I am a hypocrite. Yes, you read that correctly and it’s true. When you break it down to the most fundamental level, everyone involved in the global fight for intergenerational justice is guilty. Unless you live off-grid in a tree house built from downed lumber, grow all your own food, sew your own clothes from local materials, ride a bicycle made from recycled metals, never travel by air, and generate your own electricity from a homemade solar panel, (and have lived that way since the day you were born) then you are part of the problem. We all are. How could it have been any other way? Structure drives behavior and our modern system drives consumption behavior in one direction. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not down.
If you’re like me, you were born into an industrialized world and began your indoctrination into the church of consumerism from your very first breath. Surrounded by toys that had traveled 10,000 miles on a cargo ship, then a train, then finally a truck to the local Babies R’ Us, I began appreciating our collective industrial prowess before I could roll over. Fed by Gerber baby food that was the product of a bloated, unnecessarily global agriculture system, and clothed in garments that had made the same journey as my toys, I was already an unwitting participant of the global economic growth engine.
My parents had two cars and a house that was much larger than practically necessary. We bought food at a supermarket and everything else at a mall. We took long road trips from Minneapolis to Chicago. We flew all over the country; for a few hundred bucks, we could sit in an airplane and do in two hours what Lewis and Clark did in two years.
It doesn’t stop there. My passion for intergenerational justice and fear of a very different world for my unborn children led me to the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, where I’m working towards an M.B.A. in Sustainable Business. I live in Seattle and have three weekend sessions on Bainbridge Island per quarter (Bainbridge Island is in the Puget Sound, 30 minutes off the Seattle shore). So once a month I get in my non-hybrid car, drive myself downtown and onto a diesel-sucking ferry boat and drive off the other side on my way to sustainable business school.
I got married this past summer. My entire family flew into Seattle from all over the country to meet us. We took our honeymoon on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, and we didn’t exactly kayak to get there. We recently traded in one of our cars and we didn’t buy a Prius. My wife and I frequently travel by air and land to visit friends and work on projects. I eat red meat and I love it. I drive up to the mountains to go skiing and honestly have the nerve to complain when the snowpack isn’t as great as it used to be. Like I said, I am a hypocrite.
Why am I divulging all of this discrediting information? If I actually expect my words to have weight shouldn’t I be living in one of those off-grid houses, eating homegrown vegetables, and riding a stationary bike to generate electricity so I can write this post on my (brand-spanking-new Apple) laptop? Shouldn’t I turn my life into a bumper sticker and be the change I wish to see in the world? A common criticism of those working to disrupt our fossil fuel-driven economy is that we’re all dependent upon (and indulgent in) business as usual so any interference would hurt society as a whole. Proponents of this school of thought would say that I am obviously a very active participant in our fossil fuel economy; therefore I have no right to seek to disrupt it. That line of thought could not be further from the truth.
The idea that I can’t live within the current structure and honestly seek to transform it from within is offensive. Where else am I going to live? My only alternative is to live completely outside the system like the tree-people I described above, which I’m not yet interested in doing. Sure, there are things I could do personally to reduce my individual footprint, but simply by living in the United States I’m guilty by association. The notion that our past behavior somehow limits our future ability to seek change disempowers us all. It’s like saying that because there was a time when nobody knew that smoking causes cancer, it’s okay to keep smoking given what we now know. There was this point in history where we didn’t know any better, so that should justify current behavior, right? Wrong. At this point we’re just prisoners of the carbon economy, and we know it. I certainly wasn’t consulted in its design. Were you? Structure does drive behavior so we had no choice but to behave within the structure we were born into.
We need to move past the stale argument that inaction is our only possibility because the alternatives are too hazardous to the global economic system. To the contrary, every year of inaction comes with a price tag of about $1.2 trillion. That’s trillion, with a “T”. This calculation takes into account the increasing costs of superstorms — like Hurricane Sandy— that are occuring with growing frequency around the world. Sandy will cost New York and New Jersey at least $70 billion. One must also consider the costs of infrastructural adaptions that will become increasingly necessary. But one of the largest costs associated with business as usual is… business as usual.
There’s a reason Shell is spending billions to set up shop in the Arctic Ocean. Ignore for a moment the overwhelming cynicism of a fossil fuel giant seeking to harvest territory that is only recently accessible because of the direct warming impacts of their business practices. There’s something else at work (aside from actually having access to these new territories) that we must all understand.
