Casaubon's Book

Jared Diamond Done Drunk the Kool-Aid

Last year I was invited to speak at a Green Energy Event in the West. Most such events make their actual money from their vendor halls, and this one had as one of its focal events the premier of the new Ford Hybrid, which was just being released. Thus, there were many Ford executives at the event. I arrived early to the drinks-and-food-for-the-speakers-and-vendors bit the night before the event formally began, since I had been told it would take longer for me to walk there than it did, and the only other person present from the event was a Ford executive. We got to talking – he was a lovely man who told me about his family, the community and a great deal about Ford, and after a while, we were joined by other Ford executives – until there was a table full, plus me.

They kindly asked about my work, and when I told them I was a writer about environmental issues, they started to tell me about all the environmental initiatives undertaken by Ford over the last decade or so. Apparently, the most involved Ford descendent is an active environmentalist, and they discussed water recycling, green roofs, sustainable metal production and a whole host of other things. And I found those things genuinely interesting and heartening.

Finally, the executive I’d been speaking with all this time asked me why it was that the Ford Corporation got so little credit in the media for all of its efforts to become more environmentally sustainable. Why did people pay so little attention to how hard they were working? It was a sincere question, and a legitimate one.

I answered him. “Well, you do make cars, you know.” He looked at me blankly. I continued “We can’t have a world where everyone has a private vehicle and still have a viable planet, right?”

That was pretty much the end of our discussion. The level of difference in our assumptions was simply too great – to the Ford Executives, reducing waste but continuing to make more cars made a lot of sense – and ideally, making more and more of them. The problem, however, is that as we’ve seen over the years, waste reduction in the absence of constraint leads to more efficient products – and more of them, for a net increase in energy use. What is needed, if we are to soften the simultaneous blows of climate change and energy depletion is to use dramatically fewer fossil fuels – and that’s only possible with fewer cars on the road.

Ford’s commitment then can only go so far – they can engage in small refinements and reduce waste, reduce toxic outputs. But the base issue that we face – the enormous pressure for endless growth in the economy, which is always accompanied by rising resource use – one cannot expect the Ford corporation to participate in anything that will reduce its profits. Thus it may be an ally in metal recycling, but its underlying goal is to make and sell as many cars as possible, and this will always be so.

I thought about that conversation when I read Jared Diamond’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times this weekend. Jared Diamond is the author of a number of important books, including the best-sellers _Guns, Germs and Steel_ and _Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail_. In _Collapse_ Diamond tracks the choices societies make and articulates the ways that our own society is in danger of failing. He’s written a number of important pieces on ecological issues, and drawn attention to the role of environmental degradation in civil conflict.

He’s also apparently gone completely insane. His essay “Will Big Business Save the Earth” shows precisely the incomprehension of scale that the Ford Executive showed – except that Diamond should know better, while the executive in question probably didn’t. HIs essay, motivated by time spent on the boards of environmental agencies hanging out with business executives says that he’s changed his opinion about large corporations, and he gives examples – WalMart, Chevron and Coca Cola of how “good corporate citizens” can help address global warming. He writes,

“Let’s start with Wal-Mart. Obviously, a business can save money by finding ways to spend less while maintaining sales. This is what Wal-Mart did with fuel costs, which the company reduced by $26 million per year simply by changing the way it managed its enormous truck fleet. Instead of running a truck’s engine all night to heat or cool the cab during mandatory 10-hour rest stops, the company installed small auxiliary power units to do the job. In addition to lowering fuel costs, the move eliminated the carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to taking 18,300 passenger vehicles off the road.

Wal-Mart is also working to double the fuel efficiency of its truck fleet by 2015, thereby saving more than $200 million a year at the pump. Among the efficient prototypes now being tested are trucks that burn biofuels generated from waste grease at Wal-Mart’s delis. Similarly, as the country’s biggest private user of electricity, Wal-Mart is saving money by decreasing store energy use.”

And I will cheerfully agree that all of these are good things. He might have mentioned other environmental initiatives my WalMart as well, including their investment in organics. There is no doubt that these things reduce WalMart’s enormous negative impact.

The problem is that it isn’t enough. WalMart still makes its living selling goods made of toxic plastics, mostly imported from China at tremendous fossil energy cost. The goods are mostly of poor quality and not durable, and encourage people to discard items into landfills and replace them with more cheap goods.

The same goes for the other groups – it is wonderful, sincerely that Coca-Cola is so concerned with water resources, and indubitably, Coke is now a better citizen than it once was, and its investment in cleaning up contaminated water is an unadulterated good. That said, it would be an overstatement to say that Coke always operates in the best interest of communities – a 2008 report by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) suggests, for example, that the Coke bottling plant located in Kala Dera near Jaipur India knowingly located its plant in an area of water scarcity, causing serious consequences for nearby farmers. Coke refused to release its own environmental impact studies. It would also be an overstatement to suggest that Coke has been acting from its own interests – in fact, it has bowed to pressure from a student campaign to remove Coke products from universities.

