The Climate in Emergency

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


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Thanksgiving Day

I’m posting my Thanksgiving post a little early thus year, re-edited in places just to keep it fresh.

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to link Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Nice rhetorical trick, isn’t it? Discrediting us by saying that we’ll even link climate change to Thanksgiving? The truth, of course, is that anything in human life can be linked to climate change, because everything we experience depends on climate somehow. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wind that may be gentle or catastrophic as occasion allows….Climate is already everywhere, and as it changes, so must everything else.

We “warmists” didn’t make that part up. It’s just physics.

But yes, ’tis the season to write holiday-themed posts. Most writers seem to cluster around one of two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate communication (as in how to talk with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

The Reason for the Season

I should acknowledge, before we get started, that American Thanksgiving itself has become controversial in certain circles in recent years as recognition spreads that the story of the “first Thanksgiving” is more or less a lie. The idea is that celebrating the Pilgrim’s supposed friendship with the “Indians” is an example of both ignorance and imperialism. I agree–except that’s not what Thanksgiving is about.

Here is a link to the text of the proclamation Abraham Lincoln used to make Thanksgiving an annual national holiday. Before that, presidents had occasionally declared days of thanksgiving, as had various colonist communities and various European communities before them. Days of thanksgiving, like moments of silence in our time, were simply something people had occasionally–the nascent colony that would become Massachusetts had one, but they hardly “owned the brand,” so to speak. Only when Lincoln created an annual Thanksgiving did the United States begin celebrating the holiday in its modern sense. And you’ll notice that Lincoln (actually Secretary Seward, who wrote the text) makes no mention of “Pilgrims and Indians” at all.

My guess is that the “story of the first Thanksgiving” was an attempt to shoehorn a bit of history and patriotism in for the benefit of school children, but it had nothing to do with the creation of the holiday, nor has it ever been a feature of any of the Thanksgiving celebrations I’ve been part of for the almost 40 years of Novembers I can remember.

Thanksgiving is about gratitude, not history (let alone psuedohistory).

The Meaning of the Reason

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the table. But gratitude is fundamentally a reaction, not an action–it is very difficult to be grateful as an act of will. The best we can normally do is remind ourselves of what we have to be grateful for, and surrounding ourselves with an abundance of food is a good way to start.

What is abundance? An online dictionary provides the definition “a large amount of something,” but that’s not quite it. “Abundance of dirty dishes” sounds, at best, sarcastic, if not outright ludicrous. And while there might indeed be a large amount of sand in the Sahara, few people would describe it as abundant sand, because, really, who cares how much sand it has?

To really count as abundant, something must be a) what we want, and b) what we aren’t worried of running out of.

The Thanksgiving table qualifies. You can eat as much as you want, no holds barred, and there will be left-overs. The Thanksgiving table is not infinite, it is not literally inexhaustible, but it has an almost magical quality of feeling that way. It is precisely that illusion that allows the food to symbolize all the other good things in our lives, everything for which we might be grateful.

The Limitations of the Season

Of course, there is no such thing as a truly infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless–passenger pigeons, for example. And in fact we are running out of pretty much everything we need for life and everything that gives life beauty and meaning.

For many of us, “running out” is a pretty abstract notion. Hunger and poverty certainly exist, but they are a distribution problem, for the most part, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now. Ever more efficient resource extraction is, for the time being, largely masking the growing depth of the crisis–but make no mistake, the crisis is upon us. It’s not a problem of the future but of the here and now.

Is consumption really the best way to celebrate anything right now?

Thanksgiving Yet to Come

Thanksgiving depends on the illusion of an infinite table, an inexhaustible shared resource. We got into our current environmental mess by collectively acting as though the world were an inexhaustible resource for real. Quite obviously, we have to stop such irrational and selfish behavior right away.

Does that mean we need to stop celebrating Thanksgiving?

No.

First of all, a literal abundance of food had never been the point of the holiday; it’s not just an occasion of gluttony, the groaning table is supposed to be a metaphor for spiritual abundance. Eating a lot is a means, not an end. Second, because abundance is a feeling, not an amount, it’s possible to create that feeling of abundance on a sharply limited budget–as anyone knows who’s ever had to host Thanksgiving dinner without a lot of money.

Thanksgiving Day can be not just a reminder of all the natural richness we’re in the process of losing, but also an example of how we might regain some of that richness for our children and children’s children–and do it without feeling deprived ourselves.

Thanksgiving on a budget works as long as it’s possible for all the guests to enjoy the meal without worrying that they won’t get enough–skilled hosts accomplish it by paying close attention to what the guests really need while also staying strictly within their own limitations. They do it by putting what they have to the best possible use and by not wasting anything–including not wasting resources on things that don’t really add much to the celebration. We can do the same thing as a species.

We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–but we can work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out, and thus achieve a true, if paradoxical, abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we will.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.


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Climate Change and Medicine

As some of you know, my family has had altogether too much reliance on the healthcare system of late, prompting me to wonder about healthcare and climate change.

I have written before about some of the ways that climate change threatens public health (see here and here and here), but what about ways that healthcare itself threatens the climate? I had never heard the issue raised, and I’d noticed that medicine seems to be one area in which even environmentalists don’t stop to consider carbon footprints. Even I will drive to a medical appointment, and hospitals are obviously intensive users of energy.