Shell wouldn’t be attempting to engage in deep water drilling in one of the harshest areas on Earth if there were still easily accessible gushers in Pennsylvania or Texas. Those days are over. In order for fossil fuel companies to keep providing “business as usual”, they must rely on increasingly expensive exploration and drilling techniques that require much higher consumer gas prices in order to be economical. These increased expenses are also figured into the cost of inaction. Doubling down on business as usual makes our economy more vulnerable, not less vulnerable. If the current energy delivery system relies on $100/barrel oil and suddenly we find ourselves in the grips of another global recession, we all suffer the consequences.
Again, structure drives behavior. It’s no surprise that we’re all so reliant on the current system since key players are spending vast sums to keep us all on the roller coaster just a little while longer. We all depend on this system right now and to expect that we’ll all be able to somehow move beyond it without a fundamental structural shift is foolish. But having benefited from the advantages our industrial economic system in the past doesn’t disqualify you from working to prevent the profound consequences of that same system from gaining irreversible traction.
Things are beginning to turn in a progressive direction and the structure is subtly shifting beneath our feet. Check out this collection of reports from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, which clearly outline threats to business as usual from climate disruption. Of note are the collections on Corporate Governance, Corporate Strategies, Insurance, Finance, Investor Resources, Clean Technology, and other sector-specific resources. These aren’t exactly fringe business concerns. Taken together, these issues make up the core of our current economic system.
I have lived and acted in concert with the system in which I exist. My hypocrisy serves to highlight our great challenge. How can I turn my back on something that has provided so much comfort, so many opportunities, such a rich quality of life? This is the model that I was given, so of course I use it. Fortunately, I’ve awoken to a new realm of possibility. I now see that there is a viable alternative to business as usual and I’ve chosen to commit my life to helping us all get there. There are millions more like me out there; bounded by the system as it exists, yet aspiring to recreate the system as it could be. Paul Hawken would call it our Blessed Unrest.
My hypocrisy is only visible in the light of the many alternatives that now exist. When I was young my parents didn’t know any better. It’s not as if they bought four tickets to the Carbon Economy Express, knowing that it would end in economic, social, and environmental devastation. They were simply living the lives that system constraints dictated. But now, finally, we know better. I know better.
Contextual hypocrisy is no excuse. And we are reaching beyond the boundaries of business as usual, whether we know it or not. Our one precious Earth has curated an autoimmune response to the disease that we humans have spread. We have no choice but to evolve as a species. My participation in business as usual up until this point does not disqualify me from recognizing the susceptibility of the way things are, and endeavoring to make them more resilient for future generations. I can’t change my past behavior, but I can look towards the future.
As with any self-destructive addiction, the first step on the road to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. So here it goes: My name is Mark, and I’m a carbon-aholic. Whew, I feel better. Now you try.
It’s not as if I had much of a choice in the matter either. I was like a baby born to a drug-addicted mother; the child that has no say in their dependency. The very first moments of my life were spent surrounded by the comforts of a carbon-enhanced world. Check out this Carbonaholics Anonymous website for recovery information. I just found this CA site as I was writing and it’s half funny, half sad, but all true. It will take an act of a Higher Power to remove humans from the perpetual drip of our carbon habit. The pull is too intoxicating. If we could commit to practicing the 12 steps of carbon recovery it would help us all.
In the problem, lies the solution. Our collective addiction is the most powerful reason to demand change. We don’t want to be addicted to the dirty needle of fossil fuels any longer. But there are myriad powerful lobbies that have a strong interest in keeping things just the way they are. Fortunately, as I noted above, it’s becoming harder and harder for them to perpetuate their antiquated business models.
I don’t want to be an addict any longer. All of the comforts I enjoy as a result of the current system will change dramatically as our economy moves away from dirty carbon energy. I’ll eat food that was grown closer to home, vacation regionally instead of nationally or globally, buy baby clothes from second-hand stores, live in a more reasonably-sized home, and rely much more heavily on transit systems or a bicycle for daily commuting. I would happily trade in my carbon-addicted life for this new vision of the future if it means snow in the mountains for my grandchildren.
I’m willing to make all of these changes, but I can’t do it as long as our economic apparatus still reinforces old behavior. This is the last time I’ll remind you that structure drives behavior, so if the system only supports a carbon economy then we’ll all remain carbon addicts until the last cubic meter of bitumen is extracted from the Canadian Tar Sands. Is this the world we want to leave to our children and grandchildren? As long as the system requires it, I’ll be living in one world and working towards another. I’ll be a hypocrite until a new structure allows something else.
The first step is acceptance. My name is Mark, and I’m a carbon-aholic. Are you?