Cargo Cults and Climate Change

I was having a social media conversation with a climate communicator friend the other day. He’d posted a video by the much lauded Bill Nye the Science Guy that fairly closely followed the talking points many climate change realists use when speaking about climate change:
1. It’s real.
2. It’s man-made.
3. We can do something about it.
Check out the video here if you’re so inclined. 

On the one hand it’s a great video – engaging, educational, and hopeful. On the other hand, with the exception of a brief mention of the potential for gains in efficiency, the take-home message is fairly one-dimensional – vote. Without any actionable suggestions as to how to address rampant consumerism or population growth, without ever mentioning our insidious and ubiquitous belief that we’re entitled to take from the earth whatever we want in order to fulfill even our most trivial desires, it just ends. Vote. Just vote.

By all means vote! Vote for politicians who support valid climate research and have the moral courage to take action on the findings. Vote for politicians who will encourage investment in renewable energy and the infrastructure required to utilize it. Vote for politicians who will legislate a tax on carbon-based fuels – the only effective way for the market to price in all the harmful externalities wrought by the burning of fossil fuels. Vote. Vote. Vote!

But what shall we do in the mean time? Elections only happen every couple of years, and environmentalists here in the United States just lost the last one in a big way. Shall we sit around cardboard mockups of wind turbines and electric buses – much as the cargo cultists of the Pacific Islands did in the wake of WWII – patiently waiting for the real goods to be bestowed upon us by the gods of government and technology?

No. There’s actually a whole lot more that each of us can do in order to achieve greater energy efficiency in our own lives while we’re waiting for our elected officials to get their acts together. Toward that end, Katharine Hayhoe’s recent “Global Weirding” video provides a great list of things each of us can do in order to shrink our individual carbon footprint and start making a difference right now. Check out the video here.

But efficiency gains will only get us so far – about 40% of the way toward sustainability, as Katharine Hayhoe points out. Does that mean we’re back to waiting for the gods of government and technology to step in and create a world in which all of our current energy needs are met with renewables? And what if they don’t? Or, for that matter, what if they do? What, then, about the energy needs of tomorrow? Our thirst for electric gadgets seems unquenchable…, and the developing world is more and more desirous of the level of material wealth that we’ve long taken for granted…, and day after day the global population keeps growing… Is there nothing more that we can do?

Katharine Hayhoe is very diplomatic, which is probably a good thing in most instances. She doesn’t make any judgments about the relative extravagance of any particular lifestyle. She simply nudges people toward decreasing their carbon footprint from whatever it might be at the present moment. I suspect that she’s hoping that after people begin taking steps toward greater efficiency they will then begin looking for ways to do away with unnecessary energy usage altogether.

In other words, even though many people with both relative affluence and an awakened sense of responsibility are already installing solar panels and replacing their drafty windows with energy-efficient ones, even though they’re purchasing electric cars and updating their kitchens and utility rooms with high-efficiency appliances, they’re not necessarily changing their lifestyle all that much – if at all. They’re simply utilizing whatever money can buy to shrink the carbon footprint of their existing lifestyle as much as possible. A wealth of potential for greenhouse gas reduction resides in our inherent ability to simply do without much of what we presently consume. After all, most of the world is already doing as much. And therein lies the key point I was trying to make to my friend: We’re putting all of our eggs in one basket when we assume that purely technological solutions exist for our current predicament. What we need is a paradigm shift.

Allow me to elaborate. A very simple but still meaningful equation states that the global environmental impact that we cause (I) is a function of world population (P), our average per capita affluence (A), and some measure of how resource intensive that level of affluence is (T). Note that the letter T is chosen here because the level of resource intensity is largely dependent on our level of technological advancement. For instance, if all of our energy came from coal, a low technology solution to our energy needs, we would have environmental degradation caused by its mining and transportation, greenhouse gas and particulate pollution, toxic runoff, etc. If, however, we generated all of our energy from wind, a higher technology solution, the environmental degradation would primarily be related to the manufacture of the turbines and transmission structures themselves. Thus, environmental impact is a function of population, affluence, and technological development: I = f ( P, A, T ).

When I say that we’re putting all our eggs in one basket I mean that we’re focusing on T to the exclusion of P and A. We’re making any reduction in global environmental impact solely a function of our technological advancement. In other words, most climate change solutions that we hear about are predicated on the belief that we can find and adopt technological enhancements fast enough that, even as global population and average consumption increases, we can still reduce the environmental impact that we cause. In the aforementioned video, Bill Nye echoes the oft-repeated trope: “If your car is headed for a cliff the first thing you do is take your foot off the accelerator.” Of course this is good advice, but it ignores the reality that we have two more gas pedals that we’re still pressing to the floor!

My friend seemed to be getting a little defensive during our conversation. I think he must have interpreted my point of view as a dismissal of all the work being done to advance technological solutions to the problem of climate change. Nothing could be further from the truth! That would be like me saying that we should take our feet off of these two gas pedals while pushing the other one to the floor! We need to take our feet off of all the gas pedals. So, let me clearly articulate my point of view.

