If Not Cap & Trade, Then What?

Many proponents of the environmental movement were upset when the Cap and Trade bill fell through in Congress. While it certainly wasn’t the best news for environmentalists, this article from the New York Times suggests that it there might be a better option for reducing our dependance on dirty energy.

The author, David Leonhardt, lays out a few reasons why we should stop counting on cap and trade. First of all, we have to ask when Congress will even take another shot at it. Then, we have to wonder how effective it would even be in causing change. Although cap and trade would force companies to reduce their energy use, it would probably be in smaller ways rather than ways that encourage groundbreaking innovation in clean energy. What fast growing developing nations need are groundbreaking innovation.
What could promote this innovation is direct investment into making clean energy technologies more affordable. A surprising number of people agree. The conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Brookings Institute are releasing a joint proposal to greatly increase federal spending on clean energy innovation, and to moreover toughen regulation for the use of this money. In other words, more money would be put into research and development into clean energy technologies that are actually working to make clean energy cheaper than the dirty alternative.
The article suggests that, historically, this has been able to work. The military has helped develop and promote a lot of new technologies, and they may be doing the same with clean energy.
While I’m still skeptical as to whether technology of any kind can “save us,” I think this article shows us a little ray of hope. First of all, it shows bipartisan work towards a goal that can benefit us all. While this may not ultimately be the solution we need, the fact that unexpected people are working together is an important step.
Second, more investment put into clean energy could help in developing the infrastructure we so desperately need in order to get clean energy off and running. Some companies are already discussing investing significant amounts of money into this, but more federal spending on innovation could make a big difference.
Finally, more people are likely to something that will hopefully decrease the cost of clean energy than anything that causes an increase in oil prices.
In the end, I think the most promising thing about this article is the fact that we’re trying something to get us off the path we are currently on. It might not work, but at least we’re trying something new.

A Hearty Bowl of Realization

As a major foodie, I think a lot about what I eat. Because of this, there are many different factors that come into play when making my food choices:

  1. Nutrition: having been raised by doctors, I always consider how good (or bad) for me the food I’m about to eat is. This certainly isn’t to say I always eat healthy foods; I just always think about how the food I’m eating is going to affect my body, both now and in the long term.
  2. Cost: as a college student trying to live on a budget, cost is often a factor in my food purchases. It’s sometimes hard to justify buying the fresh produce for example, when the frozen is much cheaper. The cost factor comes into play a lot during the organic versus not organic choice as well.
  3. Convenience: also as a college student, one of the biggest things I lack is time. Because of this, I will often consider the convenience of foods. Frozen foods or preprocessed foods are great for this, but they don’t necessarily match up with some of my other considerations, like nutrition or environmental issues. Personally, I would much rather cook fresh food every day, but my schedule just doesn’t allow it. Convenience affects my daily food choices as well as my food shopping choices. When I’m trying to decide what to eat during the day, it usually comes down to what’s in the fridge.
  4. Taste/Cravings: probably one of the biggest factors in my food choices is what I want to eat. As I mentioned before, I love food a lot so I have a hard time ignoring my cravings. I never seem to be satisfied until I’ve eaten what I want. In attempts to justify this, I always quote the idea that you have cravings because your body knows what nutrients it needs. Sure this probably isn’t entirely true, but I still tend to eat what I want.
  5. Environmental issues: I commonly consider this factor when making my food choices, but it tends to get drowned under all the other considerations. I’ve know so much of the information about how our food choices affect the environment. I do my best to eat in a way that harms the environment least. But at the same time, it’s difficult to do. Our current food system is so engrained that I feel trapped in it sometimes.
It’s almost impossible to satisfy all of these considerations at once. Different ones win out at different times. For example, my decision to eat mostly vegetarian was driven by nutrition and environmental factors. When I drive to the grocery store and buy off-brand products, cost and convenience are winning over. But when I make it to the farmers market, nutrition and environment (and just sheer enjoyment) are on top. The motives underlying my food decisions vary so often, I constantly struggled to figure out what is most important when deciding what to eat.
Of the foods I’ve eaten in the past couple days, the one that probably has the greatest environmental impact was the bowl of cereal I had for breakfast this morning: Berry Berry Kix with Silk Soymilk and bananas on top. As I was sitting there eating my cereal I looked at the ingredients, which consisted of three different forms of corn (whole grain corn, corn meal, and corn syrup) as well as a bunch of different sweeteners. It was essentially a puffed piece of sweetened corn, which is one of our biggest industrial agriculture products. The soymilk is made primarily of soybeans. Although the package claims they are non-GMO beans, they were still likely harvested in an industrial way. Finally, the banana was probably imported from some far off tropical place. My meal was not at all local, small scale, or organic. For such a seemingly simple meal, it was very representative of our dependence on factory farming and on the luxury of being able to import goods from far away, both at a high environmental cost.
In a world where so many underlie our food decisions and even a simple meal can cause so much harm, the real question is, what can we eat?


