Don Quixote and the Battle Against Global Warming

There's been some ado recently (Time, New York Times, Shtetl-Optimized) about Schwarzenegger's wimpy proposals to cut California's carbon emmissions by... 2020... starting in... 2012.

We've also been privy to some other wimpy exhortations, notable among which was Al Gore at the Oscars about how we should all participate in doing something against climate change. Ride mass transit, Al Gore says. Switch to energy-saving lightbulbs. And so on.

When people seriously propose with long, straight faces that we should all go save this planet through individual contributions such as, hmm... driving our cars less, installing energy efficient light bulbs, and choosing paper bags over plastic bags - hearing such proposals makes me sick. It makes me sick because they're so... luddite; so missing the forrest for the trees.

Here's an anecdote. One time my father was explaining to me how he hates to eat at McDonald's because - among other things - they throw away so much packaging. (He didn't consider that washing all the plates and cups in a hygienic manner might actually make the overall pollution problem worse.) Then he complained about all the plastic bags we throw away, and how they're needlessly dispensed at every corner store. He harangued about how he hates it when he's checking out from a store and he's again forgotten to bring a plastic bag, so he needs to take yet another one from the store when he already has so many. And how this makes the pollution problem worse.

Now, here's the thing about my father. He drives some 50,000 km per year. Every year he also goes on a tourist trip by plane somewhere. I calculated he must burn some 5 or 6 metric tons of fuel per year, just for the gasoline.

That's 5 or 6 metric tons. Of fuel. That's made of oil. Which is also what those plastic bags are made of.

Now, I just weighed a plastic bag and it weighs in at about 30 grams.

Suppose my father were to switch to a car that is 1/5 more energy efficient. Or suppose that he would cut back on unnecessary trips. Or suppose that he would, god forbid, move to a more geographically suitable location to serve as the origin of his travels, such as the city, reducing the distances he needs to travel every day. (The notion of living in the city is something he's very much averse to.)

Suppose he were to do any one of these things. If, by doing so, he would cut back his annual fuel consumption by 1 metric ton alone, he would be saving the equivalent of some six hundred plastic bags per week.

But no. He worries about that one plastic bag that he gets at the shopping mall. And then he burns the equivalent of 100 plastic bags driving back home.

It can't be said he lacks an environmental consciousness. Yet what good, exactly, does it do the world?

This is why our pollution problems won't be solved by appealing to our individual environmental consciousness. Because our personal considerations, such as my father's need to live where he lives, to drive what he drives, and to go to the places he goes, are more important to each and every one of us than the abstract and intangible harm every one of us is doing.

And I say, that's okay. It's okay - because the individual level is not where the problem really is.

The real problem is not that we consume too much energy. The problem is not that our light bulbs are too wasteful. The problem is not that we drive our cars too much. The problem is not that we use and throw away our plastic bags.

The problem is that the energy we use comes from coal-based power plants. The problem is that the cars we use run on oil. The problem is that the plastic bags are not bio-degradable.

None of these are problems that need to be solved at the level of the consumer. These problems should all be solved systematically, potentially without even the end consumer having to be aware of it at all.

Here's how to solve our environment problems, if we are serious:
  • Place an immediate and global ban on the construction of all new coal or oil-based power plants.
  • Over the shortest time period possible, shut down existing coal and oil-based power plants and replace them with nuclear power.
  • This implies the West giving a helping hand to the rest of the world with nuclear power. The West must help the rest build safe, secure, and economically attractive nuclear power plants. It's either that, or they're going to pollute the world with coal and oil. Are we serious about the environment or not? If yes - we can't have that.
  • Place an immediate and global ban on the sale of new non-electric vehicles. So, electric cars have heavy batteries and aren't quite there yet? No problem. There's nothing like a ban on new polluting vehicles to help the electric vehicle technologies develop at a faster pace.
  • And finally, fix those plastic bags so that they will be bio-degradable - if this hasn't been done already.
So, rest assured; the problem is not you. Yes, it's true, we use a lot of energy; that is a property of civilization. We're only going to use more. The energy consumption alone is not the problem. We have a long way to go before it starts to be a problem; that is, when our consumption begins to approach the output of our Sun.

Until then, our problem is not how much energy we consume; the problem is how we generate it.

And here is where all those thousands of coal-based power plants and billions of internal combustion engines need to be replaced, pronto. Because that's where the climate change problem is. In the generation - not consumption.

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