “collective action” on the climate crisis, one of the most effective approaches is “child-to-parent intergenerational learning—that is, the transfer of knowledge, attitudes or behaviours from children to parents.” (source) Simply put, you need to teach your parents by communicating to them the horrific severity of this problem. You need to explain to them how important this is for your future, the future of their (as yet unborn) grandchildren – indeed the future of all your family’s descendants. By taking this direct, personal approach, your generation can have enormous influence on the generations in control of this planet.
Throughout this series, we will be looking at a range of approaches, such as child-to-parent intergenerational learning, that can allow you to have greater control of the destiny of the earth, our species, and the life with which we share this planet.
I know that I have left quite a few questions unanswered here, such as just how much my generation knew about what we were doing. I will take this question up in a future segment, but the short answer is that we knew more than enough to have been prompted to action. After all, the modern environmental movement emerged at the moment, shortly after the time of my birth, when we could have largely averted the worst all this.
The most pressing question, however, is what you as a generation can do to undo what my generation has done. I will be directly addressing this question in the next segment, as well as throughout this series. In fact, this series centers on this question.
Simple answer is that, in order to help moderate the climate crisis, we need to fundamentally reinvent Western culture, especially consumer culture and the belief that happiness is to be found in things (it obviously isn’t), a culture that we have now sold to the entire world, much to the detriment of our planet. This is not a big job, it’s an almost unimaginably huge undertaking. But it must be done. Because my generation didn’t do it, this job now falls to you.
Thinking back to the 1960s in the U.S., I am reminded of a speech by Robert F. Kennedy where he noted that “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”
This is probably not actually a real Chinese curse, but what Kennedy noted was correct. While he lived in a time of “danger and uncertainty,” it was also an extremely exciting, creative time. Out of his era, with all its strife, came a better world, precisely because it was not just more of the same, but a bold charting of a new future.
And yet, by comparison, it was arguably not nearly as exciting, with as much room for creativity, as the time in which we now live. Echoing Kennedy, I would argue that ours is “the most creative of any time in the history” of humanity. The challenge, at once both frightening and exhilarating, is to create a new world.
I open my most recent book, which is on the challenge of writing a new environmental era and moving forward to nature (in other words, moving forward to a better relationship with the earth), with a quote from Tennyson’s wonderful little poem “Ulysses.” Allow me to repeat it here, to you:
“Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”
In the next segment, we will take up the question of how to begin.
What can I do to help?
This is one of the most common questions that people ask me regarding the climate crisis.
In response, I often launch into a discussion of voting, activism, and things of that sort. However, many people are asking something different with this question. They want to know what they can do right now, today. Since human actions brought about the climate crisis, they want to know what sort of actions, personal actions, can help grind it to a halt.
In other words, they are asking how best to live their lives in order to avert climate catastrophe.
Although this is certainly a big question, I have a number of suggestions that can help make a start. Usually, I give five or so. Amazingly, these five things can cut your climate footprint in half or even more.
How is this a generational issue? I have noticed that people of my generation tend to respond very differently to these ideas then do my students and their generation.
This generational difference is more than a little important, as it it reveals one of the truly daunting challenges that we face, which is the subject of this segment.
First, let me quickly articulate five things that can Americans can do to dramatically reduce our personal climate footprints. Then we can move to the two very different generational responses to them. (Incidentally, you might find these interesting in their own right. In future segments, I will be taking each of them up individually in detail, along with a range of similar suggestions.)
1) Transportation. For the average American, owning and driving an automobile accounts for around a quarter of our individual climate footprints. Hence, if you trade your car for mass transit, a bike, or walking shoes, or some combination of these, you will have done the earth (and humanity and the rest of the life on the planet) a huge favor.
2) Housing can account for another quarter of your climate footprint, especially if you live in a large suburban or rural home. Move to a micro-apartment or certain co-housing communities, and you can greatly reduce another big chunk of your climate footprint.
Incidentally, the good news for both transportation and housing is that there is a simple way to approach both: move to a city. City living can mean dramatically less car use (in Manhattan, only one in five people commute to work by car) and generally smaller, more efficient housing. Many cities have made major commitments to mass transportation and bicycle use, Portland and Vancouver are excellent examples, as well as micro-apartments, such as New York’s adAPT NYC program.
3) Waste less food and eat a largely plant-based diet. Food production is the second largest producer of greenhouse gases on the planet. Yet, we waste between 1/3 and 1/2 of the food that we produce. For Americans, much of this happens at the consumer level. Meat is another problem. Producing a pound of beef emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as producing 30 pounds of lentils, which are also a significant source of protein.
4) Have no more than one child per person. In other words, a couple should have either two, one, or zero children. When I was born (1959), there were just under 3 billion people on the planet. There are now 7.7 billion. By mid century, it will be near 10 billion. The planet simply cannot sustain this many human beings. We need to reduce our global population.
5) Re-think your relationship to stuff. For example, the average American purchases over 60 items of clothing each year (not including socks, underwear, and other incidentals). Nearly everything we buy has a climate footprint. The solution: for a start, buy less, keep what you have longer, and consider preowned options from places like thrift stores.
(By the way, these last three suggestions – regarding food, population, and our appetite for stuff – are related. While it might seem that a swelling human population is the principal threat to our planet, we need to always keep in mind the relationship of population to consumption. As it is home to just 4% of the world’s population, the United States would seem to be pretty insignificant environmentally. However, as I noted in a previous segment, 25% of all greenhouse gases that human beings have put in the atmosphere were done by this tiny population, in part because we have a voracious appetite for meat and all sorts of stuff. So, we can’t just think in terms of population: we must also consider the emissions of each person. In the future segments, we will be taking up this issue in detail.)
In any event, if you do these five simple things, you may well cut your climate footprint in half, perhaps even to a quarter or less of its present size.
Now, for the generational responses.
Over the years I have heard a range of different responses to these suggestions from my students and people of their generation. There are two in particular that I hear more than all others. They sound something like this:
1) “Is that it? Just doing these five simple things can make that big of a difference?” (It can!)
The second response often goes hand-in-hand with the first:
2) “Not only doesn’t this sound very bad, in many ways it actually sounds pretty exciting, even desirable.”
It’s true, moving to a place like Portland or Vancouver (or a less expensive urban option) and living without a car can sound pretty appealing. Perhaps far more appealing than life in a cookie-cutter suburb, shuttling around in a minivan or SUV. Since many of my students have at least toyed with the idea of becoming largely vegetarian or vegan, switching to a mostly plant-based diet may be enticing for a range of additional factors, such as the ethical treatment of animals. And very few of my students are thinking about having large families. Regarding stuff, many of them are frustrated with our consumer culture and perhaps already visit thrift shops or have been intrigued by movements like minimalism.
So, all this doesn’t sound so bad and, in fact, can seem pretty desirable.
Although we are often told that adapting to the climate crisis will mean that we will need to make do with less and live drab lives of deprivation, this is not generally the perspective of my students – not by a long shot.
However, when I list these five things to people of my own generation, the response is often quite different. As it turns out, I primarily hear two answers from them as well. They often sound something like this:
1) “That sounds positively horrible! I love my car, and the freedom that it gives me. I’ve worked hard all of life for my house, it is incredibly important to me. And I enjoy the fruits of my labor; all the things that I now deserve as a result of all that work. Instead, you want me to live in a tiny, cramped apartment or with a bunch of other people in co-housing, to get around by bus or on a bicycle, to eats lentils for dinner, and wear somebody’s used clothing? Could you possibly be serious?
The second response is also pretty common:
2) “This is a direct assault on the American way of life. We should be able to live where we want to live, drive what we want to drive, eat what we want to eat, wear what we want to wear, buy what we want to buy, and, of course, have as many children as we please. What you are suggesting sounds like communism, totalitarianism, or something of the sort!”
To these folks, the changes that I outline not only suggest a decidedly unpleasant and drab existence, it comes at the cost of what are actually posited as freedoms.
Throughout this series you’ll hear me cite statistics and quote papers, but let me be clear, what I am relating here is my personal experience. And it is admittedly skewed. My students are a select group. The majority of them are from California, a very progressive state, or are progressive thinking international students, they will soon to be college educated, and they are likely more than a little drawn to environmental issues, otherwise they wouldn’t be taking my classes. In contrast, every now and again I run into members of their generation who hold very different views than I am relating here. I once had a student tell me that he “wanted everything that my parents had – and a whole lot more. I want it all!”
Nonetheless, experience has taught me that the generational divide that I am outlining here is real. And, as far as I am concerned, more than a little worrisome, as it suggests that the generation currently controlling our planet has been crafting and settling into a way of life for decades now that is, quite simply, an environmental nightmare. What’s more, my generation likes it – and often recoil from change almost instinctively. As my generation has shaped our modern world more than any other, many in this generation are actually proud of what was accomplished – and seemingly comfortable with it.
While it may seem that my generation simply inherited its behavior and practices from previous generations (and in some sense we did), we significantly innovated and often outrageously supersized them in a way that was disastrous for the planet. Take housing, for example.
In 1950, shortly before I was born, the average size of an American house was just under 1000 square feet. Today, the average size is over 2500 square feet – more than two and a half times larger, even though American families are now considerably smaller. And of course, as with so many things American, bigger is often perceived as better. Hence, if you can afford it, the ideal home is often much larger. One in five new houses in the U.S. is now, in fact, over 3000 square feet in size. One in ten is a McMansion, at over 4000 square feet. In contrast, a traditional Japanese home, which housed families of four or more, was one tenth that size at 400 square feet.
Housing is just one example of how American lifestyle has grown more and more environmentally disastrous during my lifetime.
The light at the end of the tunnel is, as far as I am concerned, the generations that will supplant us.
Had my generation prepared the way, you would be faced with a far less daunting challenge. For example, if we had already written cars, big houses, meat, and the love of all sorts of stupid stuff out of your lives, mitigating this crisis would be far easier. And not just with respect to these particular issues, as this would have made clear that we can indeed change our lives and lifestyles. In a general way, it would have underscored to this new generation coming on the scene that the way of life that we are handed at birth can be changed at any time.
In short, our example would have made clear to you that is possible to effectively make sweeping and profound cultural changes. That would have been a lesson of inestimable value. Sadly, it is one that my generation never learned. Hence, we could not, did not, teach it to you.
What’s to be done now? If you hope to effectively mitigate our climate crisis, you need to embrace sweeping change. Throughout this series, we will consider specific ways of doing just that.
In the next segment, I want to address the question of what my generation knew about the climate crisis and when we knew it. Although interesting in its own right, this is an important issue to take up, as understanding why my generation failed to act on what we clearly knew was an impending environmental catastrophe on a global scale can hopefully help keep your generation from making the same horrific mistake.
In previous segments, I drew attention to the fact that the climate crisis was principally brought about in a single lifetime, mine. I also noted that an unusual time delay is in part responsible here, as the consequences of our actions were not felt at the time but are only now catching up with us now, decades later.
This raises a crucial question: did we see this coming or not? In other words, did we know that our actions would likely bring about a catastrophe on a global scale that would threaten the very future of our species?
Short answer? Yes, for over fifty years, we clearly feared that this was going to happen. And by “we,” I mean not just scientists, scholars, activists, and policymakers, but the average person on the street in the U.S. knew and was very worried.
In order to understand what we knew and how, let’s focus on the two principal greenhouse gases, CO2 (carbon dioxide, which is released during the burning of fossil fuels) and methane (which for the most part is emitted by the beef industry and while fracking for fossil fuels).
With respect to CO2, if, 50 years ago (in the early 1970s), you asked the average American if we needed to end our reliance on fossil fuels by the close of the 20th century, the answer would very likely have been a decided “Yes.” Moreover, most people feared that failure to do so might well result in an existential catastrophe for the human race. In simple terms, in the early 1970s most Americans feared that if we did not quickly ween ourselves off of fossil fuels we would risk the collapse of our civilization, possibly as early as the beginning of the 21st-century.