The Technology Tool

Present day technology is something that never ceases to amaze and intrigue me. Yet many times, it also somewhat terrifies me. The things we are able to do today are incredible compared even to just a couple years ago. The rate a which technology is changing is increasing rapidly…

…and so are our environmental problems. Global climate change seems to be more prevalent every day. Pollution and resource depletion is a growing issue. Our technology may be advancing, but it’s not helping us save the earth (or ourselves).
That’s because technology cannot save us. Technology is inanimate (at least presently it is–as more research goes into robots and artificial intelligence, that could be changing). Technology is simply a tool. Like any tool, whether it is helpful or harmful depends on how it is used.
Let’s look at my laptop as an example. My dear macbook has the power to be very beneficial. With it, I could:
  • Look up information very quickly to improve my understanding of environmental issues
  • Learn news immediately after it happens, including things that will affect the global environment
  • Gain access to works by environmental thinkers that I may never have read before
  • Run computer programs that could help me quickly model environmental changes
  • Get in immediate contact with people across the world in a variety of ways, opening up the door for conversations about environmental issues I never would have had
  • Compile information on environmental issues easily and compactly
  • Share my thoughts, beliefs, and discoveries with others (like you, reading this blog)

Technologies like my computer have the power to speed up the spread of ideas and make communication easier, perhaps making it easier to teach people about environmental issues and what they can do. Technology has the power to help us do great things.

But with great power, comes great possibility of problems. My computer also:
  • Uses valuable resources in it’s construction that are very difficult and harmful to extract from the computer in order to be reused
  • Is built, as part of our system of consumption, to become obsolete or outdated relatively quickly
  • Quickly spread lots of false information about the environment
  • Serve as a venue for more consumption, as online shopping explodes
  • Waste a lot of valuable time that could be used for coming up with the ideas that could save us

While this is a hugely simplified example, it represents the key idea that we cannot rely on technology to save us. Only we can save ourselves from the mess that we have gotten into. We can only rely on ourselves. Technology can certainly speed up the process and make it easier. Whether the process is helpful or harmful is completely up to us.

Four Letter Words

In his article in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman argues that China is far ahead of the United States in the climate change race, turning the faltering climate into thousands of J-O-B-S while many American politicians just turn it into one big J-O-K-E. I think that this article brings to mind a couple other four letter words that need to be addressed:

Throughout the article, Friedman discusses climate innovation as a race. China is in the lead, with more innovation, better legislation, and more jobs. The US is falling behind, as politicians continue to fail to make a climate change bill and most of our green innovations are being used more in China than here.
But I’m not so sure a race is the best way to think about action on climate change. First of all, the competition involved in a race typically drives people to do better in order to win. It pushes people to achieve their best. Clearly, that’s not working in this case. Although Americans are not missing out entirely on the green jobs frontier, we are certainly not reaching the standard we could (and should) be, especially when it comes to legislation. It appears that in the case of this “race” we are more inclined to free ride on the backs of those already ahead of us, letting them do the leg work while we sit back and enjoy the benefits.
Therein lies the other issue with calling this a race: the nature of the benefits. In a race, there is one winner who gets all of the prize. That mindset doesn’t work so well when it comes to climate change. Whatever country becomes the most green first will not get to live on in perfect harmony while the rest of the world falls to ruin around them. This is one world, and we are all connected. So no matter how far ahead any one country may get when it comes to green innovation, they will continue to feel the negative effects of environmental harm unless the other countries catch up. Unless everyone is winning, we’re all losing.
So is the answer for every country to throw all their energies into green energy, technology, and jobs? Maybe, but only if it’s done thoughtfully. Green technology is still technology and therefore has the potential to have unintended negative side effects. Also growth, green or not, is still growth, and according to Bill McKibben in his book Eaarth is something we need to stop striving for if we are ever going to save ourselves in this environmental crisis.
I have to wonder if the pace of China’s growth in environmental technologies is too fast. Are they creating green technologies and spreading them virally across the country before they fully research the effects of these technologies? With the size of their population, if just one technology turns out to be more environmentally harmful than they thought, it could be devastating. While I certainly think the United States should be looking more into green technologies, perhaps aiming for the same pace as China is not the best option.
So we may want to think twice before sprinting to catch up with China on the green technology front. There is still, however, plenty to be learned from China’s policies. One thing that stuck out to me most in Friedman’s article is how no-nonsense China is about climate change. As generally more scientifically minded people than Americans, they don’t question climate change or think of it as a global problem. They know it is happening, and it is happening now. Before we worry about upping our investments in green technologies, before we increase our green jobs, we need to get more Americans to adopt this mindset. Before we start working towards combating climate change, we need to stop questioning it.