Is medicine an area that just has to be bad for the planet? And, if so, does that mean that in the carbon-neutral future that is coming (remember; “unsustainable” means “going to stop eventually, one way or another”) will our standards of healthcare necessarily suffer?

The short answer is no, probably not.

Carbon-footprinting Healthcare

What does healthcare cost the planet in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? Figures seem to vary depending on the source. In the course of researching this article, I have seen healthcare’s share of the US carbon footprint quoted as 7%, 10%, or other numbers, for example. Most likely, the difference is due to variations in how the footprints were calculated–as I’ve explained before, there is more than one right way to calculate any footprint, and carbon footprint analysis is at its most useful when multiple footprints are calculated the same way and compared.

It does appear that the footprint of healthcare varies from one country to another, sometimes dramatically, though figuring out the exact nature of the variation is difficult. Consider that countries vary dramatically in their total carbon footprint, their population sizes, their ability to provide healthcare to their population, and their healthcare outcomes. It’s not immediately obvious how to make a fair comparison.

But some countries are examining their healthcare footprints with an eye towards improvement. An article about the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) explored that country’s healthcare-related emissions in some detail.

The NHS as a whole accounts for 4% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Of that 4%:

  • Patient and staff travel accounts for 16%
  • Pharmaceuticals account for 20%
  • Other procured goods and services, including food and medical devices, account for 30%

So, just to be clear, that means 0.8% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions are related to the production of pharmaceuticals, a small figure to be sure, but fairly impressive for a single industry.

Of course, 16+20+30 doesn’t equal a hundred. The article did not explain the remaining 34%, but my guess is that much of it is related to electricity and heating fuel used by hospitals and other facilities.

It’s not clear to me how a similar breakdown might look in a different country, but it seems likely that countries that are broadly similar economically and provide a broadly similar standard of medical care will also have similar emissions sources, even if the total size of the footprints are different.

Let’s see if we can break some of these figures down even further.

Pharmaceutical Production

Since pharmaceuticals account for about a fifth of the UK’s healthcare-related emissions, it’s important to understand where those emissions come from. How does the production and sale of a drug emit greenhouse gasses?

The short answer is I have not been able to find out. Since mass-produced drugs are made in factories, I suspect most of the emissions come from simply running the factories–mostly electricity and refrigerant (for both air conditioning and any stages of production that require chilling), plus fuel, if heating is not electric. Transportation of ingredients and finished products is probably also important, as is the production of plastic for packaging. But it would be useful to know details, since that would enable us to determine what emissions are truly excessive–then we could set reasonable expectations for pharmaceutical factories.

One research team has least approached the question by looking at the carbon footprints of individual drug companies. The group’s focus appeared to be American, but the companies studied are mostly transnational. The team used figures from the few pharmaceutical companies that report their greenhouse gas emissions to calculate annual emissions per million dollars of revenue for each company and for an industry average. They came up with 48.55 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per million dollars of revenue–almost half again the figure for the auto industry.

Now, since the auto industry involves more millions of dollars than the pharmaceutical industry does, its total footprint is still larger (plus cars produce their own emissions post-production and pills don’t), but it’s still a startling figure.

Just as startling is the fact that while the pharmaceutical industry as a whole needs to radically shrink its emissions in order to meet Paris targets, some companies have been working on shrinking and have met their Paris goals already–and these are among the most successful companies, namely Johnson & Johnson, Amgen inc., and Roche Holding AG. It appears the less-green companies have no excuse for not cutting back.

Unfortunately, the numbers don’t tell us as much as they might. Some companies, such as Bayer, produce more than just pharmaceuticals and don’t break down their reported emissions in a way that would let us see what the figures for their pharmaceuticals alone really are. While we can be assured that Bayer really does have a large carbon footprint, we can’t put that number in context. We can’t fairly compare companies if we don’t even know which industries the numbers refer to.

And none of this answers my original question.

Hospitals

Articles on what hospitals can do to reduce their carbon footprints are fairly easy to find, and their content should sound fairly familiar to anyone interested in sustainability (carpool to work, cut back on meat, etc.). Most don’t provide information on what hospital-related emissions actually are.

More interesting is a study comparing greenhouse gas emissions from specific operating rooms in different countries. The big surprise is that anesthesia is a major factor; anesthetics are greenhouse gasses, and they vary in the strength of their greenhouse potential. Desflurane has between 5 and 18 times the global warming potential of its competitors, yet it is a favored choice in some operating rooms. The surgical suits studied in Vancouver and Minnesota both use a lot of desflurane, so anesthesia accounts for over half their carbon footprint, verses less than 5% of the footprint of surgery at Oxford. The total CO2e of the North American sites is actually ten times that of the UK sites, largely because of desflurane.

Another detail that caught my eye is that heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning together account for a much higher proportion of energy use for operating rooms than for other hospital facilities because building standards for operating rooms are different–though the article didn’t explain why. Does energy inefficiency somehow improve patient care? It’s possible it does in some indirect way.