With respect to methane, many people in the the U.S. and the developed world by the early 1970s, as we shall see, knew that meat consumption was an environmental disaster.
In short, most Americans in the early 1970s knew that if we didn’t ween ourselves off of fossil fuel’s and meat then we were flirting with a global disaster of unprecedented scope, likely beginning early in the 21st-century. The interesting thing is that this concern was not directly related to climate change.
I will explain this unusual state of affairs directly, but first I want to specifically address what we knew about how CO2 would impact the global climate – and when we knew it.
As a colleague of mine at UC Santa Barbara, John Perlin, has recently argued, Eunice Foote, notably a woman scientist, was the first person to suggest that increased levels of atmospheric CO2 would result in global temperature rise. This was, astonishingly, in 1854.
Flash forward a century, in 1956, shortly before I was born, physicist Gilbert Plass published an article entitled “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change,” which noted that we could expect global temperature to rise significantly in the 20th century as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. Using computer models, which were just coming on the scene at the time, Plass predicted a global temperature rise by the year 2000 that has proven to be pretty accurate, all things considered.
In less than a decade, in 1965, the President’s Science Advisory Committee, which is housed in the White House, produced an important report entitled “Restoring The Quality of Our Environment.” After being presented with it, President Lyndon Johnson made reference to it and the problem of rising CO2 levels in a speech to Congress.
Here are just a few lines from that report:
“Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years.”
“By the year 2000 the increase in CO2 will be close to 25%. This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate.”
“The climate changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.”
So, yes, we knew about this problem from nearly the beginning, in the sense that scientists and policymakers (including the President) were alerted to the issue at the point when it was emerging as a significant global problem – right around the time that I was born.
During the past 60 years, the problem has, on and off, emerged as a significant political issue. Nathaniel Rich has, for example, outlined how, starting in the 1970s, a decade-long effort almost resulted (according to Rich) in binding treaties that would have reeled in global CO2 rise. (source) It is also now clear that fossil fuel companies like Exxon have known about the problem in great detail for decades, starting in the 1970s. (source)
However, it can be argued – to be honest, I have heard it argued quite a bit – that the public (i.e. the average person on the street) really did not know about the impending climate crisis. To people of my generation, this can be a comforting stance, as in many ways it lets us off the hook. In other words, yes we did something that has proven to be environmentally disastrous, but we had no idea that it would be a problem.
This is an important issue to address. My goal is not to cast blame on my generation, but rather to see our story as a cautionary tale.
The simple fact is that we absolutely did know that what we were doing would be disastrous. Although not with respect to climate change, we nonetheless knew that we were setting the stage for a worldwide catastrophe by the early 21st-century. And yes, if you would have stopped and asked any random American on the street at that time, they would have almost certainly have told you that they knew – and were worried, perhaps very worried.
Allow me to explain.
In 1956, the same year that Gilbert Plass published his article on “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change,” M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for the Shell oil company, introduced his theory of “peak oil.” Hubbert noted that every year we were pumping more oil out of the ground than the previous year. Eventually, he theorized, this trend would end as we began running out of oil. He predicted that this year of “peak oil” would be right around 1970. After that, the trend would reverse, as we would then be pumping less and less oil out of the earth each year as worldwide reverse were depleted.
Almost like clockwork, in the U.S. oil production started to decline in 1970. Consequently, we began relying more and more on imported oil, especially from the Middle East. In 1973, Middle Eastern oil producers put an embargo on the export of their oil to the U.S. for political reasons. This sent shock waves through America, as we were suddenly found ourselves running out of oil to heat our homes and gasoline to power our cars. As you might imagine, the cost of heating oil and gasoline soared.
This was the first “energy crisis” of the 1970s. Another would follow in 1979. The average American was profoundly, personally impacted by all this, as there were, for example, long (in some cases very long) lines to buy gasoline because of the shortage. And then there was the price: the average cost of a gallon of gasoline in the United States in 1970 was $.36 per gallon. By 1980, it had tripled in cost to $1.19 per gallon (source).
Consequently, most Americans not only knew about peak oil in the early 1970s, we knew that, as a consequence, we needed to quickly weaned ourselves off of fossil fuels. This resulted in the first mad dash in the U.S. away from fossil fuels and toward the development of renewable energy sources. By the end of the 1970s, the President, Jimmy Carter, was putting solar panels on the White House.
So, even though many Americans had not heard of global warming 50 years ago, nearly everyone knew that we needed to stop burning fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy – and knew that we needed to do so quickly.
With respect to methane released during meat (principally beef) production, thanks in part to an internationally best-selling book in 1971, Diet for a Small Planet, the concept of “environmental vegetarianism” became widely known at the time. This is refusing to eat meat because of the harm that it does to the environment, as opposed to not doing so for other reasons, such as the ethical treatment of animals. Consequently, even though meat production had not been linked to climate change by the early 1970s, most Americans knew that eating meat was deeply problematic environmentally.
In short, fifty years ago, in the early 1970s, the average American on the street may not have known about climate change, but they definitely did know that we needed to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and meat, and that we needed to do it quickly. If we didn’t to this, all indications were that we would bring about global catastrophe by the early 21st-century.
We knew what we had to do, yet we didn’t act on this knowledge.
We often talk about how important knowledge is, but, as this example proves, it is not as powerful as we might think.
“Knowledge is power” is an often repeated, popular phase. In spite of its simplistic appeal, the problem with this statement is that it is just plain wrong. Knowledge is not power – not by a long shot.
Let’s say that millions of people are in possession of a profound and important piece of knowledge. For example, that our earth could sustainably feed billions of human beings, if we all would only eat a largely plant-based diet – something that the bestselling book Diet for a Small Planet made clear in 1971. Just having read it in a book, and thus being in possession of this knowledge, is not enough. In this sense, “knowledge is knowledge” – and little more. It’s hardly power.
For it to become power, we must act on knowledge.
Hence, a more accurate formulation would be “if acted upon, knowledge is power.” And it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a cautionary addendum: “if not acted upon, knowledge is power squandered.”
The knowledge that I have been addressing in this talk was largely squandered.
Coming when it did, fifty years ago – when global greenhouse gas emissions were just beginning to skyrocket – this knowledge regarding fossil fuels and meat had the power to change the world, to save the world. Instead, it was mostly ignored. This crucial, extraordinary knowledge never became power.
In the case of the few people who acted upon, for example, the knowledge that a largely plant-based diet could be enormously powerful – environmentally, politically, ethically and in a host of additional ways – they were often marginalized, even laughed at.
For the sake of our species, our planet, and all the life that we share it with, we cannot afford to let this happen again.
We need to act, and to act now, in response to what we know. At the risk of repeating myself, knowledge is power only when acted upon. Otherwise, knowledge is power squandered. Let my generation be a cautionary tale.
The activating of the power latent in knowledge has a name that derives from the word “action”: “activism.” Even if the extraordinary action takes place in a particularly mundane way – such as at the dinner table, or by taking the bus rather than a car – it can nonetheless be powerful climate activism.
What each of us can do about the climate crisis (a six-part lecture series)
Many people believe that technological innovations are the solution to the climate crisis. While certainly important, we need to face the fact that cultural changes are every bit, if not often more, important.
In order to understand how, let’s take cars as an example.
A typical car in the U.S. emits about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year. Given that the average American’s total annual emissions of CO2 is just under 20 metric tons, cars account for around a quarter of our individual carbon footprints. Thus, if we wish to reduce our individual climate footprints, cars are clearly one of the lowest hanging fruits.
For decades now, electric automobiles have been touted as a solution to this enormous problem, as they do not directly emit CO2 while operating. Each one this promises to reduce those 4.6 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year to down to zero. Hence, they are often called zero-emission vehicles.
It is hardly surprising, then, that for decades electric cars have been held out as a sort of holy grail. Now that they are finally becoming practical and affordable, it would seem that in one swell foop our problem is solved.
Sadly, it’s not.
If we are to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°- 2.0 C, which is the goal of the Paris Accord signed at COP 21, each person on the planet can annually emit no more than about two metric tons of CO2 or equivalent gases.
Think of this sort of like a dietary guideline. The FDA tells us that, if you want to healthy body, you should consume no more than 2000 or 2500 calories per day. Similarly, if you want to healthy planet, you should emit no more than two metric tons of CO2 or equivalent gases per year.
With respect to the climate crisis, the problem with cars involves their production.
First, the good news regarding electric cars.
Even though manufacturing an electric car produces 15-68% more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than a similar gasoline car, over their lifetimes electric cars generate half of the emissions of their gasoline counterparts, more than compensating for increased emissions during production.
So, if you are going to buy a car, an electric one is arguably the better choice with respect to climate change, all things considered.
But, should we buy one at all? Are there other, external, factors to car’s operation that we need to consider?
The manufacture of a typical automobile emits a extraordinary amount of CO2 or equivalent gases. Manufacturing a typical midrange car (a Toyota Prius, which is a hybrid) releases about 17 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. A top-of-the-line SUV (a Range Rover) about 35 metric tons.
Let’s lean toward the lower end assume that just 22 metric tons of CO2 or equivalent gasses are emitted during the manufacture of the average car on the road, even though SUVs and crossovers sales are currently dominating the American market and the electric cars now coming online release more greenhouse gases during their manufacture.
The average car has a lifespan of 11 years. This is, incidentally, up from couple of decades ago.
If we spread out the 22 metric tons of CO2 emitted during the manufacture of a typical car over its 11 year lifespan, we come up with two metric tons per year.
Recall that if you want a healthy planet, you should emit no more than two tons of CO2 per year – total.
So, if you buy a succession of cars during your adult life, one every 11 years, and leave them in your driveway and never drive them, you will have totally expended your CO2 allotment for your lifetime. And, of course, this does not leave an emission allotment for anything else, such as for food, clothing, housing, and everything else that we need to live – including actually driving that car!
In case you were wondering, recycling cannot help much more here, as automobiles are already the most recycled of all consumer products.
We could also hope that few people on the planet will own cars. During the 20th century, most cars on the planet were owned by Americans and Europeans. The problem is that we have made them so popular that the rest of the world now wants them.
India is currently the fifth largest car market in the world and growing rapidly. China, now the largest market, is quickly developing an even greater, in fact altogether extraordinary love of cars. In 1985, there were 1.78 million total vehicles in China. In 2017, car ownership alone had soared to 172 million. That’s an astonishing increase of more than 10,000 percent in just three decades.
There are currently just over a billion cars on the planet. Because the rest of the world is now also quickly becoming infatuated with them like Americans, that number is expected to double to two billion in the next 15 to 20 years.
The problem is that if we focus just on emissions and see this primarily as a technological challenge we will lose the fight against the climate crisis.
For decades, we have held out hope that technology and industry will produce a car with zero emissions coming out of the tailpipe, when we should instead have been focusing on the car itself.
Instead of trying to produce a truly emissions free automobile – which, if we consider its entire life cycle, is obviously impossible – we instead need to turn our attention to car use.
The automobile is just one example of the hope that technology alone will get us out of this problem. There is no need to stop driving cars – so the hope goes – as someone will soon come along and give us a zero-emissions automobile. Elon Musk, of course, likes to cast himself as this savior. But the fact is that no matter how hard we try, making a 5000-pound vehicle to carry one person will never be environmentally sound.
For decades now, we have pinned our hopes on reengineering the automobile. As far as I am concerned, this was a complete and utter waste of time. Unimaginably precious time during a crucial moment when the climate crisis was unfolding.
