AN INTERVENTION FOR CLIMATE
“Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?” Diogenes once asked. In that spirit, I hope to pose as a gadfly pestering one with unwelcome questions, interrogating the tired sentiments and tyrant shibboleths that pass for wisdom in polite company. Perhaps some people will accuse me of trolling. But—given the change taking shape in our political climate—maybe trolling is more effective than most other rhetorical modes right now. Nonetheless, these démodé reflections might not seem so rankling to you unless they get at some genuine weakness in the assumptions we posit, some vulnerabilities in our habitual ways of thinking. I say “we” since I, too, share many of these assumptions. For the addictions I am intent upon confronting here are largely shiftless and profligate habits of thought, my own included. Thus, I take this as an occasion to suspend belief, to inspect our actions, and cast suspicion on the background, the norms, and cultural logic that so often go unacknowledged. Take it en grano salis; I am merely proposing hypotheses to consider, not credos to apostolize.
The following examination of climate change largely eschews the narrative, first-person nature essay. As much I might enjoy those types of pieces, I don’t know that they’re enough to provoke the fundamental action needed on this issue. The world is literally burning, and we’re reading poetry? Instead, I’m trying a direct assault. It’s decidedly not a piece about a specific location; climate change is a complex, global phenomenon. In writing this, I became skeptical, as well, of my own narrative impulses: the way that the architecture of a story often replicates or stands-in for some tidy, epiphanic transformation. I didn’t want these ideas to crystalize in a single endpoint, finished and final; rather, I want you to wrestle along with me in an ongoing, restless dialogue. To combat climate change is going to mean work. These jabs are meant as contraventions and ventilations, hopefully clearing space to give us more mental—and perhaps even actual—breathing room. Enough pretty pictures. We’re at the point where we require crisis intervention.
We are addicted to having children.
Each child contributes an estimated 58.6 tonnes of carbon each year, according to a study by Environmental Research Letters in 2017. Not having a kid reduces one’s carbon footprint roughly the same as 684 teenagers who recycled for their entire lives. The choice to procreate is one of the worst things one can do, in terms of its environmental impact. Going car-free, for example, one of the next-best decisions after going child-free, only saves 2.4 tonnes of carbon per year, by comparison. And the grand irony is that all this waste created by “breeders” keeps flowing downstream to be dealt with by, you guessed it—their children. Children are, at once, both cause and recipients of our anthropogenic climate change disaster.
The figure for how much carbon having a child in a developed country produces—again, 58.6 tonnes per year—accounts for the carbon generated, on average, by future children that that one child would have. Half of a child’s carbon impact is assigned to a single parent, but a quarter of each grandchild’s carbon is also assigned to the parent, and so on for several generations. Because the impact is calculated with effects so long-reaching, extending far after the initial choice, many people want to dispute the rationale of the figure or the recommendation itself.
But here’s a thought experiment: suppose someone could make a machine that generated the equivalent pollution of a human being, and suppose that the machine also tended to replicate iterations of itself, each likewise creating more waste. Even suppose that these machines (or golems, if you prefer) were somehow created with fingernail parings, stray hair, spit, and other excreta which had to be incubated in one’s gut. Still, I think, we’d want to dis-incentivize this activity of popping off lots of little golems, rather than encourage it, right? Why, then, is child-making such a sacrosanct activity—deemed somehow so private, so personal—that it’s beyond reproach or rational critique?
Reproductive rights are a hot topic, of course. In post-Enlightenment Western philosophy, there is a strong focus on individual freedoms; add to this, a historic gender imbalance between those making laws and exercising power (almost always men) and those who must face the fraught consequences of reproduction (overwhelmingly women). There is also the obvious issue that at least some people would need to continue to reproduce, or otherwise we’d be responsible for species extinction. Thus, I’m not advocating for forced sterilization or a one-child policy. I’m suggesting, instead, that we make serious efforts to further empower and educate women, which has shown to correlate with a dramatic decrease in the output of children. Also, more controversially, I’m suggest that we take away the institutional incentives and cultural prestige associated with parenthood.
Parenthood—this might sound harsh—is a rancidly selfish choice, twenty times worse than driving one of those giant V-8 gas-guzzling SUVs. Maybe, instead of esteem, parents deserve shame and scorn and general opprobrium for the environmental expense they’ve foisted upon the rest of us. At least, let’s not fool ourselves into reflexively assuming the all-pervasive image of the “sacral child,” as Lee Edelman terms it, is an ideal of innocence and unequivocal goodness. Along with the emblem of the sacral child, we also esteem their corollaries: the sweet and suffering mother; the strong, wise father. Let’s not reproduce this maudlin and outmoded cultural imaginary that valorizes parenthood. Come to think of it, let’s not reproduce at all. I’m in opposition here to the entire socializing apparatus that tries to convince us to view child-making as central and wholesome and meaningful, as the very apex and endpoint of human endeavor. All that sentimental rubbish.
