Our, not their, problem
Let’s first start by correctly identifying the problem. Habit is, after all, a complacent rut. From its comfort, we tend to launch salvos from the relative safety of our hubris. People, the way they act, the way they choose to not believe in global warming. Let’s start by substituting people, they, them with we, us, our. It is our problem, the way we choose to act, and choose to believe or not in global warming. Rather than asking what people can do to stop global warming, let’s turn the spotlight on ourselves and ask what each and every one of us can do to stop global warming.
One person? What can one person do? Plenty it turns out. I speak,of course, of Jadav Payeng, the Forest Man of India, who since 1979 has been planting trees on the Majuli island in the Brahmaputra river (1). Doing so, he has converted 551 hectares (1360 acres) of flood-prone, barren land into a vast forest, now home to elephants, rhinos, deers, tigers and vultures. Let’s consider for a bit the colossal scale of his single-handed accomplishment. Undiscovered by larger society until 2008, day after day, week after week, decade after decade, this one man, Jadav Payeng, planted tree after tree and created a forest, which at 551 hectares is larger than New York’s Central Park, a mere 341 hectare dwarf! By comparison, what have I done in my life to benefit mother Earth? What can I do but hang my head in shame?
Our Food: Where does it come from?
Polemics aside, let’s consider first principles. The food we eat. Each and every one of us can be mindful of what the food we eat costs mother Earth. Having done so, each one of us can try to make different choices. For example, why do we eat so much meat, especially in the US? Dubiously simple. Transportation and refrigeration technology helped make it plentifully available all year around. What about out of season produce? Is it fair to expect to eat seasonal produce year round, if it needs to be flown in hundreds or thousands of miles? Cheap food, too deceptively and artificially cheap.
Instead of reflexively eating, using only convenience and our immediate monetary cost as the measure, let’s think about the resources, time and effort it takes to get one kilo of meat. Animal feed, temperature controlled barns, antibiotics to accelerate weight gain, vaccines to prevent epidemics among densely populated, closely housed livestock. With everything maximized for short-term profit at the expense of long-term cost to mother Earth, what is our modern industrial livestock agriculture but immeasurably cruel, wasteful and harmful? My hope is that we turn back to the era of seasonal produce, especially seasonal meat (2). An example from my own life? Quinoa, mainstream in the US in just a few years. I could and did question the real price of eating quinoa (3, 4) and stopped consuming it. Of course, I’m far from eliminating my carbon footprint but I try to incorporate this imperative holistically in my daily decision making. Having never understood the concept or need of gyms, I incorporate exercise activities into my daily chores. For example, I eschew chemicals and fancy mops, get down on my hands and knees, and use elbow grease to clean my kitchen and bathroom. Ditto for dishes. Vegetarian by choice, I also recycle maniacally. Small potatoes but I believe every small potato counts.
Certainly, we are starting to make the necessary cultural changes to reverse the immeasurable harm we have caused mother Earth. Disparate, inchoate, uncoordinated, it takes effort to perceive these changes amid the noise of polarized political arguments. I keep my eye out for nuggets suggestive of the large-scale cultural changes necessary to reverse global warming. Cultural not governmental. We needs must move to change ourselves culturally. The rest, including government policies, will follow holistically to cater to the changed demands that we, the populace, make on larger society. The signs of such necessary cultural changes are all around us, like the tiny green shoot that Wall-E and Eva took back to the human space ship in Pixar’s WALL-E.
Enough of us have started to question the origin and true costs of our food for us to have the locavore movement (5), and the backyard chicken movement (6). Surely idealism still exists if we have the the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) movement (7)? The outstandingly idealistic among us, like Michigan teen Alexandra Reau, converted their backyard into a farm (8). Maybe more among us with backyards will follow suit?
Slowly but surely, we are developing a “New Ethics of Eating” (9). This nascent food culture is serving as impetus for a new generation of farmers to develop more sustainable agricultural practices (10). Speaking of sustainable agricultural practices, maybe when we decide about our charitable donations, we will decide with greater discernment and give to worthy endeavors like Glynwood Farms in upstate New York (11), who are doing yeoman and necessary research?