Effort was not only wasted on this thoroughly misguided project, but attention was drawn away from the real job at hand: We should instead have been focusing our attention on re-engineering the cultural practice of car use.
This is not to say that technology is not needed to help solve this problem along with cultural change.
As it turns out, it’s technologically possible to transport a person 350, 500, even an astonishing 750 miles on a single gallon of gasoline or its equivalent. In other words, it is theoretically possible to transport someone from LA to New York on just for gallons of gas.Not only is it possible, the good news is that these transportation technologies are no longer still in the experimental stage.
To the contrary, they have all proven themselves and in fact have been in widespread use for over a century.
What are these wonder technologies? Buses, subways, and trains, respectively. When compared to a 25-mpg car (which is currently the average efficiency of a new automobile in the U.S.) with a single occupant (three out of four cars on the road have just one person in them), a bus is 14 times more efficient (i.e. one gallon of gasoline can transport a single person 350 miles), a subway 20 times more so (500 mpg per person), and a passenger train 30 times more efficient (750 mpg).
A few years ago, a perceptive student of mine, reflecting on this situation and these numbers, succinctly observed that “what we need is not a 100-mpg car, but rather for taking the bus to become cool and owning a car to be anything but.” I could not agree more.
Incidentally, even 750 mpg can be improved upon—and it’s embarrassingly easy to do so. In parts of Manhattan, over a third of commuters walk to work. Bicycling is even more efficient. New Yorkers, incidentally, are eleven times more likely to take mass transit like subways and buses to work than the average American. As Edward Glaeser, David Owen, and many others have thus argued, cities are far more efficient than suburbs and rural locales. This is clearly the case with fossil fuel use and corresponding carbon footprints.
The example of New York (and cities more generally) makes clear that it is quite possible for modern human beings to live rich and diverse lives largely free of the automobile.
Why, then, do so many Americans drive cars? And why do we drive so many of them? The U.S. has fewer than 4 percent of the planet’s population, yet a quarter of its cars. Placed end to end, they would circle the earth – 31 times. As my student realized, in the U.S. cars are cool, really cool. In fact, in the US, we have more cars than we have licensed drivers. Nonetheless, automobiles are an environmental disaster.
If everything else were equal, switching from car to bus could reduce our individual climate footprints for transportation by a factor of fourteen. Yet, with fewer than 5 percent of Americans taking the bus to work, as opposed to 85 per- cent using cars to commute, buses are clearly not at all desirable. But why are cars cool and buses not?
This is not a question for the STEM fields, but rather the social sciences and humanities, where we seek to understand just why people do what they do. Science may be able to tell us how human beings are changing our global climate, but not why we are doing it. The sciences may be able to offer us more advanced technology (i.e. more efficient cars), but they offer little insight into why we continue to engage in these practices. Why, for example, we love cars.
If we can understand why cars are desirable and buses not, we can perhaps then take the next step – and it is a big one – of not just studying culture, but actively intervening in it. For example, we might help foster a culture where riding a bus or train is seen as far more appealing than traveling by car. If we could pull this off, the gains could greatly exceed the impact that a 100-mpg car would have on climate change. This is why I suggested that the humanities have as large a role to play as science and technology in limiting anthropogenic climate change.
But, make no mistake, this will be no easy task. Developing and manufacturing the next generation of lithium batteries will certainly be difficult, but no less so than trying to understand why human beings are engaging in perplexing and at times even irrational practices. As the World Health Organization (WHO) notes, over 50 million people are killed or injured in traffic accidents worldwide each year. Globally, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for young people over the age of 10, surpassing malaria, AIDS, and any and everything else. Consequently, the WHO has declared traffic injuries a worldwide epidemic.
In addition to being incredibly dangerous, automobiles demand a huge portion of family income, making them far less economical than mass transportation. The average cost of owning, insuring, maintaining, and fueling a car in the U.S. is around $9000 a year. This is a huge financial burden. Indeed, work about one day a week to afford a car.
It is often suggested, often by car ads, that they represent freedom. Freedom to hop in a car at any time and go for a ride. However, imagine the freedom of every week having a three day weekend as you didn’t have to put in the extra work just to afford a car. Also, people have run the numbers and come up with an interesting figure regarding retirement: if, instead of spending $9000 a year to own a car, you put that money in a retirement account starting when you first enter the workforce in your 20s. If you did this, you would be able to retire not when you were 65 years old, but in your late 40s. Now that strikes me as freedom.
How is it that cars, in spite of being outrageously dangerous, a huge financial burden, and more disastrous for the environment than any other single source, are cool? Like everything else, this has a history. Here’s the short version.
The U.S. came out of the Great Depression economically because it was drawn into a highly industrialized war. Industrial output during World War II was staggering: the U.S. manufactured nearly 7000 major warships, over 300,000 aircraft, and around 2,500,000 land vehicles in just a few years. When the war came to an end, the challenge was to keep this industrial juggernaut (and accordingly the economy) going strong. The automobile played a huge role in this project.
The growth of the postwar U.S. automobile industry depended on convincing the public that cars were desirable. Getting us to spend huge chunks of our income to buy them and risk our lives driving them was no easy task. Nonetheless, car manufacturers, working hand in hand with politicians and others, pulled it off. In order to ensure that mass transportation did not successfully compete with the car, it received dramatically less federal funding than did industries devoted to building automobiles and road infrastructure.
Another big part of the solution was to sell the public on the idea of suburbia. In postwar America, if you wanted to get out of the city and into the appealing new suburbs you needed a car to commute. In fact, just to get around in the sprawling suburbs you needed a car. For many families this meant, to the great delight of the auto industry, that you needed two cars.
At its height in the U.S. a generation ago, one in six Americans were either directly or indirectly employed by this industry. And this did not include the massive, complementary industry of road construction, such as made possible by Eisenhower’s Highway Act of 1956, which authorized the creation of 41,000 miles of interstate highways.
Although it may sound a little outlandish on first hearing, for decades the backbone of the U.S. economy depended on cars being cool. So cool, in fact, that we would knowingly risk our lives and lavish huge portions of our income on their purchase and upkeep. It is difficult to imagine how a broad swath of the American public would go along with this lose–lose proposition. It’s even more difficult to imagine how it continues today in an age when we are aware of climate change. Although it is a little mind-boggling, the carbon footprint of cars in the U.S. exceeds that of our houses (and any other single source, for that matter).
Returning to the big picture, technology alone will not solve the climate crisis. Instead, we need to look hard at rewriting a range of cultural practices, like our love of cars.
Even though the challenges that we face are daunting – and let’s face it, more than a little scary and depressing – approaching this as a human issue can and should be empowering. There is no need to wait for Elon Musk or anyone else to solve this problem (especially as it is clear that these technologists simply cannot come anywhere near doing it on their own), as each of us can simply write cars out of our lives.
As Americans, we can do even more, as a good deal of the world still looks to us to lay down the precepts of what’s cool. In places like Portland, Brooklyn, and a range of other cities, an emerging eco-culture is eschewing cars to instead embrace mass transit and bikes as cool, really cool. Conversely, in these places gas-guzzling cars like SUVs are anything but cool. In terms of climate crisis, this sort of exciting, future-oriented culture may be one of the U.S.’s most important exports in the 21st century
Yes, even more important – far more important, I would argue – than exporting Teslas.
Although it may seem that we will therefore need to do with less and perhaps even do without (I am, after all, suggesting that we do without cars), we stand to actually benefit by this bargain. Instead of spending huge chunks of our income on deathtraps that are wreaking havoc on our climate and planet, we have the opportunity to imagine new and better ways of getting around.
So, I am curious what you think about the future of cars in the age of the climate crisis – and the larger issue of whether technological innovations will allow us to live our lives without change in this new age or whether will will have to change certain aspects of the way that we live in response to the climate crisis.
It’s true. Environmentally, the absolute worst thing that you can do is flying.
What is interesting is that air travel only accounts for about 2%, maybe 2.5%, of total greenhouse gas emissions globally (source). As such, it contributes far less to the climate crisis than something like automobile use or eating beef. Other things that you may not think about at all contribute as much or more to the crisis. For example, 2% of all greenhouse gases come from the manufacture of aluminum; 5% from making cement. Who knew, right?
So why is air travel so bad if it is currently such a small percentage of the problem globally?
Like many things related to the climate crisis, it is useful to approach this personally. We often ignore or avoid this approach, as it can make us more than a little uncomfortable, as it requires us to look at what we are doing rather than the actions of some corporation or politician, but doing so is important – in fact, it’s essential.
It’s hard to imagine a way for one person to contribute to the climate crisis more quickly than by flying. If you take a round-trip flight from LA to Paris, which would have you in the air for a little under 24 hours, you will have caused three tons of carbon dioxide to be directly emitted into the upper atmosphere. Incidentally, if you fly first class, you will have contributed twice that amount, six tons.
The next time that you wish you were flying first class, remember this: it’s literally twice is bad for the planet! And, of course, for all you aspiring Kardashians, taking a personal jet is off the chart when it comes to inflicting as much harm to the planet as quickly as possible. There really should be some sort of award for this kind of unconscionable behavior. Perhaps we could call it the “Worst Planetary Citizen” award.
Instead, we see it as glamorous.
In any event, in addition to CO2, other gases emitted by your plane, such as mono-nitrogen oxides (that’s a mouthful!), increase your short-term climate impact by as much as two or three times more (source).
So, if air travel is so bad – which it absolutely is – how is it that it accounts for only 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions?
The problem is that traveling by air is a practice exclusive to the wealthiest, most privileged people on the planet. In fact, flying is in some sense THE iconic display of privilege. For over seventy years now, we have referred to the world’s most privileged people as the “jet set.”
Conversely, 19 out of 20 people on the planet have never set foot in an airplane. Even among Americans, half do not fly annually. Frequent, rather than occasional, flyers are obviously the biggest problem. By some estimates, 80% of flights are made by just one percent of all people on the planet.
Although the term “jet set” has obviously lost its cachet over the decades, now that all sorts of people can fly coach, it is nonetheless a global elite that is still doing all this flying and contributing to the climate crisis in this way.
You may not think of yourself as a global elite or as a member of the “jet set,” but if you fly, you are. Put nineteen random people from across the globe in a room with you, and, just by virtue of the fact that you just occasionally fly, you may well be the only jet setter in the room.
If you are a frequent flyer, put a hundred random people in a room and you will be contributing more to the climate crisis in this way than anyone else in the room. You may not think of yourself as a member of “the one percent” (i.e. the world’s wealthiest and most privileged people), but you would be among the the one percent doing the lion’s share of all this flying.
In which case, air travel could be doubling or tripling your personal climate footprint.
Let’s a pause on that for a moment: Even though you may be trying to reduce your carbon footprint in a variety of ways (such as by eating a largely plant-based diet, not owning a car, buying less stuff, etc.), if you fly, this activity could easily singlehandedly nullify all the gains from the rest of your otherwise environmentally conscientious lifestyle.
Let’s get specific here. In order to meet the goals of the Paris accord, which was established at COP 21, everyone on the planet should emit on average no more than two metric tons of CO2 per year. In a single 24-hour period, that flight from LA to Paris thus expends your entire CO2 allocation for a year and a half. Three years if you fly first class. Factor in the other greenhouse gases emitted and it is two or three times worse even than that.
If only 5% of the world’s population is responsible for air travel, what would happen if the rest of the world began to follow our dubious example? In fact, this is what is now happening. For example, air travel in China recently increased by 50% in just five years (source).
So, what’s to be done?
Three things come to mind. One with respect to business travel, another recreational travel, and a third applies to both.
First, the one that applies to both business and recreational travel is simple enough, though not necessarily easy to enact: Fly less. Instead of multiple business trips or vacations, consolidate as much as possible. For example, instead of two short vacations that require flying every year, why not have one grand one every five years – thus reducing your flights by a factor of ten?
