Colorado is burning, California and Oregon are burning, and the world is burning. The coronavirus pandemic distracted our momentary amazement at the breadth and depth of the Australia fires earlier this year (remember them?). The pandemic was itself a consequence of our fascination with killing and eating animals; it started with eating pangolins, and it’s being spread through slaughterhouses. Now, America is literally on fire. We are destroying animals and trees wholesale and we’re noticing that the air is unhealthy.
We need to change our way of life if we want to avoid this fate or one like it. You can’t “grow the economy” without increasing fossil fuel use and without making climate change worse, not to mention the other serious problems which economic growth will make worse — resource depletion, soil erosion, species extinctions, and world hunger. People need to understand this and learn to live with less.
We need to restructure our entire society and economy around a simpler lifestyle. Personal effort (recycling, veganism, etc.) is a good thing, but it’s not enough. Everything else about our economy and our society, including advertising, the media, the economic system, and politics, is geared towards encouraging and rewarding consumption. This restructuring will require something that looks and feels like a social revolution.
A lot of people will crowd forward and shout, “Green New Deal!” and insist that we can have a strong economy and a sustainable economy at the same time. I’m not against building solar panels and wind turbines, but we need to understand at least three things.
1. The only way to reduce fossil fuel consumption is to reduce fossil fuel consumption. This should be obvious, but I’m saying it just in case it isn’t! Just building wind turbines and solar panels won’t do a thing if we continue to use fossil fuels as well. This has to be an international effort; we can’t just “outsource” our greenhouse gas emissions to Asia by importing all of our manufactured goods.
2. Even if renewables work flawlessly (a big assumption), they don’t obviate limits to growth. It just shifts it from one kind of limit (on greenhouse gas emissions) to a different limit (on metals, infrastructure, and transmission lines). We still need to consume less overall.
3. We can’t deal with climate change or anything else (like species extinction, just for example) without drastically reducing or eliminating livestock agriculture. The carbon absorption potential of forests is huge, but to reforest the planet requires that we drastically reduce or eliminate livestock agriculture, which has cleared or destroyed vast swaths of land. There is about 450 Gt (gigatons) of carbon in plant matter on the planet; but without human land use, it would be 916 Gt of carbon, over twice as much. For comparison, the total amount of carbon humans have added to the atmosphere is about 300 Gt!
Changing all of this isn’t impossible. We just need to understand what is involved. There are too many people, too much livestock, and too much consumption. These changes will mean a revolution in our society, our culture, and our way of life.
[My first “Fire Blog” was written in 2012. The second paragraph above is copied from that blog. I’ve said it all before, and I’m saying it again.]