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CLIMATE CRISIS 101
(A.K.A. ENGLISH 23)
Introductions to Course Films
Before the Flood and An Inconvenient Sequel
Fire in Paradise
A Climate of Doubt and Merchants Of Doubt
The True Cost
Cowspiracy and Wasted!
The Green New Deal
Being the Change
Are we destroying the planet in a misguided pursuit of happiness?
While I am a specialist in the written word, I really like films. Don’t get me wrong, a writer can be incredibly expressive, but a picture – and in some cases, even better, moving pictures – add something entirely new to the equation.
Consequently, even though I am not a fan of listicles, I have put together a list of my top ten environmental films, along with alternative or supplemental suggestions for most of them. And, for good measure, I have thrown in a quick list of ten more films that you might find interesting.
In a variety of different ways, these films all take up the climate crisis.
Some take up the job of introducing the sheer breath of the problem, while others focus in on specific aspects of the crisis. Some lay out the problem, while others offer up solutions. Some take a somewhat detached stance, while others are far more personal, introducing us to the people who are rolling up their sleeves and doing something about the crisis. In some cases, these people have made radical changes to their lives.
Not all these films are perfect. Some even have major flaws, like Cowspiracy, which greatly exaggerates the impact that a switch to largely plant-based diets could make. Why, then, recommend such a film? Every one of these films made me stop and think – and taught me something new.
Just watching these films will likely give you better understanding of the climate crisis and what people are doing about it than most Americans have. This is not to say that it would not be useful supplement screening these films with a range of complementary readings. Consequently, I also have created a top-ten list of environmental readings.
Look at it this way, in the same amount of time that it would take to binge watch a single season of a TV show, you can get an interesting window into the climate crisis – and what we can do about it – just by watching these films.
Before the Flood and An Inconvenient Sequel
“If you could know the truth about the threat of climate change — would you want to know?”
This is the question posed by the National Geographic film Before the Flood, which features Leonardo DiCaprio. It is a great question that throws down the gauntlet to potential viewers, as hitting the pause button would obviously answer with a decided “No” – although, presumably, you would not have even purchased or clicked on the film if you did to what to know the truth.
But what is the truth and, as a filmmaker, how do you present it in about an hour and a half? Keep in mind that we are not taking up how to present one aspect of the climate crisis, such as wildfires or climate migration, but the whole shebang, from the fact that Miami is now flooding on sunny days to the disturbing fact that fossil fuel interests are spending millions of dollars trying to convince the public that the climate isn’t even changing.
The approach that the film takes is interesting and arguably effective. You introduce the audience to a protagonist, DiCaprio, who wants to know the truth about the climate crisis and sets out to find it – in this case, by traveling the world in search of answers. Along the way, he talks with people as diverse as as Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Elon Musk, and Dr Sunita Narain (The Director of India’s Centre for Science and Environment, who really takes the U.S. to task in the film for failing to lead in the crisis).
In a sense, DiCaprio acts as a surrogate for the viewer, who also wants to know the answer to the question with which I opened: “If you could know the truth about the threat of climate change — would you want to know?” If you answer “Yes” by not hitting pause, then buckle in, as you and DiCaprio are embarking on an epic, whirlwind journey. Incidentally, the climate footprint for all this travel and production was, according thot the filmmaker, “offset through a voluntary carbon tax.”
This general approach is, incidentally, used by a range of environmental films, from Gasland to Cowspiracy. In Gasland, Josh Fox’s family receives a letter from a gas company wanting to lease their property to set up a fracking operation on it. Knowing little or nothing about hydraulic fracturing, Fox then sets out on a journey for answers, with you, the viewer, along for the ride. Similarly, in Cowspiracy you and Kip Andersen embark on a quest to learn about the environmental impact of eating animal products. (A little trivia: DiCaprio, who has long been a committed climate activist, was an executive producer of Cowspiracy.)
Are Fox, Andersen, and DiCaprio really as uninformed as their onscreen personas appear? Probably not. Still, what do you think, is this an effective rhetorical device?
In Before the Flood the approach is notably somewhat different. Unlike Josh Fox in Gasland, DiCaprio’s online persona is not professing ignorance of the situation. He hardly can, as early in the film he draws attention to the fact that in 2014 he was appointed as the UN climate ambassador. Still, he acknowledges that, since he is hardly an expert in the climate crisis, he still has much to learn. He then sets out to learn it, with viewer in tow.
In both of his “Inconvenient” films, Al Gore takes an entirely different approach.
Gores 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth was a phenomenon. Although it is not in the top-ten highest grossing documentaries of all time, it is number eleven. Partly on the merit of the film, Gore was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with 1500 scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Gore received half, the scientists split the other half).
A good deal of an An Inconvenient Truth was given to establishing Gore’s credibility. No, he is not a scientist, but he has been working on the climate crisis since the 1970s. He also works with a range of climate scientists. In short, the film hopes to make clear that you should listen to him, as he is presented as the right person to deliver this message. In Gore’s 2017 followup to An Inconvenient Truth, aptly named An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the filmmaker takes largely the same approach by working to establish Gore as an internationally recognized expert.
In contrast, early on in Before the Flood, DiCaprio wonders if the UN did the right thing in appointing him as their climate ambassador. As he baldy puts it, “I mean to be honest they may have picked the wrong guy.” If you have watched Before the Flood and An Inconvenient Sequel, I am curious to hear what you think about these different approaches.
One of the reasons that the iconic An Inconvenient Truth did not make my list of best environmental films is that a great deal has changed in the fourteen years since its release. For example, while Gore was correct in asserting in the film that climate change played a role in exasperating Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that divested Florida and Louisiana, killing 1,200 people, scientists now have a much clearer understanding of how this works. And, sadly, there have been a rage of horrifying storms since Katrina, like Superstorm Sandy and hurricanes Mathew, Harvey, Irma, Michael, Maria, and Dorian.
An Inconvenient Sequel also takes on the job of introducing viewers to the politics lurking behind all this (which Gore, a former vice president for two terms, is obviously in a position to know a good deal about), including visiting a Texas city with a Republican mayor who firmly believes in renewable energy. The film also introduces the viewer to the COP 21, where the Paris Agreement was signed, by taking us there with Gore. Another little piece of trivia: after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, an An Inconvenient Sequel was edited to include Donald Trumps’s announcement that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement – along with Gore’s response.
Before the Flood and An Inconvenient Sequel are different films with very different approaches, they both take up the formidable job of communicating the breadth of the climate crisis to viewers in about an hour and a half. I am curious to hear what you think of each – or both, if you have watched each and are thinking about the two of them together.