Flying less does not just mean consolidating trips, but breaking them into parts as well. For example, as travel by train is one of the most efficient ways of getting around (and hence has a relatively tiny climate footprint), as opposed to air travel which is arguably the most environmentally problematic, traveling overland by train and across oceans could make sense.
Let’s say that I wanted to fly from my home in Santa Barbara, which is near Los Angeles, to London. First, I could take a bus or train to LA. While there are nonstop flights from London to LA, many in fact have connections in New York City. Instead of doing these two legs by plane, the first could be by train and the second by airplane, thereby cutting the airmiles almost in half. Having traveled across the country by train, I can tell you that it was a wonderful experience that years later I still look back on fondly.
Regarding business travel in particular, a big part of the solution may be telepresencing of one sort or another. I know, when may people think of telepresencing we imagine the transporter from Star Trek.
Telepresencing is indeed being transported across great distances by way of some form of technology.
But the fact is that practical telepresencing is already here – and has been for over a century. Radio technology allowed our voices, at least, to be present at far off places. Not long after, television also allowed live images to be transmitted at a distance. Telephones, first wired though now largely radio, allowed us to conduct realtime, interactive conversations around the world. And, of course, the Internet and cellular networks made practical and affordable technologies like Skype and FaceTime that allow two or more people to see, hear, and interact with each other in realtime.
This technology has now advanced to the point that well over a billion people on the planet now literally carry highly advanced versions of it in our back pockets, as smartphones allow us to conduct conversations with high-definition video that rival broadcast standards.
What does all this have to do with the climate crisis?
It is simple enough: we expend an enormous amount of energy transporting our bodies around, often in environmentally disastrous ways like automobiles and airplanes, when just seeing and hearing each other would do. This is not to say that such telepresencing is the same as a face-to-face encounter: however, when we consider is that the climate footprint of such encounters can be 100 times smaller than the face-to-face meeting, the trade-off is, as far as I am concerned, well worth it for the sake of the planet and our future.
Moreover, social media has challenged us to reconsider how meaningful human interaction occurs. Many people find the relationships that they make and maintain online to be nearly as valuable as their face-to-face ones.
Regarding recreational air travel, let’s say that you make a commitment to stop (or dramatically reduce) flying, starting today. How, then, do you travel, in the sense of visiting new places and experiencing new things there without flying?
You could just throw up your hands in frustration and say “Screw it, I guess I just won’t travel then”! Unfortunately, when they hear about the environmental problems of air travel, many people may well assume that this what the future holds. Is it, then, any wonder that they want to hold onto the present (and their boarding passes)?
Alternately, you could accept the challenge of the future and start imagining possibilities, in some cases really appealing possibilities.
With respect to recreational air travel, an interesting alternative is the emerging slow travel movement.
Slow travel? Yep, it’s a thing.
For example, let’s assume I wanted to take a vacation from my home in Santa Barbara to San Francisco, which is about 300 miles away. I could fly there, which would take just over an hour and which would be unpleasant and an environmental disaster.
This is not, however, my only option. I could, for example, take the train up, which would add about 9 hours to my travel time. Even setting aside the environmental advantages of such a trip, I imagine that it would be pretty nice way to spend a day, just sitting back and enjoying a large chunk of the California coast.
Of course, I would also have other options. One of the most radical would be if I traveled up on my pedalec bike (which is an electric assisted bike that I still pedal), riding four or five hours a day and spending the rest of the time exploring the local areas and staying at Airbnb’s. Such a trip would take around 3 days. And then 3 days back.
Now, some people will scuff (maybe even laugh) at the very idea of traveling in such a way.
However, the nascent “slow travel” movement argues for trips of just this kind (as well as mass-transit options like trains). Like slow fashion, and before it slow food, this movement challenges the cultural status quo. Indeed, it seeks to upend it.
Spending hours preparing a meal, starting with buying the ingredients at a local farmers market to slowly preparing all its dishes (let alone if we grow the food ourselves), can seem absolutely absurd when compared to a fast food restaurant, where you can buy a meal and eat it in under 10 minutes.
Similarly, spending hours of your spare time knitting a hat or sewing a shirt may seems ludicrous when you can buy one from a fast fashion outlet for less than $10.
Nonetheless, in the past few decades slow food has become a real cultural force. Slow fashion may not be far behind.
Decades ago, the architects of the slow food movement, frustrated with the present, imagined a bold new future. It took quite a while, but, at least where I live ( California), the future has arrived, and for many people it definitely includes healthy portions of slow food. One of the reasons that the slow food movement succeeded was that it had much to recommend it.
The same can be said of the slow travel movement. At the risk of rolling out a cliché, life really is about the journey, not the destination. This truism is completely lost on the fast travel industry, where the journey is reduced to a few altogether uncomfortable hours packed into, and jostling around in, a loud airplane.
Let’s return to my imagined trip up the coast on an electric bike. Frankly, making this trip with my wife and young daughter sounds like it could be a pretty magical experience that would stay with us for years. I can’t think of no better way than to experience the California coast. Of course, it would not be all about the destination of San Francisco. Indeed, San Francisco would just become part of the journey.
Yes, the transition to slow travel would impact the air travel industry, but whole new possibilities would open up, such as better mass transit and bicycle infrastructure (both of which are sorely needed). Whole towns that are not traditional “destinations,” will nonetheless be able to play a role in a new slow travel industry.
In any event, I am curious to hear what you think. Is it time to write air travel out of our lives, or at least greatly reduce it? If so, how do we begin?
Flying less? Telepresencing? Slow travel? Other ideas?
Are you an architect of the future, part of what I like to call the “climate vanguard”?
As I have argued throughout this series, the climate crisis is going to necessitate sweeping cultural changes if we are to mitigate it successfully. To quote Greta Thunberg: “Either we do that or we don’t.” If we don’t, this planet will become unwelcoming, perhaps largely uninhabitable, for our species. Consequently, there are, as far as I am concerned, no two ways about it, we need to make these changes.
The question is do you want to be part of the group rushing out ahead of everyone else in boldly forging a new future? In other words, do you not only want to voluntarily take part in this extraordinary reinvention of our culture, but do you want to take the lead?
Allow me to flesh this out a little, beginning with a sobering thought:
Many – probably most – people will likely not make the necessary personal changes to adequately combat climate crisis until required to do so. Although unfortunate – and more than a little depressing – this is the sad reality of the situation.
What can we do about this?
First, we need to elect politicians that will implement programs pricing carbon, such as a “carbon tax,” which would directly tax fossil fuel suppliers, thereby resulting in higher costs on all products and services that one way or another require the emission of greenhouse gases. Over time, such a tax would increase. (By the way, in a future episode I will be taking up the nuts and bolts of a carbon tax in detail including the important question of how the impact on financially distressed families can be reduced, such as through progressive tax-shifting.)
Pricing carbon would mean, for example, that the cost of air travel would increase and continue to increase over time. (Incidentally, as I note in another episode, air travel produces tons of greenhouse gas emissions – literally a ton or more of GHG emissions for just one passenger for a long flight!) Thus, air travel would become more and more expensive as the carbon tax increased over time. Consequently, people would, on the whole, be traveling less and less as a result of a carbon tax. Eventually, if the cost became prohibitively high, most people would largely stop flying.
Since air travel is an environmental and climate disaster, this would be a very good thing indeed.
We all should, consequently, support legislation pricing carbon to get the ball rolling on this. But can we do more – and do it directly, right now?
The answer is, of course, “yes.” We can, staying with this example, make a personal decision to stop flying now – today, in fact. Sadly, it will likely be years before the rest of America catches up with us. Nonetheless, we would be charting the future for the rest of the country. Indeed, charting it for the entire developed world that shares our love of air travel.
In that sense, although it may sound like an odd way to think about it, we would be living in the future, working out what the future will be like.
Let’s stay with our example of air travel in order to explore this idea before moving to our primary topic today, which is food.
If you decided to stop flying today, you would then be confronted with all of the challenges that come with that decision. Let’s be honest, it would likely impact you both professionally and personally.
For example, when I decided to stop flying a few years ago, I was immediately confronted with the challenge of how to attend academic conferences and present papers, which are an integral part of my profession. As I have noted elsewhere, the academic truism “‘[p]ublish or perish’ has a less famous corollary: present or perish. At many institutions, conference and lecture presentations are tallied up alongside publications at tenure and other merit reviews.”
Unfortunately – and astonishingly – this means that many professors double or even triple (in some cases far more) their individual carbon footprints by flying to academic conferences.
What, then, was I to do? Since I was no longer able to attend national and international conferences, I started thinking about how such conferences could work if we took air travel out of the equation. Since computer programing is a hobby of mine, I started working out an online conference that addressed some of the shortcomings of conventional virtual conferences, which often use some sort of Skype-like technology to coordinate real time events. In the intervening years, we have coordinated half a dozen of these nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conferences at UC Santa Barbara.
Now, let me be very clear here – and this is in no way false modesty on my part – I doubt very much that the conference model that I proposed will become any sort of standard in the future.
My point is simply that I found myself strangely confronted with the future. In other words, I was confronted with challenge of a travel-free conference, which the rest of academia may not face until years from now.
Let’s put this in a more general way. We all are going to need to significantly alter our day-to-day lives in order to mitigate the climate crisis. Sooner or later, this absolutely needs to happen. Unfortunately, for many Americans it will be later rather than sooner, as they will not likely make these changes until they are, to be blunt, forced to do so.
The good thing about this situation (I always look for silver lining wherever I can!) is that it gives us time to prepare for this transition. Returning to my example of the academic conference, this means that we have a number of years to experiment with options and come up with a viable alternative to the conventional, fly-in conference. Unfortunately, we are not there yet, but if enough people take this job seriously and work hard enough at it, I am confident that online conferences of some sort will supplant our aging and environmentally disastrous conference model. If all goes well, we can transition into new conference models as we transition off flying.
This is just one example, as many, many of our day-to-day practices need to change: where we live, how we get around, what we wear, what we eat, the stuff that we own, and so forth.
What is needed is a bold group of people to take on the formidable job of being architects of the future. I know, that sounds pretty intimidating. However, it can be pretty simple. As author Jonathan Safran Foer recently noted, it can begin at the breakfast table
Which brings (finally!) us to our topic today: food. As I noted in a previous lecture, the #1 thing that we as a species can do to roll back global greenhouse gas is to waste far less good and to switch to largely plant-rich diets.
This is easier said than done, as the way that we eat is at once, somewhat paradoxically, deeply personal and almost always a shared experience.
Of course, we all like to choose for ourselves what we eat, but this choice is deeply influenced by the culture into which we are born. When reflecting on what makes a people a people, we often consider things like the language that everyone speaks and the laws that everyone follows, but scores of little things unite a people, such as the food that we eat.
These shared practices are often little things that we often take for granted, but can become present themselves as big issues if transgressed. For example, if a child were to tell her parents that she was going to adopt a new way of eating, perhaps by switching to a largely plant-based diet, she would risk disturbing and perhaps even offending them, as her actions could be seen as an affront to her cultural heritage.
There is often a great irony here.
I grew up in the Philadelphia area, which has a large Italian-American population. Consequently, from a very young age, I was exposed to this cuisine, which very often contained beef, from spaghetti with meatballs to cheesesteaks to pepperoni and sausage pizza. However, this is not at all what the traditional Italian (aka Mediterranean) diet is like, as it usually involves very little beef – indeed, not much meat of any kind – but rather is based on vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, grains, and oil.
When a range of cuisines were imported in the U.S., they were reinvented to include large portions of meat, usually beef, which was often considered a sign of affluence. Its true, eating a meat-rich diet was yet another way of announcing that you had, financially, arrived.
