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Scream Bloody Murder

In Boston last week I spent a morning circumnavigating Jamaica Pond with a good friend. Of course we addressed the state of the world, and inevitably we came around to considering the approaching environmental crises. We agreed that we had to change the nature of our economic system to avoid catastrophe. But my friend, an effective activist who focuses on immigrant rights and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, said, “When it comes to the environment, I’m paralyzed. What can we do? So I’ll keep working on helping the undocumented.”

I had no good response. My friend and I both support the divestment campaign of 350.org, but neither of us have significant connections with institutions that own fossil fuel company stock. I suggested that we try to get Massachusetts to develop an application to enable people to determine their carbon footprint (CF). The state should give a $50 or $100 tax credit to everyone who uses the application and reports their CF when filing their taxes. I reasoned the more people know about their footprint, the more concrete steps they can take to reduce it, and the more strenuously they’ll demand that massive institutional polluters do the same. My friend wondered if people would cheat, and if such an individual focus would do much good. Then we moved on to other topics.

But I kept thinking about the paralysis so many of us feel, knowing we must make massive changes. Short of calling for revolution, however, we can only come up with small ideas like mine. I’m not paralyzed, but I’m hobbling along haltingly when I should be striding purposefully forward. Is having people learn their carbon footprint all I can think of?

I wish I had responded that another thing we can do is scream bloody murder. I don’t mean we should dash about shrieking that the sky is falling (although that’s pretty close to the truth.) I mean we should use whatever medium we are comfortable with, every available situation we’re in, to write, talk and demonstrate about it. The one thing we should not do is ignore the situation or remain silent because it is too unpleasant.

Screaming bloody murder isn’t much of a plan. But if many of us make enough noise to create a growing buzz in social settings, more people will become involved. If more people get involved, more minds will be working on the problem. Maybe my little idea about knowing your carbon footprint will catch on and make a difference, or maybe others will come up with one, two or a dozen better plans. More engaged minds make it more likely that someone or some group will think of strategies, methods and actions that will spark the mass movement we need.

Even if all we do to begin with is talk more about it, it is bound to make a difference. Anyone can do it, and those who do will be a little less paralyzed and, I bet, feel better for our effort.  Read More 
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In last week’s blog I listed 10 possible courses of action to fight global warming and consequent climate change during 2015 and asked readers to discuss which actions they felt were best. A reader named Darcy suggested a eleventh action: “I think the list is missing something big though, soil/agriculture. Changing fossil fuel use is critical but we might actually have a chance at stopping climate change by getting more carbon back into the soil. It is the hidden toll of industrial fertilizers etc, we're adding individual nutrients instead of composted organic matter.” She also provided a link to an article about this (click link "soil and carbon" on left)

Her point is an excellent one. An article published in late 2012 reported that a partnership of 15 international research institutes concluded that our global food system generates one third of humanity’s greenhouse gas output. Many people are already attempting to counter this by supporting locally-oriented sustainable practices; many parts of the country have seen an explosion of “locavore” eating and farmers’ markets.

Elli and I are part of this trend, but I don’t always practice what I preach. I thought about this the other day in the supermarket. We wanted blueberries for a fruit salad. Maybe we shouldn’t have; we couldn’t expect to find locally grown organic blueberries in New England in early January (it was 15 degrees out). I had two choices – a small plastic container of organic blueberries at $13/pound, or a large plastic container of regular blueberries at $5/pound. To make matters worse, either choice came from Chile.

I could picture the weekly stream of Boeing 747s loaded with thousands of plastic boxes and bags of blueberries and grapes headed for supermarkets throughout the Northeast. I wondered about the carbon footprint of the petroleum-based fertilizers coating the endless acreage needed to produce fruit on that scale, coupled with the fuel costs of air transport, farming equipment, trucking to and from the originating and arriving airports, and the carbon generated by manufacturing massive quantities of petroleum-based plastic packaging.

Yet, I bought the bigger package of blueberries.

I’m not always guilty. Elli and I eat a lot more locally grown and organically produced food than we used to. We’ve stopped buying red-meat for environmental reasons. I’m aware of our carbon footprint, and try to reduce it. But my own inability consistently to make the least greenhouse gas intensive choice reflects the limits of trying to solve humanity’s global warming dilemma through individual choice. Until we alter the institutional underpinnings of multinational corporate food production, we’ll do no more than nibble at the edges of the problem. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or rationalize that our minor carbon indulgences don’t matter, but it means that if we are to succeed we must change the system. Read More 
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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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What’s Your 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.  Read More 
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