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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

I Shouldn’t Do What?!

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. http://www.consiliencejournal.org/index.php/consilience/article/viewFile/141/57

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  Read More 
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