Hats, Collars, and the Great Unraveling

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As I said before (in “Hat’s Off” and “Floating down the River . . .” ), I know that scaring people about the deteriorating health of the environment can be counterproductive. People who are frightened and see no way to fight back are inclined to surround themselves with comforting things and hunker down. I’m equally aware that the way we’re living is unsustainable. In the process of tearing through resources and pumping out waste, we’re racking up a long list of environmental bills. Sadly, our children and grandchildren will be forced to cope somehow when those mounting debts come due.

I also know that the future consequences of our overconsumption will be dire. So I walk around with my hair on fire under my hat, wanting to grab people by the collar and shake them till my hat (or theirs) falls off, and shout, “Don’t you realize what’s happening? Don’t you understand that we’re all contributing to environmental problems by buying a lot of stuff we don’t need? Don’t you know that there are environmental costs to all the stuff we buy? Species extinctions, groundwater depletion and pollution, soil erosion, desertification, endocrine disruption, climate change, ocean acidification, and on and on. You’d better take these problems seriously and do everything you can to fix ’em, or there’s a really good chance that down the road your kids and grandkids are gonna curse your memory.

The problem with that idea (in addition to the risk of having my lights punched out by some temperamental soul who doesn’t appreciate being shaken by the collar and screamed at) is that few of us are inclined to deny ourselves the pleasure of buying new things — especially if we suspect that our choices will not affect the environment one way or the other. And, in fact, most of us realize that environmental problems are so enormous that the effects of our little, individual indulgences (or sacrifices) are truly insignificant.

So what we’ve got here is one big — and growing — environmental mess. With each day that we fail to reduce our burden on the ecosphere in the present, we compound the difficulty of correcting environmental problems in the future. And because we believe that our own actions are largely irrelevant, we passively wait for government regulations or technological innovations to descend from above, deus-ex-machina style, and fix all of our problems for us.

The trouble with the sit-around-and-wait strategy is that it ain’t workin’. The government is hobbled and nearly dysfunctional. Republicans not only oppose new environmental regulations, they want to roll back most of the ones that are already in force. While the President can issue some executive orders for the sake of the environment, his ability to make big changes is strictly limited. As for technological solutions, to be brief, inventions that help the environment in one way generally (perhaps inevitably) harm it in other ways. Beyond that, the ecosphere is unraveling along a multitude of seams. Even if we could develop side-effect-free technologies (which ain’t gonna happen), we can’t invent and deploy those technologies to mend all the rips and frayed edges fast enough.

So it’s up to us. As helpful as environmental regulations and green technologies might be someday, they’re woefully insufficient now, and acting now is crucial.

Of course, one person’s consumption reduction has no appreciable impact, so what we need is a movement — an anti-consumerist movement — to sweep the nation and the world.

And guess what. I just so happen to have a half-baked idea that might help propel that movement. I’ll bake it a bit between now and my next post, and if I think it’s really worth mentioning, I’ll tell you about it then.

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Okay, this is totally embarrassing to say, but . . .

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To be frank, I started blogging before I got all the mechanics down, and I’m still not quite sure what I’m doing at times. One thing I’m wondering is whether it’s hard for visitors to get to my “About” page. I just updated it and I’d like people to be able to find it easily because it provides the foundation for my posts.

If you’ve already seen it, no need to read on.  If you haven’t and you have the time and the interest, you will find what I’ve put on my “About” page on the other side of the line of asterisks below.

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Here it is:

ABOUT

In case you’re wondering why I’m using a picture of a toddler for my gravatar, I guess I should explain. I wish I could say it’s because I, Sally Wengrover, was the first 18-month-old in history to earn a Ph.D., but, alas, that isn’t true. I chose that snapshot for my gravatar because, well, for one thing, it’s so darn cute, and, for another, because a picture of a child keeps me focused on the point of this blog, which is to do whatever I can to enable today’s children to have as fair of a chance at having a satisfying life as someone born in my (baby-boom) generation has had.