What I want to know–and have been unable to find out so far–is how the footprints of hospitals compare to those of other centers of human activity. No matter what else it is, a hospital is a facility where large numbers of people live and eat together, and where other people come to work. Many of its emissions sources should therefore be similar to what one would find at a university with on-campus housing. Is the footprint of a hospital larger than that of a school of similar size? If it is, how much is waste and how much is just a necessary part of providing excellent healthcare?

Transportation

While transportation is a factor in the carbon footprint of anything healthcare facilities must move, including food, pharmaceuticals, and waste, the article I linked to earlier counted “transportation” as only involving the movement of people. In many cases, these movements of people are the same as for any other employer–staff coming to work and patients coming in for scheduled treatment, mostly by car. As with any other employer, the quickest way to minimize these emissions may be to minimize the transportation itself–encouraging car-pooling among staff, for example.

But the transportation category also includes the use of ambulances. These are not efficient machines. Gas mileage varies, depending on various factors, but I checked a number of sources, and it looks like the figures are clustering around 10 miles per gallon for both ground-based ambulances and helicopters (that’s diesel fuel for ambulances and either high-grade gasoline or kerosene–jet fuel–for helicopters). And the problem is that while the engines could perhaps be made more efficient, their use can’t be minimized without compromising (or at least radically changing) care.

So what portion of of the healthcare carbon footprint is emergency transport?

I could not find an article that simply answered that question. I could find one that gave a per-capita figure for emissions of ground-based ambulance service in Australia: it’s 0.003 metric tonnes CO2e.

I then looked up the total annual per capita carbon emissions for Australia (20.58 metric tonnes CO2e) and the proportion of Australia’s total carbon footprint that is attributable to healthcare (7%). Some arithmetic reveals that Australia’s per capita healthcare-related emissions are roughly 1.44 metric tonnes CO2e per year, just 0.2% of which is attributable to ground-based ambulance rides. The figure for other first-world countries is likely similar.

Air ambulances–helicopters–are a different story, but one I can’t really tell. The same article that gave me the ground-based figure also said that air ambulances account for almost 200 times the emissions that ground does. Unfortunately, the article did not make clear whether that is a comparison between air and ground services as a whole, or per-trip figures, or per-kilometer figures, or something else. Logic suggests it can’t be all-of-the-above. But since Australia has large areas that are sparsely settled, it likely uses air ambulances much more extensively than, say, the UK does. Its helicopter-based emissions are likely less comparable to that of other countries than their ground-based ambulance figures are.

What we can say is that whether the emissions of ground-based ambulances can be a substantially reduced or not, they are a drop in the bucket. Emergency helicopters may be a more important contributor, however, at least in some countries.

Post-petroleum Healthcare

While many of the articles I found during research were aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of healthcare, my focus, as I mentioned, is a little different. Shrinking footprints is important, of course, but neither I nor most of my readers are in a position to shrink healthcare footprints directly. What are we supposed to do, boycott our own medical care in protest? No, our job here is to support (and demand!) climate-friendly political leadership.

But I want to know what we can look forward to. What will healthcare in a carbon-neutral society look like? Do we have to think about the ethics of a trade-off, restricting healthcare for the good of the rest of the world, or is such a conflict really a non-issue?

What We Know

What do all the facts and figures I’ve collected suggest?

First of all, healthcare as a whole tends to be about 10% of each country’s total carbon footprint or less. That means most countries could make substantial progress towards carbon neutrality without touching healthcare at all. But there are reasons to believe healthcare footprints can shrink without changing the standard of care.

  • A substantial source of emissions must be electricity use by healthcare facilities. Switching the electricity grid to renewables will therefore automatically shrink the healthcare footprint even if the facilities themselves don’t change.
  • Many healthcare-related emissions types are the same as for similarly-sized facilities in other industries, and can therefore be reduced in the same way: buildings can be better-insulated; lights can be switched to LEDs; unused equipment can be turned off; waste can be minimized; food (in hospitals) can be sourced locally and made largely vegetarian; and so on.
  • Many healthcare-specific emissions types can shrink: operating rooms can switch away from desflurane; the footprint of pharmaceutical production can be reduced (as evidenced by Johnson & Johnson); and ground-based ambulances can run on biodiesel.

There is only one area where I suspect major changes might need to be made; air ambulances could use biofuels, too, but since these are likely to be more expensive than petrofuels, fuel-intensive operations, like Australia’s helicopters, might be cost-prohibitive. Various structural changes to the system might be necessary to maintain the standard of care.

That’s OK. Structural changes can be made.

Possible Complications

All of the above suggests that healthcare could stay basically the same and become carbon neutral–but that’s not true because a carbon neutral society will have to change in ways that will in turn influence healthcare. Exactly what these changes might be is impossible to predict, but we can do a little educated speculation.

Improved Health

We know that modern environmental problems cast a healthcare shadow, both directly and indirectly. From pollution, to extreme weather, to increased violence, to mental health concerns, the environmental crisis is bad for people. And some things that are also bad for people, such as a sedentary (automobile-based) lifestyle and a diet rich in animal products, exacerbate the crisis further. This not to say that we’re sicker now than our pre-industrial ancestors were–we’re not–but most of the factors that have improved our health (antibiotics, vaccines, public sanitation) should not be threatened by carbon neutrality.

So a carbon-neutral world should see its healthcare needs drop, thus further shrinking the healthcare footprint.

