Yew as You

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What I’m about to say will probably seem odd, because we tend to see ourselves as separate and distinct from our surroundings, but the boundary between us and the environment is not a distinct line—as in, we’re here inside our skins and the environment is over there outside us. In fact, the boundary between us and not-us is a blur.

In case this notion of blurry boundaries sounds bizarre, I’ve included a few brief examples of our fuzzy edges below.

Let’s start with food. When we eat, we incorporate into our bodies atoms that resided in a living plant or animal body until the very recent past. A few hours after we eat, some lucky microbes will be blessed with the opportunity to dine on elements of our (to be delicate) digestive waste, and after that, larger critters will feast on those delectable little microbes. Even further down the line, some of us might partake of some of those larger critters.

For another example, consider respiration. We inhale air, and our blood carries oxygen to cells throughout our bodies. We exhale and plants take up, through pores in their leaves, some of the CO2 that we release. The plants then respire oxygen, which we inhale, and the molecular trading cycle continues.

So, you see, due to respiration, what was part of yew, the tree, might become part of you, the person, and vice versa. But our physical ties to other “individuals” extend beyond trading molecules with contemporary inhabitants of the Earth; we’re also intimately connected, through molecular exchanges, with past and future lives.

A cool story that some mathematicians tell involves Julius Caesar’s last breath—the breath that, in Shakespeare’s telling, coincided with the words: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.” The mathematicians’ story begins with the reasonable assumption that, in the two millennia since Caesar’s death, the molecules in his dying breath have dispersed to the four corners of the Earth and mixed evenly throughout the atmosphere. Now, mathematicians ask, what do you suppose are the chances that you’ve ever breathed in some of the air that was in Caesar’s last breath?

Since this isn’t a math blog, I’ll spare you the calculations and simply tell you that the probability that your lungs have held at least one molecule of air from Caesar’s dying gasp is quite high—greater than 99 percent, in fact. And that’s because even though the probability that any particular molecule of air in the atmosphere came from Caesar’s final breath is exceedingly small, the quantity of molecules that we inhale with every breath is very large. So, your chance of breathing air that any ancient historical figure you can name (Plato, Moses, Confucius, Mohammed, Jesus, etc.) exhaled is almost 100 percent.

The point here is that we’re constantly trading elements of ourselves with the environment (and vice versa), and we are, therefore, inseparable from it. So, for our own sakes, if for nothing else, we need to wake up to the fact that rates of environmental degradation are accelerating, and conventional ways of coping are failing to keep up. Expecting some omnipotent entity to swoop in and fix things for us is courting disaster. It’s up to us to accept some of the responsibility for the environmental damage that goes along with the production, use, and disposal of the stuff we buy.

Of course, most people don’t want to cut back. Even though researchers who study the factors that contribute to happiness find that having a purpose (preventing ecological chaos, for instance) does far more to promote happiness than consuming extraneous stuff, most of us think our lives would be dreary if we denied ourselves the pleasure of buying things that we want but don’t really need. So we make excuses. We say, “Maybe things aren’t really that bad,” or “The environment is so bad already that there’s no point in even trying,” or “I’d like to cut back, but it’s just too hard right now. Maybe I’ll try later.”

Generally speaking, people avoid sacrificing pleasure. So the big question is this: Under what circumstances do people give up things they enjoy?

And here’s one answer: People tend to make changes once they realize that the pain associated with maintaining the status quo is greater than the pain associated with making the sacrifice.

Maybe you know or have heard of people who have changed their lifestyles dramatically following a heart attack. Before the event, they tried but were unable to lose weight or quit smoking. Afterwards, they realized that reducing their consumption of food and eliminating their consumption of cigarettes was well worth the effort and really no big deal.

So maybe lifestyle-changing heart-attack survivors can be our models. Maybe we can reduce our consumption of superfluous stuff if we begin to think of the environment as a sort of extension of our own bodies and recognize that this outer body has a multiplicity of diseases that will only get worse if we don’t cut back.

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The Tattered Armband Alliance

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I recently finished writing a book. When people ask me what the book is about, I tell them it’s about environmental policy. When they respond with a blank stare, I tell them the book is about conventional approaches to dealing with environmental problems—things like regulations, cap-and-trade programs, taxes on emissions, and technological fixes—and why those approaches aren’t getting the environmental job done. The big point of the book, I say, is that we, meaning most of us who live in wealthy countries and wealthy people everywhere, must reduce our excessive consumption of stuff, because our overconsumption is a prime driver of environmental degradation.