Teaching America to Walk

Ask any American on the street what they can do to help reduce environmental harm, they will probably ramble on to you about recycling more, shortening their showers, or actually remembering to bring to the store the hoards of reusable bags they have collected. It’s unlikely anyone will talk to you about switching to alternative energy or reducing their consumerism. Most Americans will point to the simple solutions, the everyday little changes that anyone can make. And these are the same types of answers that even some top environmental leaders are selling to us. The argument that little things are all we need to do to make a difference is certainly compelling. We like the idea of all the small individual things adding up to a meaningful whole. We also like the idea of not having to do too much individually. Words like “simple,” “easy,” and even–god help us–“lazy” are permeating the environmental movement from all sides.

But this isn’t a simple issue. And the solution will by no means be easy. So, as Michael Maniates argues in his article in the Washington Post, Americans need to stop being so lazy and take some real steps towards reducing our environmental harm. Furthermore, environmental leaders should expect us to be capable and willing to do what is necessary to reduce our environmental harm enough to stop climate change, not just slow it down. On this point, I certainly agree. Baby steps are not going to get us where we need to be on time. We need leaps and bounds.
I do not, however, think it’s as simple as environmental leaders changing their message and asking more of the public. Maniates brings up several historical examples of when Americans were able to band together behind a strong leader to really change an issue: the Revolution, World War II, and the Civil Rights movement. Although these moments definitely show that Americans have the power to rally behind a cause, I’m not sure they can be applied to environmental issues.
The first reason for this is the nature of the environmental problem. In all of the examples above the issues were very tangible. Revolutionaries were feeling the oppression (and taxation) of England. Events like Pearl Harbor and the Holocaust were obviously harmful. African Americans had to deal with discrimination every day of their lives. Moreover, the results of taking action against these things was relatively immediate and obvious. In other words Americans are great at banding together towards resolving a problem when it is something that that is obviously hurting them and when they will be able to see results from taking action.
At this point in environmental degradation, neither of these facts hold true. Most people aren’t feeling obvious negative effects in their everyday lives. Except for maybe a little change in weather (or a freak snowstorm), life goes on as normal. And the effects of making a big change in our lives wouldn’t be evident to us–they would first occur up in some mysterious, far off atmosphere and then eventually trickle down to causing changes on earth.
The second reason I’m not sure that the comparisons work is that we live in a different age now. A high speed, multi-tasking, constant stimulation kind of age. Arguably, we have less focus in this digital age than we used to. We like the solution to environmental problems in 140 characters or less. We want to do our part quickly, and then move on to the next thing.
So although I agree that everybody needs to put more effort towards stopping environmental change, the tricky part is going to be convincing the American public of how much this really matters to their lives (and getting them to listen long enough to do so).

The Issue of Indifference

I think that the most pressing challenge facing the global environment is indifference. There are plenty of venues out there for working towards alleviating environmental problems, if enough people cared enough to seek them out. The keyword here is enough. There are certainly some people out there who care a lot about the environment, and are working tirelessly towards making it a better place. But there is also the other extreme of people who can’t directly see the effects of environmental degradation, and therefore don’t believe it affects them. If more of these people cared, then we would have more fighters for the environmental movement. And there are the people who do care, but have so many other things to do or think about than helping the environment. If these people cared more, maybe their other obligations suddenly wouldn’t seem as important.

Although there are certainly many other huge issues facing the environmental movement, having fewer indifferent people would help us move towards overcoming these problems as well. More environmental stewards could help spread information to people who just don’t know the magnitude of this problem. Politicians would have an incentive to actually take action against environmental degradation if enough of the public cared for it to be politically beneficial. Also, more people would care enough to make even small changes in their lifestyle, potentially leading to a huge decrease in our harmful effects on the environment.

Stanley Fish is a god example of somebody who doesn’t care. As he says in his article, he believes that our actions are harming the environment, he just doesn’t care enough to do anything about it. Although his wife is trying to get him to make small changes in his lifestyle, he won’t be convinced. The environment is an inconvenience in his mind. It’s people like this who will be our biggest problem to tackle in the environmental movement.