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We Know What To Do?

I’ve been reading THE CONUNDRUM, a book about how increased energy efficiency can hurt, rather than benefit, the environment. The author, David Owen, writes that increased efficiency reduces costs fostering greater production, purchasing and, thus, more carbon emissions. He claims, “in truth, though, we already know what we need to do…. We justdon’t like the answers.”

Owen states that more energy efficient cars encourage driving, but we know it is better to drive less. More energy efficient appliances are cheaper, so we buy more and bigger appliances. He argues that we imagine we can “decouple” energy consumption from economic activity, but in reality we must engage in less economic activity since all economic activity requires energy. A healthy world demands less traveling, purchasing of disposable items and new electronic devices, or clothes in the latest styles. Owen writes that because we won’t accept those behavioral changes, especially when few others are, we continue on, and content ourselves with doing it a little more efficiently.

This book is full of provocative ideas and important insights, but it is only a partial answer. First, who does “we” refer to? The author is a staff writer for the NEW YORKER magazine. If by “we” he means the typical NEW YORKER reader, he’s probably not so far off. If he means people like me, politically liberal or left, economically comfortable, with advanced degrees and professional careers, he’s still pretty close to the target.

But that “we” doesn’t represent that many people; there are now more than seven billion of us on the planet. “We” does not refer to the 1.2 billion people the United Nations reports are inadequately fed. They don’t lead energy-profligate lives, and it is morally repugnant for us, who do, not to take them into account. In fact, excess consumption is not a problem for the majority of the world’s population. I don’t know the exact percentage, but I suspect the author’s “we” comprise no more than a few percent of the globe’s people.

And while the affluent relative few should consume less, our rate of consumption is not at the root of the problem either. Whenever I see a massive C5-A cargo jet from the nearby Air National Guard base practicing maneuvers I grind my teeth because it is spewing more CO2 into the atmosphere in one afternoon than I will in my lifetime. The U.S. military industrial complex “protects” our national interests all over the world. This enables our 5% of the world’s population to use 40% of its annual energy output. Our military has a carbon footprint that dwarfs that of all NEW YORKER readers many times over. More than 50 of the worlds 100 largest financial entities are not nations, but multi-national corporations. Their relentless brainwashing to convince everyone to use as much of their products as possible contributes hugely to our environmental problems.

I don’t mean to let myself off the hook. The comfortable among us need to take stock of our behavior, and cut back. If we don’t, we are fiddling while Rome burns. But individuals opting out of hyper-consumption alone will not save us from environmental Armageddon. We face an institutional challenge, so changing our economic and military system is essential to any solution.  Read More 
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Pipelines, the Environment and War

Over the weekend Elli and I attended a meeting to prevent a new gas pipeline in our backyard. This high pressure line would carry fracked gas across the northern part of Massachusetts through some of our state’s most productive farmland and sensitive eco-systems. The meeting was packed with people from surrounding communities determined to stop a dangerous and environmentally destructive project.

This is not just a local matter. At the meeting we learned that because of the crisis in Ukraine, our government is making it a priority to increase natural gas production and fast-track approval of the infrastructure needed to ship what we produce overseas. On the local level this indicates that the fledgling coalition will face seemingly irresistible forces in its attempt to prevent the pipeline’s construction, but it also has ominous global implications.

The Obama administration’s policy has been to increase gas and oil production to record levels. The reason most often cited is to rid ourselves of dependence on foreign energy sources, but our efforts to build oil and gas pipelines to connect the points of extraction with major ports also appear designed to facilitate fossil fuel exports. Obama seeks, among other things, to counter Russia’s dominant position in supplying Western Europe with natural gas. This is how the proposed local gas-line project is connected to what is happening in Ukraine. Much of the Russian gas is shipped through Ukraine to Europe; if the United States can supply Western Europe with an alternative, our companies will make a lot of money and we will weaken Russia’s international clout.

This brought home that despite rhetoric to the contrary the United States, and Russia, not to mention other fossil fuel producing nations, are competing to produce the most fossil fuel, and therefore, the most greenhouse gases. It is hard to imagine a more dangerous contest when the only sure way to prevent the destruction of the vast majority of life on our planet is to keep as much of the gas, oil and coal in the ground as possible.

It is essential to resist this suicidal competition, but it will be an uphill struggle. The anti-global warming movement needs to find allies to broaden its base of support, and anti-war activists should be prime targets. The environmental and peace movements are natural allies because war is the worst environmental disaster of all, and battles to control fossil fuel resources have become the major cause of military posturing and war.

Environmental activism must confront the fossil fuel industry, but it can’t do this effectively without addressing the industry’s codependence with the military. Simply put, we must publicize and attack the carbon footprint of the military industrial complex. The peace movement, in turn, can expose the environmental destruction, as well as the human suffering, caused by war. It can also sound an alarm about how our worldwide network of bases and the manufacture and fueling of our boats, planes, tanks and other motorized vehicles are degrading the planet.

The international pursuit of more natural gas and oil, and the inevitable confrontations this will spark, are proof that the two struggles need to coordinate their activities. Such coordination may not immediately short-circuit this self-destructive race to poison our planet, but it is a step in the right direction. Read More 
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Too Many People?

Recently I’ve been facilitating two groups studying global warming. (I will send my annotated ten-book syllabus to anyone who asks for it). Our current discussions are based on Alan Weisman’s new book, COUNTDOWN. While the book contains statements indicating it is not so simple, Weisman’s main point is that overpopulation is at the core of our environmental problems.

I’ve also been reading Clive Ponting’s A NEW GREEN HISTORY OF THE WORLD. Ponting concludes that: “The current environmental problems in the world can only be understood in the context of the nature of the world economy produced since 1500.”

At first glance these points of view appear to restate the old argument between Malthus and Marx. Malthus argued in 1798 that food production could never match population growth, and so, the masses were doomed to starvation. Marx, on the other hand, maintained that there would be enough for everyone if the earth’s resources were distributed fairly. He attacked Malthus for placing blame on the victims of capitalist exploitation rather than on the capitalists, who were the real culprits.

Raised by two sets of Old Left parents, and coming of age as a New Left Marxist, I initially rejected all claims that we could eliminate poverty and environmental damage through population control. However, in 1798 when Malthus first staked out his position, there were fewer than one billion people on the planet, and when Marx critiqued him there were no more than 1.5 billion. The world’s population has recently topped seven billion, and is headed for nine or ten billion in the next several decades. Marx was right that when Malthus propounded his theory it was a self-serving defense of inequality, but since then, overpopulation has become a major problem.

I also agree with Ponting that the world’s current unequal distribution of resources is responsible for environmentally-devastating first world overconsumption and mass human suffering. But capitalism’s love affair with increasing population is a key part of the current global economy. More people equals more workers willing to work for less as they compete with each other. More consumers buy more, generating more profit. A system based on perpetual growth serves its principal beneficiaries when individuals consume more AND there are more individuals doing the consuming. Is it possible that Weisman and Ponting are both correct?

Seven billion people are way too many, and ten billion will just hasten disaster. Weisman’s point is well-taken; we must and can bring down the population through universal education, and government assisted family planning programs, and doing so is a necessary condition of controlling global warming. Weisman, laments that all we lack is the political will to do so. He writes: “why [are] health decisions about Mother Nature … made by politicians, not by scientists who know how critical her condition is.” But as Ponting makes plain, the nature of our global economy means that politicians serving multi-national corporate masters will continue to make such decisions. As long as the world’s economy is driven by competition, profit and growth, efforts to reduce substantially either our population or consumption will be ineffective.

It is not a question of one or the other. Both are essential and we must address them in conjunction. Read More 
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