Note from Kay: Thanks, friends, for visiting again today. This is the last of my weekly posts; you’ll be hearing from me every other week for a while. I’ll let you know when the book is done. Maybe there will be a deal for New Stuff Sucks readers.
So: ¡No te vayas!
Forget about the Irish Republican Army, your Individual Retirement Account, the International Reading Association, and Ileorectal Anastomosis. We now have a climate bill called the “Inflation Reduction Act.”
Dear President Biden,
I voted for you just because you were better than the alternative. So the way I see it, anything you can accomplish while in office is a bonus. Well, I’ve heard that the Inflation Reduction Act is a real step forward in fighting climate change. I’m trying to figure out if that’s right. Whether it’s something I can get on board with.
Do you remember when the first cars began to populate the streets? (It’s a joke. I know you’re not quite that old.) I wonder if there was a single person in 1915 who thought about their car’s smelly exhaust and worried that atmospheric carbon dioxide would one day put life on earth at risk.
Today, as we all rush out to buy electric vehicles, I want to understand the total picture. But I have little more insight about this vehicle than those earlier drivers had about their automobiles. Of the people I know who’ve caught EV fever, few seem aware that their EVs will still be running on electricity generated by the burning of coal, or of biomass, or by hydropower from reservoirs that are quickly, and alarmingly, evaporating. When will that solar and wind generation be ready for all? What, exactly, will it take to build the massive grid, with components that need to be mined and extracted? Can we trace demand to its source—its accountability? I’m thinking about the requirements of the huge new green economy, which will accompany, then replace, the one we’ve been living on, based on fossil fuels.
I write a blog called New Stuff Sucks, which looks at new purchases, and the pathways of extraction, mining, deforestation, water use, and other harms involved in the manufacture of that thing you buy, before you buy it. Then after you’re done with the thing, it follows the pathways of disposal—expanding landfills, the spread of toxins and carcinogens, plastic pollution and other invasions of air and land and sea. To me it’s mindboggling to think about all the precious resources and energy that go into making a pair of shoes, or a Barbie doll, or an air conditioning unit—and where, or in what form, these things end up. I can’t imagine what an entirely new system of stuff will then mean, and what will happen to all the antiquated parts of the first. I’m saying this is a colossal transition, that we can’t afford to further vandalize the planet as we try to save its life. Our lives.
We’re gonna need materials for solar panels, windmills, batteries, new cars, charging stations, and grid systems. We’ll also need land, ocean space, transportation, and whatever energy it takes to create the new energy. It’s hard for me to imagine where all these resources are going to come from, and what kind of mess their extraction (and disposal) might leave behind. It sounds unthinkable.
But you’re right. The alternative is even more unthinkable: continued fossil-fuel warming of Earth and a massive die-off of life—plant, animal, fungi, human.
Is that why you’re grasping at straws?
I read that your IRA is about to fund innovation in green hydrogen production, because hydrogen has the potential to make excellent batteries, among other things. I’m sure you know that at present, it’s most easily and cheaply made from fossil fuels! I’ve been waiting to buy a hydrogen battery for my electric bike since I bought it 14 years ago, but haven’t seen one for sale yet, and I’m not holding my breath. You have more faith in scientific breakthroughs than I do.
The other “straw” you’re grabbing at—carbon capture—is another long shot. CO2 is chemically captured then injected into storage somewhere, maybe deep underground, or trapped in existing rock. But there’s no simple method to do this yet. Trees and vegetation, on the other hand, already take carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis and store it, as they’ve been doing for eons. They sequester it naturally in their leaves, branches, and roots. Forest soils hold vast amounts of carbon. Trees also shade the world, directly cooling it. And vegetation can reverse desertification, an unfortunate global trend caused by human activity, which contributes to global warming. And planting trees is politically popular. (You could use a boost like that, right?)
Does it make sense to put billions of dollars of research into developing processes that are already performed by photosynthesizing green things all over the world? I don’t think so. Re-greening our Mother specifically for the purpose of taking carbon out of the atmosphere is a new thing, and it doesn’t mean there aren’t new skills to learn—nurturing seedlings, matching the best seeds with the best available locations, identifying fast-growing species, organizing intelligent and successful projects. Biology is complex. Humans have spent vast amounts of effort on growing food plants and still can’t do it at scale without using unsustainable methods—fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides. Yet it seems wiser to fund photosynthesis, already successfully performing the task at hand, than pie-in-the-sky technology requiring material components, water, dumping grounds, and other environmental harms.
I wonder: At this late date could you still become an inspiring leader, like some we’ve had in the past, who’ve galvanized followers to act for a common cause? To make sacrifices and take risks for something they believe in with their hearts? I think first of Martin Luther King, who drew people to stand and march in dangerous situations for the cause of civil rights in the U.S. Gandhi galvanized huge crowds—and people died—for the cause of his country’s independence. Nelson Mandela became the face of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, even as he sat in prison. Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t inspire a movement outside of government; he worked within the official office of the U.S. Presidency. However, in that capacity, he set up the Office of Price Administration at the start of World War II, which regulated prices and established rationing, calling on citizens to make sacrifices and put the brakes on consumption. Most were happy to.
We’re entering a world war much bigger than the first two, and one that involves every country on earth Wouldn’t it be great if someone today could inspire a movement of energized fighters against climate change? Everyone’s united on the goal we’ve been looking at: getting CO2 out of our atmospheric wrapping, and preventing more from entering it. We should be seeing more eagerness and intense mobilization for this movement than those led by our recent heroes—MLK, Gandhi, Mandela, FDR.
I won’t blame you, President Biden, for not being the heroic leader we need right now. Something has happened to us; we’ve fallen into a kind of selfishness or softness or unhappiness, and a readiness to kill for an inconvenience, an inability to play well with others who are too “other.” No one has explained this to my satisfaction. But it’s not your fault.
I know that to survive, we’ll have to change our way of thinking. We can’t set up another industrial economy just like the first, only using different fuels. We have to consume less.
A certain acknowledged wisdom recognizes that, though comfort is nice, you would have a more profound and enjoyable life if you walked away from it at times. This is the big secret that advertising keeps and guards. But there are still those who understand it today, nevertheless. I found lots of evidence of that, in the form of quotes, which I’m including at the end of this letter.
You may not have what it takes to unite all world citizens in action against climate change. But I hope you begin to think about it differently, sort of like FDR figuring out what people had to do for the war to be won, and laying it all out for them to follow.
Here are those quotes, selected just for you:
It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.
Comfort . . . was the key ingredient to making the prisoner crave the prison. William Shakespeare
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. J.R.R. Tolkien
Your car, comfort though it be, this little den and dining room on wheels, is a prison that deadens your senses, and to feel wholly alive you must go for a walk. LaToya Jackson
Comfort is bought at too high a price. C. S. Lewis