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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

December 22, 2008 - 7:39am

A recent "Grand Avenue" cartoon shows a grandmother and two kids standing in front of a store window. One kid says, "Look, it's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' DVD!" Grandma says, "Yes, it's about the over-commercialization of Christmas." The other kid says, " Cool! Let's buy it!"

In a single panel, cartoonist Steve Breen has cut to the heart of our most unsustainable behaviors. Not just at Christmas (although even more so at this time of year), but always. Maybe it's true that human impact on climate goes back to the dawn of agriculture, but the biggest impacts are recent and current. The drive for more, and bigger, and better than the other guy's ... the conditioned reflex which causes us to feel we need (not just want) solutions to problems we didn't even know we had yesterday ... the twisted self-image that we are what we can afford to own, and what we do to get the money (or more recently, the consumer credit) to allow us to afford it, all of these are the defining characteristics of the consumption-driven economy which is, itself, the defining characteristic of modern global society. (That's why sustainability isn't just a climatological problem -- it's inherently economic and sociological as well as ecological.)

Most of the graphs we've all seen (the so-called "hockey stick" curve, in its various incarnations) chart the passage of time along the x-axis, because time is the only dimension along which we've been able to measure greenhouse gas concentrations. But concentrations are the net result of inputs (emissions) and outputs (sequestrations), which aren't global -- each one of them is local. The technology to map localized emissions, sequestrations and concentrations is just about to come on line. While the maps it produces will tell us a lot that we already know, the visual impact should still be huge. Think about the famous photograph of Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 -- we all knew that our world was a spherical planet in the midst of a lot of dark, cold space, but once we saw that picture, we knew it on an entirely different level. Right now, we all know that North Americans, closely followed by Australians, emit the most greenhouse gases per person. Once we see it mapped, though, we'll know it far better, and far more profoundly.

Those of us who are contributing the most to the ecological problem are those of us with the culturally-fostered inclination to consume ever more and better, and the wide-open spaces to enable our fulfillment of it. (One of the things we already know is that even a homeless person in the USA creates more greenhouse gas emissions than the average human being worldwide ... by a factor of two!)

The fault (dear Brutus) is not in our genes, but in our cultural environment. See the statistics on how many hours of television (read "advertising") a typical American is exposed to before (s)he reaches the age of reason. (I know the effects first hand -- the first printed word I could read was "Westinghouse" -- it's a long story.) Read the history about Henry Ford, Edward Bernays, and the birth of modern commercial propaganda (which is what advertising was called before the term took on its Nazi association in the public mind). Nature may not be blameless, but nurture has an awful lot to do with why we turned out the way we are.

This is the reason I opposed (and still oppose) shoveling public monies into the automobile industry. It wasn't just Ford Motor that was a major contributor to consumerism as an organizing principle, GM had a big hand in it, as well. And this isn't just at some time in the ancient past; the organizational structures and cultures of the American automobile industry are still based on artificial stimulation of consumer demand -- how else to explain the dizzying proliferation of mechanically-identical car models? The reason the US auto industry is in such trouble isn't just a set of engineering or production problems (although those haven't helped), it's systemic.

Way back when, GM chairman Charles Wilson famously said that "What's good for GM is good for America." Think about the logical chain which would cause that to be true, and then realize that the chain runs in both directions -- and with both positive and negative signs on its inputs. Turns out what's bad for GM (even if it's GM that's causing the bad thing to happen) is bad for America. And Americans. And the world.

Yes, we need a robust economic system. But we need an economic system based on fulfillment of actual needs, in a sustainable manner. And those needs must extend not just to consumers but also to laborers and to society in general. It's not an easy transition we need to make, and it won't happen in a single step ("orderly bankruptcy" or not). But if we get it right, there's peace on Earth, good will toward (wo)men at the end of the process. As well as an increased likelihood of those (wo)men being around for a few more millenia.



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