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February 13, 2007

A Reality Check re: Al Gore and the campaign to stop Global Warming

-- by Thomas Leavitt

I was going to post this as a comment in response to the item Dave posted about the Draft Gore posting on DailyKos, but it developed into a full fledged posting, on a fundamentally different topic than Gore himself: the utter and complete unsustainability of the American lifestyle, and the fact that we are in massive denial about the scope of the changes that are required in our daily habits of living to create a sustainable society.

Gore is doing good work, but at the same time, I think it is important to acknowledge that Global Warming isn't a cause, it is a symptom of the much larger problem mentioned above. I'm sure Gore knows this, but what I'm not sure is that he's come to grips, himself, with the scope of the changes required to address the larger problem (let alone how to make them politically palatable).

Here are the facts that he, and every other "environmental leader" in the developed world are confronted with: we are living way beyond our means, way way beyond. Take the Earth Day Footprint Quiz, and you'll see why I say this. If any of you score a 1 or better, please let me know... because even though my most fanatical Green minimalist bicycle riding organic farmers market eating friends have "scores" that say if everyone on the planet lived like they did, it would take four "Earths" to sustain them.

... and we have only one.

On a personal basis, I've found that every single time, when I've brought these facts up for discussion, even to the most smart and thoughtful people I know, one on one, or in a group situation, they acknowledge the reality of this need for wholesale and fundamental change in our consumption patterns, but then, somehow, the conversation inevitably changes to another subject very quickly.

It seems that your average middle class American environmental sympathizer, living in their 2000 square foot home full of the wide variety of material possessions we now take for granted, driving several hundred miles a week just around town and to and from work in a relatively new car, eating out several times a week, recycling religiously, but still filling their garbage bin on a regular basis, simply can't come to grips with these facts. To be fair, no one else can either in my experience.

It is like folks simply can't look the problem straight in the face, it is too huge and too personal to come to grips with: each of us, individually, is killing the planet, by living an utterly unsustainable lifestyle... morning, noon, and night. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we strive not to participate in the machine's destructive effect, with every act we take, every item of food we eat, every item of clothing we purchase, every mile we drive, we are doing the moral equivalent of living off our children's credit cards. We are literally taking the food out of their mouths, and the clothes off their backs (and the gas out of their mopeds).

Who reading this can conceive of living on 10% of the resources they now consume? Not just energy, but everything else... and my math says that only gets the average American halfway to a sustainable world, if everyone else is brought "up" at the same time. We really need to be talking about getting to 5% (or even less!) of the resources we now consume on average as American citizens, if we're going to create a sustainable economy and leave the natural world enough resources to rebuild itself.

Look around the house you live in, right now, and think how that scenario I outlined above would change it: how much smaller would your residence need to be? How many fewer possessions would you need to have? How much longer would you need to keep them? How many intentionally disposable items have you run through in the last week? How would your eating habits change? Your travel habits? Where you live relative to where you work (and shop)? What would it take to live on just a quarter of what you do now, in terms of environmental resources (energy, material goods, land, etc.)? A tenth? A twentieth?

Lest we forget how many of us lived until recently, let me describe the house that one of my great grandmothers grew up in (Herbert Hoover's sister, my Great Grandma May Hoover Leavitt): "a 14' x 20' dwelling that consisted of one main living area and one tiny bedroom for five family members." I've seen this place, the pictures don't do justice to how small it is, we are talking TINY. The children slept on a trundle bed that was rolled out from under their parents' bed (my great great grandparents must have been very creative when it came to finding opportunities to expand the family) . The "kitchen" was moved out onto the porch during the summer. The entire house is smaller than my living room. I lived in an apartment this small once... it was rather crowded to say the least, and we had only two kids (we made them sleep on a loft in the living room).

Thinking about this, I understand why people can't come to grips with the implications of acknowledging the unsustainability of our current lifestyles. For myself, seeing this as a reality is at best an occassional thing, manifesting itself at only the oddest moments, such as when, over the holidays, I was sitting at a semi-nice chain restaurant in Los Angeles with my family. Looking around, it occured to me that I was looking at the face of unsustainability: a world which simply won't exist at some point within our lifetimes.

We are the socio-economic equivalent of a "dead man walking". Our children and grandchildren (and probably quite a few of us in our old age) will marvel at our profligacy, and look back on these days as some mythical (but corrupt) paradise: "Did they really live like that?" they will ask each other, and our children will secretly grieve for the world of their childhood, now lost, one full of bright and sparkly THINGS that they in their more straightened circumstances, can't even dream of possessing.

Posted by Thomas Leavitt at February 13, 2007 6:55 PM

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Comments

Who is our environment FOR, anyway?? Ha ha.

You've provided no evidence that our lifestyle is unsustainable. We don't need to do any of the things you described.

This kind of wackiness is the reason why many sensible people don't trust any environmental claims. They lump in the sensible (i.e. - the need to tackle global warming) with the insane (this post).

This type of rhetoric harms the environmental movement - and thusly harms the environment.

Please shut up - for the good of the Earth!

Posted by: jaymuntz [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2007 7:39 AM

Troll hat for sure. Small compensation that we're all going to hell in the same handbasket, so the aggressively clueless will be stuck living within the same constraints that the rest of us will be.

Everyone else willing to use their brains can take a look at the Earth Day Footprint Quiz link I included above... as for evidence and research, the folks at Redefining Progress provide plenty:

http://www.rprogress.org/newprojects/ecolFoot/faq/index.shtml

Quote: "We consistently use conservative estimates in Footprint calculations. As a result they tend to underestimate human demand on nature. Also, as discussed under "pollution and toxics," various aspects for which data is scarce are not yet included in footprints, making them appear smaller than they really are."

The average American uses the equivalent of 24 biologically productive acres, and there are 4.5 biologically productive acres available per person. Therefore, very conservatively, the reduction required is closer to 20% than 10%... but I'm pretty confident in arguing that 10% is a more accurate figure. 100% usage of all potentially biologically productive acres worldwide doesn't seem like a reasonable basis for sustainability (just to cite one reason).

The good new is that there is a lot of low hanging fruit out there, in terms of energy conservation, efficiency, etc. that can get us a good part of the way there... the bad news is that gains will get progressively more difficult as we approach that 10% target. Going from 100% to 50% will be much less difficult than going from 20% to 10%.

Posted by: Thomas Leavitt [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 17, 2007 5:50 AM

You hint at the actual story:

The good new is that there is a lot of low hanging fruit out there, in terms of energy conservation, efficiency, etc. that can get us a good part of the way there

This is really the whole story. Technology will make us ever more efficient. Forrested land is now increasing in the US and Europe (how can THAT be? - we haven't even rearranged our entire economy and way of life yet!). Pesticide and land use to produce crops is being reduced with new technologies. Better communications technology and the internet are making it possible to telecommute and making many plane trips unnecessary - which both improves the quality of our lives and helps the environment. These are just a few examples. More and more "low hanging fruit" is being found all the time.

The only really unsolved problem is carbon emissions - but I believe this is only temporary. The solution will happen but we don't know what is yet. The government doesn't know what the solution is. Al Gore doesn't know either. This is a massive technological challenge. It does not, however require us to do the crazy things you say.

What if this initiative works? We won't have to do any of the things you claim. We can go on as we are. That would be better, no?

Posted by: jaymuntz [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 17, 2007 1:41 PM

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