On social norms.

On social norms.

I assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  Neither have I.  The number of people who have done the actual cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.

I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.

And the rain forest is beautiful.  Future generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it were gone.

When I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  In retrospect, I’m not sure what this entailed.  We raised money and sent it off in an envelope.  I don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees. 

I have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct.  Many of the world’s problems would be easier to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for everyone.  At the very least, if there are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.

Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed.  Everyone in the world would suffer as a result.  If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.

Unless you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this policy on your own.  If I decided to split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.

A guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can accomplish as an individual.

In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today.  We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems.  It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.

Foer describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself.  This sensation grows more intense as he watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.

But what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?

Foer knows that he could choose to help.  Each day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.

He often doesn’t.

There is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that parades as acceptance.  Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger.  We should be terrified of ourselves.  We are the ones we have to defy.  I am the person endangering my children.

As you read this, the Amazon rain forest is being destroyed.  Why?  To clear space for cows to graze.

Photo by Joelle Hernandez on Flickr, whose caption from this 2007 photograph reads, “On a few occasions Brazilians told me that ‘People thousands of miles away are contributing to our deforestation.'”

Even if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest to be destroyed. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  A good cheese pizza can be divine.  Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious.  Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.

Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades.  He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments.  He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.

But this knowledge isn’t enough.  He still surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.

So why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years?  Why has it become harder?  I crave meat more now than I have at any point since I became a vegetarian.

Foer wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  Eating cheese is pleasurable. 

Injecting heroin is pleasurable too.  Driving a car while drunk is pleasurable.  Heck, even cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance behind you would be pleasurable.

In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances.  Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.

Meats and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all climate-change-causing emissions. 

(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets.  If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change.  If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change.  Only 20%.  By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change.  You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)

The current administration has gutted the EPA, and compelled their staff scientists to restate their findings in the weakest ways possible … and these are the numbers still posted on their website.

If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently.  If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.

If we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas emissions could be 50% of what they are currently.  With no other changes, humanity would survive.  Our planet would remain habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.

Pleasure matters.  I’m an atheist, and I’m well aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will go extinct eventually.  I don’t believe you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.

Your life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.  I support responsible hedonism.  Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that protect our planet.  Most people think that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your sexuality only with other consenting adults.  Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in our culture, a social norm restrains us. 

Well, most of us.

Foer wishes that we, as a people, could choose better.  He’s been struggling to eat food made from plants.  But he doesn’t struggle to restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students.  In those instances, our social norms make it easy to do the right thing.

And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants!  If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.

Deep dish pizza, mac and cheese, nachos and more — all vegan at Kitchen 17.

Feature image by Neil Palmer / CIFOR on Flickr.

On two degrees and the worst year (yet) to be alive.

On two degrees and the worst year (yet) to be alive.

The United States is pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we were last year.

The amount of heat-trapping gas in our atmosphere is already too high – ideally, our net emissions should be negative.  Which is entirely feasible.  When we cultivate forests, trees pull carbon from the air.  But each tree can do only so much.  We also need to reduce the amount of energy we consume.

We don’t need to be less happy, though.  As the economy improved, people began flying more … but many flights aren’t producing happiness.  Most people look harried and sullen in airports.  If we all switched to taking trains, the cultural expectations for the rhythm of our lives would shift – instead of short bursts of misery, our travels could be pleasant spells of intermediate time. 

And the giant server farms needed to run websites like Facebook gobble energy.  Facebook, just like any other advertising company, profits by making people less happy.  Many people would be happier in a world where these servers used less energy.

We have a compelling reason to change our behaviors.  If we don’t, the global climate will rise by two degrees Celsius or more.  (Of course, any individual location could become much warmer or colder – a nearby warm ocean current keeps Europe’s climate mild, but if melting polar ice redirects this current, countries like England could become quite frigid.)

How different might life be if global temperatures changed by two degrees?

