Prosperity is killing us - Keith Roulston editorial
From the photos we see in public service ads for aid agencies of children starving in various parts of the world, poverty seems to be a great killer. In truth, our prosperity is killing many people too.
People don’t die from starvation if they are prosperous. They may, however, die from eating too much of the wrong foods or from storms and fires caused by climate change fostered by the choices we prosperous people make.
It’s a relatively recent phenomenon. When I was growing up, we had throw-away cars. Because my parents were short on cash and credit, my dad bought the cheapest cars he could, repaired them himself, and when they were beyond repair, went out and bought another cheap car. The old car didn’t exactly get thrown away. It was parked in the abandoned-car graveyard of our orchard. Every few years an old-car salvager would come with a cutting torch and take away the remains to recycle the metal they contained.
The fact that we had such undependable cars reduced the amount of driving we did. We shopped in our local village, for instance, because travelling to the next nearest town was risky. I wasn’t even baptized until I was older because the car seemed to break down every time a date was set with the minister.
As a consequence, we didn’t add much carbon to the atmosphere. We didn’t travel for vacations, we burned renewable wood from our woodlot because it was cheap, we grew and preserved as much of our own food as possible. I could never have imagined the comfortable, prosperous life I lead today with a dependable car that we can trust to most likely deliver us safely home if we drive across the county, the province or the country.
John Rapley, a University of Cambridge political economist, writing recently in the Globe and Mail, argues that an apparently virtuous Tesla electric car owner may be committing more damage to the climate than the sort of guy who would drive a gas-guzzling pickup to a rally to hear former U.S. President Donald Trump mock global warming.
“That’s because while the typical pickup driver has an income that hovers around the median, the typical Tesla owner has an income twice the average – and the strongest predictor of a person’s carbon emissions isn’t what he buys, but what he spends,” he writes.
Most Tesla drivers, Rapley says, are in the top one per cent of highest income earners – who produce one-sixth of the planet’s carbon.
Even without electric vehicles, our carbon emissions should have been going down because of the efficiency of technology. The massive cars of the late 1950s that you see at classic car shows got about 12 miles per gallon. Even today’s SUVs get four times as much. As well, technology has improved the energy efficiency from other consumer goods from refrigerators to televisions.
The problem is that as we became more prosperous, we found other ways to greatly increase our carbon output. Back in the days of those cars that looked like boats, hardly anyone travelled by air. Not today, says Rapley. “The number of international travellers, the vast majority of them from Western countries, (is) doubling each decade. Back in the days of clunky cars, hardly anyone flew abroad. Today, many of us think nothing of hopping a plane across the world for a week or two in an Airbnb.”
To soothe our guilt, we do other things to save the planet – like recycling. But, Rapley argues, it doesn’t work that way. “In theory, putting stuff back into the product cycle reduces our waste. In practice, the opposite often happens. Research shows that recycling can actually lead people to buy more stuff, because they feel they’re no longer producing waste.”
Life was hard when I was growing up. Contradicting the great George Gershwin song, the livin’ was never easy, even in summertime. But in a way being environmentally friendly was easier than it is today because we had so few choices. Not only did we not burn gasoline travelling, we hardly even had brown paper shopping bags, let alone plastic, because we bought so little at the store. Any paper we did get was probably used to light the fire in the stove.
By comparison, even though we live modestly at our house relative to the typical Canadian family, I’m guessing we still contribute more to climate change than my parents did. With a nice, comfortable, fairly new car, we think nothing of
driving to a nearby town or city. When considering whether or not to buy some new consumer product, we don’t have to count our pennies to decide if we should indulge ourselves.
Prosperity gives us choices my parents didn’t have – and those choices mean we must discipline ourselves for environment substantiality.