In one sense, there is no one American diet. As we are a country of immigrants, every day across America people sit-down to meals that in one way or another often resemble the cuisines of the county from which they hail.
However, in another sense, although varying widely, these are all distinctly American diets if they contain ample servings of meat and animal products – which in all likelihood were far less common in the original cuisine a few generations ago. Hence, when the U.S. beef industry announced its “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” ad campaign in 1992, it could do so confident of the fact that all sorts of Americans from all sorts of places were sitting down to eat beef at many, if not most, meals.
Returning to the example of the child seen by her parents as offending their cultural heritage by eschewing meat, the irony is that she may well be reclaiming a heritage that had been corrupted by American consumerism in the 20th century. A second irony is that this is strange thing for a loving parent to object to, as traditional, largely plant-based diets are often far healthier than the beef-rich American diet
But turning from past to future, what will the diet of the future be like? Let me rephrase that, what will the diets of the future be like, as a range of cultural traditions will no doubt inform how we eat in the future?
Well, it seems clear that, if we are to successfully avert climate catastrophe, these diets will involve largely replacing vegetable protein for meat.
But exactly how will this be worked out? With vegetable protein processed and fashioned to look like meat, such as hamburgers? Or with, for example, legumes unprocessed, such as in a traditional lentil curry? Or perhaps in some new way altogether?
I don’t have an answer here, as these “diets of the future” are in the process of being worked out now.
And this does not just involve reducing animal products in our diets. As I have noted in elsewhere, in terms of mitigating the climate crisis, reducing food waste would be every bit as important (in fact, a tad more important) then switching to largely plant-based diets.
Aside from simply throwing food away, this also means that we should rethink what we eat. For example, when we think of vegetables like beats, we are often just thinking about the root (and are consequently just eating the root), even though the greens are tasty and very nutritious. Similarly, while most people discard the rind, pickled watermelon rind has long been a delicacy in the Southern U.S.
When people think about what they can do to help mitigate climate crisis, things like the production of electricity from solar energy often comes to mind. However, it is clear that working out how best to eat is also profoundly important. And make no mistake, there is still much to be worked out.
The good news is that, while making solar panels more practical and efficient will require a broad range of technical expertise, anyone can begin working out the future of food in their own kitchen, today.
Which returns us to my opening question: Are you an architect of the future? Do you want to be?
There are all sorts of ways that you can take up this challenge, including by making photovoltaic panels more efficient. However, for most people, there is a simpler way, as we can take a long hard look at our personal practices, beginning with what we have to eat today.
This is not to say, however, that this will not be challenging.
Although it may seem that this is simply a matter of going vegetarian or vegan, the situation is more complicated than that.
For example, studies have shown that “diets that only included animal products for one meal per day were less GHG-intensive than lacto-ovo vegetarian diets.” So, while becoming a vegetarian is certainly a move in the right direction when compared to the average American diet, it is not necessarily the best solution.
Similarly, it is not as simple as just becoming a vegan. For example, eating asparagus in the Winter in most of North America is often no better for the climate than eating chicken or pork. Why? Because it is generally flown in from South America – and air travel has a huge climate footprint.
This is why Denmark is planing, as part of his effort to become a carbon neutral country, to put “climate” labels on food in the same way that we have nutritional labels. In this case, such a label would tell you just how good or bad the food is – not for your body – but for the planet.
Food is such an interesting example because an individual really can take the bull by the horns and address the climate crisis at, as Jonathan Safran Foer noted, the breakfast table.
Again, this is not to say that this is easy or that our decisions are clear, but rather that we can begin working out this important climate issue right now – and quite a bit really does need to be worked out, as simply shifting to a largely plant-based diet does not, for example, address the equally large problem of food waste.
Unfortunately, not every issue can be worked out primarily by individuals.
For example, if we want to write cars out of our lives, we can make a commitment to use mass transportation, biking, and walking. However, we can’t easily and effectively do this alone, as we need politicians (from local to national) that will similarly make a commitment to mass transportation and bike infrastructure. Otherwise, taking the bus could be an unnecessarily long and unpleasant experience, and riding a bike downright dangerous if we are forced to share busy roads with automobiles.
Consequently, in future segments we will taking up the importance of becoming politically active.
This is to to say that we cannot personally and immediate eschew car use, but simply to make clear that we need elected officials that support this choice rather than car use, which is unfortunately, but generally, what they support today.
In many respects, this course is aimed at the climate vanguard. Early adopters; early rejecters. People who do not need to be dragged, kicking and denying, into a sustainable future, but rather want to leave the present behind, as it is clearly in so many ways unjust to all the beings on this planet, from animals, to other people, to generations yet unborn.
In this sense, this course is aimed at people who are so profoundly distressed with the present that they just can’t wait for the future. Consequently they are pushing forward into it now, not only by imagining what the future can be, but, as paradoxical as it sounds, living it now.
So, here is my question: do we in fact need a climate vanguard to begin working out what life in the future will be like? Or should we simply wait for the rest of the world to come around to the fact that we need to make sweeping cultural changes in response to the climate crisis?
Personal action, climate activism, or becoming politically active. Which matters more?
Watch this section as a video
As you have no doubt gathered by now, this course focuses on cultural changes as a way of mitigating the climate crisis, rather than just technological solutions.
Up to this point, we have mostly held our focus on personal actions as a way of bringing about cultural change, such as largely forgoing cars, planes, and animal products.
During all this, you may have wondered if personal actions, such as switching to a large plant-based diet, are enough. If so, you are not alone, as a number of people have argued that such actions will prove inadequate to mitigating the climate crisis.
For example, climate activist Naomi Klein has suggested that “focusing on individual consumer behaviour, whether it’s changing lightbulbs or going vegan, is just not going to get us there.”
Similarly, climate scientist Michael Mann has argued that focusing on “beef consumption heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions.”
In fact, both Klein and Mann are right.
Even if everyone on the planet went vegan, it would not, as Klein notes, be enough – and, I would add, not by a long shot. Moreover, the reason that I started this particular lecture series with the personal actions of automobile and air travel was to underscore that for most Americans transportation is, as Mann notes, the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
Energy and transport, which Mann rightly focuses on, does not only cause CO2 emissions, but methane as well. Around 28% of methane emissions comes from meat (generally beef) production. However, an even greater amount comes from fossil fuel extraction, principally from hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking). Consequently, just switching to largely plant-based diets does not address the largest methane problem that we are facing.
It is worth pausing to consider just how much can be done thorough personal action.
Yes, if everyone on the planet gave up eating animal products, it would significantly reduce global methane emissions. However, we need to accept the sobering fact that a broad swath of human beings are not going to do this. As I made clear with my lecture series on “Climate and Generation,” many in the older generations (like mine) will not likely do this voluntarily. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg, as many people across the planet will not likely voluntarily do so for a host of reasons.
Moreover, even though we can indeed reduce global methane emissions at the breakfast table, fracking is the bigger methane problem. We cannot, practically speaking, end fracking through personal action. True, we could all could forego the products of fracking, gas and oil, but without practical and affordable alternatives (i.e. alternative, renewable energy), how exactly would we live, as quite a bit of our modern lives are fueled by gas and oil?
Hence, unlike the situation with food, we cannot easily make a personal switch here. While we could all install solar panels on our roofs with storage batteries inner closets, this would not address the fact that fracked gas and oil would still be used to make a good deal of the rest of our lives possible, such as the energy used to make our clothes and other stuff. Moreover, just as with the switch to largely plant-based diets, many (probably most) people will not likely voluntarily become their own electricity providers.
So, with respect to methane, this is the sobering situation: Right now, only a small percentage of Americans eat with the climate in mind. And fracking, the bigger methane problem, is definitely on the rise, as half of the oil and two thirds of the gas produced by the U.S. is now fracked.
You can see why Klein and Mann want to shift focus away from personal actions like eating a largely plant-based diet.
But, staying with this example, how, then, do we stop fracking?
It is simple enough: we need to vote and become politically active, calling for legislation to end fracking.
However, even voting is not enough, as someone needs to bring this issue to the attention of politicians and the public. Indeed, someone needs to make it a thorn in the side of politicians. Enter activists, climate activists.
For example, in 2016 actor and climate activist Mark Ruffalo produced a short documentary called Dear Governor Brown that urged the former Governor of California to ban fracking (which, incidentally, he refused to do, in spite of Brown’s commitment to mitigating the climate crisis).
You do not, of course, need to be a famous actor to be a climate activist. After all, Greta Thunberg was, just a short time ago, in many ways a pretty average high school student (though in other ways, an altogether extraordinarily one with the ability to see the climate crisis as a black-and-white issue and sustain a laser-like focus on the problem).
So, should we forgo personal actions like ditching our cars and instead work at being climate activists and getting the vote out?
First, I absolutely endorse climate activism. In fact, I think of myself not just as a professor, but first and foremost as a scholar/activist, a climate activist.
Second, as I never tire of telling people, if you can do only one thing to help mitigate the climate crisis and you do not have a lot of time to devote to the issue, you’re in luck, as the single most important thing that you can do takes just an hour or two per year. Who doesn’t have an hour or two a year to help save the planet?
What sort of magical action has this sort of power?
It’s actually a pretty pedestrian act that many people take for granted – though they certainly should not – voting.
How do we vote on behalf of our planet, it’s climate, and all the life that lives on it?
Cast you vote for candidates, from local to federal, advocating for sweeping climate policies, such as carbon pricing and the Green New Deal. In general, vote for candidates and initiatives that put people and the planet ahead of corporate interests.
And, if you have a little more time to spare, explain to five or more of your friends and family the importance of voting.
But what about personal actions, like foregoing beef, air travel, and having a car? Isn’t doing so important?
I would argue that it absolutely is. Moreover, I am of the conviction that activism, voting, and personal action can be – and very often are – intimately related.
Let’s take one of my favorite examples that I never tire of talking about: car use.
As climate scientist Michael Mann noted with respect to climate change, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is our “civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions.” As I have noted before, the average American’s car accounts for about one fourth of our personal carbon footprints.
OK, let’s assume that we decide to forgo owning car. Then what? In other words, how do we get around? Let’s say you use a bike.
Well, if your city is anything like mine, the bike infrastructure there probably leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it may well be dangerous, even deadly.
Allow me to explain for a minute or two as a way of introducing activism.
I live in downtown Santa Barbara, 10 miles from the university where I work. A 20 mile roundtrip commute on a bike may not sound very practical; however, I have a pedalec bike, which is a hybrid bike with a propulsion system not unlike a hybrid car, except instead of being powered by an electric motor and gasoline engine, it is powered by an electric motor and my peddling.
(Incidentally, a pedalec may sound like really new technology: however, when I was 16 years old, way back in 1976, I converted my first adult bicycle to a pedalec using a commercially available kit. Because of the first energy crisis in the U.S. in 1973, quite a few people were experimenting with alternative transportation, including electric assisted bikes. As it had a range of about 25 miles and a top speed of about 25 MPH, it was surprisingly practical and could certainly have been used for my daily commute today. However, at the time, as I recall, I got laughed at quite a bit while riding it, especially to and from high school.)
In any event, since my current electric bike can travel 28 miles per hour (which is the speed limit for a bike such as mine) without my breaking a sweat, is actually a very viable transportation alternative that can often compete with car use for a number of reasons. For example:
1) Parking on my campus is a bit of a nightmare, meaning that you sometimes have to drive around for five or more minutes looking for a parking spot and then walk quite a ways to your destination. In contrast, I ride my bike right to my classes, which is very quick.
2) If you leave at the end of the day, there is often a significant traffic jam on the freeway heading back to Santa Barbara. I have never once encountered a traffic jam on the bike path!