But the major problem isn’t whether Coke is good or bad, it is whether we can afford, in a world of rapidly increasing water scarcity to prioritize resources for something as non-essential as sugar-water. Can we afford to ship water mixed with a few other ingredients around the world, using fossil fuels? Moreover, what happens when Coke’s eternal need to expand its market runs up against material limits? Can we expect Coke to voluntarily say “ok, enough growth, enough market share, other people need that water for agriculture and drinking?”

Diamond goes on to explore the issue of climate change, and why we have to do something about it. And he’s absolutely right. So what does that mean? We can see from “The Copenhagen Diagnosis” the recent updated review of climate literature that the scale of the problem will rapidly bring the limits of corporate good citizenship into clear view.

The Copenhagen Diagnosis, overshadowed in many place by the East Anglia Climate Scandals, was a review of all the major climate papers published since the latest IPCC report, and the picture it paints is deeply disturbing. The window for radical action is getting much, much smaller very rapidly. For example, we’ve seen rapidly increasing greenhouse emissions – and increases not just in the Global South, but in the developed world as well. That is, despite all this good citizenship, in the net, we’re still doing way too much harm.

The window for action is very small – the Copenhagen Diagnosis suggests that if we don’t make rapid changes by 2015, it won’t matter even if we drop emissions to 0 by 2030. Does anyone think that corporate good citizenship is going to make a critical difference in emissions drops on that scale? The truth is that small refinements in energy usage don’t address the more basic issue – the need for deeply curtailed fossil fuel emissions. And that curtailment is something that corporations just can’t do – they have an obligation to make more and earn more for their shareholders. Even the best willed, kindest CEO on the planet can’t do what is most needed.

The only people who can are governments, and us. That is, we can stop giving our money to these large corporations, get the vending machines out of our schools and our neighborhoods, stop shopping at WalMart and stop driving so much so we can cut our Chevron usage. And we can ultimately deal with climate change as we must – on the appropriate scale. At this point, all claims that addressing climate change will magically be painless and easy should be completely off the table. The truth is that someone will have to create public transportation and disincentives for buying private cars. The truth is that someone will have to regulate Coca-Cola and say they simply can’t have plants in places where water stresses are profound – or going to be. And we will have to stop buying so much gas and driving so much. There is no other way, and we should not fantasize that corporations will act against their own basic interests.

Jared Diamond seems to have missed one of the central observations of his own _Collapse_ – that when societies actually avert collapse, the tend to do so with strong levels of prohibition and regulation. That is, Japan didn’t ask the gun manufacturers to self-regulate, they prohibited the use of guns entirely. The reason the Dominican Republic is so much better off than Haiti isn’t because people refined their logging practices, but because they restricted them.

And that’s how we’ve dealt with massive crises in the US, in Britain, in other countries in the past – we’ve gone to a war footing, and engaged in restriction. Famously, Niels Bohr claimed that the only way we could produce the atom bomb was to turn the entire nation into a factory – and we effectively did. In World War II, the car companies stopped making cars and made bombers, the clothing companies made uniforms, toy companies made weapons. We had restrictions on sugar, corsets, gas and tires, meat, and metals. The only way we’ve ever rapidly changed our society’s practices and consumption is by radically limiting both personal and industrial options. It isn’t pleasant or easy, but if there was to be a chance of dealing with climate change, it would have to begin by rapidly and radically reducing our emissions, and corporations simply can’t do that.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 John Andersen
    December 8, 2009

    Sharon,

    Thanks for focusing this where it needs to be: on the individuals who need to change from the inside out.

    There is a lot of confidence and empowerment to be felt when you simply take your dollars away from the big corps and put them into local businesses. Also, nothing beats walking for clearing the mind, not to mention the arteries.

    I hope a critical mass of people figure this out, and instead of fantasizing that some miracle will save us, actually find the will roll up their sleeves, and do the dirty work themselves.

  2. #2 Jen
    December 8, 2009

    What worries me about our future is individual will to conform. Supposedly we are a conforming nation, but what we have “conformed” to is a life of leisure and excess. I think boomers and under have been brainwashed into expecting to have more stuff and that it is right to do so. My bil for example just bought a 1200 sqft house. He is single and owns a fairly large HD TV, but has plans to buy TWO more for other rooms in his house. He only has 6 rooms in the entire house! He says he can afford it and why not? Why not is the big hurdle. Getting people to move to a place of why would you rather than the current why bother?