Fire in Paradise
So, just what are the consequences of the climate crisis? (Note that I said “are,’ rather than “will be,” as the consequences of the crisis are now, sadly, here – and more are arriving daily.)
The fact is there are many, many consequences appearing across the planet.
The documentary Fire in Paradise looks at just one: wildfires caused by drought conditions exacerbated by the climate crisis. In fact, it looks at just one such fire.
Unlike many of the documentaries that we are watching in this class, this film does not focus on the climate crisis in the sense that it does not survey the problem or offer solutions. To the contrary, while Fire in Paradise does spend some time addressing the climate crisis, the focus is really on the horrific consequence for one Northern California town.
Consequently, if you didn’t first watch this little blurb of mine, you might wonder why I even included this film in a course on the climate crisis. Fair enough.
When the climate crisis entered into the public imagination in the closing quarter of the 20th century, we generally referred to it as “global warming” and saw the potential consequences in these terms. In other words, the big concern was sea level rise. As nearly half of the worlds population lives on or near the coast, sea level rise was rightfully an issue of great concern.
However, for the other half of the worlds population, it was often seen an issue of less immediate concern.
Moreover, it seemed rather far off to many Americans, not only in the sense of being far off in time (decades from now), but also not much of an issue close to home in the United States. The countries that would suffer, like the island nation of the Maldives in South Asia, where are the average ground elevation is just 1.5 meters, seemed far away. And since scientists were predicting a gradual increase in sea level, it seem like we would have time to respond, perhaps by building levees and other infrastructure.
We now know, however, that not only will climate change bring about many more changes than just sea level rise, but that they will come far faster than we imagined and hit close to home – regardless of where your home is on the planet.
Since this course is taking place in California, I thought it appropriate to consider the impact that it is having here, and now.
Four of the five largest wildfires in California history happened in the past decade (the teens).
One of them, the Thomas fire, happened here in Santa Barbara just two years ago. At the time, it was the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history, though it has now been surpassed.
We could approach this from a statistical, scientific perspective. Doing so would reveal that we are in the midst of an ever worsening situation with respect to wildfires in California.
But what does this mean in human terms? As we are approaching the climate crisis from a human, cultural perspective in this class, this is an important question. The documentary Fire in Paradise takes it up.
As it turns out, I can also address this question personally, as the Thomas fire came within almost a mile of my house. At one point, it was spreading at one acre per second, which is absolutely astonishing. The smoke was so bad that I needed to leave town, as I was very concerned for my daughter (and her lungs), as she was a just a toddler of the time. It was an emotional moment when we left, as it was not at all clear that we would have a home to which to return.
Fortunately, our home, as well as the city of Santa Barbara, was spared.
Unfortunately, many people in nearby Montecito also thought that the danger was over, only to be caught in mud and debris flows a month later. Because vegetation had been burned by the Thomas fire, there was no sufficient plant and root structure to deal with an extraordinary (and extraordinarily unusual) weather event, when 1/2” of rain fell in a five-minute period. Because this downpour took place at 3am, many people were not even aware of what was happening. In some places, the debris flow was over 15 feet in height, moving entire boulders with it. Moving at a speed of up to 20 miles an hour, it was impossible to out run. Over 20 people were killed. In some places, the debris flow continued all the way down to the ocean, crossing a major interstate highway (Route 101) in the process. Because it deposited nearly 12 feet of mud, water, and debris on the 101 at some places, it was closed for nearly 2 weeks.
Having burned over 280,000 acres, there had never been anything like the Thomas fire in recorded history in California. However, in just half a year, it would be surpassed by the Ranch fire, which burned nearly a half a million acres.
Astonishingly, Ranch fire would be surpassed in the same year by the Camp fire, which is the subject of the PBS documentary Fire in Paradise. Surpassed not in the sense of burning more acres, which it didn’t, but rather by being the most destructive. In fact, it was the most expensive natural disaster in 2018 – not only in California, but worldwide. In addition, it was the deadliest wildfire in the California history.
The documentary Fire in Paradise puts a human face on the climate crisis, which will impact all sorts of people across the planet, in all sorts of ways.
Although some people (climate change deniers) would like us to believe that the climate crisis is just scientists wildly speculating on the future, incidents like the Camp fire make clear that the climate crisis is all too real – and that it is here, now. Even in sunny California. Even in incredibly wealthy parts of California, like Montecito, where scores of celebrities have homes.
I am curious to hear what you think – as well as how you feel – about of all this and the documentary Fire in Paradise.
As something of a postscript, as I am writing this (the first week of January in 2020), wildfires are burning across Australia. Currently, over 12 million acres have been burned. Of the 20 largest wildfires in California history, 15 took place in the 21st century. The fires burning in Australia are four times as big as all these 15 wildfires combined.
Let me repeat that, four times as big as 15 of the largest wildfires in California history, combined.
A Climate of Doubt and Merchants Of Doubt
A great battle is underway. Millions of lives hang in the balance. Hundreds of people millions risk becoming refuges in what may well be the greatest diaspora in human history. The world economy may teeter; entire nations disappear. As in all wars, animals and plants will also suffer; tens of thousands of species will become extinct. No place on the face of the globe will be left untouched, from the upper limits of the atmosphere to the deepest ocean floors.
What will cause all this? Climate change brought about by a range of human practices. To mitigate as best we can the above and a great many more consequences, we need, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other experts, to limit global warming to a maximum of two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit). To do this, something like 88% of the earth’s coal reserves, 35% of its oil, and 52% of its natural gas must remain in the ground, unextracted.
The problem is that these resources are of enormous economic value. Some of the wealthiest companies on the planet are in the fossil fuel business. For the most part, they primarily measure their worth not in terms of money in the bank, but rather by the value of unextracted fossil fuels that they control.
If we mandated that the above percentages of these resources remained in the ground, it would staggeringly reduce the values of these companies. Imagine having $100 in the bank and being faced with the prospect that 88% of it could never be taken out. For all practical purposes, you would now have $12, not $100. You would not likely be pleased. Not surprisingly, these companies are not at all happy.
Consequently, these companies have doubled down and are now fighting for their financial interests, rather than those of the planet and its life, including human beings. When I said that a great battle was currently underway, this is what I meant: a battle between the fossil fuel industry and its many affiliates and champions (such as politicians who it funds) and, on the opposing side, a range of individuals who want to act quickly and decisively to mitigate the climate crisis, thereby keeping the earth as welcoming and habitable as possible for human and a range of beings with which we share the planet.