If none of these incremental changes do the trick, we have a potentially fail-safe fallback, also of our making. We already experience increasing Salmonella-related deaths, the blighted gift of the scourge that is modern agriculture. If that’s not enough to trigger change, our recent spate of man-made epidemics suggests that sooner rather than later, we will create through our own misguided agency a new and more deadly epidemic that will lay waste to thousands or even millions of us. Surely, that will be the goad necessary for fundamental cultural and governmental change?
Another hope is that the contagion of ideas will spread the “buy locally grown” concept to other everyday items. We may never quite achieve on a global scale the Gandhian self-sufficient, self-sustaining village utopia but the signs suggest we will evolve a hybrid that incorporates some of its essential elements. After all, behind all the hype and kitsch, isn’t this the true ecological hope and promise of the increasingly popular Maker Faire and 3D printing?
Another example? We are starting to recycle our energy expenditure more efficiently and effectively. Some progressive city planners are incorporating initiatives such as Page on wikipedia.org idea of harnessing pedestrian footfalls (12). Maybe we will expand the pedestrian-footfall-energy-harnessing idea to many other urban spaces so they become a broader source of sustainable power?
I encountered yet another encouraging sign at my last trip to the local public library. An advertisement for an upcoming class on learning “All About Modern Cloth Diapering”
Modern Cloth Diapering in Central Florida! If ever somewhere on Earth earned its place on a list for mindless consumerism, surely it would be the home of Disneyland. Yet even here we have apparently internalized the message of the needless harm we have caused mother Earth and are actively seeking to learn to change our needlessly profligate ways.
The Course Ahead
Undoubtedly, we are a vicious, wantonly barbaric species. Yet, our history teaches me that time and again after we unwittingly bring calamity down upon ourselves, our self-interest kicks in to draw us back from the precipice. This is how we overcame some of the urban blight of Industrialization in developed countries, and began reversing the processes that created the ozone hole. The economist Raj Chetty states the obvious, “If you want to encourage more of an activity, reduce the price of that behavior” (13).
Alternative? We will have increasing frequency of minicalypses such as floods (14). Money quote? “The study does not include Miami, arguable [sic] the U.S. city most vulnerable to sea-level rise, because NOAA tide stations there were destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992” (14). Then let’s just sit back and let this inevitability happen. Let Miami submerge. Surely, then the massive government-level changes necessary to truly start reversing global warming will begin? Surely one or few of such large-scale calamities combined with the incremental, reassuringly inexorable and necessary cultural changes we are making in our daily life will drive us toward the desired outcome of at least in the aggregate healing rather than harming mother Earth.
As a child, one of the first concepts I remember being taught was the ancient Sanskrit adage, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, loosely translated as “the world is one family”. Rediscovering and internalizing this ancient idea articulated in the Upanishads and other cultural traditions, more recently James Lovelock and Lynn Margulies scientifically re-formulated a similar elegant concept, the Gaia hypothesis. As Eduardo Kohn, an anthropologist at McGill University in Canada, says in his book, How Forests Think (15), we will continue to behave in our wantonly destructive way until we, the global we, break free of the cultural, largely linguistic, constructs we use by rote and instead reach the rightful consensus that we are after all but one small part of the interconnected whole that is our mother Earth.
2. Survival Guide: Meat Clubs – Modern Farmer
3. Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa? | Joanna Blythman
6. Raising BackYard Chickens, Build a Chicken Coop, Pictures of Breeds
7. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
8. The New York Times
9. The new ethics of eating
10. The New York Times
11. Glynwood Farm ” Glynwood
12. Page on nationalgeographic.com
13. Interview with Raj Chetty
14. Most coastal cities will face routine flooding in our lifetimes, NOAA says
15. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human: Eduardo Kohn: 9780520276116: Amazon.com: Books
What will it take to get people to act to stop global warming?