In Part 1, I laid out some ways we can mitigate climate change by investing radically in local food production and especially in our soil. However, not all the changes we need to make are as easy as these. This is where we get serious and talk about making the hard choices… or not.
Just like poverty is conveniently framed as individual failure by people who are not interested in perceiving systemic causes, the adjustments needed to combat climate change are too often foisted off on the individual by others who don’t want to see how large the problem is or do anything to live differently themselves. There is much that private citizens can do, but individual people, no matter how much they do or change, have a very limited, localized effect and cannot change the world alone. It takes many people together, perhaps through institutional and systemic changes, to even begin to do the needed work in an effective fashion.
Luckily, the idea that we need World War II level mobilization to begin to turn the tide on climate change is beginning to be mentioned seriously outside of the “crunchy granola” community. Recent articles in Scientific American and New Republic have expressed this kind of urgency, even if belatedly and, in my opinion, going in a somewhat askew direction. They want to build lots of factories to make solar panels and other gadgets that aim to grasp onto as much of the status quo as possible and keep it running on “clean energy,” but even this plan fails to take into account just how much fossil energy is needed as a support and subsidy for the alternative energy industry. People also forget just how much infrastructure it takes to power the world we know and take for granted, and how many resources go into enabling everything we have. As Americans, we have a small fraction of the world’s total population, and use a vast amount of its output in terms of energy and manufactured goods. It may be a better use of the resources we have not to try to put an electric car in every driveway and solar panels on every roof, but to think about powering down. We don’t need to simply emit less carbon than we have been. We need to start sucking out carbon that we’ve already put in the atmosphere.
A major part of the problem is population. Population was reasonably stable before the industrial era, but now, like many other changes wrought by humans, it fits the hockey stick pattern. NPR explains why, here:
To fit within the natural budget of what the ecosystem can produce for us to use, and what it can digest when we are done, we can either have a large population with a low standard of living, or a small population with a high, Western standard of living (if such infrastructure can be maintained with a small population). There may be gradations in between, but what we cannot sustain is a large population (as we have now) living the lifestyle that we have now. The birthrate in wealthy Western nations has been falling for a while, perhaps because it is so expensive to raise children, but a slight slowdown is still not low enough, and each and every child that is born will face the harsh reality of climate change in a worsening world, without having been guilty of creating that situation. That’s why philosopher Travis Rieder is asking college students to consider minimizing the number of children they have. Happily, or not, climate change itself might be the answer to the population problem because it could reduce fertility. Less happily, climate change solves the problem directly, much the same way that cancer cures smoking. Having fewer children is a solution within reach for many people, though, and they can begin right now.
When people think about governmental action in regard to climate change, they may imagine legally binding agreements like the Kyoto Protocol or the more recent non-binding agreements signed in Copenhagen and Paris. While it would take international agreements at this level to match the scale needed to really affect climate change, the lack of the force of law and the failure to act at grand scale shows that we’re not really serious about making the needed changes. I’ll explore more about why this is, in the next post in this series.
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