An Altered Economy

Industrialization makes it possible to concentrate large numbers of people in one place; the cities of the past were smaller, sometimes much smaller, than those of today. Since carbon neutrality is likely to make fuel very expensive, the long-distance transportation of food and other goods will likely become economically nonviable–urban populations will therefore have to shrink. Even if carbon-neutral big cities prove to be possible, we have to face the fact that most of the world’s major cities are going to be lost to climate change, even if we do achieve carbon neutrality soon (remember atmospheric lag); many coastal cities will drown, while many inland cities will run out of water in droughts or simply burn. Some cities will simply become too hot to live in.

So the future will likely have smaller and more spread-out population centers than we have today, a change which will have a huge impact on the economics of hospitals. Consider that big hospitals, the ones that can use economies of scale to offer world-class care, tend to be in or near big population centers–that’s where the patients are. Paying for rural healthcare is hard. It’s going to get harder when patients can’t afford to travel much.

Smaller Population

There are those who disagree with me on this, but I hold that carbon neutrality will require a smaller human population, at least over the long-term. Hopefully we can make the change through attrition alone. But fewer people also means reduced healthcare needs, further reducing the carbon footprint of care–and making it harder to pay for.

The Vision

Earlier this year, I published a novel set in a post-petroleum society. While healthcare as such is not covered in the novel, in the course of world-building I did think about how healthcare in the future might work. Here are some of the ideas I came up with.

  • Because populations are smaller and more spread-out, doctors, dentists, psychotherapists, and other such professionals travel. Rather than making house calls, they set up temporary offices, either in tents at the weekly market or, for those who need specialized equipment, in clinics that are shared with other traveling professionals. For example,everybody in a small town might have their semi-annual dental cleaning and check-up the same month, when the dentist and a team of hygienists visit. The next month, some of those people will return to the same office, because now it’s the office of an orthodontist or an oral surgeon.
  • Each small town will have a tiny clinic that has space for traveling professionals and an emergency center, a birthing center, and perhaps a dozen or so beds for in-patient treatment. On good days these clinics will be mostly empty. The idea is to minimize travel for patients, most whom will now live within two or three miles of basic medical services.
  • Large, full-service hospitals will exist for specialized services. These will function as small cities, with food production, machine shops, and staff and visitor housing all on site. Most patients will have traveled long distances to get to the hospital after having exhausted the capacity of local options.
  • Emergency transportation exists and is powered by biofuels. It is minimized by the use of online consultation; techs working either in the local clinic or, in some cases, in the patient’s home, can collect diagnostic data and send it to teams of relevant experts elsewhere. Some treatments can also be given by techs, nurses, general practitioners, and even robots working at the direction of experts who are far away (usually in the major hospitals).
  • In some cases air transport is accomplished, not by helicopters, but by semi-autonomous drones. The drone carries a paramedic and relevant equipment to the patient’s location, where the paramedic stabilizes the patient and, if necessary, loads the patient into the drone. The drone flies autonomously to the nearest medical facility, adjusting the flow of medication or oxygen on the way if necessary. Its onboard AI can also talk to the patient and record messages. Meanwhile, the paramedic hires a horse-drawn cab to get back to the clinic. Because the drone is only carrying a single human being at a time, it can be much smaller and use much less energy than a helicopter, which must carry a pilot and a medical team in addition to the patient.

All of the above is, of course, speculation on my part. But informed speculation can be useful; it makes the future seem a good deal less scary.


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On Needing a Village

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about therapy. He pointed out that–with the exception of a few individual therapists–psychotherapy has been and remains all about the individual or, at most, about couples, families, or small groups. The field doesn’t address whole human communities or the relationships between communities and the land, although that is precisely where much of our sickness and pain live.

It is an empirical fact that over a century of psychotherapy and many decades of psychologically-inspired self-help groups and books have not saved our world from teetering on the brink. Collectively, we make very, very bad choices. Individually, far too many of us are deeply lonely and battling despair.

Something important has been left out.

There is, indeed, a movement within psychology to take the mental and emotional dimensions of ecological issues seriously: ecopsychology. I have discussed before the mental health implications of climate change, and there are psychologists looking to use their expertise to help society make more sustainable decisions, both individually and collectively. But all this remains a minor voice in the field.

What occurred to me yesterday is that the problem may be less philosophical than practical. Society may be sick, but society can’t sit down on a therapist’s couch. Even couples therapy is difficult to arrange–for both partners to simultaneously agree to counseling requires a minor miracle. More often than not, it is a single person sitting on the couch seeking guidance from the therapist, so is it any wonder that therapists focus on treatments that can be given to one patient at a time? And part of that focus means defining problems in terms that allow individual solutions. An understanding of the role of context, of the community dimension of mental health, of the importance of the relationships between people and the land, all of that becomes collateral damage to the unavoidable limitations of the therapeutic relationship.

I’m speculating, of course. I further speculate that the focus on the individual by therapists may be one of the factors that has been eroding community over the decades, teaching us all to believe that the individual, and only the individual matters.

Consider:

We need each other to be happy–and others need us.

Societal problems and the actions of others can impair our mental health and our ability to function.

Where we live–whether our surroundings are beautiful, ecologically intact, and deeply familiar–matters to our mental health. Where we live matters.

