more thoughts on reducing impact

My post from a few days back on reducing discretionary travel started an interesting conversation among some friends in the cleantech engineering community. I basically asked why people generally don’t take significant steps to reduce their GHG impact, and I singled out discretionary long-distance travel as a particularly obvious example of the phenomenon. Brandon replied with a couple of interesting thoughts. First, that we take our cues as to what constitutes reasonable behavior from our social group, and don’t even consciously consider alternatives that don’t correspond. He lives in the city, and puzzles over the quantities of trash that are thrown in his yard (or, “doaahyaahd,” as we would say back in Maine) :

Mysteriously, of the thousands of hours I have spent walking around neighborhoods with other people, I have never– seriously, never– seen one of my friends throw trash in anyone’s yard, and I have never done so myself. I suspect that I live in a culture where littering is unacceptable, but I live in a city where a decent fraction of the population lives in a culture where littering is normal. It’s not that I think about throwing trash on the street every day but decide not to– I don’t even think of it.

He also makes the point [through a strange but humorously contrived example related to the flooding of my nonexistent basement] that we are accustomed to environmental problems being solved by relatively transparent and painless technology replacements, where the massive scale of the climate change problem calls for drastic modifications to our way of life.

He concludes by proposing (I think) that we need people presenting themselves as concrete examples of an alternative, low-carbon lifestyle. He makes this point by reference to the fabrication of something called a zoopraxiscope, which (unfortunately for the force of his argument) is a nigh-useless contraption that, if you built one, would end up decaying in the rain in your backyard – I know this because I was once involved in the construction of a human-scale hamster wheel. But, in any case I take his points.

Max writes (in a private email), asking why I single out air travel. He’s a resident of SF and a car-less bicycle commuter; his one climate vice is international travel. He has every right to ask; for all I know his carbon impact is less than mine, and it is certainly true that we hose the polar bears in exact proportion to the quantity of climate forcing that we are responsible for, regardless of how we produce it.

My answer (for what it’s worth) is basically that cutting out discretionary travel is an explicit sacrifice, and I postulate that sacrifice – sacrifice that makes social waves; sacrifice that makes people take notice – is what’s necessary. I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing anything by doing the various things I do that could be considered environmentally friendly, and so I don’t feel that I have any moral standing to call on other people to sacrifice. I save money by driving a small efficient car; a small house is cheaper, easier to clean, and easier to find things in; I prefer the feel of a wood fire to central heat, and obviously I enjoy gardening, growing fruit, and the like. I’d be willing to bet that Max prefers the lifestyle of living in the city etc., and enjoys the other ways he can spend the money he saves by not driving. Clearly people (including me) derive feelings of moral rectitude from the environmentally-friendly lifestyle choices they find themselves making, but if you ask me in what ways I’ve actually sacrificed to reduce my carbon emissions – not much there. And I resist the idea that we should feel justified in indulgences so long as our impact is below the national average – since it’s a global problem, I think we would have a case if we could get our emissions to fall below the median global value – but that’s a tough hurdle indeed.

On the other hand, if I decide not to road-trip out to Wyoming to go hiking next summer, or tell family members that I’m not going to fly across the country to see them, or decline to jet down to the Virgin Islands to spend a week with Kauf and Kelsey on their boat, it does two things. Obviously it reduces my impact (unless I decide to torch off a few hundred gallons of kerosene in my back yard instead), but it also makes a public statement about what I think is and isn’t socially acceptable behavior. Kind of like the one punk giving the other punk a hard time about throwing an empty 40 in Brandon’s yard – maybe the other guy tells him to screw off, but maybe, just maybe, it helps to begin a shift in the balance of norms.

[As an aside, I think air travel is insidious for a couple other reasons. First, through some chemical mechanism I don’t fully understand, the climate impact of putting exhaust in the upper atmosphere is apparently about 3x greater than burning the same fuel at ground level – maybe someone can fill me in on why this is, but the net effect is, you get more global warming for your transportation dollar. Perhaps more importantly, flying is much quicker than driving, so there is the potential for obscene levels of emissions among the true jet-set, and it’s not viscerally obvious what you’re doing, in the sense that it is (painfully so these days I imagine) when you stick your credit card in the machine and pump your Hummer full of no-lead. It’s kind of like the difference between clubbing someone to death (obviously the work of a vicious homicidal brute) and vaporizing an Afghani wedding party with a laser-guided bomb (collateral damage, at most a deplorable lack of restraint). There’s a growing body of psychological and philosophical work suggesting that our morality, far from operating in idealistic detachment, embeds telltale signs of its evolutionary provenance, including disproportionate condemnation of direct mano-a-mano transgressions, conflation of status with purity, and other historical debris. Attaching the appropriate moral weight to air travel requires taking this into account. Check out an S. Pinker piece in the NYT, which relates the Trolley and Fat Man Problems:

Trolley: a runaway railcar is hurtling down a track about to kill 5 people. You stand at the switch and can divert the car onto a siding, killing one man – do you do it?.

Fat Man: there is no siding, but a large object thrown in front of the car would slow it down, allowing the five to escape. A fat man is standing beside you. Do you push him in front of the train?

In surveys most people would throw the switch, but far fewer would push the fat man, even though from a utilitarian standpoint there’s no difference in outcome – therein lies the real genius of cruise missiles.]

Still, at the end of the day, impact is impact, no doubt. But there’s an added twist for those of us in the renewable energy business – clearly we could significantly reduce our own personal GHG impact by, for example, becoming solar hermits (or committing suicide). But, as Max asks, isn’t it better for us to spend energy (in technology development, political action, etc) in order to decrease the impact of large groups of people? It’s a question with real impact on my life, since I could probably find an engineering job (likely not in renewables) within bicycling distance of my house if I tried, but instead I drive to Boston once a week as part of my work for a photovoltaics startup company. [My wife is in medical school here in NH, so moving down there isn’t an attractive option for another couple years.] I think that on balance it’s the right thing to do, but obviously I have personal reasons to feel that way, regardless of the actual merits of the situation.

In the end, we can make all kinds of justifications, and our peers will surely sympathize, since they are spewing climate mayhem in more-or-less equal measure, but the real question is: what kind of justification can we make to the polar bear, or to the poor impoverished soul living 2 feet above sea level in Bangladesh, looking down the barrel of the next typhoon? And, will it hold water?

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