  3. #3 Susan in NJ
    December 8, 2009

    I haven’t read Diamond’s op ed piece but I find your summary sadly disturbing. One of the things I took away from Collapse was the story of the polynesian society that in order to live with limited resources entirely eliminated pigs, a high status commodity. Since then I’ve often asked myself what is the “pig” in our society (as in high status commodity/necessity that if eliminated could dramatically affect society) and one of my answers has been the private passenger vehicle (car).

  4. #4 Stacy
    December 8, 2009

    Follow the money–who signs Mr. Diamond’s paychecks? USC’s corporate donors?

  5. #5 Greenpa
    December 8, 2009

    Sharon, I made this comment over on TAE yesterday; if I may I’ll copy it here, since it covers another aspect of “koolaid drinking”-

    I’m quite terrified of brilliant men getting old. I’ve been deeply personally scarred by several; who as they aged did indeed change their mental function, in the directions of senile dementia. They can be quite riddled with it for years; and their old friends will volcanically deny it and refuse to see it, not wanting to “dishonor” them. With the full force of the human mind’s propensity for cognitive dissonance.

    I read it- and it sounds very very much to me like he has fallen for a standard tactic of the big corporations.

    All that time he spent with board members from the big nasties? Yep, it’s hard to drink wine and beer with somebody repeatedly, and continue to see them as evil. Eventually- you start to listen to them. That’s the reason they’re there.

    Here’s the ploy from up top: those guys on the environmental boards are very carefully chosen, and placed there by top- evil- management. The board guys do NOT know this.

    Job qualifications:

    Must be Salt of the Earth.
    Earnest and Honest and Hardworking
    Faithful (to company, but also in general)
    Lifetime employee.
    Not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

    You have to find people who owe a lot to the company- have “good” qualifications- and are just dumb and faithful enough to buy, wholesale, what the company puts out in its press releases. Hey, we wouldn’t lie.

    Then- they go out and sell it- with the full power of sincere belief. And- they’re nice guys. Good people. They really are. You’d be delighted to have them babysit your kids.

    Dangerous as hell.

    If you dissect Diamond’s “logic” in the article; he’s bought the party line; and done no re-examination of his own. Hook, line, and sinker. And yes, I’d guess it’s because of his age.

    No one is immune. Neither you; nor I. Stewart Brand now believes nuclear power is our savior.

    Pretty grim.

  6. #6 dewey
    December 8, 2009

    Lovelock seems to me completely bonkers, ranting that climate change will reduce humanity to “breeding pairs at the poles” yet refusing to curtail his own flying, etc., because if we’re all doomed he might as well make sure that he consumes as great a share of the remaining resources as he can get. I have wondered whether he was actually like that when he earned his international reputation, or whether it’s some kind of dementia.

    Hi Sharon, the new blog and the chicken banner look great!

  7. #7 Greenpa
    December 8, 2009

    Jen: “Supposedly we are a conforming nation, but what we have “conformed” to is a life of leisure and excess. I think boomers and under have been brainwashed into expecting to have more stuff and that it is right to do so.”

    I have one literary example that may cheer you: From Earnest Thompson Seton’s “Two Little Savages” 1903- (this is the book, incidentally, that documents the actual origin of the Boy Scouts) -

    Sam (a boy of 14 or so humorously sententious):

    “It’s this’yere cravin’ for morbid excitement that’s ruinen’ all the young fellers these days.”

    The cravin’ has been around a good long while- though I’d agree it’s been amplified by our consumer orientation. :-)

  8. #8 Shamba
    December 8, 2009

    Is is possible that Jared Diamond isn’t developing dementia/senility but is simply trying to see some hope for for solutions to our monumental problems at the end of his life?

    Certainly, what Greenpa has described happens, but I also think that as people reach a certain age, they see that those on the “other side” of their most cherished beliefs are not evil–or most aren’t anyway–but trying to do what they believe is true with the best of intentions. Their best intentions though may not be enough to solve the problems they face.

    JMHO, of course.

    Peace to All,
    Shamba

  9. #9 Russ Finley
    December 8, 2009

    Diamond isn’t senile.

    As individuals we can have no meaningful impact on global warming. If everyone in America drove a Prius we would reduce global warming gas production 1 percent. If we stopped driving and stayed at home (ignoring heating and cooling costs of doing so) we would reduce GHG 2 percent. If we also stopped heating our homes with gas and oil, 3 percent.

    This is going to take massive industrial change. I realize these figures sound depressing but they are real. I put together a spreadsheet not long ago to see what impact I could have. It can be found here:

    http://biodiversivist.blogspot.com/2009/10/wwf-study-puts-global-warming-into.html

  10. #10 Susan in NJ
    December 8, 2009

    And um, Sharon, I’m loving the juxaposition of ads that I’m getting with this column — shop Macy’s and “my Lincoln wishlist” (that would be car, not President).

  11. #11 Martijn
    December 8, 2009

    Jared Diamond seems to have missed one of the central observations of his own _Collapse_ – that when societies actually avert collapse, the tend to do so with strong levels of prohibition and regulation.