But what about green energy? Won’t a green-energy infrastructure take care of things? they ask. No, I say, green energy can be helpful, but it’s not a cure-all. Along with the benefits, green energy imposes environmental costs. And while wind turbines, solar panels, and other sources of green power can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and help combat global warming, global warming isn’t our only serious environmental problem. The ecosphere is unraveling across a number of fronts, and the rate of that unraveling is accelerating rapidly. Green energy fails to address a variety of environmental problems and exacerbates some of them. So, no, green energy is not the answer; it is, at best, a partial solution.

Typically, I go on to add that scientific journals are replete with research warning us that we’re running out of time. We can press for needed laws and regulations, market-based solutions, and innovative technologies, but those conventional methods are currently failing to keep up with rates of environmental degradation and show no signs of being able to keep up any time soon. If we hope to limit the cavalcade of environmental catastrophes that are barreling our way, we must take it upon ourselves to reduce the quantity of resources we chomp through and the amount of waste we spew.

So that’s what I tell people when they ask me about my book. Most of those people are political progressives—people who accept the scientific consensus concerning the anthropogenic basis of global warming. Nevertheless, what I say fails to penetrate. It’s as if each of my words bounces off an invisible wall like so many rubber balls. Clearly, people are in denial. Yeah, global warming. Yeah, habitat destruction. Yeah, groundwater depletion. Yeah, species extinctions. Everyone is aware of the problems. But even when I make the link between excessive consumption and environmental destruction explicit, no one says to me, “Yeah, I get it. I need to quit buying so many new clothes, being such a frequent flyer, trading in my three-year-old car for a new one, and stuff like that.” Instead, they generally nod their heads and then move on to another subject.

I try not to take it personally. I remind myself that I’ve been thinking about these issues for over thirty years. The people who ask about my book haven’t. Throughout their entire lives, they’ve been indoctrinated by society—aided and abetted by advertising—to want more stuff, no matter how much they already have. For me to expect them to overthrow lifetimes of conditioning based on one conversation is unreasonable.

But here’s the thing. We humans, through our excessive consumption, are changing the world in ways that undermine the existence of many species—including our own. Waiting for a deus ex machina to descend from on high with a government, market, or technological solution is folly. There’s no time left for dithering and dawdling. The pace of ecological decline demands that we act immediately.

Somehow, we’ve got to break through the invisible wall of denial.

The collective action problem weighs heavily here. People understand that any consumption they forgo for the sake of the environment will be in vain unless other people reduce their consumption, as well. So why would an instrumentally rational individual make a futile sacrifice? He or she wouldn’t, so he or she doesn’t.

But what if forgoing excessive consumption for the sake of preventing ecological catastrophes became the thing to do?

Consider recycling. According to the EPA, the recycling rate for municipal solid waste remained in the single digits from 1960 (the earliest date reported) through the mid-1980s. At that point the rate began to ramp up. By 1990 it reached 16%, and by 2012 it was 34.5%.

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Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Municipal Solid Waste.” 

Motivationally speaking, people tend to participate in a collective action, like recycling, when they know other people who are contributing to the cause. Once the number of contributors reaches a critical mass, the participation rate grows rapidly. That’s particularly true when proof of participation is apparent to others. In the case of recycling, specially marked containers at curbsides on recycling day indicate whether or not a household contributes to the recycling cause.

Which brings me to a question that came to mind while I was thinking—for the umpteenth time—about the collective action problem in regard to overconsumption: What if people could join an identifiable community of individuals who have made a commitment to reducing the amount of stuff they buy? And that question led me to think about how people could identify themselves as part of a grassroots’ movement, and that led me to an idea for something that might be called the Tattered Armband Alliance.

To join, people would simply take an old rag or worn out piece of clothing, tear a long strip (perhaps ravel the edges a bit), and then wear the strip tied around their upper arm, or pin a shorter piece to a shirt sleeve.

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There would be no dues for membership or products offered as incentives to get people to join. People could become members immediately by wearing a tattered armband and making a commitment to reduce their consumption of goods. And if people asked why they were wearing those raggedy bands on their sleeves, they could explain the mission of the Tattered Armband Alliance and perhaps recruit the questioner to join.

So, Dear Blog Reader, whaddya think of the idea? Good? Bad? Neither? Both? I’d appreciate your comments.