Hence, my e-bike commute often takes just a tad more time than if I were commuting by car. As a bonus, assuming that I am peddling actively, my commute is a nice daily workout.
But there is a problem: there are only two main roads that lead from my house to my office. The first is a bike lane along the busiest street in town (State Street). When I say “bike lane,” I really just mean that you are riding along the shoulder, separated from traffic by just a white line on the pavement. The second route, Modoc Street, which is the one I usually take, is more direct with less traffic. However, it too means that I am riding on the unprotected shoulder. What’s worse, in places traffic is moving at 50 miles an hour alongside me.
Given the situation, it is perhaps not surprising (though still altogether mortifying) that four bicyclists have been killed along Modoc Street in the past few decades, including one last year.
So, even though I can make a commitment to a personal action (ditching a car for an e-bike, which people have been doing for over forty years now), the world is clearly not set up for e-bike riders like me. It wasn’t 40 years ago: it still isn’t today. Not to put too fine an edge on it, but not only is it difficult, it can be downright deadly.
Sadly, in the U.S., not much has changed in this regard in my lifetime.
What’s to be done? The obvious action is to become an activist. In this case, a bicycle/climate activist.
I would not at all be surprised if you scoff at this idea. After all, am I really suggesting that advocating for bicycle lanes can play a serious role in mitigating the climate crisis?
In fact, I am.
Let’s look at an example where such bicycle activism made a huge difference: Copenhagen. An astonishing 62% of people now commute to work or school by bike in Copenhagen.
You might be under the impression that this bicycle culture goes back many decades to the beginning of the 20th century when cars first came on the scene in Denmark. In fact, it is relatively recent (and profound) cultural change. I offer it as an example, as it proves that extraordinary cultural change – of just the kind that we need to combat the climate crisis – can indeed happen.
Allow me to quote from Wikipedia, which concisely lays out the history of bicycling in Copenhagen. Note 1) that it begins back in the early 1970s (1973 to be exact) with the first “energy crisis” that alerted much of the world that we needed to quickly wean ourselves off of fossil fuels – something, as I have noted elsewhere in this series, that the U.S. failed to do – and 2) that Copenhagen’s remarkable transformation into a bicycle culture was a largely bottom-up phenomenon brought about by bicycle/environmental activists:
With the energy crisis, which hit Denmark harder than most countries, and the growing environmental movement in the 1970s, cycling experienced a renaissance. The Government was forced to introduce car-free Sundays to conserve oil reserves. Many city dwellers thought it was the best day of the week, and the Danish Cyclists Federation…organized massive demonstrations in Copenhagen and other major cities, demanding better infrastructure and safety for the city’s cyclists. Another grassroots action cited for helping cycling infrastructure on the political agenda was operation “White Crosses” where white crosses were painted on the streets where a cyclist had been killed in traffic…
Although the first separate cycle tracks were constructed much earlier, they did not become the norm until the early 1980s…Politicians, although not very eager, gradually took up building cycle tracks on main roads and also began to develop its first coordinated strategies for increasing cycling in the municipality.
The LA Times nicely continues this history into the 21st century by noting that “[i]n recent years, cycling has enjoyed yet another surge in popularity – the result of constantly improving bike lanes coupled with fears of climate change. Global warming presents an existential threat to this Baltic Sea port, which lies just a few feet above sea level.”
What would the climate impact be if the same number of Americans swapped their cars for bikes? Let’s do a quick, back-of-the-napkin calculation: 62% of the population of Copenhagen times 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year per car (the U.S. average) equals a reduction of 3.8 billion pounds of CO2 emissions per year. Again, that’s 3.8 billion pounds, with a “B.” And that’s just for one relatively small city. Imagine the impact if this happened in cities across the US – and world.
It could be objected that bicycle commuting is not practical in many American locales, as it gets pretty cold in many U.S cities. However, it also gets cold in Copenhagen, as it is further north than any of the lower 48 states. In fact, it is far closer in latitude to Jeuno Alaska than to the rest of the U.S.
Note that what happened in Copenhagen happened on a local level, with activists forcing the city’s local politicians to act.
When election time comes around, we might assume that the climate crisis is a national issue, which it is certainly is; however, it is also true that what happens in your local town (as with our example of Copenhagen) can have global consequences. Similarly, the reason that climate activists like Mark Ruffalo pressured the Governor of California was because he had ability to stop fracking in the state.
Hence, local, state, and national elections all play major roles in mitigating the climate crisis. Again, the local, city elections in Copenhagen have been responsible for keeping 3.8 billion pounds of CO2 or equivalent gasses from being released into the atmosphere every year.
And, of course, this all started with environmental activists. Note too that, starting in the 1970s, these activists were not focusing on climate change, but rather on a range of environmental concerns, especially the fear that our fossil fuel reserves were running out.
To put this in the terms that I introduced in a previous lecture, these bicycle/environmental activists from the 1970s acted on the knowledge that our fossil fuel economy was clearly problematic. In this sense, knowledge became power because it was acted upon – by activists.
When it comes to making a difference in the climate crisis, it is not a question of choosing either personal action or climate activism or becoming politically active. In many, many cases (as in the example of Copenhagen), all three are integrally connected.
I would argue the personal action has a special position, as it can help keep our focus on the prize on a daily basis. Everyday that we hop on a bike or forgo a burger, we remind ourselves that much needs to be done – and that we are, even if in a small way, doing something.
Doing such little things also sends a message to the rest of the world, as we lead by example. To echo a phrase often attributed to Gandhi, we become, indeed embody, the change that we want to see in the world.
I am curious to hear what you think about the roles that personal action, activism, and being politically active should play in the climate crisis.
Back during our discussion of the generational aspect of the climate crisis, I drew attention to the fact that houses have been slowly supersizing during my lifetime. As I noted,
“In 1950, shortly before I was born, the average size of an American house was just under 1000 square feet. Today, the average size is over 2500 square feet – more than two and a half times larger, even though American families are now considerably smaller. And of course, as with so many things American, bigger is often perceived as better.”
“Hence, if you can afford it, the ideal home is often much larger. One in five new houses in the U.S. is now, in fact, over 3000 square feet in size. One in ten is a McMansion, at over 4000 square feet. In contrast, a traditional Japanese home, which housed families of four or more, was one tenth that size at 400 square feet.”
The ever-reliable Union of Concerned Scientists notes that 17% of the average American’s carbon footprint comes from heating and cooling their homes. In addition, 15% comes from other home energy use, such as lighting and appliances. Suffice it to say that, at approximately a third when combined (32% to be exact), a large chunk of the average American’s climate footprint comes from our homes.
Indeed, in terms of our personal climate footprints, only transportation (i.e. chiefly our cars and flying, at 28%) and our relentless acquisition of stuff (26%) rival our houses and their energy use as climate offenders. Though, let’s be clear, they both fall short of houses.
Incidentally, as transportation, housing, and stuff (in that order) are responsible for 86% of our personal carbon footprints, it clearly points to where we need to personally direct our attention if we hope to mitigate the climate crisis. The remaining 14% comes from our food. Hence, while what we eat is certainly important (I would argue very much so), transportation, housing, and stuff are on average each more than twice as important.
Part of the problem with our houses, which is not reflected in that 32% figure from the Union of Concerned Scientists, is the embedded carbon in our homes. In other words, a ton of CO2 or equivalent gases is released when a house is built. Actually, about 80 metric tones are released to build a typical house.
This is the same problem that we encountered with the manufacture of a car.
However, with a house the situation is better, as they generally last far longer than the 11 years of an average car. Even if a house lasted “just” 80 years, which would be a relatively short lifespan for a home, and had just two occupants, that would work out to one half metric tones of CO2 per year. Of course, that would still be one quarter of each occupant’s total annual carbon footprint, but it’s still far better than the embed carbon in a car, which is four times as much when spread over its usable lifespan.
But keep in mind that we still have to contend with the fact that providing energy for that house (for heating, cooling, appliances like refrigerators, washers, dryers) takes 32% of the average American’s carbon allotment. The problem here is that, as Americans expend over 16 metric tones of CO2 or equivalents on average, 32% of this works out to 5.2 metric tones per person. This jumps even more if we add in the embedded carbon.
Hence, the average American is expending over two and a half times their total annual carbon allotment on their homes – and, of course, this leaves nothing for food, clothing, transportation, and all the stuff that Americans love to acquire to fill our homes!
So, what’s to be done? How exactly do we go about reducing this?
As with many issues related to the climate crisis, it is useful approach this as largely a cultural problem. Hence, while I definitely support actions like increasing home insulation and putting photovoltaic solar panels on your roof – and, in fact, my wife and I did both with our little old Santa Barbra house – this is not enough.
So, what, then, is to be done?
It is simple enough: Move to a micro-apartment or certain co-housing communities, as this can greatly reduce your climate footprint.
As I noted on in a previous lecture, “the good news for both transportation and housing is that there is a simple way to approach both: move to a city. City living can mean dramatically less car use (in Manhattan, only one in five people commute to work by car) and generally smaller, more efficient housing. Many cities have made major commitments to mass transportation and bicycle use…as well as micro-apartments.”
Consequently, I want to focus on cities.
A majority, 55%, of human beings on the planet now live in cities. By 2050, that number is expected jump to over two thirds or more.
In order to take up cities and city life, I want to again consider Henry David Thoreau and his life on the shores of Walden Pond. This may seem to be an odd move, as Thoreau is probably best remembered for the two years of his life that he spent living on the rustic shores of Walden Pond – which was, as far as he was considered, as far from city life as possible while still staying close to his hometown.
However, as I suggested in the lecture on Walden, his important legacy for the 21st century is (at least as far as I am concerned) that he took a long hard look at his life with an eye to reducing everything unnecessary. In this sense, it is less important where he did this than the fact that he took up this personal, reductionist project.
Here is something to ponder: what would Thoreau’s Walden experiment have been like had it not been conducted in its semi-wilderness setting, but an urban one instead? His profound aesthetic appreciation of the scene would, of course, be different, but, in wholly practical terms, what would such a lifestyle be like?
In other words, what would a life of urban (rather than wilderness) simplicity be like? Given our topic today, I am primarily thinking of housing here.
In a variety of different places, in a range of different ways, people are not only asking this question, but taking up new lifestyles in reply. What’s more, these are not isolated and quirky, but in many instances are mainstream efforts that are offered as models for us all with respect to housing.
In 2012, spearheaded by then Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City launched its adAPT NYC pilot housing program to encourage micro-apartments by fostering a competition for real-estate developers. In 2013, the winning design was announced, which consisted of a modular building with 55 units with floor plans between 250 and 370 square feet each.
Although this might seem a little large when compared to Thoreau’s cabin, keep in mind that these units have bathrooms and full kitchens, which Thoreau lacked. Even so, as the larger apartments can be home to a couple, at 185 square feet per person these units are surprisingly close to Thoreau’s ideal size for domestic simplicity, which was 150 square feet.
New York is not alone as a test bed for this movement, as Boston, San Francisco, and an exciting range of other cities are adapting zoning for apartments as small as 220 square feet each.
In many respects, the adAPT NYC and similar projects are squarely in Thoreau’s rugged individualist tradition, which is a thoroughly American phenomenon. What I mean by this is that Thoreau lived alone – which is exactly how most Americans live: either alone or with their immediate family (i.e. with their parents or children). Consequently, each of our houses has a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, etc. But must it be this way?
Co-housing, which is less common in the U.S. than in Europe (where, at least in a modern sense, it began around 50 years ago), challenges this individualist tradition. In a co-housing community, individuals and families can live in smaller housing units because they share services and amenities with others in the community. For example, members of the communities often share meals four or more times per week, which are cooked in a community kitchen.
(Incidentally, the documentary Happy has a very interesting segment on co-housing in Denmark. Someone was kind enough to upload this segment to YouTube.)