    Not really, just read what he writes in the concluding paragraph of his article:

    My friends in the business world keep telling me that Washington can help on two fronts: by investing in green research, offering tax incentives and passing cap-and-trade legislation; and by setting and enforcing tough standards to ensure that companies with cheap, dirty standards don’t have a competitive advantage over those businesses protecting the environment.

  12. #12 Greenpa
    December 8, 2009

    Russ Finely: “As individuals we can have no meaningful impact on global warming. ”

    You are confused. Since we’re speaking in absolutes.

    You are under the impression that government and corporations shape individual behavior.

    Not true. If you’d spent any time in marketing or politics- you would know that both entities FOLLOW trends already set- by… wait for it… individuals!

    Specifically – “early adopters” – whom others, in the millions, then follow.

    I could, with veracity equal to your own, make the inverse statement: it is ONLY as individuals that we can affect global climate change.
    :-)

  13. #13 Sharon Astyk
    December 8, 2009

    Martijn, the problem is that the kind of regulation that large corporations want is enough to give them advantage, but not enough to hurt them. But what happens when (I don’t say “if” here, but when) we run up against the basic problem that those large industries are themselves part of the problem? I think Diamond does miss the point – he’s talking about the kind of regulation that would be corporate-friendly, even if that isn’t good enough to prevent the worst climate impacts.

    Russ, I can view your pie chart, but not change any of the values either in view or download, nor can I see any of the sources of your claims. That said, I’m not disagreeing with you – I’m hardly advocating for individual action alone, quite the contrary. What I’m advocating is more industrial change than corporations themselves will ever fully accomodate – and that requires that we recognize that corporate support will only ever go so far, and be prepared to deal with that.

    I admit, I don’t think that WWF report is the best possible answer to what we need to do. For example, I think the very fact that they take CCS as seriously as they do suggests that they don’t quite get it. Moreover, they are using older numbers on climate change – the emerging consensus that the critical carbon accumulation is 350, makes it a lot harder to accomplish what they are hoping to accomplish.

    Sharon

  14. #14 Sharon Astyk
    December 8, 2009

    Susan, I know, I know. This is the price of my blogging here. It is pretty funny, isn’t it.

    Re:personal action, I think a lot of this tends to come down to what you define as personal. In the aggregate, you can demonstrate that an individual vote makes almost no difference, unless, of course, it does, and you happen to have a hanging chad if Florida. What governments do depends a lot on the personal preferences of the voters – but moreover, the whole funding system of industrial society depends 70% on private consumption. In all these questions, it depends on how you draw the circle – but it is sort of a red herring anyway, since no one is saying “only personal choice matters here” – we all agree that it is more complex than that.

    Sharon

  15. #15 Jerah
    December 8, 2009

    I’m with Greenpa on this (and most other things, it seems). I think Mr. Diamond has lost it.

    And he’s definitely spending too much time with the wrong people. Sitting next to nice corporate environmental reps and then trying to evaluate the impact of corporations on our environment is like sitting next to Goldman Sachs reps and trying to evaluate the impact of Wall Street on our economy. Oh wait, that’s what our government is doing now. Sigh.

  16. #16 dewey
    December 8, 2009

    The WWF’s figures provided above are highly questionable, at least when applied to our own lives. This link is the executive summary of an exhaustive official EPA report on U.S. emissions sources:

    http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/downloads09/GHG2007-ES-508.pdf

    The document unfortunately uses cumbersome units, e.g. saying that total net GHG emissions in 2007 were 6087.5 Tg (teragrams) in CO2 equivalent, and total gross emissions 7150.1 Tg. An estimated 6103.4 Tg of CO2 were emitted, representing 85.4% of all GHG emissions.

    To go into more detail – there is a lengthy table of emissions from practically every source, e.g., calculating N2O from composting! – 5735.8 Tg of CO2 was generated through burning of fuels, of which, e.g., 2397.2 Tg was for electricity, 340.6 Tg for “residential,” and 1887.4 Tg for “transportation.”

    So, assuming that only 20% of our transportation fuel is used in private cars (for which I can’t find a source just now, but I’ve heard a similar figure somewhere), the percentage of total gross U.S. emissions attributable to CO2 from private cars would be 1887.4(1/5)/7150.1, or 5.28% (not 2%). (If we were actually to stop using private cars, there would undoubtedly be a knock-on effect as we stopped burning fuel in recreational vehicles that have to be towed to distant sites, reduced habitual shopping for plastic stuff, etc.)

