A DAY TO CELEBRATE

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Guess what, folks! Today is AMERICA RECYCLES DAY! Woo-hoo! Did you get the day off? Me neither. Rip-off, right?

Let’s hope we get the day off next year. In the meantime, let’s show our America-Recycles-Day spirit by clicking on the following links.

For information about:

So come on, America! CELEBRATE THE DAY! There won’t be another America Recycles Day for an entire year!

Setting “Comfortable Lows” for Consumption

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In a recent op-ed article for The New York Times, Ken Ilgunas describes how, when winter weather arrived, he experimented with the thermostat in his house to find the lowest setting he could tolerate. As it turned out, he found he could cope with the thermostat set at 45 degrees as long as he wore multiple layers of clothing and wrapped himself in a down sleeping bag. While he never actually enjoyed the cold, he eventually adapted to what he called his “comfortable low,” and discovered “that one’s sense of comfort can be redefined with a bit of grit and resourcefulness.”

Well, I don’t bring up Ilgunas’s article to make the point that we all need to set our thermostats to the point where we see our breaths whenever we exhale. I hope things never get so bad—environmentally or economically—that we’re forced to lower our thermostats to 45 degrees. As a matter of fact, part of the reason I argue for cutting consumption a bit in the present is to try to avoid having to cut back a whole lot in the future. (And I don’t know about you, but I’d say setting the thermostat to 45 degrees in winter qualifies as a major cutback.) Ilgunas, himself, argues not that we all adopt his “comfortable low,” but rather that we find our own.

I mention this article because it poses questions that illuminate the connection between individual consumption and environmental degradation. It asks: “If we all set our thermostats to our own ‘comfortable low,’ how many West Virginia mountains could we save? How many fewer wells would need to be fracked? How much less greenhouse gas would we emit?”[1] Those questions are well worth taking some time to consider.

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[1] Ilgunas, Ken. “This Cold House.” New York Times. January 24, 2015, p. A19.

 

In Which We Pick on Picketty, Part II

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Yesterday I said I’d explain what the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s book and the writings and speeches of others on inequality have to do with consumerism and its impact on the environment. So let me get right to the point: All of this focus on unequal distribution of wealth is causing us to take our eyes off the environmental ball at a time when swift actions could help mitigate the extent of future ecological catastrophes.

In all probability, within a few decades, it will make very little difference to us whether the median annual income is $50,000 or $100,000, because we’ll be too busy struggling with resources wars, eco-refugees, droughts, floods, water shortages, hurricanes, wildfires, and on and on, to care about such trivialities.

In the meantime, putting more money into the hands of the middle class will almost certainly exacerbate our environmental ills. Why? Because middle class people are likely to spend much of their additional income on stuff they could actually live quite well without, and that sort of over-consumption is the very foundation of human-caused environmental problems.

Keep in mind that everything that goes into producing, transporting, using, maintaining, and disposing of our possessions inflicts costs on the environment, even though most of those costs occur out of sight. We deplete resources and produce waste (including pollution) during every step of a product’s lifecycle: from the extraction, transportation, and transformation of resources; to the manufacturing, distribution, and consumption of finished goods; and finally to the disposal of used-up or broken-down trash.

I don’t mean to say that unequal distribution is a frivolous issue. Wealth translates readily into political power, so the concentration of wealth in a tiny fraction of the population is a danger to democracy. And clearly, there are too many people within the United States and around the world who work hard but barely scrape by—even in good times. When misfortune strikes, these folks lack the reserves to cope with the consequences of adversity.

So thinking about the unequal distribution of wealth and what to do about it is certainly worthwhile—as long as we keep the environmental consequences of overconsumption centermost in our minds.