Even saying those words feels transgressive because therapists, self-help groups, self-help books, and inspirational internet memes all declare the exact opposite. The zeitgeist and the experts seem to agree that each of us can control nothing besides ourselves and therefore must learn to depend on nothing but ourselves to be happy.

I agree about the impossibility of control–actually, I can’t control myself, either. Willpower is effective only over a very narrow slice of human experience and behavior. But the fact of the matter is we need lots of things we can’t guarantee ourselves. We need food and water, yet some of us can’t get either and so die. We likewise require intact bodies, yet injury and illness can’t always be avoided. Is it too far-fetched that we might also need love, community, and an intact home to survive?

The appalling truth is that all of us are two things most of us don’t want to be; vulnerable and morally obligated.

Perhaps I’m digressing a bit.The point is that an expanded understanding of our mental and emotional needs is important, both from the perspective of supporting mental health for its own sake, and from the perspective of understanding how to solve the various environmental crises we face, most critically, climate change.

But how is that to happen, given that it’s still almost impossible to get more than a few people on a therapist’s couch at once?

The therapist must come out of the office. What we need are communities organized around supporting both individual and collective mental health. Healing and happiness needs to be part of how we live.

All of which stands parallel to another principle–that it’s all very well and good for an individual to make more sustainable lifestyle choices, but ultimate success depends on society-wide change made possible by environmentalism at the ballot box.

The bottom line may be that we need to become a society that takes care of ourselves, each other, and the planet–which reminds me of something a different wise friend once said:

It’s not enough to try to conserve the environment; we have to conserve the human community that conserves the environment.


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Responding to Greta

Greta Thunberg can’t save the world. She doesn’t claim that she can. In fact, the whole of what she is doing is to beg other people to act. She is telling the truth, and doing so with an unapologetic stridency that resonates–and many others are joining her, giving the issue the importance readers of this blog know it deserves.

If her actions carry a hint of hope, if we see in her some suggestion that perhaps we might still pull this thing out of our hat, it’s because the climate strike movement is new, and anything new is good.

But calling for change alone can’t save the world; the powerful still have the option to ignore the call. And frankly, many of them still are.

Last week, I posted a list of things you can do–it’s not my first such list, and I’m not the only one drafting such lists. Lists are good. But mine and those I have read have all so far missed an important distinction, an important way to be relevant to the specific challenge we find ourselves facing today, the challenge posed by tens of thousands of young people marching in the streets.

The thing is, Greta Thunberg can’t save the world, and those of us who rely on her to do so, responding to her with admiration only and not action, betray her as surely do the haters.

She can’t save the world, but we can.

The Powerful and the Powerless

In the realm of climate response, a continuum exists between the powerful and the powerless. It’s true that no one is so powerful as to be able to end anthropogenic climate change by an unaided act of will, and no one with the mental capacity to understand the problem to even the simplest degree is entirely without resources–and yet it’s also true that we’re not all alike. We’re not equals.

And the thing is, different strategies apply to different points along the spectrum.

No matter how much or how little power you have, you can make a difference, but not if you deny the reality of your position. If you put all your energy into changing the things you have direct control over, and all you have control over is what brand of toilet paper you buy, then you won’t get very far. It’s not that personal lifestyle changes don’t make a difference, they do, but they depend on the coordinated action of many people, and rarely succeed unless some other strategy is also being carried out. If personal lifestyle change is all you can do, go ahead and do it, but you also need to join Greta in the streets calling for change. On the other hand, if you happen to be the head of a multinational company or the prime minister of a whole country, joining the marching strikers is silly at best–you’re demonstrating against yourself, you know that, don’t you?

In either case, to act as though your power were something it isn’t is to refuse to act.

The Power of Direct Action

“Direct action” has a specific meaning in activist circles, but I mean something slightly different here. I am referring to actions that you can take on your own authority, actions that definitively reduce emissions all by themselves. For example, if you are the sole owner of a car company, you can decide to produce only fuel-efficient vehicles.

Everybody has some power of direct action. Greta Thunberg, for example, has decided not to eat meat. You can lead a kid to a hamburger, but you can’t make her eat it. Meat, especially beef, does have a large carbon footprint, so in and of itself, hers is a step in the right direction. But we all know it’s not a very big step, that’s why she’s striking–to make sure the bigger steps get taken by the people in a position to take them.

It is, as I said, a continuum, not a binary distinction between the powerful and the powerless, but it’s still important to recognize that not all steps are equal. When drafting a list of the “50 simple things you can do to save the Earth,” there is one very important thing to know; who are you?

Are you a 16-year-old kid? Are you a working stiff struggling to make rent? Do you own a house and a car and take regular transcontinental trips? Are you a business leader? A US Senator? The President of the United States? The more power of direct action you have, the more of your time and energy must be taken up by taking climate-friendly actions.

It’s possible you have more power than you think you do. It’s easy to fall into the habit of doing things as they’ve always been done, without realizing they could be done differently. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I ever make purchasing decisions for anything larger than my household?
  • Do I ever make investment decisions for more than a trivial amount of money?
  • Do I ever create plans that a team of people will follow?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies at my place of business?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies for a government agency, whether local, state-level, or national?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, how anything will be built?
  • Do I have the authority to decide how policies will be enacted?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, what someone else will be taught or notified about?