    Likewise, the percentage of total gross emissions attributable to “residential” alone is 340.6/7150.1 Tg, about 4.76%. Some of the “residential” fossil fuel burning will be for purposes other than heating, such as propane stoves. However, I find a DOE site saying that in 2001 10% of home electricity use was for electric space heating, 3% for furnace fans and the like, and 9% for water heating. The EPA executive summary makes it appear that about 35% of the total electric emissions in 2007 went to residential use; if so, using the 2001 numbers from DOE, the CO2 from home heating with electricity would be 0.22*0.35*2397.2/7150.1, or about 2.58% of total emissions. Thus, I presume residential heating is responsible for more like 7% than 1% of our emissions.

    Sorry for the lengthy post… So what’s going on with WWF’s numbers? My guess is that the spreadsheet, which I haven’t tried to go through, supplies total worldwide emissions, and either our consumption patterns are swamped by the very different consumption patterns in most of the world (since most people have no furnace nor private car), or Russ’s calculations define “we” narrowly, dividing, e.g., “American auto emissions” by “total world emissions.” In other words, (Us[cars])/(Us[total]+Them[total]), which will always give a percentage appearing so small as to be not worth bothering with no matter which Us is calculating. Fortunately, we’re not responsible for Them’s emissions, so it’s much more meaningful to consider our own emissions, which is the only thing it’s our job to limit. In that regard, private cars and heating seem to be a large enough proportion of our emissions to be useful targets for reduction.

  17. #17 Mike Grenville
    December 8, 2009

    Have none of you heard of peak oil? In 2008 when the price of oil went up, behaviour changed in many ways. Most considered opinion is that big price rises will return in the not too distant future. Meanwhile most business assume that current oil prices will be here for ever – they won’t.

  18. #18 Tamara Griesel
    December 8, 2009

    Does anyone have any ideas for constructive responses to the ads? Or are any actions (legal, of course) that could be taken just pointless and we should just wait for all these big corporations to die.

    Well, I suppose for fun we might grade each of the companies or organizations represented on their sustainability (yeah, I know, lots of D’s and F’s there…)

    Tamara

  19. #19 Russ Finley
    December 8, 2009

    My last comment never appeared so I’ll try again (and make a copy this time) ; )

    The WWF study is for global emissions. Not just those in the U.S.

    If you assume that the U.S. is responsible for “roughly” 25 percent of all GHG emissions, it is easy to see without a spreadsheet how much impact our cars make on global emissions. If you put zeros in for all values in the spreadsheet the pie chart will show you that the U.S. produces roughly a quarter of all emissions.

  20. #20 Mike Coy
    December 8, 2009

    I am no fan of big corporations, but I think Mr. Diamond has an important point here. A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow, especially when it comes to climate change.

    Because they have most of the wealth and power in today’s world, and because they are responsible for much of the ecological damage, large corporations represent our greatest opportunity for immediate change. While we (mostly) talk about what the best course of action would be, a Wal-Mart exec takes 18,000 cars off the road. What’s not to like?

    Certainly, we must look past corporate responsibility, for solutions that are viable in the long run. But let’s not turn away a powerful ally that can buy us some time. We can’t afford not to use all the tools at our disposal.

  21. #21 Brad K.
    December 8, 2009

    I think part of the imported plastic issue will resolve itself in the next year or two. Congress’ deficit spending is seriously eroding the value of the American dollar. I maintain a website for a blackpowder (gunpowder) distributor. One brand imported from Europe is still the same value as last year, but a 30% erosion of the US Dollar against the Euro means that the current import shipment will mean a big retail price increase here.

    Since the deficit spending hasn’t been turned around, look for dollar erosion to continue to consume import profits – turning around the advantage to importing from overseas. Unfortunately, union and regulation costs look to offset any advantage to returning to manufacturing in America, let alone locally.

    If the Peak Oil prospect plays out, the recovering world economy should be pushing oil prices up – at a time when the value of the dollar is eroding. This will *not* play well in terms of keeping transportation costs from rising (FedEx and UPS have announced rate increases for next year).

    Increased union activities will be diverting employer income just like another tax, taxes will be increasing, and the cost of meeting regulations will further impoverish employers. Increasing costs without corresponding increases in productivity (since unions tend to add payroll entities beyond those needed to actually produce for the employer) – it seems to me like significant inflation is underway, big time. Shades of Jimmy Carter, that introduced the nation to 25% and 28% credit card rates.

    It looks like America is headed for a distinctly “classed” society. There are the poor, which will be expanding. There are the middle class, which will continue shrinking, and the upper class, struggling to maintain itself. And the rich, above the noise, of course. Unless we undertake to be extremely careful, families and children face a bleak period in the next decade or two.

    I expect many smaller communities will find themselves slipping from an assumption of general affluence to cost consciousness. Bond issues will get harder to sell, and even harder to meet repayment projections. School districts will find themselves wedged between union contracts and budget shortfalls. Parents will find themselves rebelling against assumptions of affluence by money-hungry schools and communities.

