Essential Nonessentials

My wife and I took a break last week and headed up to Mendocino. We tasted wine in Hopland , had some nice meals, stayed in a pleasant coastal inn, and made it a point to find a television to watch the San Francisco Giants clinch the National League championship.

That’s the climate change problem in a nutshell.

Who wants to give this up?

Is it such a binary choice? I think it is.

Being able to take a trip like that has always been about discretionary wealth. It takes spare cash to leave work behind and indulge for a few days. In the pre-industrial world, the powerful accumulated personal wealth through the labor of others—serfs, subjects, and slaves. Very few people could be at the top of that pyramid.

Fossil fuels changed everything. The energy density of coal and oil replaced hand labor and broke the age-old bonds of servitude for billions. You can argue that agricultural slaves merely became wage slaves, but that doesn’t capture the profound transformation of the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuels leverage and amplify human power by orders of magnitude. Farming that used to take a village can now be done many times over by a handful of people with machines. In 1790, farmers were 90% of the labor force. Today, they’re about 2%. That puts a lot of time in peoples’ hands to engage in other activities—like inventing mass entertainment, the core of present-day Western culture.

Fossil fuels also make places like the Mendocino coast accessible, habitable, and culturally mainstreamed for large populations. You can be sure the subsistence hunter-gatherer practices of the isolated Pomos wouldn’t support a town the size of Mendocino (pop. 1,006), let alone Fort Bragg (p0p. 7,273) in anything remotely resembling the comfort and health of today’s denizens.

But the binary choice isn’t between living like a 21st-Century Westerner and an ancient Pomo, it’s between profligacy and frugality and, ultimately, between survival and extinction.

The original goal of the Kyoto agreement was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of 1990 levels by 2040. That profile was identified for a reason. Lesser reductions mean continued accumulation of CO2, which will trap more heat, destabilize the atmosphere,  and increase the risk of a runaway methane release from the Arctic. If we had set out immediately to achieve the Kyoto emissions target, we could have stepped emissions down by roughly 2% a year for 40 years. Tough, but feasible.

Twenty years have passed. Now, to reach that goal, we have to accelerate to 3% or 4% a year. That means redeploying our capital and labor at that same rate. And that’s setting aside the need to ensure all growth is 100% non-carbon-additive.

To hope to have anything like our current social, economic, and political arrangements in 2040, less than 30 years from now, all technology has to shift from coal, oil, and gas to something else. Setting aside the technical  issues, this means stranding investments on a global scale. All that money that’s been sunk into ExxonMobil, BP, Shell? Write it off. Walk away. Leave the stuff in the ground.

If we do that, all the infrastructure and jobs that depend on those investments would become imminently obsolete. Their value would fall by roughly the same percent as the carbon reduction target, 80 percent. All the money invested in that infrastructure and the companies that own it would be lost. That would slam the economy like a burlap bag full of 2008s.

Between ramping down fossil fuels and investing in brand new energy facilities, money will be diverted from almost all other nonessential purposes.

The ironic thing is that entertainment has become essential. Our economy is so leveraged up on cheap energy that it requires continued novelty for growth. If people don’t drive to Mendocino and spend money in B&Bs and bistros, the residents there don’t have jobs. (Or more of them pile into marijuana cultivation, which is entertainment of a different stripe.) All tourism is economically essential, if maintaining per capita income is the measure. Diet dog food is essential. Video games. Mani-pedis. Jetting to Europe. NASCAR. The NFL. Movies. Golf. Silly K-Pop music. Our way of life depends on taking Gangnam Style seriously. (It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry for Gangnam Style has 249 footnotes while the entry for Global Warming has 213. Just so we have our priorities straight.)

But if we don’t make the transition, if we don’t divert our wealth to invest in new technologies on a massive scale immediately, we won’t be enjoying Psy’s gallop dance or any of our other essential nonessentials for long. To the extent we continue to use fossil fuels, it has to be to construct other energy providers—insulation, super-energy-efficient devices, solar panels, wind generators. We should treat fossil fuels as an endowment, to be preserved like capital and used sparingly to generate dividends.

That means lowering our standard of living, at least while that redirection of investment takes place. It means WW2-style sacrifice in place of Gangnam-style indulgence.

Otherwise, by 2040 or sooner, Mother Nature will correct the atmospheric carbon imbalance for us. She won’t manage it like we still can. Her rebalancing will be harsh and indifferent to the continuation of any particular species, including ours.

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Filed under Climate Change, Culture, Psychology

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