Keywords: Earth Day; demand; technological fix; ecology; Sir Nicholas Stern; subsistence farm
This is Earth Day. Or maybe it was yesterday, or tomorrow. Sometime around now.
I’ve been revising my lifestyle, making the kind of changes that will make my consumption habits more ethical. My light bulbs will all be okay by Monday, when a new reading lamp replaces the halogen. I’m going to a one-day conference in Atlanta next month by bus and train, despite the discomfort. I’ve turned off the computer that had been left on to receive faxes. (The incoming ones were mostly junk anyhow.) Instead of buying lettuce during the winter, I’m buying Ontario cabbage. (Lettuce gives 40 calories per head and very little food value, but it takes 400 calories to travel here.) I’m eating slightly less meat, though carbohydrates are bad for my blood sugar. I will no longer fly except for extremely serious reasons, and when I do, I’ll pay an amount equal to the price of the ticket as an offset, paying for trees to be planted somewhere on earth. I’m already paying an offset equal to the price of gas for driving my car around, and even so I’m trying to reduce the amount. Also, I try to take passengers along when I go out of town.
But nevertheless, my ecological footprint is over seven. At the rate I use energy, it would take at least five planets to let the human population live as well as I do. Feeling guilty, I ask myself: What more can I do?
I have friends who are going to move to a remote place in the southern hemisphere and do subsistence farming. From what I’ve read, that’s no solution. Urban people have more ways of reducing their GHG emissions than rural people do. I live in a high rise, where the shared walls, floor, and ceilings conserve heat. I live near a subway station. My new reading lamp will be delivered Monday from the Sears catalog, and my groceries are delivered straight from the warehouse, saving me the cost of travel and saving the grocery store the cost of heat, light, and the labor of stocking the shelves and putting my groceries into plastic bags. (Grocery Gateway recycles the boxes they bring and place on my kitchen counter.)
No matter how hard I try, I don’t see how to get my footprint much below seven. And if I moved to a farm, and raised my own food, I understand that even that would not reduce my footprint. There are no high-rise apartments in the countryside, and everything not handmade has to travel farther.
I can’t reduce my demand as a householder enough to matter. So is there any hope? Yep.
A hundred times I’ve heard people say piously, “There are no technological fixes.” But there really are! In fact, technology is the only thing that can fix us.
I’ve been reading the report by Sir Nicholas Stern (see photo), which famously proves that the financial costs of climate change are going to be stupendous unless we forestall them by collective action. Stern is as credible as any economist can get. (I see that he has also co-authored quite a lot of research with Jean Dreze, the saintliest economist I have ever known — a man who is devoting his life to saving Indian peasants from poverty.)
But my friends — those who will soon be survivalists — do not believe in economics. They also are predisposed to believe that technological innovations will cause more trouble than they cure. There is no point, I guess, in directing their attention to Sir Nicholas, who shows that a reduction of demand cannot by itself solve our problems. If there is any hope, he says, it will come primarily from increasing efficiencies and from preventing further deforestation. And efficiency is a “technological fix.” More efficient machines, housing, and transportation will magically reduce the footprints of everyone who adopts them. Yes, let’s reduce demand for our GHG emitting gadgets, but that’s not enough. Nor will solar power, or hydrogen. No, humankind’s future well-being depends on increased efficiency.
Still, that won’t cut any ice with my friends. Their minds are made up. They expect urban, modern civilization to die off within a decade or two (contrary to the predictions of genuine energy economists) — which they see as ultimately a good outcome, since by thinning us out, the population’s die-off will bring humankind back into balance with nature. A few hundred thousand people, living simply on the land and cooperating with their like-minded neighbors, will survive these hard days and create a benign new society. In preparation for that, my friends are going to “experiment” with a simpler, less technological way of life.
This means, of course, that they have written off their Canadian friends as doomed, beyond any prospect of rescue. They, unlike us ill-fated capitalist consumerists, truly care about saving the ecological niches in which so many species are now endangered. Indeed, when told that there is a new technological innovation that may be able to suck ambient carbon dioxide from the air and restore the atmosphere to its pristine, preindustrial condition, my friend expressed “horror” at the prospect. She has expressed no horror, however, at the prospective death of billions of human beings, and no guilt about abandoning them in favor of saving her own kin. She does not believe that her “experiments” in subsistence farming will help the world. It is, in her opinion, too late for that. And besides, she no longer apparently cares.
Happy Earth Day, my dear Earthlings! I pledge to work with you to save our precious, gorgeous world. Let’s use every technological fix that anyone invents. Bless us all — especially those of you who can invent technological fixes.