This summer I read an article in Orion Magazine that has really stuck with me. It was Forget Shorter Showers by Derrick Jensen. Here is an excerpt:
An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.
He goes on to talk about water (more than 90% is used by industry and agriculture), energy (individual consumption is 25% or less) and waste (municipal waste accounts for only 3% of the total). The message that I took away was not that what we do doesn’t make a difference. It does, and we need to do it. But if we want to make the kind of change required to address climate change, then tackling it by recycling and carpooling won’t cut it. We need change on a bigger scale.
The basis of our economy, of any capitalist economy, is that we need to grow and grow, endlessly. A business is seen as a failure if it fails to grow. Making a profit isn’t good enough. We ask that businesses make more profit every month/quarter/year. The GDP needs to grow, employment needs to grow, sales need to grow, new home starts need to grow. We can never have enough. That is the problem. I love to get a raise, but when I’m told I can’t have one this year I make do. My home doesn’t need to get bigger every year. I don’t need to gain weight. In many spheres of our lives, we know that growing is not always good–it comes with a price that often we don’t want to pay.
So why is it that we need to keep growing, in the big picture, in our economy? The idea is so ubiquitous that it isn’t even questioned. We hear regular reports on the news about “the economy,” as if any of us really know what that is. The “economy” isn’t growing so things must be bad. No, people are out of work, so things are bad. People are out of work because we constantly depend on growth. When growth turns into shrinkage, people lose jobs. We don’t work with a sustainable model where our economy is flexible enough to accommodate fluctuation. Or at least our values aren’t there.
We need to deal with climate change, but with a mindset that we need to keep growing, it is difficult to talk about shrinking carbon emissions. I keep hearing talk of the search for some technological silver bullet that will allow us to keep up the same habits and yield lower carbon emissions. It’s not going to happen. We need to make major changes to how we think about our economy, agriculture, transportation, everything. Changing light bulbs isn’t enough. Changing systems is what we need.
This morning I heard the mayor of Pittsburgh, Luke Ravenstahl, noting how the city has been trying to change its image from dirty and industrial to “green.” The very next sentence in the story noted that the city has this huge supply of bottled water ready for those coming to Pittsburgh for the G-20 summit. Excuse me? You just said you are going for a green image and you are offering bottled water for a summit where world poverty, which commonly involves issues of access to fresh water, will be a major topic of discussion? Um, bottled water has too many issues to list. Am I the only one to see the irony here?
After seeing the film The Age of Stupid the other night (moving and powerful and a must see for anyone who isn’t a climate change denier), and continuing to ponder Jensen’s article, I have been thinking about what the heck I might do. I have made personal change. That is necessary both to send a message to others that one is serious and to actually make a bit, however small, of difference. I have changed light bulbs and I use the clothesline whenever I do the laundry. I try to limit waste. I compost. I grow some of the food we eat. I also, however, have been writing to my congressional representatives. I at least need to do that. If I want us to make big changes, I have to let some of the people in a position to make those changes know what I think.
What else might I do? I am not all that sure. That is one of the problems here. We all need to stand up, to get involved, to cry for something bigger than tax incentives for solar panels we can’t afford even with incentives. We need to get out there and take action now. Climate change is a problem that won’t wait for us. I’ll start by writing. I will write on October 15 about climate change for Blog Action Day. You should, too, if you have your own blog. And I’ll talk to people. I need to do more and I will figure out my place in the solution to this problem as I go. I’m getting started. We all need to.