A yes to any of these questions indicates a place where you may be making climate decisions for more than your own personal lifestyle–a place where pleas to save the planet might actually be addressed to you.

You can make a climate action plan for your team, your organization, your event, your town, your state, your nation. Then enact the plan.

Go.

The Art of Influence

Most people, even if they can take some direct action, are going to be frustrated by the limits to their power. To one degree or another, part of your effectiveness is likely to depend on convincing someone to act. You can begin by turning up at rallies and demonstrations, and of course voting (and donating time and money to campaigns and registration drives). But the next step is to target specific people whose actions you want to change.

Who has the power to take what direct actions? What can you do to influence those actions?

The flipside of asking what unacknowledged power you might have is asking who else around you might have the power to change something. Once you have identified someone who can make a change, you can go about providing the necessary combination of pressure and support to make that change happen.

Here we have traditional political activism–marches, emails, petitions, coupled with lawsuits, whistle-blowing, boycotts, and civil disobedience. If you have the talent for organizing, you can get involved with strategy, or you can find existing campaigns to join. It’s not that activism is less powerful than direct action, it’s just that it is a different kind of power and requires a different strategy.

One or the Other

Greta Thunberg is saying some important stuff. Each of us has a fundamental choice in how to respond: we can join her in calling the powerful to act, or we can admit to being the powerful and respond to her call with action.

Do neither, and you are part of the problem. Don’t feel guilty; fix it!


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I Am Not Greta Thunberg

Last week, we joined the local iteration of the Climate Strike. Sort of.

The thing is, you can’t really go on strike if you’re retired (as my husband is), or self-employed (as I am). Anyway, our local event wasn’t organized as a strike–as far as I know, nobody walked out of work to attend. It was instead a demonstration or, probably more accurately, a rally.

I’ve talked about the distinction between strikes and demonstrations before. A rally is something else again. In a demonstration, the focus is external–you want someone, the media, the government, or, broadly speaking, “the Man,” to notice that you’re upset about something. In contrast, a rally has an internal focus–you’re coming together to show each other how you feel. The point is motivation, encouragement, and sometimes organization. An event can be all three at once, of course, but this was a rally.

A Day in the Park

We met in a local park, perhaps a hundred and fifty of us, to listen to live music and to various speakers, as well as video recordings of Greta Thunberg’s speeches and interviews. Local organizations had tables set up offering information and voter registration cards. There were tables of food, mostly donated but some of it brought by attendees. There was plastic cutlery. There was talk of how Friday afternoon is such an inconvenient time, we can’t really expect a lot of people to show up.

Which is about when I started to cry.

Something to Cry About

The advantage of having just lost my sister to cancer, if there is one, is that when I break down weeping in a public place, nobody really holds it against me. And I admit if circumstances were different, I might have held my composure better. But I wasn’t weeping for my sister. After all, lots of individuals die, and the rest of the world goes on. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it should, but it does; life as a whole gets over individual tragedy pretty thoroughly. An entropic biosphere, on the other hand, is something else.

I didn’t weep for my sister but for everyone and everything else. I wept because I didn’t feel free to shout “plastic cutlery? What the hell were you thinking?” or other such railings at the business-as-usual tone of the whole event. And I wept because I am not Greta Thunberg.

A Personal Note

The thing is, that was supposed to be me. I had the same commitment to environmentalism from an early age, and at 16 years old I was making personal lifestyle changes and anticipating a life as an activist. I understood the science of the crisis. I wanted to change the world and I expected to.

Did I?

Not yet, as far as I can tell. In the 36 years since I was 16, the environmental crisis has gotten substantially worse, while most of my time and energy have gone into my personal concerns. For all my good intentions, I have become one of the adults who let Greta down.

It’s true it’s not exactly from moral laziness on my part, and it’s certainly not due to greed or selfishness. I didn’t lose my ideals or abandon my dreams. Instead, the issue is that whatever mental ability allows most people to look at a situation and find their role in it, it’s an ability that I appear to lack. With certain rare and limited exceptions, I just don’t know what I can do to help. And no, pamphlets entitled “What You Can Do” don’t solve the problem. So far, nothing does. So I get very little done.

But the validity of my excuse does not make any practical difference; the climate doesn’t award anybody E for Effort, it just keeps getting warmer until someone succeeds.

If I had started shouting about the plastic cutlery, I doubt I would have been understood. The others would have protested that they have good intentions and frustrating limitations, too, as if I don’t understand, as if I don’t appreciate what they are doing. And it’s not true. I do understand–and I do appreciate. Maryland is taking some real and important steps towards environmental stewardship, and it’s happening through the efforts of remarkable activists–and voters–some of whom were with me that day in the park. These are people who are, overall, more effective than I have been. These are people who organized a successful rally for the climate, something I, honestly, probably could not do, or at least could not have done as well. It was a step in the right direction, one of many steps being taken, and it was a good party. I cheered up eventually, had a good time, and found some organizations that can use my skill as a writer to accomplish something.

But if the climate strike is going to mean anything, it has to include honesty about the crisis we are in. It must include a restless, focused urgency, and–for anyone who is already an adult–it has to include some soul-searching. Who among us can really say “I have done enough” when the biosphere is still dying?

