My Turn: I own a hybrid car and rooftop solar. Yet I cannot live a principled, middle-class life and also live sustainably.
Blame climate change, including all the worries that come with it, on me. I’m the problem, and it looks like I’ll be the problem until my final days.
Alaskan salmon is one of the world’s richest sources of omega-3 fats, so it’s on my diet. Potatoes from local grocers come from Idaho (or Peru), rice and chicken from Arkansas, fruits and vegetables from Mexico, beef from Nebraska and quinoa from the Andes Mountains. I buy French and Argentine wine.
What a diet.
The result of this far-flung diet is three or four tons every year of additional atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), and CO2 causes climate change.
I could eat an exclusively local, vegetarian diet for about a quarter of that amount, but I’m not willing to sacrifice any luxury, or invest the money and discipline.
I ride a bicycle to lots of places for work and play, but I also drive a hybrid car about 6,000 miles a year, which adds nearly two more tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year. I fly three or four times a year, and that doubles my total travel-related CO2.
I could do more business via Skype, GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts, but traveling is cool and going to conferences makes me feel important. So I travel widely, although I know it has a significant impact on climate change. I justify it by thinking I’m more influential in the flesh than solely through my ideas, and I’m fulfilled by being well-traveled.
My 1960s home is reasonably efficient, and 1400 square feet for one person puts me in the global housing elite. I have insanely conservationist home energy habits, rooftop solar, and an energy demand manager.
But I still use a lot of electricity from SRP, and those 6,000 kilowatt-hours add another three tons of CO2 to the air.
Compared to most of humanity, I’ve got a lot of stuff. I really need some of it, like clothes, furniture and electronic devices.
I buy things on eBay, Craigslist and at thrift stores, and reusing consumer goods reduces my climate footprint. But I’m also a product of our consumerism culture, and I devour my share of unnecessary new things.
Materialism, planned obsolescence, overpackaging, global transport of goods and the tyranny of single-use items (think fast food and bottled water) foster my overconsumption of both materials and energy. I am weak in the face of these forces.
I faithfully recycle paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, steel, cardboard, electronics and yard waste. I use a backyard composter.
Still, hundreds of pounds of things I’ve used only briefly go to the landfill each year. My performance isn’t bad compared to the average urbanite, but it’s still a several-fold increase over my grandparents’ rate of waste generation. The things I use and their residual waste load the atmosphere with another two or three tons of CO2 every year.
Finally, I use the services of schools, hospitals and other public buildings, roads, public utilities and parks. My share of constructing and operating these facilities is about two more tons of CO2 each year.
All of this sums to 15 or more tons per year of atmospheric CO2, even though I work really hard to live responsibly.
But why bother figuring how much CO2 my life adds to the atmosphere?
Because this is the honest way to define my responsibility for climate change, and by extension, for climate-related environmental, geopolitical and economic problems, current and inevitable.
If each of the world’s 7.6 billion people lived as I do, the climate crisis would be three or four times worse than it already is. Hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts and extreme heat waves would become more frequent, less predictable and more expensive, sooner.
Our farms, cities, industries and the natural environment would be less stable, more endangered and less functional, sooner.
I live like a king and plunder the planet like a profligate pirate, while claiming reverence for Mother Earth. But in our community, under current policies, using available technologies, I cannot live a principled, middle-class life and also live sustainably. This bugs me.
Nevertheless, the record speaks for itself, and you can blame me for the climate crisis. I apologize to my sons, to the world’s children and to future generations.
Nick Brown lives in the McDowell Corridor of Scottsdale. He is a member of the Salt River Project board of directors and a sustainability consultant. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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