    Food security concerns, in short, will drive forward some of the personal lifestyle changes required to meet the environmental goals you put forward. Victory gardens, food preparation and storage, and depending on locally produced food and commodities, will become important for many, for simple economic reasons.

    I have two concerns related to your story of meeting with the Ford company executives. First, is that new, fuel efficient vehicles make a very minor impact on national usage – not nearly as profound an impact, say, of increasing the economy by 20% of the least economical vehicles on the road. Why is there no agenda to retrofit existing fuel wasters? Where are the communal reorganization plans that avoid the need for personal vehicles? Where are the bans on housing developments based in assumptions of single family dwellings and family or individual cars?

    The other issue is electricity. As long as there is a single coal-fired plant in operation, every use of electricity must be treated as if it were coal or oil generated. If a light bulb were to be electrified completely from a wind turbine – it still consumed electricity that might have reduced the need for that last coal or oil fired power plant. Electricity usage should be labeled with the carbon load of providing that energy, as if the electricity were generated by a coal or oil fired plant.

  22. #22 jackinthegreen
    December 8, 2009

    Great article on Jared Diamond, and on Ford, but I have to point out the irony of critiquing Ford while having Mercury auto ads flashing in the banner at the top of your new blog site. :/

  23. #23 Tony Weddle
    December 9, 2009

    Russ Finley, I’m not sure that the 2% reduction in emissions, if everyone stopped driving, is correct. Fossil fuels provide over 80% of our energy, globally, with oil almost half of that. Roughly half the oil is used in transport, so halting all driving (and the associated production of vehicles, building of roads, etc) would save the burning of about a quarter of all fossil fuels. That has to amount to more than 2% of emissions.

    Sharon, great post. In addition to what you’ve said about corporations, they exist to make a profit, distributing that profit to shareholders (which then gets spent on something) or using it to grow the business. Overall, big business strives to grow. No matter how green they try to be, their mission is to negate all of that greenness by growth of the business. It’s a little like China’s only commitment, so far, to attacking climate change; it is to grow their emissions more slowly, by reducing the energy intensity of their economy.

  24. #24 Sharon Astyk
    December 9, 2009

    JackintheGreen, there’s going to be a lot of that kind of irony here. I simply have no control over the ads – and that was the biggest question for me in moving over here. Do I take a bigger audience, using tools subsidized by the very stuff I reject, or do I stay where I am with a smaller one? In the net, I tentatively believe that a larger venue for saying “don’t buy that crap” is better. I haven’t committed myself permanently – my old blog is still there. But for now, I’m going to try this and see how it goes.

    Mike, I agree with you, to an extent. And if Diamond had just pointed out that Big Business was already doing things, that would be fine. But look again at his headline, and at his larger claims. I’m grateful Walmart is getting vehicles off the road. I’m glad Coke is helping clean up the Danube. I really am – this is not sarcasm. I just think it is important we understand the limits of that involvement – and when the corporations will hit those limits.

    Brad, what a useful way of thinking about electricity! That’s great.

    Sharon

  25. #25 dewey
    December 9, 2009

    Russ Finley, that’s about what I suspected. If private cars and home heating account for 12% of our emisisons, and we produce one-fourth of the world’s emissions, our cars and heating would be about 3% of the world’s emissions, as you said. I think it is much more useful to think in terms of percentages of our emissions, because that’s where we’ll find easy places to cut, and it’s that 25% figure that we need to cut. There is no reason anyone else should sacrifice to cut their emissions so long as Americans are gobbling 25% of the fuel and producing 25% of the total world pollution; rationally, they may as well say if America is going to wreck the world no matter what, why should I not be as comfortable as possible while I can?

    Tony Wedde, Russ was talking only about private cars, which consume a minority of the total fuel used; most goes to trucking, various forms of public transportation such as rail and air travel, cargo ships, ambulances, etc. etc. Also, unless mobile agricultural equipment is counted under “industrial” or “commercial” fossil fuel burning, it’s included in transportation counts. Practically speaking, therefore, we aren’t going to reduce this number to zero short of total collapse. We could reduce it to some extent with greater efficiency (e.g., using rail instead of trucks and airplanes) but the kind of reductions we need will require meaningful lifestyle change (e.g., buying fewer shipped goods and traveling less).

  26. #26 steve from virginia
    December 9, 2009

    Good grief, Sharon! How many blogs do you have, now? How many Sharon Astyks are there?

    I feel the same way, the only corporate solution is corporate suicide. Peak oil is doing a good job of killing them off but the rumps will continue to do damage.

    I also felt the same way about Diamond as when James Grant finally capitulated and became a bull a few months ago after being a permabear for almost as long as I can remember.

    BTW, there is no technical solution to either climate or fuel constraints. We can only reprogram our civilization. We have to let go of the toys, it’s that simple.

