The Economical Environmentalist: My Attempt to Live a Low-Carbon Life and What it Costs

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What were the eagles and the condors killed by wind turbines compared with the impact of rising sea levels on poor nations? What were the endemic cloud-forest birds of the Andes compared with the atmospheric benefits of Andean hydroelectric projects? A hundred years ago, the National Audubon Society was an activist organization, campaigning against wanton bird slaughter and the harvesting of herons for their feathers, but its spirit has since become gentler.

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When the organization shifted into Jonathan Edwards mode, last September, I wondered what was going on. When there was broad overlap between the two ranges, it was assumed that the species would survive. When there was little or no overlap, it was assumed that the species would be caught between an old range that had grown inhospitable to it and a new range in which the habitat was wrong, and would be at risk of disappearing.

North American species in general, having contended with blazing July days and frosty September nights as they evolved, are much more tolerant of temperature fluctuations than tropical species are. Although, in any given place, some familiar back-yard birds may have disappeared by , species from farther south are likely to have moved in to take their place. The species nearly became extinct fifty years ago, before DDT was banned.

The only reason we can worry about its future today is that the public—led by the then energetic Audubon—rallied around an immediate threat to it. Once its eggs were no longer weakened by DDT, its population and range expanded so dramatically that it was removed from the endangered-species list in Even if global warming squeezes it entirely out of its current summer and winter ranges, the melting of ice in Alaska and Canada may actually result in a larger new range.

But climate change is seductive to organizations that want to be taken seriously. Although you could demonstrably save the lives of the birds now colliding with your windows or being killed by your cats, reducing your carbon footprint even to zero saves nothing. Declaring climate change bad for birds is therefore the opposite of controversial. To demand a ban on lead ammunition lead poisoning is the foremost cause of California condor deaths would alienate hunters. To take an aggressive stand against the overharvesting of horseshoe crabs the real reason that the red knot, a shorebird, had to be put on the list of threatened U.

We can all feel good about deploring it. Not every species will manage to adapt. But the larger and healthier and more diverse our bird populations are, the greater the chances that many species will survive, even thrive. We also have to keep a whole lot of wild birds alive right now. We need to combat the extinctions that are threatened in the present, work to reduce the many hazards that are decimating North American bird populations, and invest in large-scale, intelligently conceived conservation efforts, particularly those designed to allow for climate change.

But it only makes sense not to do them if the problem of global warming demands the full resources of every single nature-loving group. A little tragicomedy of climate activism is its shifting of goalposts. Ten years ago, we were told that we had ten years to take the kind of drastic actions needed to prevent global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius in this century.

Today we hear, from some of the very same activists, that we still have ten years. In reality, our actions now would need to be even more drastic than they would have ten years ago, because further gigatons of carbon have accumulated in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the actions that many governments now propose are less drastic than what they proposed ten years ago.

In Copenhagen, in , President Obama was merely ratifying a fait accompli when he declined to commit the United States to binding targets for reductions. Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama was frank about how much action the American political system could deliver on climate change: none. Even for people who accept the fact of global warming, the problem can be framed in many different ways—a crisis in global governance, a market failure, a technological challenge, a matter of social justice, and so on—each of which argues for a different expensive solution.

The American electorate, in other words, is rationally self-interested. According to a survey cited by Jamieson, more than sixty per cent of Americans believe that climate change will harm other species and future generations, while only thirty-two per cent believe that it will harm them personally.

The problem here is that it makes no difference to the climate whether any individual, myself included, drives to work or rides a bike. The scale of greenhouse-gas emissions is so vast, the mechanisms by which these emissions affect the climate so nonlinear, and the effects so widely dispersed in time and space that no specific instance of harm could ever be traced back to my 0.

I may abstractly fault myself for emitting way more than the global per-capita average. But if I calculate the average annual quota required to limit global warming to two degrees this century I find that simply maintaining a typical American single-family home exceeds it in two weeks.

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Absent any indication of direct harm, what makes intuitive moral sense is to live the life I was given, be a good citizen, be kind to the people near me, and conserve as well as I reasonably can. For one thing, it deeply confuses the human brain, which evolved to focus on the present, not the far future, and on readily perceivable movements, not slow and probabilistic developments.

The great hope of the Enlightenment—that human rationality would enable us to transcend our evolutionary limitations—has taken a beating from wars and genocides, but only now, on the problem of climate change, has it foundered altogether. Nor should we fault any promising effort, by foundations or N. The question is whether everyone who cares about the environment is obliged to make climate the overriding priority. Does it make any practical or moral sense, when the lives and the livelihoods of millions of people are at risk, to care about a few thousand warblers colliding with a stadium?

Even in the nations most threatened by flooding or drought, even in the countries most virtuously committed to alternative energy sources, no head of state has ever made a commitment to leaving any carbon in the ground. The Earth as we now know it resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy. We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming.

Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe. One advantage of the latter approach is that, if a miracle cure like fusion energy should come along, there might still be some intact ecosystems for it to save. Choosing to preserve nature at potential human expense would be morally more unsettling if nature still had the upper hand. But we live in the Anthropocene now—in a world ever more of our own making.

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People will give different answers. The only self-inflicted existential threat to our species is nuclear war. Not everyone cares about wild animals, but the people who consider them an irreplaceable, non-monetizable good have a positive ethical argument to make on their behalf. Carson did warn of the dangers of pollution to human beings, but the moral center of her book was implicit in its title: Are we really O.