It is worth pausing to consider this global move toward cities as a form of environmental activism, as it can be seen as representative of a new kind of environmental thinking, which is profoundly different from what Thoreau advocated.
However, this new approach does resemble Thoreau’s in one important respect, as an emerging group of environmentalists is increasingly prompted to direct and personal action, rather than being content with merely speculating on our planet’s future from the sidelines. Like Thoreau, they are engaged in a gritty experiment with real-life environmental consequences.
They are not, however, as with the back-to-nature movement of their parents and grandparents, following Thoreau’s lead and retreating to the last scraps of American wilderness or expending a disproportionate amount of energy on its defense. To the contrary, many are going in the opposite direction by moving to different sorts of land, which many abandoned decades ago, such as cities.
For well over a decade now, a new wave of environmental activists has literally been greening cities. New York City’s High Line and Paris’s Promenade Plantée, both greenways fashioned from abandoned railways, have become icons of this movement, as have rooftop gardens, backyard chicken coops, and vertical farms.
These activists are not leaving the city for nature; they are bringing nature to the city, as the blended rural-urban lifestyle growing there is impacting a broad range of everyday practices. This movement is not limited to cities, but increasingly includes suburbs as well, where lawns are being replaced by vegetable gardens and municipal ordinances are being rewritten to allow livestock, like goats and sheep, to graze among swimming pools and tennis courts.
Although the growth of urban and suburban farming may seem trivial, even quirky and amusing, in some sense this movement overturns over 5000 years of thinking. Beginning with the very first works of Western literature, country and city (and, by extension, nature and culture) have been repeatedly imagined as not only mutually exclusive, but in opposition. In recent centuries, the country has nearly always been preferred, the city eschewed.
This attitude is alive and well in Thoreau, who, distressed by the growth of urban and industrial modernity, fled to what he imagined to be its opposite: the closest thing to nature he could find.
Now, however, a new wave of environmental activists is increasingly shifting its attention from nature untouched by culture, such as the wilderness of national parks and tropical rainforests (which preoccupied many environmental activists throughout the 20th century, sometimes to the exclusion of nearly everything else), to a vision of culture infused with nature – the merging of those ancient opposites: country and city.
Cities, among the most developed of all the places that human beings inhabit, are becoming test beds for the idea that culture can be far more natural than we ever imagined.
Thanks to works by Edward Glaeser, David Owen, and others, the idea of a “green metropolis” (Owen’s phrase) no longer sounds like a contradiction. The formidable challenge is to green cities even further, which, as Glaeser and Owen argue, are already in many respects far more environmentally benign than suburbs and even most rural areas. Although at first glance counterintuitive, they compellingly argue that life in Manhattan is far greener than in Wyoming in a variety of ways.
The notion that cities can be green and natural may seem counterintuitive, debatable, or just plain wrong. It certainly may have seemed so to earlier activists, like Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, who two decades ago baldly declared that civilization inescapably creates a rift between human beings and nature.
His solution, which was among the most radical offered by his generation of activists, was to call for the protection of wilderness by nearly any means necessary – even if it required acts of eco-sabotage – from human development.
By contrast, this new group of activists is focused on areas already developed and inhabited by human beings, which cover far more of the earth’s surface than the remaining remnants of wilderness.
If we hope to save the planet, which is now largely covered by cities, suburbs, farms, factories, and all sorts of other human works and projects, we need to turn our attention and energies to these places.
This shift in focus reveals just how much environmental activism is changing. Eco-sabotage (and more benign tactics deployed by moderate back-to-nature environmentalists) aimed at thwarting and checking human encroachment into wilderness is being supplanted by the eco-nurturing of areas that are already developed.
Does this mean that we all need to live in cities? No, of course not.
However, we really need to rethink the image of cites. My generation, following Thoreau’s lead, often saw cities as environmental nightmares and instead fled them for the suburbs.
This created a problem, a big one.
As I noted in my most recent book on Writing a New Environmental Era, if a large swath of the population took Thoreau’s lead and moved away from cities and out to rural locales it would, with absolutely no doubt, be an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions.
Why am I so sure? Because…it actually happened and was. It began in the U.S. in Thoreau’s era, motivated by likeminded individuals acting on the same back-to-nature impulse that gave birth to his Walden experiment. In a sense, it became the largest (and to my mind most regrettable) cultural movement of the 20th century.
Hundreds of millions of people across the globe fled cities for the dream of simpler, rural lives. They ended up far short of the goal in suburbia. At first, in Thoreau’s era, they left in trains. A century later, the process sped up dramatically, as automobiles became the preferred way to get out of the city and then around in the suburbs. It soon became an environmental disaster on a global scale.
In contrast, today human beings by the billions are moving back to urban areas…It may well be the greatest cultural movement of the 21st century.
I am curious to hear what you think about all this: about living in micro-apartments, co-housing communities, and cities (and their regreening). Although it may sound a little strange soon first hearing, each of these decisions can be a form climate activism.
In this course, we have looked at not only at what the climate crisis is, but what each of us can do about it. These include personal actions, collective activism, political action, communication, and so forth. We have also noted that these are often deeply interconnected.
Today I would like to bring all these together into a list of twenty things that each us can do about the climate crisis. Actually, it is two lists of ten, with the first focusing on individual actions, the second political and collective actions.
This lecture is intended as something of a capstone for the course. Hence it is in part a recap, especially as I quote myself in places. Still, I think that it will be useful to bring all this together. Hence, if you recommend just one video from the course to a friend, this is may well be the best one.
Incidentally, if you find this recap a little redundant, great, as it means that you have been paying attention! However, do watch it through, as there is quite a bit of new material here. Moreover, if you are taking the UCSB course, it is also intended as something of a review for the final exam.
As I noted in the segment on Cowspiracy, author Jonathan Safran Foer recently published a book entitled We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, where he argued that each of us should adopt a plant-based diet if we want to save the planet from catastrophic climate change. Hence, saving the planet begins when we eat, breakfast and otherwise.
It would be great if saving the planet were that easy. However, as we have seen, unfortunately it is not. In fact, as I have noted, the fracking industry is responsible for more methane emissions than the beef industry. And CO2 is a far greater emission problem than methane.
Don’t get me wrong, we can certainly help save the planet at the breakfast table – in fact, I list two ways that we can do so in the first list below – but we cannot stop there, as it simply will not be enough, not nearly enough.
Moreover, we need to be clear about something: regardless of what we do, the planet will obviously continue on. Hence, the phrase “saving the planet” almost always implies that we are saving it for ourselves, humanity. As humans are just one of many species of beings that inhabit the earth, a more equitable and less anthropocentric way of stating what the phrase leaves unsaid is “saving the planet [for all life on it].”
Still, I think that Foer is on to something, as what he proposes is certainly what I would call a humanities approach, as he focuses on anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) climate change as a result of human action.
Nonetheless, we need to act at more than just the breakfast table.
Here are ten examples of what we can do that are in this vein:
Saving the planet begins
1) at markets and restaurants, when we buy enough to eat – and no more.
Food waste is a huge problem in the U.S. and globally. As Peter Kalmus succinctly observed, “[a]bout 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to food production, and about 1/2 of this (15% of global emissions) is due to livestock, mainly cows.” And as Project Drawdown noted, we can drawdown more greenhouse gas emissions by addressing food waste than by switching to largely plant based diets. However, while being freegan may have more impact than being vegan, the ideal personal solution is to largely eat a plant-based diet and waste as little food as possible. This includes eating food that we would otherwise discard, such as the leafy green tops of beets.
2) at meals, when we eat for the good of the planet and its climate.
Although the word has not yet entered the popular imagination, perhaps the best way to eat is to eat as a “climatarian”: someone who eats for good of the planet and its climate. Certainly being vegan or freegan is good, but being as combination of the two is great. And being a climatarian means that we look carefully at even the vegetables that we eat. As we have seen, eating asparagus in the Winter in most of North America is often no better for the climate than eating chicken or pork, as it is generally flown in from South America – and air travel has a huge climate footprint.
Incidentally, as Project Drawdown noted, the #1 thing that we can do to roll back global greenhouse gas emissions does not involve wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, or any sort of similar technologies. Instead, greater gains would come from change the way that we eat. When combines, wasting less food and switching to largely plant-rich diets would result in a staggering reduction of 137 gigatons of CO2 or equivalent gases every year.
In comparison to this reduction, globally shifting from fossil fuels to electricity generated by photovoltaic (solar) panels will roll back less than half this amount of emissions. The adoption of electric vehicles? Far less than ten percent. We should, of course, work on exploring a variety of technologies to help reduce our emissions, but it is important to keep their relative impact in perspective.
3) in the bedroom, when we use contraception and limit family size.
Globally, there are 85 million unintended pregnancies every year. 32 million of these (i.e. 38%) result in births. In the U.S., nearly half (45%) of all pregnancies are unintended. Hence, having both having access to effective birth control and actually using it is of central importance. This is both a deeply personal issue as well as a public one, as access to birth control is restricted across the planet for religious and other reasons. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example,97% of women do not have unrestricted access to an abortion as an option of last resort.
4) in the classroom, when we fairly and equally educate boys and girls.
We need to educate more girls and women, which dramatically curbs population growth, as the more education a woman has, the fewer children she has. Together with family planning, this would roll back 103 gigatons of GHG emissions – more than anything other than changing the way that we eat (i.e. the above-mentioned synergy of wasting less food and switching to largely plant-rich diets).
This is not to say that we should place responsibility for this particular issue with girls and women. To the contrary, the responsibility lies with the institutions that restrict a woman’s access to education and control of her own body. And too, it is obviously the case that contraception is a male responsibility as well.
What I find so interesting about this approach to curbing greenhouse gas emissions is that it is a win-win-win. First, rolling back 103 gigatons of GHG emissions could have real and significant impact on the climate crisis. Second, educating women and girls across the planet is also terrific in it own right. Even without the environmental gains, we should obviously make every effort to do this. And third, as far as I am concerned (speaking in part as a father of a daughter), every woman on the planet should have control, including reproductive control, of her own body.
5) on the way to work, when we walk, bike, or use public transportation, rather than owning a car.
For the average American, 25% of our climate footprint comes from owning a car, as typical car in the U.S. emits about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 or equivalent gases per year. However, the carbon released in making a car is also a huge problem. As I noted in the lecture on electric cars, “if you buy a succession of cars during your adult life, one every 11 years, and leave them in your driveway and never drive them, you will have totally expended your CO2 allotment for your lifetime. And, of course, this does not leave an emission allotment for anything else, such as for food, clothing, housing, and everything else that we need to live – including actually driving that car!”
6) at home, when we choose to live in an appropriately sized dwelling or co-housing, instead of an average (i.e. oversized) American house, let alone a McMansion.
The largest chunk of the average American’s climate footprint – about a third of it, in fact – comes from our homes, from heating and cooling them, as well as home energy use, such as lighting and appliances.
So, what, then, is to be done? It is simple enough: Move to a micro-apartment or certain co-housing communities, as this can greatly reduce your climate footprint.
For the average American, over half of our climate footprints come from the above two sources; cars, which account for roughy 25% of our greenhouse emissions, and our houses, which account for 32%. However, as we have seen, the good news for transportation and housing is that there is a simple way to approach both: move to a city. City living can mean dramatically less car use (in Manhattan, only one in five people commute to work by car) and generally smaller, more efficient housing.
7) on vacation and when traveling, when we choose slow travel over air travel, which is, environmentally, the worst way to get around.
Air travel only accounts for about 2% or 2.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions globally. However, somewhat paradoxically, air travel can literally double the size of their climate footprint of one Americans. The problem is that traveling by air is a practice exclusive to the wealthiest, most privileged people, as 19 out of 20 people on the planet have never set foot in an airplane. Even among Americans, half do not fly annually. By some estimates, 80% of flights are made by just one percent of all people on the planet.