Have you ever wondered how climate change became such a political issue, such a battleground, in America? Like everything else, this has a history. While we can see it as a long history spanning decades, the last dozen or so years has been incredibly important.
The documentaries A Climate of Doubt and Merchants of Doubt both take up this history, though in somewhat different ways.
A Climate of Doubt, which is a PBS Frontline documentary, chronicles a decisive moment in American history when the politicalization of climate change came to a head. Although the film is now eight years old, it is of historical interest, as it chronicles when the tide began to turn in favor of fossil fuel interests.
While you might have been under the impression that this sea-change took place with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the situation really goes back a few years further.
Here is how the filmmakers described their documentary in 2012:
Four years ago, climate change was hot. Politicians from both parties, pressed by an anxious public, seemed poised to act. But that was then. Today [i.e. 2012], public opinion about the climate issue has cooled, and politicians either ignore the issue or loudly proclaim their skepticism of scientific evidence that human activity is imperiling the planet. What’s behind this reversal? FRONTLINE correspondent John Hockenberry…goes inside the organizations that fought the scientific establishment, environmental groups, and lawmakers to shift the direction of debate on climate issues and redefined the politics of global warming.
But how exactly, is this battle being fought?
At first glance, this may seem to be a battle for scientists to wage with the fossil fuel interests. However, the underlying science is no longer seriously in question. As you may have heard (I mention this fact elsewhere in this series and the paper introducing it has been referenced in the media more than any other on climate change), a 2013 study that looked at roughly 12,000 journal articles dealing with climate change found that 97% of these scientists concluded that it is real, underway, and is principally anthropogenic.
Instead, this is largely – as amazing as it may seem – a battle of words. A debate on whether the climate crisis is real or not being staged for the public.
Ultimately, as years pass and the real-world consequences of anthropogenic climate change become impossible to deny, fossil fuel companies and their allies will lose this war. However, each year that they sway public opinion away from the truth regarding climate change and our acting on that knowledge, the more severe will be the consequence, as many more trillions of pounds of fossil fuels will annually be extracted and burned while we wait.
From the point of view of the fossil fuel industry, their goal is to take every last dollar that they possibly can out of the ground before legislation hampers them from doing so. How much will be extracted? Quite a bit depends on this debate over the nature and validly of climate change.
What is fascinating here is that there is no real debate. The thousands of scientists researching this issue have concluded beyond any reasonable doubt (they certainly no longer debate the issue among themselves) that anthropogenic climate change represents a real, pressing, and significant global danger. Nonetheless, a media spectacle is being staged by fossil fuel interests with the goal of influencing public opinion.
Unlike many debates, winning over opinion to one side or the other isn’t necessarily the goal. True, on the one side, scientists would like to convince us that anthropogenic climate change is indeed real, but, as far as climate change deniers are concerned, all that matters is that a broad swath of the public is confused or unsure whether human beings are indeed significantly changing our planet’s climate. In this sense, their goal is to create doubt, as an individual doubting the validity and scope of a problem is unlikely to make sweeping life changes and support the spending of trillions of tax dollars in an attempt to remedy it.
In their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, two historians (Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway) explored how effective campaigns of disinformation were waged by tobacco and fossil fuel interests in order to block government interventions into their industries. Surprisingly, as Merchants of Doubt made clear, these two campaigns used some of the same rogue scientists to build their cases.
In 2014, a documentary of the same name was made of the book. Here is how the filmmakers describe it:
Merchants of Doubt takes audiences on a satirically comedic, yet illuminating ride into the heart of conjuring American spin. Filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the curtain on a secretive group of highly charismatic, silver-tongued pundits-for-hire who present themselves in the media as scientific authorities – yet have the contrary aim of spreading maximum confusion about well-studied public threats ranging from toxic chemicals to pharmaceuticals to climate change.
I am curious to hear what you thought of either one of the other (or both) of these “doubt” documentaries and the battle underway for the support of the American public.
One of the films that was in the running that I did not select as one of my top 10 (or top 20) was the 2009 film No Impact Man. There is, however, an interesting scene in the film where the title character, no impact man Colin Beavan, has a discussion with his toddler daughter about consumerism. As he explains to her, a consumer desiring to make environmentally sound purchases is faced with an extraordinary job, as this can require a great deal of research. In an effort to short circuit all this, Beavan suggests simply consuming less, a lot less.
It’s a simple idea. So simple in fact that even a toddler can apparently understand it. In a certain way, it also forms the basis of the response to consumerism known as “minimalism.”
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 were 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.
In America, at least as early as the nineteenth century, people began amassing stuff as consumer culture began to build momentum. One of the earliest critics of this phenomenon was Henry David Thoreau who, I think, can rightly be considered one the great grandparents of American minimalism, as he pondered the bare minimum necessary for life – and then acted on what he learned during his relatively short Walden experiment.
In recent years, minimalism has emerged as a cultural movement designed to counter rampant consumerism. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, featured in the film Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, are two leading proponents of the minimalist lifestyle. As this film makes clear, one of the interesting aspects of minimalism is that people are not necessarily adopting this lifestyle for environment reasons. As Millburn and Nicodemus explain on their website:
“Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.”
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 I find intriguing about minimalism is that this group of individuals voluntarily has decided to do without quite a bit because they they believe that this is a better way to live. This was also Thoreau’s message. Intriguingly, after experimenting with a life of minimalism, Thoreau, Millburn, Nicodemus, and many others have all confirmed that this is indeed a better life.
So, is minimalism an important response to the climate crisis? One thing to consider is no impact man Colin Beavan’s assertion that simply consuming less is enough. It would be great if it were, in fact, this simple, However, seemingly similar products and practices can have very different environmental footprints, especially when you consider the energy used to make them, their useful lifespans, this sort of materials of which they are made, the conditions under which they are manufactured, and so forth. Hence, it is not enough to just consume less: we need to make sure that we make the right decisions when we do consume.
Nonetheless, although Minimalism is not an environmental film, per se, living a minimalist lifestyle can have significant environmental impact. I am curious to hear what you think about the film. Is minimalism a viable and meaningful option?
While minimalism is a great start, a number of theorists have been considering the next step. Two such thinkers are Juliet Schor in her book True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy and Tim Kasser in The High Price of Materialism. While both books are well worth reading, New Dream has conveniently put together two short videos that nicely introduce both works.
Incidentally, New Dream, formerly The Center for a New American Dream was, as their website explains, “founded in 1997 by a group of forward-thinking activists and philanthropists who sought to draw greater attention to the links between individual action, social justice, and broader environmental impacts, and between excess materialism and negative impacts on human well-being, including children’s development.”