Frankly, I don’t understand why everyone else isn’t weeping, too.

A Shot in the Dark

Greta Thunberg is telling the truth. She’s demanding action, enforcing a kind of societal honesty. The fact that she can get other people to listen to her and join her in her demands is extraordinary. The fact that she can stay focused on her message in the face of hostility, apathy, and flattery is also extraordinary. Very few people could do what she is doing.

But it’s worth taking note of what she isn’t doing, too. She’s not organizing. She is an independent public speaker and climate striker, and while she sometimes cooperates with various groups, she does not lead any organization herself. She doesn’t organize the international strikes and demonstrations that she has inspired–other people, mostly other teenagers, do that. She also isn’t offering or enacting any solutions.

I don’t mean that as a criticism; fire alarms seldom also put out fires, but fire fighters still rely on alarms to wake them up and get them moving in the right direction.

But it’s important to recognize that Ms. Thunberg can’t, all by herself, save us. She is, in fact, begging us to save her.

If we respect her, we have to take further action.

Solving the Problem

Climate change is both a simple problem and a very complex one. The simple part is that burning fossil fuels, plus certain activities that fossil fuels make economically viable (such as destroying the Amazon rainforest in order to produce beef for export), is destroying the world. We have to stop doing those things at once.

But the complex part (aside from the details of the climate response; they don’t call climates a complex system for nothing) is that if it’s done the wrong way, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is likely to cause other problems–some of them  drastic. And it’s not altogether clear what the right way to do it is. We know where we need to go, but how best to get there isn’t obvious, even supposing we were all trying to get there. Then, too, “keeping fossil fuels in the ground” is not something that can be done by a single person acting alone. Large numbers of people all have to act together, each in their own role–political leaders, economic leaders, diplomats, activists, consumers, voters, educators–and all more or less coordinated.

And of course, we do all have to attend to other elements of our lives simultaneously, striking balances among competing interests that we don’t actually know how to balance.

While I believe I do have unusual difficulty with finding a place to be of service, I’m clearly not the only person who looks at this mess and says “I don’t know what to do.”

But we must each do something, and do it hard and fast and well.

Steps to Take

I am not Greta Thunberg. I don’t have the abilities she has. But I have the abilities I have, and I also have a blog. And I also have the power to use language to explore options–I can, perhaps, help with charting a solution.

I therefore offer the following suggested actions:

  • Weeping It’s impossible to act as though something is important without feeling as though it’s important, and feeling as though the planet is important entails rage, grief, and fear. It also tends to involve guilt, shame, and frustration, helplessness. While sitting at a picnic table and literally weeping in public might not be everyone’s style, it’s important to let the uncomfortable feelings happen. Be where you are.
  • Community It’s very difficult to accomplish anything in isolation. Most of us need social support and affirmation. That includes not just encouragement and reassurance, but also actions that might on the face of it seem critical–calling on each other to do better, letting each other know when we’ve missed something. We need to form friendships in which climate action is a shared and acknowledged priority, even when it means not being polite. We need more parties, too.
  • Local Action Many of us are in positions where “green” lifestyles aren’t really an option. There isn’t enough local food production, there isn’t energy-efficient mass transit, there isn’t renewable electricity, communities aren’t walkable, there are laws that make “green” lifestyles difficult or impossible. These challenges are places to start, places to get to work.
  • Political Pressure Much of the work that has to be done requires the leadership of elected officials. We need to make such leadership politically expedient. Send emails, make phone calls, turn up at demonstrations, make sure that friends and neighbors know about demonstrations and help them get there. Make it obvious to our leaders that climate is important to the people.
  • Focused Flexibility We need to hold ourselves and our leaders to a high standard, but we also can’t let rigor become an excuse for inaction. We can’t refuse to take action because the action plan isn’t perfect. We can’t refuse to work with allies because those allies are also our adversaries on other issues. We have to embrace a certain pragmatism. Purity won’t win the war.
  • Voting We have to become single-issue voters. If a candidate is not a climate hawk, we must not vote them into office. We need to contribute time and money to candidates who are climate hawks. As more climate hawks run, we can choose among them based on their stance on other issues we care about.

It’s not that climate is the only important issue, it’s that all the other important issue depends on this one.

 


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Strike!

For years, now, I’ve been wondering why nobody’s organizing climate demonstrations. Seems a bad time to let the pressure up. Or am I just out of the loop? Are demonstrations happening without me? As far as I can tell, in recent months, most of the energy has indeed not been going into marches but rather into “direct action,” either strikes or deliberate attempts to get arrested in a good cause. And unfortunately, I’m not really available for either. The nature of my work means that for me to strike would hurt only me; writers occasionally change the world by writing, but never by not writing.

But now, apparently, there’s a march scheduled–lots of them! All over! On September 20th!

To find an event near you, please click here.

I have to say this one looks a bit odd. For one thing, they’re calling these events “strikes,” when they are clearly demonstrations or protests. The difference matters.

