Sleeping in a Burning House: Why we’re so stuck fighting climate change
By Alec Dubro
Heat waves, the Amazon, the Arctic, Siberia. But will these increasingly alarming developments spur greater action? If what I’m hearing and seeing in conversations around the country is an indicator, not bloody likely. And that’s because we face an enormous and largely ignored obstacle. It’s not just the fossil fuel industry and its climate-denier allies. Instead, the obstacle is us: the people who believe climate change is real but feel helpless to mount a sufficient response.
I live in Washington, DC, and while I do not move much in environmental circles, I spend a lot of time with people who are engaged in — for lack of a better term — social justice. All, I’m sure, firmly believe in climate science. But, at meetings and social gatherings throughout the years, few have ever brought up the subject of climate change except as a passing swipe at some official or policy. That is, unless I bring it up — and that’s usually as far as it will go. Even this summer I hear nary a peep on the subject. And this is in line with national polling on the issue: A 2016 Yale study concluded, “Most Americans say global warming is personally important to them, but don’t talk or hear about it much.”
Although it’s true that national politics in the age of Trump consume much of the discussion, it’s not true that these people don’t talk about environmental issues at all. They do mention rollback of environmental regulations and local crises — Flint’s water comes up now and then. Some, however will veer off into the margins: the questionable and generalized threats of GMOs, cellphones and radiation. And, of course, organic food. Overall, according to a 2018 poll by Chapman University, Americans do list environmental issues as many of their top fears. But, global warming ranks next to last. And at the very top is corrupt governmental officials.
I think I know why we avoid facing the heart of the environmental crisis. And that’s because deep within us is the fearful but certain knowledge that to avoid the disastrous effects of the snowballing environmental crisis, we have to be willing to give up… nearly everything.
As John Kenneth Galbraith once said: “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason.” He was speaking of the ruling class, but in this case, it’s pretty much all of us. We lead lives that medieval kings would envy — and yet we rarely acknowledge it. Why should we? To us it’s just normal life.
In this case, I don’t actually think it’s stupidity that’s to blame; instead, it’s an inability to envision adapting to climate change as anything but a dismal loss. In time — if the end doesn’t come for us — we may not have to give up everything. But we have to be willing to give up much more than we already have. Switching to LEDs and electric cars simply won’t do it. In fact, overall, our efforts are — if not failing — wildly inadequate. It’s just not working. In April 2019, Voice of America reported that, Americans burned a record amount of energy in 2018: four percent over the previous year, propelled by a 10 percent increase in natural gas use. And, despite the push for renewables, “Fossil fuels in all accounted for 80% of Americans’ energy use.”
And, not only does the use of resources continue to rise overall — even in the most progressive societies — but the billions of people who have been left out of the consumer culture understandably want in. For every switch to hybrid or electric, millions more add cheap gas engines. The problem isn’t the kind of car, though, but cars themselves. As I wrote ten years ago, in The Myth of the Efficient Car, “… cars don’t move people, cars move cars. The average car or light truck is two tons or so: 4000-plus pounds to move 200 pounds of people and a bag of groceries.” But a vehicle is not just its direct energy consumption. It’s the sum of the resources needed to create and sustain it: roads, tires, parking lots, oil, plastics, production and more. And this is repeated worldwide — repeated and increased.
And there doesn’t seem to be any tech fix in the offering. No such effort — from electric cars to smart devices to low-power lighting — has resulted in an overall reduction in consumption. Technological culture merely adjusts for that loss and makes it up elsewhere. As for efficiency, forget it. English economist William Jevons in 1865 found that increased efficiency in coal-powered engines led not to a reduction in overall consumption of coal but to a proliferation of efficient engines — increasing the use of coal many times over. The Jevons Paradox said simply that technological progress could not be trusted to reduce fuel consumption.