I guess I should tell you a bit about my life as an adult. To be brief, in my twenties I was an electronics tech at Atari, in California’s Silicon Valley. In my thirties I worked in Portland, Oregon, as a broadcast engineer, and in Marin County, California, as a 3D animator and instructor. When I was halfway through my forties, I went back to school to study environmental policy.

My mental transition from techno-geek to environmentalist dates back to my daily commute, via moped, from my apartment in San Jose to my job at Atari in Sunnyvale. Day after day, as I rode across miles of side streets, I witnessed acre after acre of habitat for wildlife being razed to make way for industrial parks. The sight of displaced egrets, stilts, and herons—their long, graceful legs splayed clumsily across dirt clods and parking-lot asphalt—led me to contemplate the ecological costs of technological progress.

For years thereafter, my mind played tug-of-war, pulling me back and forth between my fascination with high tech and my concern about the degrading condition of the environment. But as time went on and the rate at which the ecosphere was unraveling accelerated, I realized that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch the ongoing deterioration. I had to invest my time and energy into searching for environmental solutions. So I went back to school and, blessed with the great Herman Daly as my advisor, I earned a Ph.D. in Policy Studies (with a specialization in Environmental Policy) from the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. While I was waiting to defend my dissertation and for a while thereafter, I assisted Jeremy Rifkin on his 2009 book The Empathic Civilization, as an editor/fact-checker/researcher/foot-noter/handwriting decipherer.

And now I’m trying to share the results of my decades of study. And my big message is this: We need to act immediately to reduce our environmental impact. Government regulations, market mechanisms, and greener technologies are necessary, but the environment is unraveling too fast for us to sit by and wait for those things to solve our problems for us. Each one of us needs to cut our consumption of stuff starting today.

 

 

 

For Tomorrow’s Sake

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Recent conversations with friends have brought to mind the opening paragraphs of The Conundrum, a book by David Owens. Here’s how they go:

During the summer of 2010, I gave a talk in Melbourne, Australia, as part of a weeklong state-sponsored series of lectures on climate change. A couple of days before I spoke, a resident asked me what my theme was going to be, and when I began to explain he stopped me. ‘Forget all that,’ he said. ‘Just tell me what to buy.’ He was willing to believe the world was in peril, but he wished that someone would cut to the solutions. My car’s a problem? Tell me what to drive instead. Wrong television set? I’ll switch. Kitchen counters not green? I’ll replace them with whatever you say.

This is what most of us think, whether we think we do or not. We’re consumers at heart, and our response to difficulties of all kinds usually involves consumption in one form or another: just tell me what to buy. The challenge arises when consumption itself is the issue. How do we truly begin to think about less—less fossil fuel, less carbon, less water, less waste, less habitat destruction, less population stress—when our sense of economic, cultural, and personal well-being is based on more?[*]

 

Most of us care about the quality of the environment. Like the man from Melbourne, we know there are reasons to worry about ecological degradation, and we want to do something to help, but because we lead such busy lives, we want the solution to be simple: Just do this one thing and the world will be saved.

Unfortunately, doing one simple thing won’t save the world. What we need (to use to an appropriate but overused phrase) is a paradigm shift.

The problem we’re facing is a new one for humanity. For almost as long as our species has been around, our survival has depended on amassing as much stuff as we could whenever we could. And although history provides examples of societies that collapsed due to overconsumption, those examples are few and far between. Our ancestors could generally accumulate stuff to the extent of their abilities (which in most cases weren’t great) without causing serious environmental consequences. When the human population was small and the available technologies were too feeble to allow the average person to over-consume, the environment was generally able to handle humans’ resource consumption and waste production.

Well, folks, I don’t need to tell you that those days are gone. We simply can’t go on chomping through resources and spewing out waste as if there were no tomorrow—unless we want there to be no tomorrow. We have to reorient our values. We need to get in the habit of thinking about the environmental costs of the things we buy.

A video by Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, provides a good introduction to this way of thinking. You can watch it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GorqroigqM

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[*] Owen, David. 2011. The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. New York: Riverhead Books, pp. 1-2.