In the year 536, global temperatures were about two degrees lower than they are today.  (Which does prove, obviously, that the global climate can change for reasons that are not humanity’s fault.  But the current changes are caused by us.)

Historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick believes that this two degree change in temperature made our planet an utterly miserable place to live. A volcanic eruption had darkened the sky, preventing incoming sunlight from warming Earth.  “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick. Snow fell in summertime; crops failed; people starved.

And now we, in all our wisdom, are about to tug the needle just as far (if not farther!) in the other direction.

The Dark Ages were literally dark.  Ashen clouds lurked overhead.  Beset by such nightmarish conditions, people feared that God had forsaken them.  Europeans abandoned science and literacy partly as penance, hoping to appease the source of wrath that was killing them and their children.

Plants have evolved on Earth for many millions of years.  Many plant species will find a way to endure even if we change our planet’s climate.  But human food crops are quite young, in evolutionary terms, and exist in precarious swaths of monoculture. A two degree increase in global temperatures will cause these plants to die.  Famine will ensue.  Global violence and warfare will increase as hungry people fight to survive. 

A two degree change in temperature is totally sufficient to usher in a new worst year to be alive.

Sadly, nobody will be eating any Doritos made from these drought-scorched corn plants.

If we change the global climate by two degrees, there’s also no assurance that our planet won’t keep warming.  Weather is dictated by complex feedback loops that we don’t yet understand.  Our oceans soak up heat, which is changing their chemistry; warmer water takes up more space, flooding the coasts, and will melt the polar ice caps from underneath, which further accelerates warming because ice reflects sunlight, but bare ground or water absorbs it.

Venus may have been habitable, once. But climate change spiraled out of control after the atmosphere filled with too much heat-trapping carbon dioxide.  The oceans evaporated.  Now, searing sulfuric acid falls as rain from the sky.

If we tip over the precipice, every living creature on earth will be doomed.  No one understands enough about the feedback loops that dictate a planet’s climate to know how close to the precipice we are.

Although, really, a two degree change would be awful enough.

Which is worth reiterating … especially because the cohort of humans that has contributed most to climate change, and currently holds the wealth and political power needed to prevent catastrophe, is of an age that perhaps they want the world to be a little warmer.  Wealthy Americans in their fifties to seventies have long migrated south in pursuit of warmer climate.

The current generation of 50- to 70-year-olds was given the most of the Earth’s plenitude.  The world of their youth was very different from the world in which my children were born. While that generation was alive, insect populations plummeted by 90% or more.  The fecundity of other wildlife diminished in turn.  Forests were clearcut, and the environment – including the very air we breathe – was devastated to produce the world’s current wealth.

Perhaps some of the people in power now do want a warmer planet.  But it is not theirs.  As phrased by Wendell Berry,

the world is not given by [our parents], but borrowed from [our] children.”

We should feel horrifically embarrassed to return this world in worse condition than when we were lent it.

Featured image: Night Landscape with Ruined Monastery by Lluís Rigalt (1814 – 1894).

On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

Approximately one thousand years ago, the Syrian poet Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’arri wrote:

 

God help us, we have sold our souls, all that was best,

To an enterprise in the hands of the Receiver.

We’ve no dividends, or rights, for the price we paid.

Yet should our wills choose between this corrupt business

And a paradise to come, rest assured they’d want

 

The world we have now.

 

birds(This was translated by Abdullah Al-Udhari and George Wightman for Birds through a Ceiling of Alabaster, a collection of ancient poetry from the Middle East.)

Many of our choices, moment to moment, are saddling us with a rotten deal.  We can often see how to make the world better.  “A paradise to come” might be heaven, but it could also be a more perfect world here on Earth.

If we were starting from scratch, it would be easy.