The dangers of carbon pollution today are far greater than those of DDT, and climate change may indeed be, as the National Audubon Society says, the foremost long-term threat to birds. I still want to do something. Like capitalism, it is transnational, unpredictably disruptive, self-compounding, and inescapable.

It defies individual resistance, creates big winners and big losers, and tends toward global monoculture—the extinction of difference at the species level, a monoculture of agenda at the institutional level. It also meshes nicely with the tech industry, by fostering the idea that only tech, whether through the efficiencies of Uber or some masterstroke of geoengineering, can solve the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions. Conservation work, in contrast, is novelistic. No two places are alike, and no narrative is simple.


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When I travelled to Peru last November to see the work of a Peruvian-American partnership, the Amazon Conservation Association, my first stop was at a small indigenous community in the highlands east of Cuzco. In an old and dusty and dirt-floored building, women from the community served me a lunch of tarwi stew and dense, sweet tarwi bread.

After lunch, in a neighboring courtyard, I toured a nursery of native tree saplings that the community will hand-plant on steep slopes, to fight erosion and improve local water quality.


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I then visited a nearby community that has pledged to leave its forested land intact and is operating an experimental organic farm. The scale of the farm is small, but to the community it means clear streams and self-sustenance, and to Amazon Conservation it represents a model for other communities. The regional and municipal governments have money from petroleum and mining royalties, and could spend it revitalizing the highlands according to the model.

In an era of globalism of every sort, a good conservation project has to meet new criteria.

The project has to respect and accommodate the people already living in and around it. And the project needs to be resilient with respect to climate change, either by virtue of its size or by incorporating altitudinal gradients or multiple microclimates. The park, which is home to indigenous groups that shun contact with the outside world, has full legal protection from encroachment, but illegal encroachment is endemic in the parks of tropical countries.

The road follows an ancient track once used to transport coca leaves from the lowlands to pre-Columbian highland civilizations.

How to make a carbon tax popular? Give the proceeds to the people

On trails near the road, Amazon Conservation researchers peaceably coexist with modern-day coca traffickers. The road bottoms out near Villa Carmen, a former hacienda that now has an educational center, a lodge for ecotourists, and an experimental farm where a substance called biochar is being tested. Biochar, which is manufactured by kiln-burning woody refuse and pulverizing the charred result, allows carbon to be sequestered in farm fields and is a low-cost way to enrich poor soil. It offers local farmers an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture, wherein forest is destroyed for cropland, the soil is quickly exhausted, and more forest has to be destroyed.

The way to save a forest is to give the people who live in it alternatives to cutting it down. Large-scale fish farming is ecologically problematic in other parts of the world, but smaller-scale operations in the Amazon, using native fish species, are among the most sustainable and least destructive sources of animal protein. The sun felt hotter now, he said. Some of his people had developed skin cancer, unheard of in the past, and the larvae of a palm-tree parasite, which the community had traditionally eaten to control diabetes and stimulate their immune systems, had vanished. Nevertheless, he was committed to the forest.

Amazon Conservation is helping the community expand its land title and develop its own partnership with the national park. There are the conical piles of dirt that highland women sit beside and fill short plastic tubes in which to plant tree seedlings. There are the simple wooden sheds that Amazon Conservation builds for indigenous Brazil-nut harvesters to shelter the nuts from rain, and that can make the difference between earning a living income and having to cut or leave the forest. And there is the method for taking a bird census in a lowland forest: you walk a hundred metres, stopping to look and listen, and then walk another hundred metres.

When a low-carbon industry expands within a growing economy, the money it generates stimulates high-carbon industry. Anyone who works in this field knows environmental entrepreneurs, eco-consultants and green business managers who use their earnings to pay for holidays in distant parts of the world and the flights required to get there.

Electric vehicles have driven a new resource rush, particularly for lithium , that is already polluting rivers and trashing precious wild places. Clean growth is as much of an oxymoron as clean coal. But making this obvious statement in public life is treated as political suicide. It recognises that ecological collapse cannot be prevented through consumer choice or corporate social responsibility: the response to our greatest predicament must be determined by scientific research, and planned, coordinated and led by government.

But, like almost everyone else, it ignores the fundamental problem. Beyond a certain point, economic growth — the force that lifted people out of poverty, and cured deprivation, squalor and disease — tips us back into those conditions. To judge by the devastation climate breakdown is wreaking , we appear already to have reached this point.

The contradiction is most obvious when the policy document discusses airports an issue on which the party is divided. Labour guarantees that any airport expansion must adhere to its tests on climate change. But airport expansion is incompatible with its climate commitments. If airports grow, they will swallow even more of the budget.


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  8. Airport expansion is highly regressive, offending the principles of justice and equity that Labour exists to uphold. Regardless of the availability and cost of flights, they are used disproportionately by the rich , as these are the people with the business meetings in New York, the second homes in Tuscany, and the money to pay for winter holidays in the sun. Yet the impacts — noise, pollution and climate breakdown — are visited disproportionately on the poor.

    I recognise that challenging our least contested ideologies — growth and consumerism — is a tough call. But in New Zealand, it is beginning to happen. No politician can act without support. If we want political parties to address these issues, we too must start addressing them. We cannot rely on the media to do it for us. Almost all of it was a facet of the Trump psychodrama Will he pull out of the Paris accord? There was scarcely a mention of the link between climate breakdown and the multiple unnatural disasters the US suffered that year; of new findings in climate science; or of the impacts of new pipelines or coalmines.

    I cannot find a comparable recent study in the UK. I suspect it is a little better, but not a lot. It is the failure to talk about it at all.