InTrue Wealth, Schor in many ways takes a minimalist approach. However, minimalism, from Thoreau through to modern minimalists, has largely been a personal choice. Schor considers what if an entire society took up a similar approach by adopting a new economic model, what she calls a “plentitude economy.” The idea is simple, people would work less (maybe a lot less, like in Sweden, where the workweek is 30 hours) and hence have more time for things that would make their lives better and more rewarding, like growing some the their own food and other DIY projects. They would also have far more time for activities that would make them happier.
In short, Schor’s message is that while personal changes (of the minimalist variety, for example) are obviously terrific and absolutely necessary, we also need to think in terms of larger system change, involving the sort of economic and political change that she recommends.
Tim Kasser’s The High Price of Materialism (both the book and the video snippet from New Dream) considers the impact that materialism, in the sense of ramped-up consumerism, has in our lives. It is not a pretty picture, as materialism makes us less happy and more anxious, depressed, and selfish, for a start.
Again, I am curious to hear what you think. Can we maximize minimalism (so to speak) by to building our society and economy on less materialistic values? Would this indeed be better for us and the planet? Could we actually make this happen? In other words, could we get enough people to go along with it to actually re-invent our materialist culture?
As usual, I will select a number of your comments and respond to them in a future episode.
The True Cost
As the film The True Cost makes clear, in the developed world, we consume an extraordinary amount of stuff. And its not just clothing, but all sorts of stuff. From small stuff like smartphones to big stuff like cars. Incidentally, my country, the United States, arguably leads the world when it comes to consuming all this.
Environmentally, this is a double edge sword, with each side cutting both people and the earth.
First, all this stuff is made of natural resources. A smartphone, for example, is made of dozens and dozens of different materials. Some of them, like the lithium used for the battery, cause significant social and environmental problems through their mining, which directly harms workers (including children working in mines), as well as the environment by contaminating air, land, water, etc.
Second, making stuff requires an enormous amount of energy, which in turn emits greenhouse gases. The manufacturer of an automobile releases at least a dozen tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent gases into the atmosphere. Some luxury SUVs are responsible for three times as much (35 metric tons).
So, just who is responsible for all this? Is it as consumers? Or is it the companies that manufacture all this stuff?
A variety of corporations and their advocates have long argued that we consumers are the problem. After all, they just make what we want. If we didn’t want it, they wouldn’t make it, and there wouldn’t be a problem. So, it sounds simple enough. If we are to believe them, we consumers are to blame.
But are we?
Something to think about is that corporations have long been in the business of making consumers out of ordinary people. Ideally, insatiable, rampant consumers. It sounds a little like The Matrix, but corporations are in the business of making us into the beings that serve them best: consumers. Unfortunately, neither we nor the earth are much served by this enterprise. To the contrary, it can be incredibly detrimental to our species and our planet (as well as all the other species with which we share the earth).
In order to help explain all this, please allow me to repeat a story that I included in my most recent book on Writing a New Environmental Era [and] Moving forward to Nature.
Quite a few years ago, while visiting friends, I noticed that their young daughter, who was six or seven at the time, was watching TV. Glancing over from time to time, it was obvious that the show was geared toward young girls. What caught my attention were the ads. Most were selling what you would expect: toys, sugared breakfast cereals, a local theme park.
One ad, however, was another sort of beast altogether. It was for a major cosmetic corporation, showing models having fun on a Caribbean beach. It repeatedly cut to scenes of them applying makeup, which they were having a frolicsome good time doing. Realizing that this ad was running on a show pitched at young girls, I waited to see how it would end. Were they really trying to sell lipstick to six-year-olds?
As it turns out, they weren’t. The ad was not designed to sell a particular product, but rather to sell a brand that makes a broad range of products. It was really just sixty seconds of young women made happy by cosmetics (well, made happy by a particular brand of cosmetics). So, were they trying to get six-year-olds to switch to their brand of eyeliner? If they really were trying to sell cosmetics to young girls, you would expect that at least some of the models would have been children. Why where there instead just young women onscreen?
After thinking about it, the frightening answer hit me like a ton of bricks. This cosmetic company decided that they needed to make more than just cosmetics. Astonishingly, they had also taken up the business of making consumers.
First, they present girls with images of happy and appealing young women. Next, they cut to the source of the happiness: applying and wearing makeup. There is no suggestion that young girls themselves should be wearing the makeup; instead, it is held up as an essential part of what it is to be a woman.
It may take a decade or more, but by repeatedly and subtly suggesting to girls that the road to womanhood is paved with cosmetics, a generation of consumers is created whose very sense of self (in this case their gendered self) depends on the products on offer. With so much at stake – indeed, the fragile, emerging self-identity of a human being – the desire to have, and fear of being without, the product becomes extraordinarily important, as it is presented as an essential part of a happy and successful adulthood.
Although we may think that industries exist to serve us by providing all sorts of appealing consumer goods like cosmetics, it is arguably the other way around: human beings exist to serve these industries. Human consumption is what empowers them. An enormous amount of care and attention is thus given to fashioning human beings willing to work long hours making disposable income so that these industries can thrive. (It really does sound a little like The Matrix, doesn’t it?)
Today, the project has been profoundly ramped up, as girls and young women are themselves recruited to help create this new generation of consumers. They do so by first cultivating a following on social media. Once a trendsetting young woman has a sufficient number of subscribers on YouTube, she can monetize this achievement by, for example, selling cosmetics on her channel. In this sense, the project comes full circle, as the trendsetter herself was arguably fashioned by the cosmetic industry for this role. Ironically, she may see having been conscripted by the cosmetic industry as a great personal achievement. Maybe it was, as girls and young women are certainly encouraged to look up to individuals of this sort.
Of course, all sorts of industries are in this business and it certainly doesn’t just involve girls and young women.
The film The True Cost shows us the ugly underside of this consumption machine, which is disaster for both us and the planet and especially for the people making our clothes. In terms of clothing, the average American purchases over sixty new items of clothing every year, not including incidentals like socks and underwear. Thus, although we consumers are seemingly the ones that benefit by this, it is the corporations selling all this stuff that really profit. Our job is to buy, briefly wear, and then dispose. And repeat. And repeat. While The True Cost focuses on the fashion industry, this ramped up consumerism impacts all sorts of products.
Incidentally, 150 years ago Henry David Thoreau desperately tried to convince us of the truth about all this when he argued that the goal of the clothing industry was “not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched.”