Indeed, instead of “progressive” parental-leave policies that make it easier for parents to raise children, perhaps our society needs to make it prohibitively more difficult to have children. In place of child tax credits, maybe we should have carbon tax penalties for each child. If public funds are going to subsidize a behavior, shouldn’t that behavior bring some benefit to the public?
Ironically, I came to this position after leading a task force advocating for a paid parental-leave and free employee childcare policy for two years. The nagging question I kept having was, why do we want to privilege this one activity—child-making, though sometimes also including adoption—over an array of other activities, many of which were more virtuous: say, writing a novel, adopting a rescue dog, planting a garden, starting a recycling program, or engaging in community activism? Most employers aren’t giving anyone paid time off to do these things, yet they might have greater public benefits. It’s not that I wanted people to keep working; by no means, since working is imbricated in the same cycles of production and consumption that spawn so much trash and contamination in the first place. But I don’t think the choice of manufacturing more infants should be singled out for such special treatment. Moreover, parental leave policies privilege the conventional nuclear family rather than other child-rearing arrangements, whether nontraditional collectives or once-traditional larger family units.
For centuries, countries had an imperialistic drive for a larger population to assert their military and economic prowess. As a modern example, Russia, with its plunging birth rate and expansionist ambitions, has recently monetized maternal subsidies for having children. But these types of structural encouragement should be made a thing of the past; the new century will be one where a larger population could imperil us.
After all, why should the state or corporate institutions support and abet a decision that has such negative externalities for the collective? This is not simply a “personal” matter: having a child affects all of us. While it might take a village to raise a child, too many children pollute the village and make it unlivable for everyone.
The global village had approximately 3 billion people as recently as 1960; today that number is already closer to 7.7 billion and rising. Such a population—even if measures are taken to reduce the average impact of each person—is unsustainable. Though it’s admittedly a long-term proposal, one of the most effective ways to radically reduce the impact humans have on global climate is likely the simplest: radically reduce the number of humans.
We are addicted to democracy.
A large, centralized totalitarian state like China’s may be best equipped to mobilize the forces necessary to survive the existential threat of climate change.
Democracies are slow-moving and cumbersome by design. They require something approaching a majoritarian consensus. They get mired in logrolling and lobbying. They are better at implementing incremental changes rather than swift and sweeping systemic overhauls. The built-in system of checks-and-balances of their bureaucracies grind the roll-out of any new legislative achievements to a stagnant crawl. This, in fact, is often seen as one of their virtues, acting as a counterweight to the constant turnover of elections. The power of our own federal democracy also gets blunted by the entangled jurisdictions of state and local governments. And, it’s becoming apparent, contemporary manifestations of democracy are vulnerable to disinformation and propaganda campaigns. The fragile fourth estate is increasingly mistrusted, partisan, and shrinking; and they might very well be the most important branch of a functioning democracy.
By contrast, China is building hundreds of “ghost cities”—marvels of urban planning that are nearly uninhabited. Neighborhood upon neighborhood of brand-new monoliths sit vacant, like a vast preapocalyptic wonderland of outsized mausoleums glittering amid the deserts and plateaus. Tianducheng is a knock-off of Beaux-Arts era Paris, complete with its own Eiffel Tower; another city, Binhai New Area, boasts a replica of Manhattan, including Twin Towers. Many of these cities are sprouting up almost overnight. These infrastructure projects are on a staggering scale. China has used more concrete in three years than the US used during the entire 20th century.
The country plans to relocate 250 million citizens from mostly rural areas to these nascent metropoles within the next decade. While traditional market incentives are not pushing people to uproot their lives and move to these empty canyonlands of skyscrapers just yet, the Chinese government may induce relocation by other means, including surveillance and military operations. Many of these cities are situated near its Eastern borders, and so planting populations in these prefab cities would strategically allow China to exert more influence on regional neighbors.
This is simply one dramatic example of a fast-paced response that centralized, authoritarian governments have at their disposal to manage resources and behaviors, which democratic nations lack. The US military—in a report commissioned by the highest-ranking military officer, General Mark Milley—is already facing the possibility that cascade failures in power grids, water systems, communication lines, transportation networks, food supplies, and outbreaks of epidemics triggered by climate change could decimate America’s tenuous, interdependent web of infrastructure in coming decades.
Another effect of climate change could be new hotbeds of regional conflict. The same military report, for example, mentioned that 600 million people live at sea-level in Bangladesh. Climate change refugees will need somewhere to go. Will this cause countries to further militarize their borders? Will it increase the nationalism and xenophobia that are already becoming more widespread around the globe? As we’ve seen recently in Puerto Rico, in Australia, and in California, trouble spots for climate catastrophes are dispersed. Are there any locations that would be immune?