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While wrapping packages at Pages to Prisoners recently, I told another volunteer about my essay on the link between misogyny and the plow.  Sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens is minor enough that, if we were like other primate species, we shouldn’t have much gender inequality.  Many hunter-gatherer societies that survived until modern times were relatively egalitarian.  And women have been miserably oppressed in cultures that adopted the plow, a farming tool that magnifies the differences between human physiques.

But I had to admit, afterward, that, like all explanations that purport a single cause for something so complicated, my claim was wrong.  There seems to be a correlation between the introduction of the plow and myth-making that led to worlds like our own – but there were surely many other factors.

SphcowThe world is complex.  In physics and economics, the goal is often to propose a simplified model that captures something of the world – the difference between otherwise equivalent cultures that either adopted plowing or did not, the difference between otherwise equivalent societies where GDP growth is larger than the rate of return of investments, or smaller – and hope that most of the omitted detail really was expendable.

Which brings us to Syria.

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syria_tmo_2011210Like many environmentalists, I’ve commented on the link between the horrors in Syria and climate change.  Human activities – primarily in nations that experienced a huge leap in living standards during the industrial revolution – have released long-trapped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  This has caused a small increase in global temperatures, but can cause a large change in the climate of any particular region of the planet.  Areas that once supported many people become suddenly less habitable.

Like Syria.  The country plunged into drought, which led to widespread food insecurity, which made the violence worse.

That much seems true, but it’s certainly not the whole truth.  The violence was already there.

Al_Assad_familyWhile Syria was ruled by the Assads, there were constant human rights abuses.  Their punishment for a 19-year-old student who joined the Syrian Communist Party and expressed dissatisfaction with his country’s political regime?  The student was imprisoned for sixteen years.

After his release, the now middle-aged Yassin al-Haj Saleh still disliked his government.  Somehow those sixteen years did not convince him of the errors in his youthful ways.  He married a fellow political activist and continued to advocate for change.

Unfortunately, activism like theirs contributed to Syria’s descent into nightmare.  You should read Lindsey Hilsum’s “War of All Against All,” in which she reviews Saleh’s recent essay collection alongside three other books about the tragedy.

Saleh wrote that:

International_Mine_Action_Center_in_Syria_(Aleppo)_12It never occurred to us that there could be a more dangerous threat to their lives than the regime’s bombs.  What bestows a particularly tragic status on this abduction is that it was an outcome of our own struggle, and that we ourselves had made this horrible incident possible.

This sentiment is painfully elaborated by Hilsum:

The sentence bears rereading: so terrible is the situation in Syria that one of the region’s most long-standing and fervent critics, a man who has dedicated his whole life to fighting the Assads, father and son, is forced to wonder if it would have been better not to rebel at all.  The author’s head may have remained clear while his heart was breaking, but the carefully modulated prose of these essays does not provide the whole story.  How can we understand the Syrian revolution unless … we consider in … depth how it feels to blame yourself for your wife’s disappearance and probable death?

The writer’s personal tragedy reveals him as an authentic voice trying to understand how the genuine, progressive revolt he supported went so horribly wrong.

The regime was awful, imprisoning and torturing children for years at a time.  Student-led protests eventually led to a retreat by the regime, but then quasi-religious fanatics claimed vast swaths of the country.  They kept the old regime’s torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and added public execution.  U.S. intervention arrived late and couldn’t root out the deeply-infiltrated jihadists.

Hilsum writes that “An older woman we met might have been forgiven for cursing both sides: ISIS had expropriated her house, she said, and then the Americans had bombed it.

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While reading Hilsum’s piece, I felt a twinge of guilt.  Yes, climate change exacerbated the tragedy, but the chaos in Syria was already a tragedy.  It’s heartlessly trivializing to imply that there could be a simple explanation for such a complex, horrible thing.  I was wrong to blithely write what I did.

Plows don’t oppress women, people did.  (Which sounds unfortunately reminiscent of “guns don’t kill people,” because guns do, they potentiate far more killing than would be possible without them.)

Climate change didn’t murder millions of Syrians.  But it made an awful situation worse.