The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


wind towers in stormy weather

Well, I can’t write the post that I was going to write. Or rather, I can write it, but it’s going to have to have a great big caveat at the end.

So, somewhat short version of original idea; I’ll put it all in quotes—

“Fear sells. Fear is a powerful meme. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck know this, and use it every day. Those predicting the collapse of the dollar and a return to gold know it, and use it every day. The evening news knows it. Some environmentalists know it, and are super-quick with the scary statistics. It’s how they keep their audiences. As for me—I’m not going to go there, I find it intellectually dishonest. If the news is good, the news is good, if it’s bad, it’s bad. We need to do our best to see things exactly like they are to make wise and thoughtful decisions.

“So yesterday’s post about potentially getting carbon-free power from coal was a bit of good news. And there are other bits—take the fact that U.S. renewable energy production has roughly doubled in the last decade, and about 13% of U.S. electricity production is now renewable. Or another fact—U.S. carbon emissions are their lowest since the early 1990’s, as are the U.K.’s. The problem with good news in this particular situation is that I’m pretty sure it causes people to quit paying attention. It gives hope, and takes the fear of disaster away; our images of a Soylent Green future begin to recede. People relax just bit, and assume that somebody is fixing something, and we’ll pull out of it. Thoughtful reflection just doesn’t inspire passion. “Middle-of-the-road” is almost by definition the opposite of demagoguery. Unfortunately, when people relax, the status quo remains, and progress stops.

So, I’m going to ask everybody out there point blank to stick with this. Stick with it through the good news. After all, if we can be effective, we’re going to get some good news as things get better. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop and let someone else carry the ball—there probably is no one else, and if we stop, progress will stop.”

So that was the gist of the would-have-been post.

But, after pondering all of those thoughts yesterday, I ran across more than one piece of information that definitely didn’t qualify as good news. In fact, decidedly bad news. Both are related. Bad news #1—China builds and opens about one coal-fired power plant a week, and they have for years (nothing new there) . Everyone likes to give them a hard time about this. But—a key reason why U.S. emissions are lower? China makes so much of our stuff. If we were making it here, our emissions wouldn’t be lower. So, to simplify—we write software and they make everything from tennis shoes to dog leashes, and we trade. And when we do it that way, we effectively export much of our pollution, and our emissions, overseas. It’s one of the main reasons they need the power plants—to make our stuff. The same is true of the U.K.—they import most of their physical goods. Bad news #2—US emissions are lower, but emissions for the whole system—the whole world—are not falling. They aren’t falling, and they aren’t slowing—they’re accelerating. No sign, not one, that the system as a whole is responding in any way to more renewable power. We burn more, and more, and more fossil fuel, every single year. Last year the world released nearly 40 billion tons of CO2 into the air. This year we are on track to release even more. 1200 new power plants are being planned around the world. World population is still rising, too, though the rate has slowed. Roughly every three days there are a million more mouths to feed on the planet. Every three days. So population is going up, energy use is going up, fossil fuel use is going up, and those things also mean that the human impact on the planet is still growing. More cars, more people, more roads, more pollution, more resource extraction, more habitat destruction.

(Note, March 2015: Some of the trends in the above paragraph are starting to change—see more recent post “Glimmers of Progress“.)

I’m not sure what to do about it; it’s depressing. My basic idea hasn’t changed—there is no power on earth to change it but us; we individuals. Politicians won’t change it, not in a democracy, or at least not until a majority of the people actually want it. Companies won’t change it—they’re hard-wired for profit, and respond only to demand. But if we individuals vote with our dollars when we spend, reduce our own carbon footprints, invest what we don’t spend in “green” projects and companies, and actively participate in our local environmental issues, if we “start switching” ourselves to the extent that we can, and stick with it—then together we can effect change, house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, country by country, and continent by continent. There is no other way that I can see to change the course of the system. Eventually there will be some critical mass, and political solutions can be voted into place, but we’re not quite there yet.

And I dearly wish I could have, in good faith, posted the more optimistic first version.

Tomorrow—Mr. X speaks on global warming and fossil fuel. And I still haven’t forgotten about that “Walmart post”—I’ll get to it here sometime soon.

Image credit: kasto / 123RF Stock Photo