Those of you working toward technological solutions, I applaud you! Those of you working hard lobbying Congress to adopt those technological solutions, or nudge us toward them via a carbon tax, please keep up the great work! But we also need to renew our efforts toward reaching the goal of zero population growth (ZPG). This movement encompasses empowering women to make reproductive choices, making family planning assistance available, introducing developing areas to at least a modicum of material and financial well-being such that the need for larger families is diminished, and recognizing above all that we in the West, and the U.S. in particular, are responsible for the greatest volume of greenhouse gases. Which brings me back to my primary point. We in the U.S. need to do more than just power our existing lifestyles more efficiently and cleanly. We need to transition to lifestyles that rely less on material consumption altogether.

This transition involves a multi-faceted evolution of aesthetics. Yes, aesthetics. We need new ways of evaluating beauty, meaning, and worth. One facet of this aesthetic transition relates very straightforwardly to that which we consider physically beautiful or attractive. Maintenance of the average suburban lawn, for instance, with its pristine grassy expanses, sculpted shrubs, and ornate flower gardens, is very fuel-intensive. Adopting permaculture gardens or otherwise letting our backyards be more “wild,” can help out a lot. Similarly, the need to maintain certain clothing fashion standards keeps us on a treadmill of consumption. Why not simply opt for durable, timeless, natural garments that are suitable for business as well as recreation? Look for ways in which our standards of beauty lock us into needlessly elevated levels of consumption.

Our lifestyle aesthetic of being able to get up and go whenever we want keeps the personal automobile high on our list of perceived necessities. But what if our jobs offered us suitable flexibility, and what if we communicated more closely with family, friends, and neighbors such that transportation needs could be shared? And how much of our entertainment and recreation requires us to purchase something or use fuel in some way? What if we got used to visiting local public spaces instead of amusement parks and such? What if we enjoyed dinners at home with friends rather than resource-intensive nights out on the town? What if we opted for staycations and the enjoyment of local attractions instead of fuel-intensive vacations? Thus, how we value our life experiences has an impact on how much fuel we require to maintain our chosen lifestyle.

Another facet of this aesthetic transition is a needed change in our attitude toward technology. Why do we spend so much time at the gym, for instance, purposefully expending as much physical energy as possible, only to come home and make use of every labor-saving device imaginable so that we barely have to lift a finger or break a sweat? Why do we pretend we’re Tour de France cyclists at the spinning class only to then hop in the car for every last short jaunt over to the local drugstore or grocery? Why do we immerse ourselves in the endlessly upgrading milieu of computing, communications, gaming, and entertainment systems? Okay, I’ll date myself by admitting to having bought music, sometimes multiple times, on vinyl, magnetic tape, and compact disc media, and via digital download. Our landfills are stuffed with the detritus of that which was progress yesterday but is merely so much junk today.

Please consider product life-cycle in your aesthetic evaluation of things. Is it a quality piece of furniture with character that you can purchase second-hand and pass on to someone else when you’re through with it, or is it a flimsy construction of melamine coated compressed wood that won't survive your move to another apartment? Are the decorations for your big event made of recycled or recyclable materials, or are they merely shiny baubles that will end up in a landfill within a week after the party is over? And we mustn't forget our ubiquitous smartphones. While they might seem shiny and clean and unobtrusive, they nevertheless require the mining of heavy metals and the release of toxic chemicals into the waste stream. If we must use them, can we use them for as long as possible, resisting the upgrade mania and remaining mindful of what their next life might look like?

The entire world begins to look different when we stop looking at things merely in terms of their momentary utility in our lives and start looking at them as resources on loan to us. Do we have a right to appropriate those resources for our own ends, or might they be better used elsewhere by someone else or left where they are? Are our actions promoting or hindering the ability of our fellow humans, or fellow plants and animals for that matter, to enjoy a healthy and peaceful life? Thus, our evolving aesthetic has a spiritual or even religious component to it. Our consideration of the question “Why are we here?” inevitably leads to the consideration of our relationship with all life and all things – when considered deeply, anyway. Do we want to leave this earth with greater life-sustaining potential than when we arose from it, or will we leave it incrementally diminished for our having been here?

We don’t need to wait until the next election in order to affect change. We don’t need to wait until mass transit comes to our neighborhood. We don’t need to wait until our income is high enough, or the price of solar panels and electric cars is low enough. We only need to start deciding what to do with the paper coffee cup that’s in our hands right now, or whether we really need that new gadget that we’ve been ogling. Our lives are about more than just stuff. Changing our lives for the better is about more than just swapping new stuff for old, or finding new ways to power our old stuff. Until we realize this reality we’re not all that different from the cargo cultists of the South Pacific.

Author-manipulated film still from Chariots, Gods, And Beyond on the History Channel.

Copyright 2017 by Mark Robert Frank


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