Monday, October 15, 2007

A New Age

Today is "Blog Action Day" and the theme is the environment. Don't worry, I'm not planning to preach at you and I'm hoping not to bore you.

In the mid-70's, during Jimmy Carter's woeful term as president, there was an energy crisis. At that time, cars lined up at gas stations and gas prices started to shoot up. People started to think about the mileage their vehicles got and traded in their old gas guzzlers for small, fuel-efficient Japanese-made cars. Awareness was fueled not by concern for the environment or the knowledge that fossil fuels were a finite resource that was going to run out someday relatively soon but by feeling a pinch in ones pocketbook.

Fast forward to the present where fossil fuels haven't become any more infinite than they were in the mid-70's and people still continue to consume up to their financial capacity to do so. Before the war in Iraq and spiking gas prices, more and more people were driving around SUVs they didn't really need and offering up flimsy rationales for doing so. When the bottom started to drop out of the tech boom and flash in the pan companies closed their doors, people started to scale back a bit and think about smaller vehicles and gas costs. Once more, awareness came from the wallet rather than from the conscience.

The summers keep getting hotter and records for the "hottest day ever" are being regularly broken, but people really don't care because they can afford air conditioning. Once more, they continue to consume energy, fuel, and materials up to their capacity to pay rather than their capacity to endure discomfort. And why shouldn't they? Most folks live better than medieval kings and feel they deserve a comfortable castle to live in since they work so hard and paid so much for their surroundings.

There are many problems with getting people to act based on their conscience rather than their bank accounts. One is people cannot resist the psychological impulse to live in denial. Mainly, this pertains to the need to believe our actions have nothing to do with global warming. I knew in my 9th grade chemistry class in 1979 that our actions were tossing heat back into the environment at an alarming rate. It's chemically impossible for most human activities not to do so. Knowledge, however, cannot compete with the awesome power of the ego and how it can manipulate any situation to suit it's desires. We can justify any action if it increases our creature comfort level with a smug sense of entitlement or by adjusting or rejecting the facts as we see fit. If all other rationalizations or attempts at denial fail, there is always misplaced confidence in technology. A lot of people feel we need not worry now because science will save us later.

Beyond denial though, there is the fact that even if we want to act more in accord with what we feel is right, we can't get a sense that our sacrifices matter. The impact of sitting in the heat all summer and being so uncomfortable you think you might faint to save energy and heat generation is infinitessimal compared to the impact of all human activity. It also doesn't help that you can see hazes of heat in front of your neighbors' external air conditioner vents as they cool their homes at maximum power while you suffer.

What this all really boils down to is a test of character. It has nothing to do with politics or scientific beliefs but about your ability to endure inconvenience and discomfort for the good of the environment and future generations (or your own comfort in your old age). I've known staunch liberals who preach the gospel of Gore who have turned on their heaters rather than wear a sweater. Acting in ways that are bad for the environment in many cases is a failure of character, not a failure to understand the problem or what needs to be done. It's the sort of failure that is far more common in this age than it was even 50 years ago because we're all terribly spoiled yet convince ourselves that we aren't very well off.

It's a test our grandparents (and other ancestors), who valued re-use of old, beat up things over status-based consumption of shiny, stylish new things and who didn't have the money to mitigate every discomfort, would have easily passed, but we, with our superior access to information and expanding scientific knowledge, fail miserably at. What this shows is that we live in a very different age than our grandparents. Ours is the age where we attach more value to a person based on material possessions and money than that person's character. The measure of man is not in his will but in his wallet.

When was the last time anyone walked into another person's home and said something like 'I see you're using that same refrigerator that you've had for 15 years, it's good to see you making the most of the material that went into it.' You're far more likely to hear, 'wow, you bought a new Cold Blaster Ice-O-Matic Wired Freezinator that tells you when you need milk!' I actually had a student say essentially this sort of thing to me when she noticed I'd bought a new oven. She said she wished hers would break down so she'd have an excuse to buy a new one because she didn't like the way the door on her oven opened from a hinge on the side rather than a hinge on the bottom. The value for her was in how the oven looked, not in how it worked. This is pretty common thinking in the age we currently live in where people scoff at others who still use old models of various devices as if doing so indicated a lack of taste or style. This is another indication of a lack of good character as the psychological roots of the need to deride people for their use of old possessions is a need to feel superior based on one's superior financial capability to consume.

In the near future, regardless of the reasons for global warming, we will be forced to live in a new age. Just as our grandparents had to get by on less sugar, nylon, rubber, etc. during World War II because of a scarcity of materials, we'll be forced to live differently because of diminishing fossil fuels, overwhelming amounts of trash, increased average temperatures, higher energy prices, reduced food sources and more disease and pestilence from the overheated earth. The only question is how soon and how bad it is. Those are questions that will be answered by the strength (or weakness) of our characters.


