If you're middle class, still eating meat, heating your home with oil, buying plastic-wrapped goods—or having more than two children, ask not for whom the bell tolls.
Back in January, I was asked to pen a "Declaration of Interdependence" to set the stage for a sustainability summit in Orlando. My task was to quickly spell out the worst environmental challenges of our time, and offer some solutions for discussion during the event. The problem part was easy. We're heating up the climate, and wiping out HALF OF ALL SPECIES on Earth, destroying ocean life all over the world, and generally turning paradise into dystopia.
That might seem like enough incentive to get people to make minor alterations to their lifestyle. But it's in the parameters of what is considered "minor" that the instinct for self-preservation seems to be trumped by new priorities: comfort and decadence. Yes, about half of people in the U.S. recycle. Many have changed the light bulbs in their homes. A lot have switched to more fuel-efficient cars. But that's where "being the change you want to see" stops.
I was talking with some female friends the other day who are very progressive in their politics.They do yoga. They're mostly 30-something young mothers, with one or two children. The Trump administration has filled them with anxiety. They're marching in protests, worried, with good reason, about women's rights, LGBT issues and yes, Climate Change.
But when I pressed them on what they would actually be willing to do to combat our shift into the sixth extinction, I hit a glass ceiling immediately. Would they give up meat eating? "We've cut down to just a few times a week." Would they consider not having additional children? "I would, I think, but 'Rob' really wants a big family." Would they consider moving into the city and going car-free, leaving their auto-centric suburban homes in the burbs? "That would be cool, but we really like having our own space."
In other words, the answer is no. Lightbulbs and hybrid cars are one thing. Going vegetarian is not on the menu. Changing how and where they live is tantamount to suggesting they forego this year's trip to Disneyworld.
What I did not ask, is how many of them voted in the most recent election. I can make a statistical guess. About 45 percent of eligible voters did not go to the polls, and I suspect a couple are standing in this group.
The Strength to Try
Interactions like this are why I'm rarely shocked or even dismayed by the antics of our reality TV president. He is ulitmately our monster, whether we voted for him or not. He reflects our cultural obsession with the frivolous, the ego-driven, the comfortable. Like him, our citizens cling to their comforts, deaf to the consequences.
II met a German ex-pat yesterday, aged 75, who asked me what I do for a living. "Oh, I try to get people to live and build more sustainably." Without a pause he said. "You're young. You still try. I say fuck them. Look around. They're destroying everything."
I refuse to double down on my own doubts, I think about the British outlasting the Blitz of World War II. I think about the fact that violence levels worldwide are at their lowest in recorded history. I think about the fact that we've had the nukes since 1945 and haven't (yet) committed mass suicide with them. Seen from a distance, one can argue that a positive arc of human sanity exists.
We must try. And trying means doing something—not sitting on our hands, pretending to be powerless. It means putting the welfare of other living creatures higher than our own selfish dietary cravings.
If we kill off half of our fellow planetary travelers, are we worth saving ourselves?
In a world of runaway climate change, I remind my friends, issues below the level of survival are going to seem like quaint artifacts of a lost time.
Photo: JimW, Creative Commons, Flickr
Here's the full transcript of our "Declaration of Interdependence," from Green Builder's 2017 Sustainability Symposium:
Declaration of Interdepence
We declare these truths to be self-evident and irrefutable.
By Matthew Power, Editor-In-Chief, Green Builder Media
Human activity has a significant impact on the global climate, a fact agreed upon by 98 percent of the world’s scientists. Solutions exist, but will we have the willpower to act, to change?
Ocean Blues. The world’s oceans, swirling with plastics, are warming, becoming more acidic, rising, and rapidly approaching the CO2 saturation point.
Drought. In many states, drought is worsening, leading to more wildﬁres, desertiﬁcation and declining food production.
Global Warming. The past three years have been the hottest recorded in human history. Arctic ice just hit its lowest level in recorded history. Less ice accelerates warming.
Extreme Storms. So called 1,000-year weather events are on the rise. Coastal regions face increasing risk.
Ineﬃ cient Buildings. Air conditioning and heating today’s buildings consume 50% of electricity in America. Buildings account for about 39 percent of C02 emissions nationally.
Driving Pollution. Combustion-powered automobiles cause 20 percent of CO2 emissions in the United States.
Over-Consumption. Americans account for 5% of global population, but 22 percent of total CO2 pollution, due to high consumption levels.
Food Waste. About 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. ends up in landﬁlls.
We have many options available to reduce human impacts.
Go Renewable. Solar panels have almost reached cost parity with fossil fuels. Fossil fuel exploration, along with coal, must be phased out with extreme urgency, and solar, wind and hydro power can be fast-tracked to encourage rapid expansion.
Normalize Net Zero. Although more than half of U.S. States continue to drag their feet on adopting energy codes, the new 2018 IECC version will be ready soon. It’s time to step up, and build “beyond code.”
Get Smart. Building management can now be managed on a smartphone. By tying electric vehicle charging to smart systems, solar and new storage batteries, we can balance utility loads, tie distributed energy to existing grids, and enable the transition of utilities to 100 percent clean energy sources.
Curb Cattle. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined. Switching to plant-based diets worldwide would reduce CO2 by 15 percent.
Challenge Greenwashing. Many powerful brands perceived as green have an enormous and damaging CO2 footprint. Whole Foods, for example, did not make Newsweek’s top 500 Green Rankings for 2016, but Monsanto, Wal-Mart and Nike did..
Reward Energy Frugality. Instead of ﬂat rates, utility costs should rise as use goes up, rewarding frugal consumers and penalizing waste. This approach has been shown to positively affect behavior.
Ban Palm Oil. Closely linked to deforestation worldwide, palm oil is now used in most U.S. food brands. Worst offenders include fast food joints such as Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, but many others are right behind them.
Rethink Commerce. Locally made products, sold within their home region, generally have lower CO2 impacts than big brands. But online commerce often has a lower transportation footprint than either. What’s the best way to shop? We need better data.
Here's more information including videos, from the Sustainabilty Symposium