I read something today that left me convinced we’re hopelessly lost. To explain why, I first want to start out by sharing a quote from John Michael Greer:
“Imagine, dear reader, that instead of talking about stopping climate change, we were talking about stopping rape. Imagine that there were big organizations dedicated to stopping rape, and curiously enough, most of their membership consisted of serial rapists. Imagine, then, that people pointed out to the serial rapists that if they really wanted to stop rape, they ought to start by not committing any more rapes themselves — and every time, the serial rapists responded by insisting that you can’t stop rape by just having the members of anti-rape organizations give up raping people, that the problem’s much bigger than that, and how can they find a way to communicate to everyone in the world that rape is wrong? The answer, of course, is that they can’t, because nobody will take them seriously until they themselves stop committing rape.”
The whole post is worth reading, but that’s the argument summarized. Well today, I stumbled upon a schoolbook example of this problem. The author of this piece is a Phd student in Vermont. He was invited to a conference on Ecomodernism, where he would defend the idea of degrowth, that is, shrinking the size of the economy to reduce our environmental impact. Ecomodernism rejects the idea of degrowth and insists we need to look for technofixes to our problem, so the Phd student was invited as a devil’s advocate of sorts.
So, here’s the gist of it: They offered him tickets, to fly to San Francisco, for this conference that lasts an entirety of three days. And so the author went there, to defend the idea of degrowth. But the joke of course is: By flying to their conference, he disproved his own point. If he, the proponent of degrowth, is unwilling to say no to the most excessive and unnecessary of resource-intense economic activities, how is degrowth going to serve as a source of policy, applied to seven billion people?
The carbon footprint of a round-trip flight from Vermont to San Francisco, is 1.5 ton. That’s roughly what five Kenyans emit, over an entire year. So, the author disproved his own argument, as soon as he set his foot into the airplane. If you’re arguing in favor of degrowth, you’re arguing in favor of a reduction in our standard of living. The most excessive and unsustainable aspect of our standard of living, is the fact that we engage in air travel. Most of us lived perfectly fine without air travel, just thirty or forty years ago. And if you wonder why nobody takes the academic ivory tower environmentalists seriously, ask yourself how many have stopped flying.
Air travel is not something that can become “sustainable”. Paul Peters received his Phd, by pointing out this simple fact. You can’t run commercial air flights on electricity. Air travel requires carbon-based fuels, which means you’re emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, at levels that can’t be sustained without causing a global catastrophe. And everything else you do, pales in comparison. One round-trip between London and Amsterdam is equal in climate impact to a thousand big macs. One flight between Barcelona and Amsterdam exceeds five years of savings from using LED lights in your house.
I don’t want to leave the impression here that I’m unfairly singling someone out. I’m sure the irony must have entered the mind of the author in question. I like to think the author is sincerely passionate about degrowth, this post should be considered as my advice from an outside perspective. The reason I feel the need to zoom in on this particular case, is because it perfectly illustrates the kind of mentality that has generated a massive rift between the environmental movement on one hand and the general public on the other.
The author insists for example, on repeatedly bemoaning the fact that he found himself surrounded by white males. If there’s anything that normal people don’t like, it’s being insulted on the basis of characteristics they did not choose. I am well aware it’s very fashionable in academic circles to practice self-flagellation if you’re part of this demographic category, but outside of your ivory tower people generally like to think of themselves as individuals who should be judged on the basis of their own merit. One of those meritorious characteristics we white male peasants outside of the academic ivory tower tend to use to judge people favorably, is when they choose to practice what they preach. It’s definitely worth a try.