You may not think of yourself as a global elite or as a member of the “jet set,” but if you fly, you are. If you are a frequent flyer, put a hundred random people in a room and you will be contributing more to the climate crisis in this way than anyone else in the room. You may not think of yourself as a member of “the one percent” (i.e. the world’s wealthiest and most privileged people), but you would be among the the one percent doing the lion’s share of all this flying.
8) in stores and online, when we choose not to buy yet more unnecessary stuff.
In one sense, minimalism is hardly new, as most human beings throughout history have probably gotten by with the bare minimum, or nearly so, needed for life. Even today, for a broad swath of people across the planet, this is likely still true. But what we are talking about here is voluntary minimalism. Relatively wealthy people who could buy lots of stuff, but choose not to for environmental or other reasons. In that sense, minimalism is a “First World solution” to a “First World problem.” However, since the developed world is far and away the largest contributor to the climate crisis, this is an important intervention.
Many people believe that responding to the climate crisis on a personal level will mean we have to do without quite a bit, which means that we will have to live drab lives of deprivation. What is interesting about minimalism is that this group of individuals voluntarily has decided to do without quite a bit because they believe that this is a better way to live. This was also Thoreau’s message.
9) off-line, when we barter, borrow, rent, and otherwise exchange, as well as repair, things, rather than buying still more stuff.
In the documentaries Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution and Tomorrow (Demain), we met a number of people, including climate scientist Peter Kalmus and his family, as they attempt to live sustainable lives. I also put two short videos on the syllabus with similar theme: “Visualizing a Plenitude Economy” and “The High Price of Materialism.”
In different ways, each of these films drew attention to people working together, who, by bartering, borrowing, renting, and repair things, significantly reduced the relentless acquisition of stuff.
10) with buying, not only by buying less, sharing, and keeping things longer, but also by only buying from companies with environmentally sound and socially just practices.
The documentary The True Cost, as well as the episode of Patriot Act on “The Ugly Truth Of Fast Fashion,” exposed the horrible consequences of free (rather then) fair trade. This not only impacts the planet and its climate, but people all over the globe directly. Social justice, environmental justice, and climate justice are often not only related, but deeply and inexorably intertwined.
Hence, when buying, you have the opportunity to “vote with your dollar” to to support fair-trade products that were made under decent working conditions and the manufacture of which did as little harm as possible to the environment and climate.
Incidentally, when taken together, these last three things that we can do relating to stuff can have profound consequences for each of us in the developed world, as a quarter of the average American’s climate footprint comes from all the stuff that we buy.
This list of ten things is by no means complete, but you get the idea. Note that all of the above involve personal and cultural changes rather than new or more technology.
Similarly, but on a somewhat different note, saving the planet can also begin in the following ten ways:
11) at the polling place, when we cast our vote for candidates, from local to federal, advocating for sweeping climate policies, such as carbon pricing and the Green New Deal.
Personal climate action, while important and indeed essential, is simply not enough. For example, around 28% of methane emissions comes from meat (generally beef) production. However, an even greater amount comes from fossil fuel extraction, principally from hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking). Consequently, just switching to largely plant-based diets does not address the largest methane problem that we are facing.
The problem is that we cannot, practically speaking, end hydraulic fracturing through personal action. How, then, do we stop fracking? It is simple enough: we need to vote and become politically active, calling for legislation to end fracking.
As I never tire of telling people, if you can do only one thing to help mitigate the climate crisis and you do not have a lot of time to devote to the issue, you’re in luck, as the single most important thing that you can do takes just an hour or two per year: voting. Who doesn’t have an hour or two a year to help save the planet?
12) again at the polling place, when we vote for candidates and initiatives that put people and the planet ahead of corporate interests.
Not only should we cast our votes for candidates advocating for sweeping climate policies, such as carbon pricing and the Green New Deal, but we to think more broadly, as there are a range of other problems and injustices in the world, both environmental and social, that need our attention.
For example, the beef industry not only contributes the climate crisis through the release of methane, but causes a range of other environmental problems, such as habitat loss ( 40% of the land in the U.S. is used to feed livestock animals), the use of many trillion gallons of water, waste removal, pathogen runoff, a range of issues relating to herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, etc. We need to need to vote for the environmental initiatives that address issues like this.
Similarly, as the film The True Cost revealed, there are important and heartbreaking social justice issues across the planet, including the U.S., that need to be addressed – and this can only happen through political action.
13) prior to the polling place, as we explain to five or more of our friends and family the importance of voting on behalf of our planet, it’s climate, and all the life that lives on it.
As we have seen, communication is of central importance, not only in communicating to people who are are not yet convinced of the importance, let alone the urgency, of the climate crisis, but friends who may be aware of the problem but are not significantly acting in response to it.
Because voting can have more impact than any action that you can take regarding the climate crisis, such as switching to largely plant-based diet or reducing food waste, explaining the importance of voting on behalf of our planet and all its life and climate to five or more friends, may ultimately have many times more impact than any diet change that you can make. Of course, do everything that you can, including changing your diet, but keeping the relative importance of everything in focus is important.
14) at gathering places. when we join together and collectively demand climate action, such as with the Sunrise Movement.
As we have seen, nearly two out of three people in Copenhagen bike to work or school. This did not happen just through personal or political actions. Instead, what brought this about was the tireless work of activists for many years. After more than a decade of this pressure, city politicians ultimately relented and began putting in the necessary infrastructure to make biking not only safe, but pleasant in the city. Without these activists, this change simply would not have happened.
What we need is a generation of activists to pressure politicians in the US and across the globe for sweeping climate action.
15) by protesting and through acts of peaceful civl disobedience, such as Greta Thunberg’s protest outside the Swedish parliament.
Greta Thunberg was, just a short time ago, in many ways a pretty average high school student (though in other ways, an altogether extraordinarily one with the ability to see the climate crisis as a black-and-white issue and sustain a laser-like focus on the problem). Still, her modest act of civil disobedience, her “school strike for the climate,” has ultimately changed the world.
Incidentally, as Wikipedia notes, prior to her school strike, Thunberg’s first action was to challenge “her parents to lower the family’s carbon footprint and overall impact on the environment by becoming vegan, upcycling, and giving up flying.”
16) with reading, as we learn more about the crisis and what is being done – as well as why nearly enough isn’t being done.
Unfortunately, one of the things that is slowing action on the climate crisis is that it is exceptionally difficult to read through to the truth of the matter. Why? As we have seen, fossil fuel interests are spending many millions of dollars every year to confuse the public about the climate crisis.
Any college-educated American deserving of the degree should be able to carefully read through the facts concerning an issue like the climate crisis to conclude that it represents a real and present danger to our country and planet. Indeed, a high school education should be enough to sharpen the necessary reading skills. Educators like myself need to make sure that we are graduating students with these skills.
And everyone needs to take the time to sit down and carefully read about the climate crisis and what we can do about it.
17) with rethinking, as we, as individuals and as a diverse range of human cultures, take a long hard look at how we inhabit this planet.
The title of Naomi Klein’s first book on the climate crisis, This Changes Everything, could easily be turned into an imperative: if we are going to successfully survive this, “we need to change everything.”
Yes, we can hope that technology will save us. And let’s be clear, technological solutions are definitely welcome. However, it is both naïve and dangerous to think that technology alone can do this. Instead, we need to accept the fact that we have to make sweepingly change tohow we inhabit this planet. Our mass consumerism, which seeming has no bounds, is a case in point.
18) by sharing what we know and do with others, so that they too have a better understanding of the climate crisis and what can be done.
In one of the lectures on climate and generation, I noted that knowledge is not itself power. By that I meant that knowledge is only power when I acted upon, otherwise, knowledge is power squandered. This is not to say that knowledge is not important, as it clearly is the first step to power. Rash and haphazard action without knowledge can be more disastrous than not acting or knowledge.
While we can each individually learn about the climate crisis, sharing this knowledge (i.e. communication) is crucial if we are to all get through this. As we have seen, this not only includes communicating to people who are in denial of the crisis, but to friends and family sympathetic to the cause who sincerely want more knowledge and to know what can be done. And as we have also seen, we could effectively communicate through not just her words, but also our actions.
19) by joining with others in initiatives, from local to global, such as freegan or bicycle collectives, so that we can support each other.
Yes, it would be possible, for example, to be a freegan on your own, but as Peter Kalmus compellingly argued through his example, the support of others should be enthusiastically welcomed. By this I mean not only the help of others in collecting discarded food, but the emotional help and strength that others can offer.
After all, as being a freegan may well result in your friends thinking that you are little odd, wouldn’t it be nice to have a whole group of freegan friends who admired and were grateful for your work at this form of climate activism?
20) with us, as we become (to echo a phrase often attributed to Gandhi) the change that we want to see in the world.
This may sound like an odd observation coming from someone who just recorded over 30 lectures, but talk is cheap. This fact is frequently brought to light by our detractors. For example, Al Gore arguably sets himself up for easy criticism by flying in private jets.
This issue is related to the idea that knowledge alone is not power. After all, if we have the knowledge that flying is an environmental disaster yet continue to do it, then we have not only squandered that knowledge, but have arguably announced to the world – through our actions – that, as far as we are concerned, it is not knowledge worth acting upon.
This is why people like Greta Thunberg try to live by the principles they endorse, by, for example, refusing to fly.
Again, this second group of ten things is not an exhaustive list, but it should be clear that none of the above (on either) list requires much by way of technological innovation, but rather just people both embodying change and joining together to demand it.
In other words, both lists suggest personal, cultural, economic, and political changes, rather than technological solutions, to a crisis caused by human beings. Again this is not to say that technological innovations are not needed to address the climate crisis, but this is not nearly enough by itself.
Note that both the above lists are aimed at the developed world. Since the poorest 3 billion people on the planet have emitted just 5% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, only a few things on these lists apply to them. Moreover, there is one thing that the developing world could do that would be absolutely huge, if they could somehow succeed in doing it: convince the developed world to stop emitting so many greenhouse gases!
There is one more approach that needs to be mentioned. Why what I am about to say is primarily intended for my students, as they will soon be thinking about careers that they can embark upon, it really applies to anyone. After all, I began a second career as a professor in my early 40s. Proving that it is never too late to take up the challenge of acting on something that you feel is important.
Students often come to me asking what sort of professions that they could take up that would have an impact on the climate crisis. They are often thinking about a major in environmental studies. Alternately, knowing that I approach things from the perspective of the humanities, they are thinking about careers of this sort.
But the simple fact is that almost anything that you think of can have a profound environmental and climate impact. For example, we have seen first-hand that communication is profoundly important through communicators like Kip Anderson, who made the film Cowspiracy. This not only applies to filmmakers, but journalists like David Walace-Wells. The episode of Patriot Act that we watched underscores that even (perhaps especially) comedians can have extraordinary impact.
Possibilities certainly abound in the STEM fields, as well as, of course, law, politics, and policymaking. Urban planners come to mind as especially important.
And, as was made clear in the documentary Wasted!, even chefs can play a very important role here.
When I was in graduate school, one of my advisers gave me some really good advice: you should focus on whatever you feel really passionate about. Not everyone follows this advice, as many people who devote their lives to doing good in the world go into fields that they feel will have the most impact.
But the simple fact is that pretty much any field can have an impact on the climate crisis. If this is not readily apparent in your case, I urge you to do a little research. My guess is that within a few minutes of online research you will find people who share your interests that address the climate crisis. If you can’t find any, shoot me an email and I’ll think about it as well.
In any event, I am curious to hear what you think about the above 20 things that each and all of us can do to intervene in the climate crisis.