31 December 2008

On the eve of the new year... a Reality Check

Does the fact that you turn off your light for an extra ten minutes really make that much difference?

Overall, no. We’re not going to lie to you and say that the 10 kWh you saved are really going to prevent global warming. They are, however, going to get you and those who will see what you do and follow your example in the right mindset, and that is that we need to start taking responsibility for our actions. That’s right, I’m about to be perfectly honest with you:

If we aren’t going to have a huge collapse, whether economic or ecologically or otherwise, we (as humans) can not go on living the way we have been, as if there are no consequences to our lifestyle and complete disregard for the balance in which every other living creature manages to function. If you use more resources than are required to support your population, you die. Period. No way around this one, no easy technological fix that is going to let us replace petroleum with solar panels (which are, by the way, made from petroleum), we simply can’t go on the way we are now if we want the human species to survive. It’s a simple matter of biological feedback. It doesn’t take a scientist to see we’re not only shooting ourselves in the foot, but we’re steadily drawing the barrel up to our figurative head.

This does not mean we are all bad people. This is what all those “Green Thoughts” are about. We are in fact an “invasive” species. But here’s where we differ from phragmites: we can make the conscious choice to get back in balance. We have the ability to realize we are on a one way path down catastrophe street, and that the answer isn’t so much as to turn the car around but to get out of the car and walk away. Time to find a new mode of transportation. Time to find a new street.

And here’s where I’m hopeful. Humans are innovative. We are immensely creative, when we aren’t fettered by our fears and the blindness induced by our culture. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, after all. Humans actually lived for millions of years without upsetting the natural balance- and if any particular group of people happened to do so, they died out. Pretty simple arrangement. If you don’t know who I’m talking about, I’m referring to the people we frequently call aborigines, or tribal peoples. Where they are still to be found, and by that I mean still found living the way they’ve always lived without interference from our culture, they manage to do the same thing that elephants and birds and fish have done all along: live without upsetting the balance that not only allows other species to continue to survive, but assures their own continued existence.
But we can’t live like that! We can’t live like elephants and birds and “primitives”!
Ok, fine. See you in the afterlife.

Living like elephants and birds does not mean we have to go back to living in the woods. For one, this is completely impractical. There isn’t enough space on the planet for nearly 7 billion people to go back to living in the woods. What we do need to do, instead, is figure out how to live without using more resources than our landbase can support. That means no more fossil fuels, for one. But it also means that everything we do, and I mean everything, needs to be examined from the perspective of its long term consequences not only on us (humans), but on our landbase and on the other species that live there. If we want to ensure our continued survival, we need to consider our actions in terms of not their economic viability or their efficiency (short term consequences) but of their ability to help us sustain human life for as long as possible (presuming this is the goal). To preserve human life, you need a planet to live on. Simple as that.

So let’s return to turning off the lights. I’m not asking you to stop having lights. I’m typing on a computer, clearly I am not running around in the wilderness without any electricity, nor am I suggesting you do so. I am, however, asking that you think what having a light bulb means. For a light bulb to exist, there must be a source of electricity to power it. This can come from any number of places, but aside from nuclear, solar, hydroelectric and wind, they more or less come from burning things to make steam which then powers lots of little machine bits and makes electricity. These things are not necessarily bad, unless you’re burning things that you don’t have an infinite, renewable supply of, like petrol. They also have the nasty side effect of filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, and we all know what that means. The effects of hydroelectric power- meaning damming rivers- we all should know is bad for the environment. The fate of salmon should be enough to remind us that dams kill rivers, and everything that relies on those rivers, including, eventually, humans. As for solar and wind- well, you have to build solar panels and wind turbines out of something, and usually those things are mined and manufactured using, you guessed it, petroleum. Not an elegant solution. And anyone who argues nuclear power is a solution to the problem isn’t thinking in the long term, or is ignoring the fact that we can’t live on a planet filled with leftover nuclear waste.

The light bulb itself isn’t much better. It had to be manufactured, with more stuff mined up from the ground, not to mention the energy required to convert raw materials into a light bulb, and then it had to be packaged, shipped, sent to a store (this is also not mentioning the resources required to build the manufacturing plant, and the equipment inside, and the equipment used to mine the materials in the first place, and the materials and energy that went into building the vehicles used for transporting raw materials and equipment and finished light bulbs), and finally, eventually, taken home to be put in your lamp (which went through a similar process). And this is STILL leaving an enormous number of steps out of the process. You have a house to put the light bulb in, presumably.

So when you turn out the light for ten minutes, does it make that much difference? Not compared to the process required for there to be a light for you to turn on in the first place. Does this mean you should just give up, and not care? No. It means every single one of us needs to rethink how we (as a species) are living, and whether this whole mess we call civilization is really working out for us in the long run. If, after looking around for a bit, you conclude, as I have, that its time to get out of the car and make a run for it, you will begin to think about things a little differently. It doesn’t mean you won’t turn out the lights when you leave the room- because no matter what, there’s no reason not to live responsibly- it just means you’ll see the bigger picture. You turning off your lights will not make so much of a difference as light bulb manufacturers coming up with a light bulb without so many unpleasant consequences for ourselves and the environment. And no, I’m not talking about CFLs.

On campus, this means turning out your light will not make so much difference as the college itself switching to a better source of power- and let’s pause to define better as one with fewer long term consequences for ourselves and our planet- and beginning to think about our practices in the long term. Individual actions DO make a difference, because all the so-called green power in the world will not make up for millions of people acting irresponsibly with their light switches- but we also have to see the bigger picture, and know that individual actions are not going to save the world unless we also make some changes to the heavy hitters. For example, residential water usage accounts for only about 13% of the total U.S. water use- the other 87% comes from agriculture and industry. Your shorter shower may save a few hundred gallons over the course of the year, but if we aren’t also working to reduce the amount of water used by industries, we’re missing the bigger picture.

It’s not impossible. We invented the light bulb, didn’t we? I have every faith possible that we are more than capable of uninventing it as well.

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