It’s easy to imagine that in the face of an unprecedented crisis, even nominally democratic governments would declare a state of emergency in which most individual liberties were suspended, if traditional government and military forces, in fact, still retained their semblance of control.
Individual freedom may not be an unqualified good—for instance, how much freedom should one have to pollute? Climate change is the classic “tragedy of the commons” writ large: in a shared resource system, individuals tend to deplete or damage the resource. Overfishing, overgrazing, overexploitation; dumping in rivers, polluting the air, depleting the soil. The list goes on. To prevent these effects, regulations are necessary. Likewise, we need someone or something to force us to stop, be it communal stints or restrictions imposed from an outside force. The specious “freedom” of the marketplace means little. No invisible hand—of god or grace—will intervene; no, the hand of some real authority is needed if we are to avoid a sad and skinting fate.
Especially in our hyper-capitalist setting, when one relents advantage another is sure to take it. Therefore, we require an entirely new paradigm, an upheaval against existing conditions, a radical redistribution of resources. Every day we seem more plugged into the machine; we traffic in few alternatives, fixed to our screens in a system that’s screened of any way to fix it. In short, we need to envision more equitable and anarchic futures. As Paul Goodman writes of anarchism:
far from being “Utopian” or a “glorious failure,” it has proved itself and won out in many spectacular historical crises. In the period of mercantilism and patents royal, free enterprise by joint stock companies was anarchist. The Jeffersonian bill of rights and independent judiciary were anarchist. Congregational churches were anarchist. Progressive education was anarchist. The free cities and corporate law in the feudal system were anarchist. At present, the civil rights movement in the United States has been almost classically decentralist and anarchist And so forth, down to details like free access in public libraries. Of course, to later historians, these things do not seem to be anarchist, but in their own time they were all regarded as such and often literally called such, with the usual dire threats of chaos. But this relativity of the anarchist principle to the actual situation is of the essence of anarchism. There cannot be a history of anarchism in the sense of establishing a permanent state of things called “anarchist.” It is always a continual coping with the next situation, and a vigilance to make sure that past freedoms are not lost and do not turn into the opposite, as free enterprise turned into wage-slavery and monopoly capitalism, or the independent judiciary turned into a monopoly of courts, cops, and lawyers, or free education turned into School Systems.
While green anarchy might be one ideal, I have serious doubts that it is powerful enough to confront the capitalist hegemony, seeing how anarchist usually forswear hierarchies of power. Instead, paradoxically, I’m led to ponder whether a little nudge from autocratic fiat could help give an anarchist program enough momentum to overcome the local optima we’re apparently stuck in, which are not optimal at all.
For a rather benign example of autocratic power, take former mayor Bloomberg’s smoking ban in New York City. Although New York City wasn’t the first place to ban cigarettes—that would be the dictatorship of Turkmenistan—it likely acted as a tipping point for other jurisdictions to replicate his bold initiative. One can even think of the ban as a climate change measure on a micro-scale, eradicating the cigarette pollution in bars and restaurants. Initially, almost everyone was grumbling or aghast. It was unpopular, to say the least. It certainly wouldn’t have passed a referendum and it wasn’t an issue Bloomberg campaigned on. It was a top-down decision.
I remember the reaction vividly, as I lived in Manhattan at the time. People would complain, “Hey, I go to the bar so I can drink and smoke—c’mon, it’s not like a bar’s a fucking health club.” I probably heard fifty versions of that sentiment in the span of a month. Still, the benefits quickly became apparent—for the businesses, for their clients, even for the smokers themselves—and the law’s intended effects and collateral gains ultimately proved such a boon that many states soon copied it. Instituting the change required an anti-democratic push; today, however, the measure would likely win in a landslide. The new norm is communally policed, and it operates with surprisingly little pressure from on high, according to anarchist principles. Thus, if anarchism is a vigilance ever ready to cope with the next situation, is it relative enough to adapt to climate change? Can it, even, be bolstered by an autocratic edict to get over the hump?
Often people have a hard time assessing alternatives until they possess enough direct experiences of them. Could larger-scale pollution bans work similarly to a smoking ban, I wonder?
We are addicted to solutions.
Our mindset is stuck looking for the quick fix, the easy ticket out, the readymade panacea. New public policy proposals like the Green New Deal; or new technology like clean energy and carbon sinks; or new eco-friendly “lifestyle” brands. As if Marie Kondo could tidy up the world’s industrial waste in a nifty, jiffy snap the way she can help you tidy up your apartment.
Ultimately, we believe that our own innovation will save us.