HAT’S OFF

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In my last post, I said (in effect) that I sometimes think I should jump up and down and scream bloody murder about environmental dangers to get people up off their keisters and ready to act. I know, however, that terrifying people won’t work. When sensible people face a gigantic, horrifying opponent, they figure there’s no sense in fighting what is sure to be a losing battle, so they look for a means of escape.

Okay, now what I’m about to say is just a theory, but I think this response to trouble probably goes back to early childhood. After being beaten to a pulp the first time by a big kid from down the block, we quickly decide what we’ll do if there’s ever a next time: RUN as fast as our little legs can carry us. And where will we run? To someplace safe and comforting.

So now, when we’re faced with a problem like climate change that is much too big for us to cope with as individuals, we naturally want to escape the anxiety that comes with thinking about the scary facts; instead we turn to movies, social media, alcohol, video games, sex, food—whatever.

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S’okay, with that stuff said, let’s return to the part in my last post where I was imagining I was on a yacht headed for Niagara Falls.

As you may recall, I did try to warn the other passengers about the approaching danger. But not wanting to be a buzzkill, I dialed back the intensity of my concern and sauntered calmly from one group to the next, saying, “Uh, pardon me, but do you realize we’re headed straight for Niagara Falls?” much in the way I might have said, “Say, old chap, would you pass the Grey Poupon?” And surprise, surprise. No one on the yacht felt compelled to spring into action.

But if I had pressed my case more forcefully, if I had convinced my imaginary boat-mates that the danger was real, I strongly suspect they would have taken the necessary steps to solve the problem. And there would have been no need to tell the passengers that a plunge over the falls would be hazardous to their health or the captain that wrecking the ship and killing the passengers would be, at a minimum, bad for business. By virtue of being sentient human beings, everyone would know the probable consequences of that plunge, so merely convincing them that the falls lay dead ahead would be enough to motivate a preemptive action, especially one as simple as turning a wheel.

Well, in the past, attempting to deal with global warming (a.k.a., climate change, a.k.a., global weirding) has been a different proposition. Unlike a plunge over Niagara Falls, which everyone knows would be disastrous, the proportion of Americans who accept that global warming is even occurring—much less that its consequences will be catastrophic—has fluctuated for decades. From poll to poll, a significant percentage of people switch between “probably is” to “probably isn’t” and back again. Nevertheless, I’m beginning to sense that we’ve reached a point where acceptance of the unfortunate truth is solidifying.

And if that’s true then perhaps the time has arrived when it makes sense to start yelling: “WAKE UP! WAKE UP, EVERYBODY! It’s time to grab the steering wheel and turn this boat around!”

There’s no need to scare everyone by droning on about the gruesome consequences of global warming and thereby risk a stampede for the first available escape hatch. Now that we accept the existence of the danger, we don’t need to be horrified, we simply need to rally to the call and learn what we can do to turn the boat (I mean the ecosphere) around.

 

 

Floating down the river with my hair on fire under my hat

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A few days ago, I envisioned myself cruising down a river on an enormous yacht, with dozens of other revelers. Everyone was dressed up in party clothes, and they were eating, drinking, and having a gay ol’ time.

Initially, I socialized and small-talked, the way people do at cocktail parties, but, after a while, I became alarmed that the yacht was continuing on its course, given that Niagara Falls lay just a few miles ahead. “I probably should say something,” I thought. So I walked up to a small cluster of partygoers, traded pleasantries for a few seconds, and then struck a casual pose. “Say, do you know that we’re headed directly for Niagara Falls?” I asked. The group responded with glassy-eyed stares, a cackle or two, and some nervous tittering, then they resumed their conversation about American Idol.

So I tried warning a second group, then a third, and a fourth. Each time I got the same response.

“I need to start shouting,” I thought. “This is no time for casual chitchat and subdued warnings. Unless we act now, we’re going to plunge over the edge.”

At that point, the vision dissolved, and then it came to me that for decades I’ve been observing, thinking about, and studying environmental problems. Although I’ve spoken to people about what I’ve learned from time-to-time, I’ve always dialed my intensity waaay back.