So, at the risk of repeating myself, “just who is responsible for all this? Is it us consumers? Or is it the companies that manufacture all this stuff?” Thoreau certainly thought that industry was principally to blame.
I am curious what people make of all this. Do you agree with Thoreau? Having been given a glimpse inside of the fast fashion industry by The True Cost, what is your response? While this film is about the fashion industry, are other industries now following suit? In other words, in addition to fast fashion, do we now also have things like fast consumer electronics?
The episode of Patriot Act on “The Ugly Truth Of Fast Fashion” provides an interesting supplement to The True Cost. Although it doesn’t shockingly take us inside of the fashion industry, as The True Cost did with the scenes from the Rana Plaza disaster, this Patriot Act episode nonetheless makes, it seems to me, an effective critique of fast fashion. However, what I find particularly interesting here is the format. At one third the length of The True Cost, quite a bit has to be crammed into this episode, yet it does not feel rushed. And, of course, it manages to make us laugh out loud in spite of the horrific subject matter.
To me, this episode of Patriot Act raises an important question: how should we go about informing the public of issues like this? A full length documentary is a traditional – and I would argue nonetheless great – approach, but it is not without its shortcomings, as it may not attract a huge audience. So, should we be experimenting with other ways of getting the message out, like the biting comedy of “Patriot Act”? Any other ideas for spreading the message?
As usual, I will select a number of your comments and respond to them in a future episode.
Cowspiracy or Wasted
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. Since such a switch could make a significant dent in the climate crisis if adopted by everyone, I definitely applaud this as a step in the right direction and think that is on to something.
According to Project Drawdown, which is the most comprehensive plan ever put forth to reverse global warming (and which is a reading for this course), the #1 thing that we can do to roll back global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions does not involve wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, or any sort of similar technologies.
Instead, what is required is a cultural change regarding food: we need to waste far less of it and to switch to largely plant-rich diets. Doing so will result in a staggering reduction of 137 gigatons of CO2 or equivalent gases.
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.
Worldwide, agriculture is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, yet between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the food that we produce on this planet is wasted. Regarding the switch to a largely plant-rich diet, the same amount of greenhouse gasses are released in producing one pound of beef as are released in producing thirty pounds of lentils, also a great source of protein.
I know, changing how we eat doesn’t sound nearly as sexy as a self-driving electric car, but it would nonetheless be ten times better for the planet.
This is not to say that these changes will be easy. Indeed, it is arguably far easier to change cars (such as by making them electric) than to change people’s actions. And what and how we eat is deeply personal and often central to our cultural identity.
Nonetheless, we need to seriously roll up our sleeves and address the climate crisis at the breakfast table.
Cowspiracy is a documentary on the environmental impact of eating meat. Here is how the filmmakers describe it:
Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret is a groundbreaking feature-length environmental documentary following intrepid filmmaker Kip Andersen as he uncovers the most destructive industry facing the planet today – and investigates why the world’s leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it.
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill. Yet it goes on, almost entirely unchallenged.
Please note that filmmaker Kip Andersen gets a few of his facts wrong. Animal products account for about 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions, not over 50%. Nonetheless, it is still a striking, though-provoking film.
By the way, what do you make of the fact that Andersen builds his argument on incorrect facts? Does it help it, by making the situation seem worse than it is? Or undercut it by harming his credibility?
You may already know about the environmental implications of large the plant-based diet, but here is a little fact that may come as something of a surprise: while how we eat (at breakfast and otherwise) can have a real impact on the climate – and the environment more generally – switching to a largely plant-based diet is not the biggest thing that we can do in terms of food.
Instead, we need to waste less food – far less food. This, as Project Drawdown made clear, would have a bigger impact in dealing in climate change than switching to largely plant-based diets.
Hence being freegan can be even more important than being vegan.
Not sure what a “freegan” is? This is hardly surprising, as the word only recently entered the English language. As the venerable Oxford English dictionary notes, a freegan is a “person who eats discarded food, typically collected from the refuse of shops or restaurants, for ethical or ecological reasons.”
I know, when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound very appetizing.
But the idea is important, as food markets throw away an enormous amount of food. For example, if one egg in a carton of 12 is broken, supermarkets are required (at least here in the state of California) to discard the entire carton. If they do so with freegans in mind, they might coordinate with local freegans to allow them to pick up this and all sorts of otherwise discarded food, such as those past the sell-by date listed on the package.
Sound like “dumpster diving” and the fringe activity? In many ways it is, but in one of the films that we will be watching, Being the Change, Peter Kalmus, who is a climate scientist at NASA jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, notes how he and his family are freegans. Well not mainstream yet, it certainly is gaining momentum.
Wasted! is a documentary on food waste. Here is how the filmmakers describe it:
Wasted! The Story of Food Waste aims to change the way people buy, cook, recycle, and eat food. Through the the eyes of chef-heroes…audiences will see how the world’s most influential chefs make the most of every kind of food, transforming what most people consider scraps into incredible dishes that create a more secure food system. Wasted! exposes the criminality of food waste and how it’s directly contributing to climate change and shows us how each of us can make small changes – all of them delicious – to solve one of the greatest problems of the 21st Century.
Produced by the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, Wasted! The Story of Food Waste takes up this issue in interesting ways and considers whether we need to develop new relationships to food.
In my little lecture that asks “Are you an architect of the future,” I take up the issue of food and climate further. But, for now, I am curious to hear what you make of Cowspiracy and Wasted!
The Green New Deal
In a way, the Green New Deal, and the debate over it, pulls into sharp focus much of what we have been considering in this course.
As I have repeatedly suggested, if we are to successfully mitigate the climate crisis, we will need to make sweeping changes to human cultures across the planet – especially the American consumer culture that we have exported nearly everywhere at this point.
In the case of the U.S., this is a big job, as it will require us to rethink the American Dream, at least insofar as we in the U.S. (as well as the rest of the developed world) need to take a long hard look at the aspects of our culture that require the emission of enormous amounts of greenhouse gases.
This fact is not lost on the opponents of the Green New Deal, such as Donald Trump who tweeted, who tweeted that “I think it is very important for the Democrats to press forward with their Green New Deal. It would be great for the so-called ‘Carbon Footprint’ to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military – even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!”
To be clear, the Green New Deal proposed by AOC and her colleagues did not suggest that “all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military” be “permanently eliminate[d].” Nonetheless, Trump has certainly put together a nice, short list of issues that we need to consider.
