Climate Change as a Consumer Problem
I recently came across an article about the car company Tesla. In the short piece, a group of animal rights activists celebrate the company, so much so that they titled the article “Tesla’s Removal of Leather Seats Will Give You Hope for a Sustainable Future.” Talk about an endorsement!
Turns out that as of July 2017, Tesla “went vegan.” In truth, what the company did was decide to use synthetic leather instead of the bovine variety in its vehicles.
As a vegan, I guess I should have shared in the activists’ enthusiasm. But given my curmudgeonly ways, I couldn’t help but wonder certain things. Like how electrified Tesla cars are akin to their gas-powered cousins, running mostly on coal-derived fossil fuels. But instead of regular cars’ smoky tailpipes, we see Tesla cars’ sleek charging stations.
Now about that synthetic leather: it’s great to hear how some cows are spared the slaughterhouse in the name creating toys for the wealthy, yet once again, the narrative here is all about “saving the day through consumerism.” Care about the planet? Be a conscious consumer!
And as a nation of consumers, we’re socialized to think that profit-powered technology will save us from that phenomenon which threatens our very existence: climate change.
Climate Change as a Technical Problem
To those who study shifting climate patterns, civilization appears to be on a crash course toward near total annihilation. And by all credible accounts, our situation is dire.
- Polar ice sheets are melting at a faster pace than experts had anticipated.
- Thawing permafrost threatens to release vast plumes of carbon dioxide and methane, a substance with 30x the heat-trapping power of CO2.
- Parts of the Middle East, Europe, India, and Pakistan set record heat waves with the regularity of Swiss trains.
- The eastern hemlock tree, a North American emblem of wilderness and hearty forest health, lies on the brink of extinction.
- And on and on ad nauseam.
Understandably, people sympathetic to the plight of humanity sound alarm bells. Aside from scientists’ and journalists’ scare tactics—an approach that can worsen the problem by provoking helplessness in many of us—their proposals to address climate change strengthen a narrative that we humans can and should manage the world through our awesome technologies.
We hear it time and again. We should build more “clean power plants“, sequester, or bury carbon underground. Tech Maestro turned philanthropist, Bill Gates claims “we need an energy miracle.” We are Gods, after all—you know, masters of the universe.
But the problem is we’re not masters of the earth. We are part and parcel of her. Just like rivers and ravens, deer and deserts, we are but visitors upon this encompassing terrain.
So instead of colonizing Mars and sequestering carbon, we should reacquaint ourselves with earth’s inherent rhythms. Listen to its needs. Live well so that we may survive and so that we may care for the leagues of our more-than-human brothers and sisters held captive in the damaged world we’ve created.
Climate Change as Personal Responsibility
Recently, a team of Swedish researchers explored what people can do to reduce their personal contributions to climate change. Read the entire article if interested, but to give you its gist, they found that 5 of the top 6 “high impact” personal choices don’t involve technology. Here are the top 6, high-impact personal choices you can make to reduce your individual contribution to climate change:
- “have one fewer child”;
- “live car free”;
- “avoid one round trip transatlantic flight”;
- “switch electric car to car free”;
- “eat a plant-based diet”; and
- “switch electric car to car free”
Not surprisingly, they estimated that recycling, hanging our clothes out to dry, and updating light bulbs would produce more modest reductions in our contribution to climate change.
In fact, when you study these top 6, “high impact” choices, they involve:
- Removing a damaging technology (a car);
- Reducing another (one less transatlantic flight—gotta love that Eurocentricity!); and
- Substituting our eating habits (plant-based diet).
These recommendations, however, ignore how large, industrial processes are the main drivers of climate change and other environmental devastations, not individual choices. For example, Big Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the water consumed in the US. Plus, authors of this study frame ethical behavior as a sacrifice, a hardship of forgoing or reducing, which conjure images of gloomy days without fun, joy, or excitement.
Climate Change as a Chance to Reshape Culture
Yet re-framing how we live life need not require sacrifice. There is joy to be had in a self-determined, convivial lifestyle. The deepest, most reliable joys spring from doing, learning, building skills, dancing, co-discovering, and exploring the manipulated—i.e., what some benignly call the “built environment”—and natural worlds.
These joys emerge from a verb-laden life—a life of action and creation, rather than a noun-obsessed one—a life concerned with the acquisition of things and social cachet.
In order to contend with this “runaway climate change”, we can and must reacquaint ourselves with vernacular ways of living. For example, today, right now, we can experiment with permaculture to provide our communities food, shelter, habitat, and firewood.
We can and should occupy our time in nature, far from the enthrallment of screens. Use our hands and bodies to address our and our neighbors’ needs. Glean sustenance from our land base and our friends. Re-wild the souls of children, young and old.
No doubt, we modern humans can engineer a few mechanistic, soulless “fixes” to our carbon and methane problems. But technology will never be as graceful and wellness-enhancing as the rediscovery of vernacular lifeways. The recognition of our true home as that which sits within the broader community of life.Follow SethLaJ307