Robert Meeropol

Robby, Abel, Michael and trains

my perennial chaos

"Robby & Elli" 1968

Robby speaking at the re-launch of the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund in Toronto

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I Shouldn’t Do What?!

June 26, 2014

Tags: Carbon Footprint, Flying, IT usage

I feel ambivalent about urging people to reduce their personal carbon footprint, even though I’ve worked to reduce my own. First, because whatever we do on a personal level will have a minor impact on the world’s greenhouse gas output; the problem is institutional rather than individual. To obtain a dramatic reduction we must transform our throwaway, consumption-oriented economy which is sustained by – and primarily benefits – the global military-industrial complex. Still, it would feel inconsistent, even hypocritical, to sound the alarm about global warming/climate change while ignoring my own carbon footprint. As they said in the civil rights movement; you must walk the walk if you talk the talk.

But there are other reasons as well. One is that reducing our individual carbon footprint may be more complicated than we think. In AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, Al Gore claimed that we could significantly reduce personal carbon footprints by purchasing hybrid cars and putting solar panels on roofs. Elli and I have done both, but we now know that producing hybrid car batteries and solar panels is so greenhouse gas intensive that these changes have relatively little impact on total carbon emissions. Moving into an efficiently heated apartment building in a city center would probably have had a greater effect.

More recently, I learned that perhaps the single worst thing we can do to damage our environment is fly on a jet plane. Each passenger accounts for additional tons of carbon spewed high into the atmosphere where it will do a lot more damage than it would at sea level. While I haven’t entirely stopped flying, I no longer fly solely for vacation or pleasure. However, last weekend a friend alerted me to an article that compared the greenhouse gas emissions of air travel to that of internet usage. The gist of the article was that global IT use produces a greater percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions (2-4%) than passenger air travel (2%), and that the former is growing while the latter is dropping.

How can that be? The article focuses on Google to make its point. Google has over 1,000,000 servers worldwide and processes over one billion searches daily. As of 2011 Google was installing 400,000 more servers annually. The carbon footprint of producing these servers is enormous. Google also maintains vast server farms in China that are powered by coal. Google sends each search through multiple servers to speed response time. Google could lower the energy cost by using only one server for each query, but that would slow down the process. The article states that the carbon footprint of daily Google searches is equal to that of 80,000 people commuting by car to work 15 miles each way. YouTube searches are worse, accounting for four times that number.

I found these figures interesting. Perhaps taking greater care with my Internet usage would have a more beneficial impact than reducing my air travel. Of course, cutting back on both would be better still. But – WAIT A MINUTE – here I am again, getting sucked into focusing on individual solutions which I believe will be ineffective at staving off global disaster.

I understand the temptation to avoid looking at the big picture. It is difficult, terrifying even, to consider how dismantling our current system and rebuilding a sustainable one might unravel our lives, given the human and natural forces we face. But in the words of Derrick Jensen: “Those who come after us, who inherit whatever’s left of the world once this culture has been stopped… are going to judge us by the health of landbase, by what we leave behind. … They are not going to care how you or I lived our lives. … They’re going to care whether they can breathe the air and drink the water.” DEEP GREEN RESISTANCE

What’s Your Carbon Footprint?

February 6, 2014

Tags: Carbon Footprint

Two weeks ago I discussed my reluctance to travel by air because of its disastrous impact on the environment. I concluded “If we calculate our carbon footprint and what actions are likely to increase or decrease it, at least we can make more informed decisions. And while I am far from overcoming my own need of flying, for me, confronting this dilemma is a necessary first step. I hope that engaging in a constructive discussion of this issue will provide some insights and I welcome your input.”

A number of you responded. One person pointed me toward an article by meteorologist Eric Holthaus entitled “Why I’m Never Flying Again.” He wrote, “I didn’t comprehend quite how big an impact all those flights were having on the climate until I crunched the numbers with UC Berkeley’s excellent carbon footprint calculator (see link top left). I was shocked to discover that air travel comprised almost half of my household’s emissions last year, or 33.5 metric tons of CO2.”

I took my own advice and with Elli’s help used the UC Berkeley calculator. First, while helpful, I didn’t find it “excellent.” There was no way to determine the impact of our solar panels or honeycomb shades on our footprint, and all we could do was to give best-guess answers to some of its questions. Still, it gave us a better idea than we had before.

It calculated our footprint at 33.7 metric tons of CO2, and I suspect that it overestimated the footprint of our home’s heat and electricity. While this is well below the US average (25.9 metric tons per person or 51.8/couple) reported in THE ROUGH GUIDE TO CLIMATE CHANGE (2011), it is more than triple the 2010 global average of 9.4 metric tons per couple, and above the Western European average. Even though it was not perfect, it focused my attention more on the environmental costs of my lifestyle.

Unfortunately, even if all of us reduce our individual/household carbon footprints, we will do little to reverse or even significantly impede global warming. As Barry Sanders notes in THE GREEN ZONE, “even if every person, every automobile … suddenly emitted zero emissions, the earth would still be headed…toward total disaster…. The military produces enough greenhouse gases, by itself, to place the entire globe, with all its inhabitants … in the most immanent danger of extinction.”

We can’t turn this engine of destruction off without transforming our system that requires continuously increasing production and consumption, and a global military presence to procure the resources to fuel it. But we must still do what we can to curb the most destructive aspects of our behavior. As we educate ourselves and our communities to become more acutely aware of our carbon footprints, we are more likely to turn against the voracious consumption at the core of our multi-national corporate controlled economy.

Selected Works

"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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