We have already taken up the first three, cars, planes, and cows, as largely writing these three things out of our lives would, for quite a few Americans, cut their climate footprints in half – perhaps far more than half if you are a frequent flyer.
And we have also noted that it is imperative that we dramatically reduce fossil fuel extraction, which includes the next two things on Trump’s list: leaving oil and gas in the ground as much as possible.
Finally, some Green Party candidates (not to be confused with the Green New Deal that we are considering) have suggested that we cut military spending in half, in part because the US military is frequently used to protect fossil fuel interests, which was arguably the case with both Gulf Wars, rather than protect our land and people. Hence, they argue, if we stop acting as a global police force for the fossil fuel industry, the U.S. could cut its military spending in half.
(Incidentally, have you ever wondered why the U.S. military has been so active in the Middle East? In recent decades, we have fought two Gulf Wars there, costing billions and billions of taxpayer dollars and where thousands of U.S. lives were lost. Well, 80% of the planet’s proven oil reserves are located in this region of the world. Maybe this is just a coincidence…)
In any event, it is important to note that that the Green New Deal proposed by AOC and others (House Resolution #109 of the 116th Congress) makes no mention, to use Trump’s list, of “Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military.”
With respect to transportation, for example, the Green New Deal proposes “overhauling transportation systems in the United States…including through investment in (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transit; and (iii) high-speed rail.”
Since the wording here is not specific, there is still room for zero-emission cars. Similarly, although the inclusion of high-speed rail seems to be offered up as an alternative (at least in certain instances) to air travel, there is no mention of eliminating planes in the Green New Deal.
Moving down on Trump’s list to “cows,” the Green New Deal proposes “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.” As farmers are generally people who raise crops and ranchers raise livestock like horses cows and sheep, the wording here is interesting, as beef and lamb, the two chief problems with respect to methane, or not at all ruled out.
Finally, regarding Trump’s final three issues, “Oil, Gas & the Military,” the Green New Deal proposed by AOC makes no mention of any of these, nor, for that matter, does it reference coal or fossil fuels at all. It also makes no mention of the military.
Why isn’t any of this mentioned when it is obvious that we will need to confront “Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas &…Military” spending to protect fossil fuel interests?
Having not drafted it, I am not exactly sure, but it seems likely to me that, at least in part, the proposal is intentionally vague to avoid the sort of attack that Trump made on it.
Why was Trump eager to discuss these issues and AOC and her colleagues reluctant – especially when these issues will clearly need to be addressed if we are to substantially mitigate the climate crisis?
It seems pretty clear: in drawing attention to them, Trump is hoping to turn public opinion against the Green New Deal, as Americans like beef, cars, air travel, and all the things that fossil fuels give us. Americans also tend to get anxious at the suggestion that we won’t have a strong military to protect us from the rest of the world, as the rest of the world is not always happy with us (often for a variety of pretty good reasons relating to our military acting as an international police force for the fossil fuel industry).
Knowing this in advance, AOC and her colleagues likely pulled all references to “Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas…the Military” and a range of similar issues, lest public opinion be swayed away from the proposal because Americans tend to like these things.
Nonetheless, as Americans, we could, and arguably should, be doing far more than is even intimated in the Green New Deal.
For example, “One out of every five people around the world without access to power lives in India.” The government of India would, quite reasonably, like to see this situation remedied. One easy solution would be coal, as India is sitting on vast stores of it. However, it would, of course, be a worldwide climate catastrophe if all this coal was dug up and burned in order to generate electricity.
What’s to be done?
As Naomi Klein notes, some people have called for a “Marshall Plan for the Earth,” which would involve the developed world helping the rest of the world, like India, develop sustainably. In practice, this could involve knowledge and technology exchange, as well as loans and funding.
How might this work in practice? If you watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel, you might recall that at COP21 Gore was feverishly negotiating with the U.S. company Solar City to license part of their solar technology to India – free of charge, which they quite commendably agreed to do.
Why should be developed world, and the US in particular, go along with this proposal for a Marshall Plan for the Earth? There are a number of reasons, but two stand out:
1) The U.S. “has been the world’s leading economic power since 1871.” Not coincidentally, this corresponds with our developing a massive fossil-fuel economy. Unfortunately for our global climate, this had a byproduct: as I have noted before, 25% of the carbon dioxide put into our planet’s atmosphere by human beings was put there by the U.S. Since we caused so much of this problem, we have a clear – as least as far as I am concerned – moral obligation to help remedy what we have done.
2) Even if we are not moved by the above moral argument, it is in America’s best interest to help the world develop sustainably. Why? If the rest of the world follows our lead and develops by way of fossil fuels, it will be a disaster for the planet. Sooner or later, that coal burned in India will translate into problems for the US, such as coastal flooding, wildfires, extreme weather, etc.
But here is the problem, if just mentioning the fact that we will need to curb our love of beef and cars risks turning the American public against climate action, how do we get Americans to go along with something like a Marshall Plan for the Earth in an era increasingly defined by nationalism, reduced international aid, and closed borders?
This takes us to the root of the problem with climate action. At least climate action in America.
On the one hand, we need to make sweeping changes to our America way of life that will involve cars, planes, cows and a whole lot more. In this sense, the Green New Deal does not go far enough – at the very least it could be far more specific – in outlining just what sort of changes that we will need to make if we hope to get through this crisis, such as a Marshall Plan for the Earth.
On the other hand, just mentioning cultural changes related to beef, cars, and airplanes risks turning Americans away from serious climate action – which is likely why AOC and her colleagues didn’t mention them but Trump did.
To put the issue more simply: while the Green New Deal is the best proposal for climate action that we currently have – and, let me be very, very clear in noting that I certainly endorse it and will vote for it – it is at once not doing enough and at the same time is too much for many Americans to get behind.
I am curious to hear what you make of the Green New Deal, now that you have read the legislation proposing it and watched some short documentaries on it. Is it enough? Or is it too much to endorse? Most importantly, how exactly do we get enough Americans to go along with the Green New Deal to vote it into being?
Being the Change or Tomorrow
Ok, we have talked quite a bit about what each of us can do about the climate crisis. This has included personal actions, climate activism, becoming political active, communication, etc.
In terms of personal actions, we have talked about largely plant-based diets, food waste, automobile ownership, air travel, a minimalist approach to stuff, and so forth.
But what if you wanted to jump ahead to the endgame? In other words, what if you wanted to actually live a largely sustainable life right now? Would it be possible, here, in America, in California?
To be clear, what we are talking about here is reducing our greenhouse emissions to 1/10 of the average American’s climate footprint.