We are reluctant to give up any of our technological conveniences, our comforts, or so-called cultural heritage. We don’t really want to change. We plan on keeping the same bad habits that are destroying the planet. We’ll go on acquiring stuff, hoping that more stuff—perhaps some newfangled energy-efficient gadget or a low-cost, high-tech electric car—will give us all the current benefits with a magically lower carbon footprint.
But this is to ignore that solutions already exist.
Buy local rather than corporate products shipped across the globe. Don’t eat meat or processed foods derived from industrialized agriculture. Stop driving cars. Stop taking flights. Live in places where you don’t need to use excess energy on air conditioning or heating. Inhabit urban centers rather than suburban sprawl or rural areas. Reduce consumption; reuse materials; recycle. Vote for candidates that support environmental regulations and green policies (since we do still have a democracy, as of this writing). Moreover, vote with your dollar by supporting companies that have eco-conscious practices. And, as I said previously, don’t have children.
Most of these probably sound like sacrifices rather than solutions. Or, in a few cases, like privileges that only some people can afford. But the cost of not doing them could be far greater.
Those eager for “solutions” might look to Project Drawdown:
I’m not necessarily criticizing all of Project Drawdown’s solutions, so-called, since some of them may be good; nonetheless, the gist of the project is incrementalist and technocratic. My point is that we don’t have enough time to be incrementalists; we require change now. And technology won’t save us—indeed, technology is what we’re ultimately addicted to. Technology, lest we forget, is the very thing that got us in this crisis in the first place.
We require drastic changes to our collective way of life. Many people, it seems, are hoping for a sweeping and simple “solution” that will allow them to still maintain the status quo. Yet, it’s the status quo that has put us in this precarious position. The health of our planet requires critical life support. Instead, we’re like addicts who keep smoking two packs a day. By the time we hit rock bottom it will be too late. The cancer will have metastasized, and we won’t have air to breathe.
The fact that climate change is gradual (until some tipping point event) and large-scale often makes it hard to pin down. Any single weather event, wildfire, extinction, island vanishing, etc. can be dismissed as part of the ongoing cycle of nature, the random “acts of god” that we take for granted. We are not so good at looking at the pattern of these events without analyzing large data sets. And while the data indicates a developing change in global ecosystems best explained by anthropogenic causes that have altered the environment, most of us instinctively trust what we see with ocular proof right in front of us.
Yet, as climate events become more common, more frequent, more obvious, we still seem paralyzed to act. Fewer of us deny what’s happening, and yet few of us do much about it. Why is that?
Humans tend to be loss averse—irrationally so. We are hesitant to adopt new behaviors or to give up anything we already have, even when doing so demonstrably benefits us. Until a situation appears irrevocably and profusely fubar, we fall into the rut of keeping up our old behaviors, putting off a genuine reckoning. We also tend to be gregarious animals who function by herd behavior. We take our cues from others. Indelibly, the cultural practices and infrastructural barriers around us reinforce and channel us toward certain ways of life, and they make any deviation from existing norms quite difficult.
When colleagues at work start a ride-share program or the city collects glass recycling along with the trash, though, people are more likely to adopt these new behaviors. In order to instigate behavioral change, it’s usually easier to have some structure, support, and outside directive. A little effort can sometimes proliferate into a virtuous cycle, as well. And, if corporations are skilled at inducing behaviors through algorithms and product design, why not put these same tactics to work for us in the fight against climate change catastrophe?
Many people despair of undertaking efforts in order to prevent climate change at the individual level. After all, what does it matter when roughly 100 companies are responsible for 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Climate Accountability Institute. The carbon footprint caused by individuals is a small fraction compared to corporations. And yet, corporations need consumers: it’s us who choose to buy products that are wasteful, use fossil fuels, and support businesses that are harming the environment. We are complicit with these multinational corporations on a very deep level. Denial is only going to make the problem worse.
We make thousands of choices each day; how many of them involve any consideration or calculus about what’s best for the environment?
This is the part of the intervention where you need to reclaim your own life—and the planet’s.
You have the autonomy to change your habits. Together, we can help create new mindsets. New structural and infrastructural conditions. New norms. A whole new culture. Let the work begin, yes, one day at a time.
is the author of Trap Street (forthcoming from Able Muse). He has work appearing or forthcoming in Best New Poets, The Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, DIAGRAM, Fourteen Hills, Nashville Review, Poetry Northwest, Salamander, Sycamore Review, the Threepenny Review, Zone 3, and elsewhere. He coedits the small press Eggtooth Editions. He is grateful for a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, a scholarship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Truman Capote Writer’s Fellowship, as well as residencies from ART 342, Blue Mountain Center, Ora Lerman Trust, Petrified Forest National Park, and Risley Residential College. He received his MFA and PhD from Cornell University. He lives in Flagstaff, where he teaches in the Honors College at Northern Arizona University.