  27. #27 Donna B.
    December 9, 2009

    I appreciate Brad K’s reasonable comments, especially about where electricity comes from.

    One thing I’d like to say about Wal-Mart is that its existence translates into less energy use by my husband and me. It’s the closest grocery store, plus we can buy almost everything we need there, eliminating additional mileage to more specialty stores.

    Where I’ve fallen down is in lack of planning after the children left home. I no longer make weekly menus and shopping lists based on them. I am guilty of letting us run out of basic needs more often also. Whatever I do to decrease costs is cut in half (if not more) when I have to make an extra trip because I forgot to buy toilet paper.

  28. #28 Aaron
    December 9, 2009

    The world will go to a “war-footing” – but only post-crisis. We do have cultural myths to radically alter our lifestyles when confronted with existential threats but those myths entail that the “barbarians” must be “at the gates” – not still below the horizon. At this point, the “barbarians” of resource depletion and climate change still lie below the horizon for the majority of people. As a species we are not forward-looking beyond the time-frame of a few seasons. And we certainly have no historical experience (within the last several thousand years) to recall rapid climatic shifts that would inform the need to apparently act against our immediate self-interest of increasing consumption to provide better lives for our kids.

    The real question I ponder is whether the crisis will be overwhelming or small enough to still be met with radical lifestyle changes. Time will tell. Sometimes the barbarians are at the gates and you’ve got time to muster forces to respond – sometimes they’re at the gates and just crash right through.

    With less than 60 days worth of global grain stockpiles and a highly complex network for resource distribution, my bets are on the gates getting crashed.

  29. #29 Ellen
    December 9, 2009

    Sharon–Interesting article. I want to comment on an aside, rather than the main point, and that is your comment that you got there early (apparently very early!) because you were misinformed about how long it would take to walk. It has been my experience, that when I ask about walking di stances in any car-oriented place, people have no idea, and VASTLY overestimate distances, ASSURING me that I can’t possibly walk to my destination. I remember once being in a small town on a bike trip, and asking about distances to restaurants. I was told it couldn’t possibly be done. It must be at least 5 miles. I decided to try it when I realized the town wasn’t more than 2 miles in diameter, and found that my walk was not only less than a mile, but along a beautiful sidewalk, shaded by big trees, through a historic housing area, but along a road which had been converted to a 4-lane thoroughfare, absolutely jammed with people driving short distances. One of the things that will have to change is that people will have to relearn the very idea of choosing appropriate transportation modes. We have a very long way to go, I’m afraid.

  30. #30 Barn Owl
    December 9, 2009

    That is, we can stop giving our money to these large corporations, get the vending machines out of our schools and our neighborhoods, stop shopping at WalMart and stop driving so much so we can cut our Chevron usage.

    Many rational people accept that addressing climate change is not going to be painless, but internalizing and applying some of the possible solutions on an individual, personal level can be difficult. Perhaps the most difficult solution for me would be to give up, or greatly reduce, driving. I could, theoretically, cycle to and from work, but there are no bike routes or lanes, and it would be very dangerous, on busy roads with speeding cars and trucks. Some might say that, as a single person with no children, I should “take one for the green team” … no big deal if I get killed or seriously injured, right? Think of the carbon savings!

    Public transportation is also an option, but bus routes are limited, and it would quadruple my commute time, not including the walk to and from the bus stop. However, a physician friend recently convinced me to give it a try, maybe once a week, and says she can get a lot of work done during the bus ride. Nearest grocery store and drugstore, OTOH, can be accessed safely by bike or by walking. Same, happily, for the public library and garden center. I wouldn’t be totally SOL without a car, but it would make for some verrry long days at work and commuting.

    Of course, reducing driving and personal car ownership is not the only solution, and other strategies might be less palatable to the “no cars” advocates. Air travel is pretty fuel-intensive; what about cutting back on that? How do we, as a society facing climate change and peak oil, decide who deserves to fly, how often, and for what justifiable reasons?

  31. #31 Anne M.
    December 10, 2009

    Ok I know I’m exactly knowledgeable in all this – that is the reason I read each and every one of your blogs, to learn more – but I’d like to ask a question.

    How is not shopping at Walmart going to help with climate change? Seriously. I get the Coke thing, the not driving so much, and even the making of new vehicles thing, but the Walmart thing I don’t understand.

    Maybe it’s just me and the area I live (north central US) but if your going to buy plastic junk why not buy it from a store where they specialize shipping it in large quantities and selling it at a much lower price than anywhere else? I mean doesn’t Shopko, Kmart, Target, or any other department store sell the EXACT same plastic junk for MUCH more? In my area if you can still find any family or small local owned shops left they too sell the same stuff at a higher price. All of which is shipped in from somewhere. Doesn’t it make more sense to buy from a place that has a regular shipment of goods and a now or going-to-be efficient fleet of trucks than the 2 planes and 3 trucks that it took to get the EXACT same thing in a local smaller store?