And would it be possible for more than just an individual? In other words, could a family, let’s say two parents and two children, live this sort of lifestyle in America today?
If so, what kind of life would it be? Could it possibly be a good life? A fulfilling life that made everyone happy?
At one point in the 2009 documentary No Impact Man, the lead character, his partner, and their small daughter are huddled in their dark Manhattan apartment, with seemingly no electricity and only candles for light. Is this what a sustainable future would be like?
Fortunately, there are other options.
The documentary Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution chronicles the life of Peter Kalmus and his family (Kalmus, his partner, and their two children) as they attempt to live sustainable lives.
Incidentally, as Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, he is particularly well position to accurately assess his own climate footprint.
And that footprint, as it turns out, is exceptionally small.
As Kalmus notes in the book of the same name upon which the documentary is based, his personal greenhouse gas emissions are about 1/10 of the average Americans. Specifically, Kalmus’s emissions are about two metric tons annually. You might recall that this is about where we should all be to be in accord with the Paris Agreement from the COP 21.
As Kalmus notes in the book, “[t]his level of reduction, while incomplete, allows my family and me to continue a normal suburban life. This suggests that a similar reduction is well within reach for many of us. And as more people make significant reductions, and systemic alternatives to fossil fuel become increasingly available, going the rest of the way will become easier” (page 145, Kindle location 2561). Kalmus adds that “I still emit nearly twice the average Bangladeshi, and infinitely more than a wild, nonhuman Earthling [ i.e. animals].”
It is interesting to note that this approach comes from a scientist – and a climate scientist at that. Given his background, we might expect that Kalmus would advocate for technological solutions like self driving electric cars and a new generation of solar cells made with nanotechnology, instead he talks about bicycle riding and humanure.
By the way, the title, Being the Change, is a reference to that quote attributed to Gandhi that I keep mentioning: “Be the change you want to see you in the world.” What might being the change be like in this context? Watch the film or read the book.
Here is how the publisher describes the book on which the film is based:
We all want to be happy. Yet as we consume ever more in a frantic bid for happiness, global warming worsens. Alarmed by drastic changes now occurring in the Earth’s climate systems, the author, a climate scientist and suburban father of two, embarked on a journey to change his life and the world. He began by bicycling, growing food, meditating, and making other simple, fulfilling changes. Ultimately, he slashed his climate impact to under a tenth of the US average and became happier in the process.
Being the Change explores the connections between our individual daily actions and our collective predicament. It merges science, spirituality, and practical action to develop a satisfying and appropriate response to global warming….
The core message is deeply optimistic: living without fossil fuels is not only possible, it can be better.
Wait, “living without fossil fuels is not only possible, it can be better?” Really?
We are often told that the climate crisis will mean that we will need to do without a great deal: cars, planes, spacious houses, beef, scores of appealing consumer goods, and so forth. At face value, this sounds like a bland life of deprivation, especially when we think about the people that have all this – people who, as we say, “have it all” – like some people in my generation in the developed world.
Moreover, influencers – the people that we are encouraged to want to be – unabashedly flaunt the fact that they have mountains of this stuff.
Consequently, it may seem that the road to happiness is paved with carbon. Or more accurately, that you need to be responsible for the release of literally tons of carbon per month if you want it all – if you want happiness.
Peter Kalmus, in his own humble way, boldly suggests otherwise. That, in fact, we have it all wrong; this stuff (and our preoccupation with it) will not make us happy. In fact, such preoccupations will likely have the opposite effect.
I know, this runs completely counter to what the companies hourly selling us all this stuff tell us: that having it will make us happy – and not having it will make us miserable. And all those images of contented influencers posing in private jets confirms it.
Not only does Peter Kalmus believe – from personal experience – otherwise, a range of people are now coming to the same conclusion.
The film Tomorrow (Demain) documents the lives and efforts of some of theses people. Here is what the filmmakers have to say about it:
TODAY, we sometimes feel powerless in front of the various crises of our times.
TODAY, we know that answers lie in a wide mobilization of the human race. Over the course of a century, our dream of progress commonly called “the American Dream”, fundamentally changed the way we live and continues to inspire many developing countries. We are now [however] aware of the setbacks and limits of such development policies. We urgently need to focus our efforts on changing our dreams before something irreversible happens to our planet.
TODAY, we need a new direction, objective… A new dream! The documentary Tomorrow sets out to showcase alternative and creative ways of viewing agriculture, economics, energy and education. It offers constructive solutions to act on a local level to make a difference on a global level…
TOMORROW is not just a film, it is the beginning of a movement seeking to encourage local communities around the world to change the way they live for the sake of our planet.
I am curious to hear your thoughts on Being the Change and/or Tomorrow. Is this indeed “the beginning of a movement,” the beginning of a profound change in the way that our species inhabits this planet?
Are we destroying the planet in a misguided pursuit of happiness?
Happy is not an environmental film. Why, then, are we watching it?
Lately I have been thinking about what may well be the greatest irony of the human race. If we do not survive the climate crisis, it will be a sad epitaph for our species.
From even before Plato, thinkers in the West have long pondered what constitutes the “good life.” In the United States, we have been preoccupied with this question ever since we declared ourselves an independent country and made the “pursuit of happiness” one of three “unalienable rights” in our Declaration of Independence.
What now constitutes the “good life” in the U.S.? In other words, how are we pursuing happiness? The American Dream now seems to center on wanting more, wanting bigger, and wanting better. More stuff, bigger houses, better cars, etc.
The problem is that this has not at all made us happy. In fact, in recent decades, Americans have become less and less happy. While this would be a sad irony in itself, the great tragedy is that many of these pursuits are destroying our planet. Americans put nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Indeed, at the same time that Americans have been becoming less happy, we have been pumping more greenhouse gases into our planet’s atmosphere.
What is in many ways even worse is that we are now exporting this environmentally disastrous aspect of the “American way of life” to the rest of the planet. It would be one thing if we were releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for more noble reasons, such as to ensure that everyone on the planet received enough to eat, but this is all largely unnecessary. Do we each really need sixty or more items of new clothing every year?
In short, we have frenetically and futilely been pursuing happiness at the cost of the planet. As noted above, the great irony is that, as greenhouse gas emissions soared as a result of our pursuit of happiness, our happiness has actually declined.
So, here is my question: Are we indeed destroying our planet in a profoundly misguided pursuit of happiness?
In order to wrestle with this question, let’s look at happiness compared to greenhouse gas emissions for a number of pretty happy countries.