Miko said...

I don't often think about this issue because my brain is crowded with so many other worries, but I *do* have a very big commitment to living my life as simply and frugally as possible, and I believe that I'm on the right track to reducing my ecological footprint as a result.

1. I don't own a car, and rely either on footpower or public transport (admittedly this is very easy to do in a Japanese city, in fact it would probably be much harder to get around in a car).

2. My son and I live in a manner that would be considered downright spartan by others. For example, we don't have running hot water in either the kitchen or bathroom sink, and we rely on a basic gas heater for the shower water. We try to limit our showers to less than five minutes. We buy only foods that require minimal cooking time. We even unplug all our appliances when we aren't using them. Tumble dryer? What's that?

3. This year we made a resolution to not buy any new clothing or shoes at all (traditionally we bought new gear every season) and not to worry about following fashions. I admit that it's been hard, because my image is very important to me, but I'm doing okay so far. I'm embarrassed to say that I have so many clothes that it'll take me a good decade or two to wear them all out.

4. One of my hobbies is travelling around Japan. I'm making an effort to stop flying everywhere, but it's really hard to forgo the convenience, and sometimes not feasible (I mean, one can hardly take a train to Okinawa!). In the meantime, I'm thinking about staying closer to home, rather than going to far-flung destinations. Or even - gasp! - not leaving home in the first place.

I know that ecologically my life is not perfect (the only way it would be perfect is if I died and stopped being a burden on the planet) but I think I'm doing pretty well, all things considered.

However ... I'm very sorry ... but I just cannot give up my air conditioner!

Shari said...

Miko: Except for number 4 (we don't travel hardly at all), I'm pretty much with you (and I can't give up my air conditioner but I do try to tolerate being hot as much as possible before I give in, use it on the "low power" setting as much as I can and only air condition one small room instead of the whole place). Living in Japan in the urban areas is really rough without AC. Lifestyle choices have to be considered in light of other options. People in Tokyo can literally die without their air conditioners.

My piece isn't about judging anyone. I'm not perfect either but, like you, I do test my limits and do the best I can. There are plenty of people who don't do even that much. They consume and live a lifestyle based on economics rather than their actual needs or tolerance.

tornados28 said...

Great post.

I think even little things can make a big difference if more people did it such as using compact flourescent light bulbs.

Mark said...

this is all really true. i mean i feel alot more responsible for the enviromental issues because simply im a 22 year old kid who whines when the apt is to warm. Granted i live in Orlando FL. and the public transportation system here is more flawed then a beetles recording. So i have to drive everywhere i go. what i truly wish for other then a few grammar lessons is that there would be FAR better alternatives then what we have. i mean. i know its crazy but could we not atleased try and filter our cars exhaust? i thought of this in 6th grade. but really. how hard could that possibly be. i would pay.... say... 60 a month in filters knowing it helped mother earth.

also im sure there are better alternatives then current AC tech. is there nothing we can do?

good idea about the little flourescent light bulbs. im going to get on that asap!


i guess im just a dreamer.

Shari said...

tornados28: Yes, I agree completely! People are incredibly short-sighted though and won't buy them because they are more expensive than incandescent bulbs. Unfortunately, compact flourescent bulbs are hard to find in Japan though my husband picked us up a bunch at Costco several years ago and we've been using them everywhere we can since then.

Mark: The situation in the U.S. is really tough because it's so spread out that public transport is difficult. In urban areas, it's fine but there are a lot of places where cars are the only answer. I think that there is better air conditioning technology and I'm pretty sure I'm experiencing it in Japan on new personal air conditioners but I think the larger problem is the industrial size ones in existing buildings. It's too costly to rip out or replace such systems and they're not going anywhere soon.

The problem is immense but we all have to do what little we can to the extent we can manage it.

Decaf, please said...

I also posted for the env. on blog action day at both of my blogs. One of mine is a green blog( ) , so it wasn't any different from usual really.

I try to stay positive about the environment. But I do think it's going to take some new laws to get people to give up things like HUMMERS. Really, who needs those?

I think small actions (like recycling and being conscious of what we buy) will really add up to make a big difference if enough people get involved. I don't think we all have to be hot without AC or compost our poop to make a difference.

Shari said...

While I don't think that we have to suffer horribly to improve the environment, I think that we do have to start enduring some discomfort to some small extent. After all, is it so much to ask that people put on a sweater instead of turning on the heat or that they wear layers instead of using heating?

I'm also afraid that the only way people will change will be to enact laws.

Chris said...

Great post! I've been thinking a lot about these things for a while... good to hear other people are thinking about them as well.