Though the evidence points to definite changes in the atmosphere due to our industrial activity, we don’t talk much about climate change and global warming on this web site. For one, the political connotations and passions that arise upon mentioning such phrases are often overdone and counterproductive. And, to be honest, the whole debate over whether it’s happening or not misses the point. We need not focus on the warming (or perceived lack thereof). What we need to look at is the fact that we consume finite resources at an alarming rate.
Furthermore, the idea of global warming doesn’t square with our reality. It’s literally freezing here in Washington, D.C. The mercury has risen above the freezing point only once or twice (even during the day) for the last week, which is an unusually harsh and prolonged cold snap for D.C. Cold weather has gripped two-thirds of the U.S. and another cold front swept down from Canada this weekend, further chilling most of the country. The Potomac River is frozen, as are the oranges in Florida. Our brains tell us, “In one of the coldest winters I can remember, how can it be that the planet is warming?” As a modern species, we are incapable of reacting to any “global warming” in a meaningful way. The phrase, the concept, and the efforts at awareness are largely incompatible with our daily lives. It’s similar to using images of polar bears stranded on tiny melting icebergs to get people to act. We may feel sad or bad for the bear but are we going to change our daily behavior for the sake of animals we never see? When the weather is unusually frigid, are we really going to think about how our actions may contribute to a general warming trend for the planet? We can’t easily perceive that driving or heating our homes has a major negative impact on the environment. Even if it does, the problems seem so far away and unconnected that it doesn’t matter to us. The effects of our actions are only apparent and perceivable over long enough horizons and in certain locations. If we are not around long enough or in the right spot, it doesn’t really matter to us. Hence, since our 70-80 year average lifespan in the developed world is only a blip in geological time and most of us don’t live in places where climate change can be readily seen (Alaska, the Maldives, Greenland etc.), there is no real incentive to change our behavior. If I live in a heavily polluted area, it’s real to me and my neighbors and we may act. If I don’t live there, it’s likely I won’t.
This website is fundamentally pro-environment. The environment is, after all, the basis of life on earth. Our fancy technology, our modern lives, and our very survival are linked to it. From the lithium and oil mined from the ground to power our computers and our cars; from the cotton in our clothes and the food in our stomachs to the air we breathe and the water we drink, we are fundamentally attached to the environment. We may feel detached from the natural world in our skyscrapers and railway cars but they are all built from and powered by materials from the natural world. The only way we will transition to a more sustainable society that allows us the healthy natural environment we need is through two means: changing our behavior and changing our technology. Supply consumers with a smart meter that shows how much money they are using to power their appliances and feedback on how much carbon dioxide they are emitting and they have a better incentive to change their behavior. Give me the option to buy a regular internal combustion engine car or a hybrid that competes on price, reliability, safety, pizazz and every other category but runs on half the gas bill and I’ll take the hybrid hands down.
Neither changing our behavior (How are those New Year resolutions coming?) nor changing our technology (R&D costs, risk, consumer acceptance, safety, inconvenience, increased energy use) are easy tasks. But we are making progress and the pace of change is accelerating. Let’s continue shifting our focus away from melting glaciers and stranded polar bears toward behavioral and technological change that has more immediate and tangible feedback: money saved; new, alternative, and more efficient technologies and energy; comparable or increased convenience; perceivable positive changes in our local environment. Making these changes and protecting the environment go hand in hand. In the market economy model that’s spread across the world, there’s really no other choice. As a species we have great power but pathetic perspective. By implementing such changes, whether our mindset be “global freezing”, “global warming”, or something else entirely, we’ll all benefit from having a healthier and more sustainable relationship with the natural world. Glaciers and polar bears included.
- Justin Manger