First, it’s true: after many decades of studying depression and unhappiness, a range of scholars, from psychologists to sociologists, have recently turn their attention to happiness, as has the United Nations. The United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, using Gallup Polling data, released the World Happiness Report in 2019.
The report revealed that United States ranked #19 worldwide in terms of happiness (source). With respect to the climate crisis, we emit about 16 metric tons of CO2 per person (source), which gives us the dubious distinction of being one of the world leaders when it comes to GHG emissions.
Alternately, the five countries with the happiest people on the planet (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands) all have individual emissions that are on average about half of the United States, in spite of the fact that they are all in very northern climates and hence use quite a bit of energy just for heating.
In fact, a whopping 81% of Finland’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from the energy sector (source), which is hardly surprising, as the capital of Finland, Helsinki, is further north than the capital of Alaska, which is Juneau. In general, living in a cold climate demands far more energy than living in a warmer one, even if air conditioners are widely used in the later. One study found that living in Minneapolis demanded three-and-a-half times more energy than living in Miami (source).
Living in places that are even further north consumes even more energy. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions for the average Alaskan are twice as large as the average person in the U.S. (source).
Moving from Finland to the sixth most happy country in the world, Switzerland, average per capita greenhouse gas emissions there are one third of the United States in spite of the fact that it too is not a very warm country (two thirds of Switzerland is in the Alps mountain range).
Number seven on the list of happy countries in Sweden, also a pretty cold place (Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, is also further north than Juneau, Alaska). Nonetheless, their per capita greenhouse omissions are approximately one fourth of the United States.
Let’s pause for a moment on this: the seven countries on the planet with the happiest people, in spite of demanding significantly greater energy use because of their northern locales, have climate footprints that are one half, one third, or one fourth ours.
The climate footprints of happy people can be even smaller if they live in warmer climates. Costa Rica, which ranks number 12 in terms of worldwide happiness (hence Costa Ricans are significantly happier that Americans at number 19) has greenhouse gas emissions that are about one seventh of the United States. That’s right, the average American contributes as much to the climate crisis as seven pretty happy people in Costa Rica.
The example of Costa Rica reveals an interesting element here, as the average American is thirteen times wealthier than the average person in Costa Rica (as measured by mean wealth per adult, source). As our relative climate footprints reveal, we Americans are presumably using quite a bit of this wealth in ways that are damaging the planet.
However, with respect to income, let’s face facts: it is difficult to be happy if you are a very poor. If you are trying to raise a family in the U.S. on an annual income of, say, $40,000, a range of hardships would certainly threaten your happiness. However, studies have found that beyond a certain point, more money does not bring greater happiness. That number may be lower than you would imagine, as these studies revealed that it is around $75,000 in annual income for an individual (source). While this is more than the annual median personal income in the U.S., it is certainly not Kardashian wealth.
Moreover, no one (to my knowledge) has attempted to isolate and remove the influence of the overwhelming marketing bombarding us, which tells us daily (or hourly or even by the minute. especially online) that we need to buy a range of products to be happy.
Let’s return to the example of Costa Rica, as it reveals, simply put, that you don’t need a lot of money to be happy. Nor does a greater happiness necessarily come with, comparatively, a relatively high climate footprint.
Now, let’s return to those very happy but very cold Scandinavian countries. For the most part, their economies and cultures are built on something called the “Nordic model.” While these are, of course, democratic countries, they also very much embrace things like collective bargaining and strong unions. Hence, they are sometimes called “democratic socialist” countries.
Bernie Sanders nicely explains what these countries offer: “So long as we know what democratic socialism is. If we know that in countries, in Scandinavia, like Denmark, Norway, Sweden — they are very democratic countries, obviously, the voter turnout is a lot higher than it is in the United States. In those countries, health care is the right of all people. And in those countries, college education, graduate school is free. In those countries, retirement benefits, child care are stronger than in the United States of America, and in those countries, by and large, government works for ordinary people in the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country (the U.S.), for the billionaire class.” (source)
Even though we might think that happiness is a deeply personal matter, governments have a major role to play in facilitating our “pursuit of happiness.” When they are doing their job responsibly, caring for the wellbeing of their citizens rather than large corporate sponsors, we are likely to be much happier.
But, specifically, how are people in these Scandinavian countries happier and how does this relate to the climate crisis?
Let’s look at Sweden. Recall that the average Swede is considerably happier than the average American even though their climate footprints are one fourth of ours.
The average person in Sweden, who makes almost as much money as the average person in the U.S., works five days a week, six hours a day. That’s right, the average work week is 30 hours. Only a very tiny percentage of people (1%) work more than 50 hours per week. By contrast, 40% of Americans work more than 50 hours per week; half of them work than 60 hours per week (source). Hence, one in five Americans literally works twice as many hours per week as the average Swede.
Everyone in Sweden receives 25 paid vacation days per year, and larger companies typically offer even more. All parents receive 480 days of paid paternity leave to split between them (source). As there are 235 working days per year (52 weeks times 5 day minus 25 vacation days), that’s one year of paternity leave – per parent.
There are, of course, differences between Sweden and the U.S that impact their climate footprints. For example, Sweden currently relies more on nuclear energy than the U.S.
However, over a third of their electricity comes from hydroelectric sources – a whopping three times more than the U.S. (source). In terms of consumption rather than production, we have twice as many cars per person as they do. Our houses are, on average, roughly twice as larger than theirs.
I am not saying that life in Sweden is perfect. There are problems there, like everywhere else.
But just look at the relative climate impact between Sweden and the U.S. Everything else being equal, the average Swede has a carbon footprint that’s a quarter of the average Americans. But everything is not equal, as it is a much colder climate. Americans living in a comparable climate (Alaska) are emitting twice as much carbon dioxide as our nation’s average. Hence, adjusted for their colder climate, the average Swede is may well be emitting something like one eighth of the average American’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Currently, the average person in Sweden is responsible for 4.54 for metric tons of CO2 per year. If, for reasons of argument, we adjusted that for the average American climate, it would then get cut in half, to around 2.25 metric tons of CO2 for American – which would be right around where we need to be to meet the goals of the Paris Accord signed at Cop 21.
Of course, these are back-of-napkin calculations, but people in the developed world can – and do! – not only get by, but live quite well with relatively small climate footprints.
In terms of our current discussion, they can also live happier lives than most Americans.
We are often told that adapting to climate change will mean that we have to live drab of deprivation and require us to do without quite a bit.
However, if we make this sort of changes that we have been looking at in this course, might we come out the other end, decades from now, happier? I will leave you with this question.