The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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You know, sometimes I think the problem is that most of us just don’t count. No, no, no, I don’t mean we don’t count as in we don’t matter, I mean we don’t count as in we look at a number of objects or people and don’t bother to count them.

Like how so many people say “I’m just one person, what does it matter what I do?” Well, how many people is everyone else? Even big shots, political and economic leaders, are one person each. I don’t mean to deny that President Barack Obama has more power than you do, but he is powerful because other just-one-persons do what he tells them to do, not because he is more than one person. Everything that has ever been done by human beings has been done by people who were just one person each, just like you. “One” is the number of people humans come in, and it hasn’t stopped anybody else from making a difference.

Just as there are people apparently unaware that nobody is more than one person, there are also those unaware than none of us are less than one person. All exhortations that you should make a difference are based on the remarkable proposition that you have the option to not make a difference, even though all human beings do make a difference simply be existing. We eat and breathe and talk, we weigh something. Even if your contribution to the world is in no way unique (I’m not sure it’s possible to not be unique, but this is about math, not your self-esteem, and I’m trying to keep things simple), you do matter. Consider all the drops of water in a bucket; sure, each one is just a drop in the bucket, but together they weigh forty pounds, and there isn’t any drop in the bucket that does not add to that weight. Your weight is exactly the same whether you stay in the same bucket as everyone else, or jump to a new bucket with hardly any other drops in it. Whether your weight helps create the status quo or helps shatter it, you make a difference. You can’t avoid making a difference. All you can do is decide what difference you want to make.

These two mathematical mistakes, that some people are more than one and that some people are less than one, together breed apathy. You can tell yourself you don’t have to cut your petroleum use to zero, because you’re just one person so you don’t matter. You can also tell yourself that using a lot of petroleum for convenience and fun is ok, because everyone else is doing it. It doesn’t matter if you do it, too, because you’re one of many. By this logic, nobody is ever responsible for anything, because all of us are always either acting alone or acting with others. Who, then, is actually causing global climate change, the Not Me Ghost from “Family Circus?”

We are used to thinking of climate change as being nobody’s fault—or it’s the fault of politicians or business leaders, or your neighbor down the street who bought a gas-guzzler for no good reason. It’s true that when billions of people all work together to cause a problem, the actual percentage of fault for any one person should be vanishingly small, assuming that morality is subject to arithmetic. It’s also true that some people are more responsible than others. You could argue philosophical points along these lines until the world ends (and the great thing is you probably wouldn’t have to argue very long!) Or you can just say “it’s my fault, so I’m going to have to fix it.”

This is what Jim Merkel did in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez wrecked and spilled oil all over a previously pristine Alaskan coastline. Merkel writes movingly about this in his book, “Radical Simplicity;”

“As the reporters on screen combed the crew of the Exxon Valdez for the guilty, I looked across the polished bar at the mirror and knew it was me.”

Merkel was not an oil man per se. Although his petroleum use was on the high end in those days, as he traveled a lot for business, Jim Merkel was not claiming more responsibility than anyone else, he was just claiming responsibility. He had a sudden, profound awakening, utterly changed his lifestyle, and has devoted the rest of his life to helping others do the same. I recommend his book.

But I recommend following the intent, not the letter, of his advice. He suggests a form of energy diet, a variation of the sort of thing you can find on the Internet if you search for ways to calculate and reduce your ecological footprint. In theory, the idea is to count up how much of the Earth’s resources you use, and then reduce your use until you reach your fair share. In practice, however, measuring your whole footprint is complex to the point of impossible, so you have to make various assumptions and shortcuts, all of which can be debated until the end of the world.

Now, certainly any radical reduction is a good thing, so go ahead and use a foot-print-reduction plan if you want to. You’ll raise your own awareness and that of your friends and associates while you’re at it. But there is a simpler way; get off fossil fuel.

Fossil fuel is the heart of the problem, although land use, cement production, and other factors also contribute to climate change. Part of the issue is that cheap energy exacerbates all of these other problems (would anyone cut down the rainforest to graze cattle for export if shipping were slow and expensive?). The larger part of the problem, though, has to do with the global energy budget. Plants do most of our carbon sequestration and ultimately provide all of our fuel in one form or another (including both feed for draft animals and fossil fuel). There is a direct relationship between how much energy is stored in plant matter and how much carbon dioxide burning or eating those plants releases–because the plants stored the energy in carbon molecules in the first place. Burning fuel always releases carbon dioxide and always will, but if you used energy slowly enough that the plants could re-grow (a sound economic plan), you would be carbon-neutral by definition. This kind of sensible, nearly automatic thriftiness is almost impossible with fossil fuel, because the whole point of using fossil fuel is to get more energy than modern woodlots and farm fields can give us. That, by definition, means releasing more carbon dioxide than the plants of today can sequester. That causes global warming. Limiting ourselves to the energy available in the active, non-fossilized part of the biosphere (which includes solar, water, and wind, but not nuclear energy) will end human-caused global warming, provided we can learn to use our resources sustainably.

Of course, in our society, using fossil fuel is often logistically necessary, but that can be changed—by you. And me, and other people. There’s more than one of us involved. Once we start trying to live without fossil fuel, we can go about solving the problems that we encounter (building local food systems and alternative fuel transportation options, for example). When you run into a wall you can get busy building a ladder. Other people will then climb your ladder.

We’re counting on you.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

One thought on “Counting

  1. Please send me the new link – I want o continue reading this blog

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