To strike is to walk off the job in order to force change. We’re most familiar with strikes against specific employers, where workers cease work en mass in order to shut down the company until management agrees to workers’ demands, like pay raises and better working conditions. A general strike shuts down an entire economy for the same reason. For a strike to work, it has to hurt, or threaten to hurt, somebody with the power to make the changes the strikers want. It is a species of force, like boycotts and sit-ins, a non-violent means to take control of a situation and make someone else comply. Such force can be countered with force–not all strikes succeed–but cannot be ignored.

In contrast, demonstrations and protests can be ignored. When they succeed, it is because someone in power decides the protestors are right, because someone in power takes the demonstration as a warning that force will soon be used, or because someone uses the political cover provided by the demonstration to seize power.

Both work–but which one are we doing on the 20th?

Of course, there will be some of each. I plan to demonstrate. I may take the day off work to do so, but none of my clients are likely to stop climate change if I miss a deadline, so I won’t miss any. Others will doubtless suspend work for a day, and some strikes may be genuine applications of force, while others will be symbolic. But I’d like to see the distinction acknowledged as a matter of strategy–because demonstrations don’t always make good strikes and vice versa. And we need both to work right now.

The question is further complicated by the fact that, strategically speaking, the children’s strike for climate is itself a demonstration–for kids and teens to walk out of class doesn’t hurt those in power, it simply grabs their attention. Grabbing attention can be a very powerful thing to do, though. Demonstrations have toppled dictators. They have started wars–and ended them.

Either way, all of us need to know what our mission is on that day, and how what each of us is doing contributes to the whole.

I’ve written before comparing the children’s climate strike to the move, “Amazing Grace and Chuck”. In that movie, children quit their extra-curricular sports in order to demand nuclear disarmament–an effort that, in the movie, eventually proves successful. Now, in our real children’s strike, Greta Thunberg is our Chuck.

My guess is that our objective on the 20th is to flush out Amazing Graze.

 


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Spock Is STILL Right

I’m going to need to research and write about the fires in the arctic, the rapidly melting glaciers, the latest legal/political developments and so on, but I still lack the time and energy for a well-researched “explainer” post. But I have reached a conclusion I would like to share with you; Spock is still right.

A Moment of Star Trek

About two weeks ago, I went over to the house of my sister and brother-in-law. My sister was asleep, but the others were watching an episode of Star Trek (the original series). It was the one where Spock and a shuttlecraft full of people get stranded on a planet with hostile natives–meanwhile, the Enterprise is urgently needed elsewhere and must leave in just a few days. The stranded group know they must repair their shuttlecraft by a certain deadline or there will be no ship waiting for them. The deadline comes and goes before the shuttlecraft finally makes it off the surface with only enough power for a couple of orbits. The Enterprise has already left. Things seem hopeless. But then Spock, the logical one, does something very odd–he ignites the last of their fuel all at once, producing a large, green flare, trying to signal the ship. He has no reason to believe the Enterprise is still close enough to see the flare, and using all the fuel means they will de-orbit and crash within a few minutes–and yet the Enterprise DOES see them (it was traveling much more slowly than it had been ordered to) and rescue them. Later, the other officers razz Spock on his illogical, emotional action. He insists he had acted quite logically. They tell him he is stubborn. He agrees.

“Spock is right, though,” said my brother-in-law, afterwards.

He explained that when you’re facing certain disaster, putting everything you have into an extreme long-shot possibility of survival is entirely logical. Given a choice between no chance and a small chance to get something you really have to have (like life!), the small chance is better than none–and it is worth all available resources.

I agreed, but I also understood the unspoken subtext. I knew that a hospice worker had come to visit that morning about my sister and that my brother-in-law was still researching possible cures.

Back on Earth

Last night, I found myself sitting on a Greyhound bus next to a talkative and friendly–but very drunk–thirty-something man who told me all about his dreams for his future, expressed interest in my new book, and paused about every twenty minutes to tell me how smart and wonderful he thinks I am. There was nothing scary or obnoxious about him. In fact, he reminded me very much of a young child, and I like young children. I gathered that he’s had a hard time of it lately, and that getting drunk and hopping on interstate buses in the middle of the night is probably not his normal mode of operation. I doubt I saw him at his best and I hope he ends up OK.

But somewhere around Dover we got to talking about climate change and he admitted that he is very sad and very scared. He wondered if it might be too late to do anything.

I told him it’s never too late to try, and advised him to study up and get involved. Maybe he will. If you ever find a food truck in South Carolina serving Spanish/Asian fusion and advertising organic, low-carbon-footprint, locally-grown food, tip generously and tell the owner I said hi.

You never know from where the help we need might come.

Endings

Spock was right to trigger the flare because the Enterprise saw it and saved the day. If the ending of the episode had been different, if the Enterprise had not seen the flare, would Spock have been wrong?

In fact, my sister never woke up that night. The Enterprise didn’t come back. The landing party are all dead.

Spock is still right.

Because the logic actually is impeccable. What else are you going to do, sit around doing nothing in the face of disaster? Why?

Hope is not a technique for making what you want happen, so when you act on hope and the thing you hoped for doesn’t pan out, it’s not that your hope didn’t work. But while to try is no guarantee of success, not trying does pretty much guarantee failure–and sometimes miracles do happen.

So is it too late to do something about climate change? You’re still alive, aren’t you?

Go ahead, give it what you’ve got. Make a green flare.