A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
A sense of entitlement among Westerners is driving many of the environmental problems that are destroying our world.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my friend Carla*, a longtime environmental activist. She loves telling the story of an incident that led to her understanding an important lesson about the nature of the world. Back in the 1970s, she participated in a protest against the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Ohio valley. She and her fellow activists rallied outside the construction site. They held up banners and signs. They made speeches. They mugged for the television cameras. Everything was fun until she and a few others attempted to climb the chain-link fence in order to hold a sit-in on the restricted site. The police pulled them off the fence, put them in handcuffs, and hauled them off to jail where they were fingerprinted and booked on charges of criminal trespass. After posting bail, the activists were released. Carla drove home to Pittsburgh, feeling virtuous. Hadn’t she, after all, put her body on the line for the environment?
As she walked through the front door of her home, she automatically reached for the light switch as she had a thousand times before, but this time, she stopped herself and thought about what she was doing. For the first time, she understood what the problem with the world was. She thought of the caption to the old Pogo cartoon: We have met the enemy, and he is us.
What Carla realized is that most Westerners, that is, North Americans and west Europeans, have an unexamined attitude of entitlement. We expect gas, water, electricity, food, ovens, shoes, clothes, cars, and myriad other amenities that make up our very comfortable existences to be available to us without interruption and at a price far below their actual cost to the society as a whole. The new nuclear plant she had been protesting was underwritten by taxpayers, as was the highway she drove to get there and the gasoline her car burned. The uranium was probably mined on Federal lands, and the tragedy of cancer caused by the radioactive waste will be borne by our descendants. All of these human, as well as financial, costs are absorbed by the society-at-large in order to provide Carla and many others the unexamined privilege of getting electricity on demand for a few pennies per kilowatt.
Carla stayed up all night thinking about the enormity of the world’s problems and how virtually all of them are driven by a sense of entitlement. Carla knew, for example, as a white woman it was unlikely that the police would beat her or that she would be imprisoned for long, and this privilege is taken for granted by whites to such a degree that we are often blind to the oppression of African-Americans. She began to examine her lifestyle, making conscious choices to limit her social and environmental footprint. She stopped eating meat and dairy, and she expanded her garden, growing a lot more of her own food. She installed a high-efficiency low emissions wood-burning stove, relying on scrap wood and timber from neighbors to heat her home: when the neighbors needed to take down a tree, they knew to call her. She started walking and bicycling more, driving less. When solar panels became affordable in the 1990s, she installed one. As a college English teacher, she started including more African-American authors, such as bell hooks and George Yancy. And now after forty years of incremental changes, Carla has a full, rich, and healthy life. Since she eats organic vegetables and gets lots of exercise, she has the look of a woman twenty years younger than her 70+ years.
Notice what Carla didn’t do. She didn’t cut herself off from American life. She still owns a car – although it lasts a long time because she uses it sparingly. She still has electricity in her home, as well as water and sewage connections. She cooks her food with natural gas, although her gas bill is minimal because the house is heated by wood. She has a computer and a phone, taking advantage of the internet to shop for tools, seeds, and herbs. She still watches television, although spending so much time outdoors, she has little time to waste. She flies when it seems necessary, but she refrains from treating herself to a couple of weeks in the Caribbean as she used to do, instead vacationing closer to home. The difference between Carla and her neighbors is that she uses Western amenities less because she is aware of their true cost.
I thought of Carla recently when I came across an article in Environmental Research Letters. The researchers, from Lund University in Sweden, analyzed 39 peer-reviewed papers, carbon calculators, and government reports to calculate the potential of a range of individual lifestyle choices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They say their comprehensive analysis identifies what people can do to have the greatest impact.
Their well-founded assumption is that climate change is the result of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere, which records the aggregation of billions of individual decisions. They consider a broad range of individual lifestyle choices and calculate their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, based on 148 scenarios from 39 sources. The article identifies four ways of behaving that will have the most substantial effect in decreasing climate impact:
These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household light bulbs (eight times less). If enough people in western societies make these four changes, the scientists argue, then we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels needed to prevent 2°C of climate warming, the goal set by the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The lead author of the Swedish study, Seth Wynes, explains: “Those of us who want to step forward on climate need to know how our actions can have the greatest possible impact. This research is about helping people make more informed choices. For example, living car-free saves about 2.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, while eating a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year.”
Co-author Kimberly Nicholas adds: “We recognize these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has. Personally, I’ve found it really positive to make many of these changes. It’s especially important for young people establishing lifelong patterns to be aware which choices have the biggest impact.”
When I look at Carla’s life, I see that the sorts of behavior that are most effective at reducing one’s personal emissions are also desirable choices which promote a slower and healthier lifestyle. Though some high-impact actions, especially limiting the size of families,** may be politically unpopular, we need to keep in mind that there are many individual choices that contribute to climate change. And, again following Carla’s example, we don’t necessarily need to eliminate high-impact behaviors, rather we should engage in them sparingly and deliberately, without assuming that we are entitled to them as our birthright.
Copyright 2017 Michael Simms
* “Carla” is not her real name.
** One of the Vox Populi editors objects to “having smaller families” as a legitimate goal for climate protection, pointing out that if such an attitude became widely adopted, families with more than one child would be stigmatized or, as in the case of China’s notorious “one child” policy, outlawed.
Meat and cheese are tempting to many, but cost the atmosphere a heavy price. (Image: William Cho)