    And yes I realize that the habits of buying “stuff” and not following the 3 R’s is a problem in and of itself (possibly that’s what your touching on above?). I know that buying quality – which Walmart is NOT known for – is an easy way to curtail the need to purchase new items.

    But can anyone please tell me how I find a local TV maker? Broom maker? Silverware maker? The list quite literally can go on for quite awhile. And some items are just not easy to spot quality anymore. For instance you used to be able pick up a pan and know if it’s a good made pan or not from the weight -or- a name alone told of it’s quality, these aren’t so anymore.

    The point is there are some things that no matter what and where you buy them they are quite possibly going to be cheap plastic junk that has been shipped in – so why not Walmart?

  32. #32 Sharon Astyk
    December 10, 2009

    Barn Owl, I agree with you completely – the car isn’t the only option. We live out in a rural area with 0 public transport – Eric can bike to work, but it isn’t easy. We mostly deal by carpooling, reducing trips (ie, making sure that we get everything on the days he does commute, etc…) As for air travel, I think that minimizing air travel is going to be absolutely necessary – and I try and put my money where my mouth is – I don’t fly if at all avoidable even though it costs me professionally. I’ve been on a plane twice in a decade – and yes, hauling my butt on amtrak often sucks. So does turning down lucrative speaking offers. But you don’t have to commit suicide for it ;-).

    The truth is that all this stuff is necessary – turning down the heat and up the a/c and waiting to turn them on at all. Cutting back on driving and carsharing and taking public transport. Buying local food. Reducing consumption – it isn’t easy. But it is necessary – along with advocacy for better public transport and bike paths and all the things we really need.

    Sharon

  33. #33 Sharon Astyk
    December 10, 2009

    Anne – You are absolutely right – in the absence of a change in the way we consume, it matters not at all whether we shop at Kmart, Walmart or Ikea. They all sell cheap, disposable crap.

    So the question is what do you do when you need stuff? I don’t know of a local tv maker, and frankly, the disposable culture of electronics is pretty horribly toxic. You may not be able to make a better choice there if you want and need a tv in your life. We have an old one, but it won’t work in the day of digital (this is not a problem for us, we use it to watch the occasional movie) but not everyone would be satisfied with this. Still, one can often find second-hand things from early adopters. If I were buying silverware, used would certainly be my choice – there’s tons in the world already, and it mostly doesn’t show wear. Brooms are tougher – there probably are people who make local brooms, if you care to seek them out. It may be one of the rare things you need to buy new. But the reality is that most goods can be found either local, used or your need for them reduced. But you are absolutely correct that in the absence of a change in the pattern of culture, it doesn’t matter enormously which retailer we choose – or we might as well choose the most environmentally responsible of the crappy choices.

    Sharon

  34. #34 Made in the USA
    December 10, 2009

    Anne M.:

    If you care to, check out one example of non-WalMart essentials: http://www.lehmans.com

    They have plenty of brooms and other home goods. Where you shop does matter. I’m not going to go casting stones, but if you want to search out a better way, it does exist.

    By supporting alternatives to WalMart (and KMart, Target, Costco, etc.), you support growing businesses and their suppliers.

    There may be times where doing without the plastic bit seems impossible, but most likely, there is another solution.

    Same goes for food. Can you get together with other’s from your town and start a food co-op for buying in bulk (if one doesn’t already exist)? Maybe you still get your veggies from WalMart because they’re the only place in town, but I’m guessing if you try hard, there are a lot of other ways to “do less harm”.

    And that’s the goal. “Do less harm”. If you can’t give up the car altogether, then start with driving it less, driving it slower, and maybe adding some passengers. If you can’t do without a TV, then find the company with the best enviro practices, buy only the size you can live with, unplug when not in use, and take good care of it so it lasts as long as possible.

    Peak Oil is going to move all those “want to” choices into “have to” choices at some point anyway. Might as well start learning to do with less on your own terms.

  35. #35 LindaCO
    December 15, 2009

    Thanks, I’ve shared this post through Facebook.

    Linda

  36. #36 Jimmy
    June 30, 2010

    using industrial hemp you can create renewable fuel and industrial materials that are biodegradable and absorb co2 in the growth stages. Hemp also enables populations to remain in one land area and replenish the soil, rather than degrade it, as our conventional agricultural practices do. Industrial hemp is the only way to sustain our current lifestyle and population, if we don’t implement this plant as a foundation for sustaining our society, it will collapse and restructure to whatever is sustainable. The choice is yours.

    This is about decentralised societies that manage themselves, rather than patricarchal centralised institutions that attempt to control everything from the centre, and fail to do so.

    In other words, we need to stop trying to rule the world, and simply rule ourselves.