Why? Well, for one thing (as I mentioned in an earlier blog), I’m reluctant to express opinions that imply criticism of other people’s views and values. For another, I realize that my perspective is limited. Even when I feel confident that my views are correct, I’m aware that I don’t have all the answers.

The biggest reason that I’m reluctant to set my hair on fire and shout at the top of my lungs, however, is that the results of a number of studies indicate that scaring people about the state of the environment is counterproductive. When people are frightened and see no way to fight back, they take flight, and in their flight they turn to other, less-frustrating, more comforting things. Often those things are consumer goods, so, if the goal is to reverse environmental degradation by reducing consumption, scaring people can backfire.

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I have more to say on this, so chances are good that the next blog will pick up where this one left off. I hope you’ll return for the next installment.

Redistribution and the Middle Class (or Piketty, Part III)

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Currently, political elites are focusing intently on the middle class. “Oh, woe! The middle class is squeezed and suffering!” And given that more Americans identify themselves as “middle class” than “rich” or “poor,” concern for that portion of the electorate is certainly expedient.

It’s easy to understand, I think, why many of us in the middle class are disappointed with our lots and susceptible to politician’s handwringing over our plight. As Psychology Professor Tim Kasser has explained, “Many psychologists believe that people’s emotional states are largely a function of how far they are from who, what, or where they ideally would like to be.”

No doubt, many of us feel let down because we grew up believing that over time our incomes would grow and we’d be able to buy more and more of the stuff we wanted. What we’ve found, instead, is that our incomes have generally stagnated, and the prices of necessities have risen. Meanwhile, the pressure to keep up with the Joneses increases even as we exhaust ourselves in our efforts to compete.

But here’s the thing. Most of us already have waaay more than we need. Our houses bulge with superfluous stuff. Meanwhile, reams of psychological studies show that our materialistic values are undermining the quality of our lives in countless ways. (I’ll probably return to this point in a future post.)

It’s true that we get a brief high when we buy something. Research shows that making a decision to buy and following through with a purchase gives us a feeling of mastery. But that feeling quickly evaporates, and then all we’ve got is the thing we bought. Ho hum.  Worse still, the credit-card bill eventually arrives. Yikes!

So, to return to the issue of unequal distribution, as I see it, the critical issue isn’t that the middle class is suffering because the 1% hog too much of the wealth. The critical issue is that we give wealth too much power. If we didn’t tie our self-respect to our place on the economic ladder and attempt to gain the respect of others by showing off the stuff we own, we could disconnect wealth from status. And if we didn’t have to spend our money on stuff to impress the Joneses, we’d have money to help the down-on-their-luck Smiths.

In any case, with the environment unraveling at an accelerating rate, those of us who have more than we need would improve the quality of our own lives and the lives of others if we reduce our consumption and redirect our goal from having lifeless things to nurturing living things.

News Media & Public Denial About Global Warming

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Returning to the subject of my last blog, I imagine there are a number of reasons why news media enable public denial about global warming, but I suspect that advertising plays a major role.

The news media depend on advertising for most (or all) of their revenue. As a result, they give advertisers’ concerns a lot of weight. And studies of the economics of advertising show that businesses want the stories that frame their ads to be light, uncontroversial, and unchallenging.[1]

So what’s an editor to do when a heavy, controversial, and challenging story about global warming is blatantly newsworthy? Run it, of course, but keep it as separate and detached from other content as possible. Connect it to nothing that could impact sales of advertised products. If there’s an apparent connection, ignore it. If the story is about some innovative technology, keep it upbeat. Say nothing about how global warming might affect the future use of that technology or how the technology might affect the environment. Making such connections would be bad for business.

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[1] Brown, Keith S., and Roberto J. Cavazos. 2003. “Empirical Aspects of Advertiser Preferences and Program Content of Network Television.” Federal Communications Commission. Media Bureau Staff Research Paper (December). http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-241968A1.pdf (accessed July 8, 2014).