While greenhouse gases are the most immediate threats, they’re just the effluents of a society highly dependent on extraction, production and consumption. It’s not merely the detritus we throw out, but what we build and what remains. In fact, we can hardly grasp how much we produce and consume, so let me offer this comparison: The average American’s life is sustained by the equivalent of more than 100 servants. That’s because the US produces 32 quadrillion calories per month in order to create our material lives. As a result, you and I, who directly consume about 66,000 calories per month, end up indirectly using roughly 100 million calories in that same month — or the equivalent of 122 or so people working for us. Now obviously you and I don’t have direct control over all US energy production. But we have surprisingly much: 70 percent of the US economy is based on consumer spending. And we can act.
Nothing, in fact, can stop the rapid onrush of environmental cataclysm other than dismissing most of our non-human servants. However, that, we’re finding, is basically unthinkable. Viscerally, we equate that with unemployment, penury, degradation and early death. So, intellectually, we rationalize our stasis. Somewhere in us, too, we also yearn for a simpler life, but that is usually envisioned as something bucolic and picturesque — not just having much less stuff. We may say we want less, but all our politics is aimed toward increasing wealth — whether for the rich or for everyone. Salvation, however, doesn’t lie that way.
We constantly seek for technological fixes that will enable us to continue living exactly the way we have for the last century or so. It’s analogous to the endless stream of diet plans based on changing the kind of food you eat: anything other than to drastically reduce your caloric intake.
Of course, our individual actions — if done in comparative isolation — don’t seem to have added up to much. We’ve created an industrial/consumer system that seems to run out of control whether we take steps to contain it or not. Most people know that fossil fuels are the main culprit in raising the CO2 and methane levels, and some have taken steps to reduce that… so far to no avail. The ferocious fight of the industry and its allies certainly stymies a lot of attempts at amelioration, but they are defeatable, if we have the will. And if we do it together.
The mechanism is simple: Stop buying their products. No company, no industry — no matter how apparently powerful — can survive a withdrawal of markets. The question is whether we have the vision and dedication to imagine a life where cars are rarely used, where climate control is minimal, where lighting is vastly reduced and where the kind of luxury we unknowingly experience every day is an exceptional thing. Of course, this luxury is not evenly distributed and there must be a fair way to do it, but do it we must.
Extricating ourselves from the lure of luxury is exceedingly difficult. I know I can’t do it… on my own. And even if I could, it would influence almost, well, nobody. That’s why we must organize: in order to force ourselves to do what we know we must. There’s loads of people who know how to organize and I suspect there will be many forms of organization. But we have to move beyond the environmental community to have sufficient effect.
Realization, however, is not enough: we must have organization. You alone did not cause climate change — no matter how many young people say you did — and you alone can’t reverse it. In order for people to make the needed changes, we must have, and give, support: informational, emotional and material. If you feel overwhelmed, it’s because you are. But with allies and a plan, this becomes less intimidating.
What form should this organization take? If history is any guide, it will take many forms that will proceed with different degrees of cooperation. After all, there wasn’t only one homogeneous organization fighting to end slavery or the Vietnam War. But whatever they turn out to be, they ought not put their faith on current governments compromised by industry and finance, and which are too afraid to stir the complacency of their citizenry. In other words, we have to go it alone until we achieve sufficient power to rise above humbly begging or competing with the power of money. And while the Paris Accords and other treaties are worthwhile, they are nowhere near sufficient.
But there’s still time: Armageddon is not 18 months away — or six years or 20 years. Writing in Scientific American, Science Debate’s executive director Sheril Kirshenbaum, said, “If history teaches us anything, it’s that humans have a penchant for anticipating our End Times.” But, “Arbitrary ‘time left to apocalypse’ predictions are not evidence based and the story of climate change doesn’t fit neatly into brief bullet points competing for your attention in today’s saturated media environment. Stoking panic and fear offers a false narrative that can overwhelm readers, leading to inaction and hopelessness.” And that won’t do. Instead, we have to face the enormity of the situation and be prepared to make changes and sacrifices — even if we aren’t yet sure what they will be.
In short, we need to stop tinkering and we need to stop despairing and handing the problem off to those in power — and begin drastically and globally cutting consumption. If there is an alternative, it hasn’t arisen. In the meantime, as the axiom goes: When you’re doing something wrong, the first thing you do is stop doing it.”
You and I can’t do this alone, and going off the grid won’t cut it. It has to be done together… or not at all. And there is still time.