As the new energy bill passed through Congress and we saw, within hours, a denial of states’ legal rights to add complexity and even confusion to the national mix by setting their own fuel emission standards, the unwillingness of our market driven economy and life style to really come to terms with its own inconvenient truths became increasingly clear. It reminds me of a time when I was working with the food service budget director at one of the prep schools where I teach, on the subject of getting healthier less toxic foods into the dining hall. He informed me that some students had recently visited him with a “demand” that there be a “7 week cycle” in the dining hall. What this meant to him and them was that no dinner meal menu should be repeated in less than seven weeks. I sat there with my jaw dropped, thinking about the tens of millions of people who have nothing or virtually nothing to eat every day of their lives, or have the same meager basics to eat every day, and I was staggered by the gross dimensions of entitlement and expectation which this student recommendation represented. Probably the thought that crossed my mind was something along the lines of “How did we get to be such spoiled brats”.
Back to energy, I listened recently as the radio presented the opinion of an automotive industry representative who was firmly stating the need to continue to offer the thousands of options in car models, styles and brands that currently exist. A four cylinder electric car simply “isn’t” what a six cylinder internal combustion engine is. Well, YES,we know that already. What he meant was: it doesn’t feel the same, have the same pick up and virility. It isn’t something you can as easily conflate your ego with and stroke your identity as powerful and cool. I’m choking. It’s the exhaust fumes from all the new cars in China and India, where we use to find bicycle-choked morning rush hour, and we now find millions of new exhaust spewing cars, a sign that China is successfully coming into modern, life. I know how hard they’re working to develop solar power over there and that they’ve had problems with coal related and other pollution for a long time, but what about this car thing? The need for environmental considerations and regulations grows ever more rapidly when people’s direct relationship with their environment breaks down through the process of industrialization and so-called modernization. And on the other hand, think how far American people could travel emission free, if all those bikes they work out on in gyms were actually bicycles. Couldn’t we at least be generating some local electricity from all that work-out work that people are actually paying to do in gyms?
In Bali, at the recent UN Framework Convention of Climate Change, US representatives met unprecedented hostile, honest, outraged resistance to their stubborn position, which thankfully, they reversed, signing on to working more cooperatively on carbon emissions and climate change. There was some acceptance of the idea that newly emerging industrial economies might have different standards of C02 emissions while they develop. Fair is fair, unless it’s the health of the planet and the people on it that is your first consideration in fairness. If it’s not, we’re all in the same boat of environmental degradation, but that’s not “fair” because some of us made more of the mess than others…and that mess-promoting life style is what others are now rushing to catch up with. Is “fair” allowing others to catch up with our environmentally disastrous and glutted life style before we all have to work together to make urgently needed changes in our climate-changing habits? Is “fair” waiting until we and they becoming equally enormous polluters before they are asked to catch up with our ironically advanced, though constantly threatened, particularly with the current administration, environmental science? Of course the science can and is being shared globally…and it was never only “ours” to begin with. What’s even more frightening than the idea that Americans don’t understand what needs to be done is the (fact) that they DO understand what needs to be done and aren’t rushing to do the change. Like normal humans who know that everyone is going to die, but hide somewhere in the farthest corner of their mind the secret knowledge that they alone may be exempt from death, we proceed with our damaging life style, unwilling to give up conveniences and habits for the sake of future life on the planet. The problem is not only now or tomorrow, it was already real yesterday and the day before. We have a lot of catch-up to play because we have too long betrayed the spirit of international cooperation on change, particularly since the time others signed on to the Kyoto agreement.
Meanwhile, the American auto industry is accepting some better fuel efficiency standards because it has to to try to stay competitive, but it still comes up against an insatiable desire for trucks in America. The wild west is still live and well in the American psyche, but there’s no broad geographic frontier left to exploit, there’s only the frontier of saner living We don’t have to worry all the time, we just have to be idealistic and practice the freedom of restraint and the precautionary principle. This means change. Individual consumption patterns can bring about change on a huge scale. Each of us is a leader when it comes to defining the trends that lead to changes in carbon emissions, which is a good thing if we consider the dearth of leadership from “above” on this issue. I personally would outlaw the expenditure of fossil based energy to transport health depleting junk foods and drinks around the U.S. and the world. I sometimes relish thinking about how much energy that would save, but of course it’s not the least bit likely to happen any time soon. Yet it is true that people could make it happen by their buying and consumption patterns.
Recent political polling has shown that more than anything else, Americans want change. What exactly do they want to change? Do we want to learn how to be healthy robust citizens in charge of our own health, or do we want to be served up inefficient, exorbitantly expensive pharmaceutical based care which does not necessarily encourage healing and good health. We can’t say change is someone else’s responsibility, though at the policy level, trade agreements and economic policies have undermined the viability of local economies in the US and around the world, making it harder if not impossible for individuals to live healthy and secure. People rightly want that to change, but they can make many of their own changes.
Are we prepared to settle for “less”? Fewer cylinders? Less glamor and macho in our cars in exchange for clean transportation and air. Less variety in our cars in exchange for bringing down the prices on more widely available cleaner technologies?? Less tropical fruit in winter, shipped thousands of miles in gas fed trucks or planes? Learning to make things again and giving that work equal or more respect as work done on computers? Learning to grow things again and paying well for quality local food? If we say “yes”, all life will be better off. Here’s the ultimate subject where less is more and “local” really can mean redefining life and communities. We can live the change and not just flock to politicians who call for it.