National Geographic : 2006 Aug
VOICES BILL McKIBBEN The old paradigm works like this= We judge just about every issue by asking the question, Wi[ this make the economy Larger? But endless econo ic growth is buriLt on the use of cheap fossil fue. But it turns out that, above all else, endless economic growth is built on the use of cheap fossil fuel. The industrial revolution began the day in 1712 that Thomas Newcomen figured out how to use a steam engine to pump water out of a coal mine, so that it could be mined more cheaply and easily, thus allowing more steam engines. Coal, oil, and natural gas were, and are, miraculous compact, easily transportable, crammed with Btu, and cheap. Dig a hole in the ground, stick a pipe in the right place, and you get all the energy you could ever need. Precisely the same fuels that gave us our growth now threaten our civilization. Burn a gallon of gas and you release five pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. And as China demonstrates every day, the cheapest way to spur growth is by burning more fossil fuel. Even Benjamin Friedman, the Harvard economist who wrote a brilliant book last year defending the morality of economic growth, conceded that carbon dioxide is the one major environmental contaminant for which no study has ever found any indication of improvement as living standards rise. Which means we might need a new idea. We need to stop asking, Will this make the economy larger? Instead, we need to start asking, Will this pour more carbon into the atmosphere? Some of the shift would be technological. If carbon carried a real price, then we'd be building windmills far faster than we are now. All cars would be hybrid cars, and all lightbulbs would be compact fluo rescent. Every new coal plant would be paying the steep price to separate carbon from its exhaust stream and store it under ground. All that would help-but not enough to meet Hansen's ten-year prognostication, not enough to reduce worldwide car bon emissions by the 70 percent required to stabilize the climate at its current degree of disruption. For that to happen, we'd need to change as dramatically as our lightbulbs. We'd need to see ourselves differently-identity and desire would have to shift. Not out of a sense of idealism or asceti cism or nostalgia for the '60s. Out of a sense of pure pragmatism. For instance, we've gotten used to eating across great distances. Because it's always summer somewhere, we've accustomed our selves to a food system that delivers us fresh produce 365 days a year. The energy cost is incredible-growing and transporting a single calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the eastern U.S. takes 36 calories of energy. What would it take to get us back to eating more locally, to accepting what the seasons and smaller scale local farmers provide? Or think about the houses we now build. They're enormous more than double the size they were in 1950, despite the fact that the number of people in the average home continues to fall. Even a technologically efficient furnace or air conditioner strug gles to heat or cool such a giant space-and the houses can only be built on big suburban lots, guaranteeing that their occupants will be entirely car-dependent. What would it take to make us consider smaller homes, closer to the center of town, where we could use the bus or a bike for daily transportation?