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Monday, August 19, 2019

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

I'm an environmental pessimist. That doesn't mean I don't do everything I can to avoid increasing my carbon footprint --- I ride my bike everywhere instead of driving when I can, and I do try to avoid flights. (I almost never fly to weddings, for instance, or do weekend trips) I've told friends that I don't expect humans to be around in 200 years, because as a species we seem to be hell-bent on destroying the environment that we live in.

The Uninhabitable Earth makes me look like an optimist. To my surprise, I learned a lot more about the global climate crisis than I already knew:
more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before. The United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992, advertising scientific consensus unmistakably to the world; this means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance. Global warming may seem like a distended morality tale playing out over several centuries and inflicting a kind of Old Testament retribution on the great-great-grandchildren of those responsible, since it was carbon burning in eighteenth-century England that lit the fuse of everything that has followed. But that is a fable about historical villainy that acquits those of us alive today—and unfairly. The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. (Kindle Loc 75)
Think about what this means. You can't blame your ancestors, or the WW2 generation for the climate disasters that are facing the earth every year from now on. It's the responsibility of this generation and of course, the generational cohorts just before us (the silent, the boomers, gen x, and the millennial are all in it together). It means that when Bowen and Boen are entering college and remember that back when they were 7 and 4 it was still possible to do a summer bike tour in temperatures under 100F, they can (and probably should) blame us for doing nothing about our greenhouse gas emissions.

And it's not just about driving. It's also about food wastage and construction:
Fully half of British emissions, it was recently calculated, come from inefficiencies in construction, discarded and unused food, electronics, and clothing; two-thirds of American energy is wasted; globally, according to one paper, we are subsidizing the fossil fuel business to the tune of $5 trillion each year. None of that has to continue. (Kindle Loc 551)
Americans waste a quarter of their food, which means that the carbon footprint of the average meal is a third larger than it has to be. That need not continue. (Kindle Loc 556)
Five years ago, hardly anyone outside the darkest corners of the internet had even heard of Bitcoin; today mining it consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined, which means that in just a few years we’ve assembled, out of distrust of one another and the nations behind “fiat currencies,” a program to wipe out the gains of several long, hard generations of green energy innovation. It did not have to be that way. (Kindle Loc 557)
If the average American were confined by the carbon footprint of her European counterpart, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by more than half. If the world’s richest 10 percent were limited to that same footprint, global emissions would fall by a third. And why shouldn’t they be? Almost as a prophylactic against climate guilt, as the news from science has grown bleaker, Western liberals have comforted themselves by contorting their own consumption patterns into performances of moral or environmental purity—less beef, more Teslas, fewer transatlantic flights. But the climate calculus is such that individual lifestyle choices do not add up to much, unless they are scaled by politics. (Kindle Loc 567)
These problems are all problems of scale, and it's not enough to do it one person at a time. You have to scale up the solutions. Think about that last paragraph above: the Europeans live well, in many ways better than Americans, with fewer health problems, more income mobility, etc. There's no reason Americans have to live their current lifestyle, but the courage to make that change will be hard to come by: humans don't measure their material progress against absolutes, but against what their neighbors and their friends' lifestyle is. That's why wives compare their husbands' incomes against each other, and people in the office gasp when I tell them that I don't currently own a car and have no desire to change that state. And that's why I'm a climate pessimist: our concern for survival pales against our greed and envy. Consider the millions of people who smoke despite knowing that it's likely to cause a painful death. That's the state of humanity today.

n the modern age, at least, there is also the related tendency to view large human systems, like the internet or industrial economy, as more unassailable, even more un-intervenable, than natural systems, like climate, that literally enclose us. This is how renovating capitalism so that it doesn’t reward fossil fuel extraction can seem unlikelier than suspending sulfur in the air to dye the sky red and cool the planet off by a degree or two. To some, even ending trillions in fossil fuel subsidies sounds harder to pull off than deploying technologies to suck carbon out of the air everywhere on Earth. This is a kind of Frankenstein problem, and relates to widespread fears of artificial intelligence: we are more intimidated by the monsters we create than those we inherit. (Kindle Loc 2434)
At the same time, that this has all happened in one lifetime is also cause for hope: that means it's possible to try to stop it to happening in one lifetime as well, and that we (and definitely our children) will live long enough to face the consequences of our (in)action means that maybe a few more catastrophes will change people's mind. I'm realistic enough to not expect it to happen (I've watched more than one human organization deliberately adopt policies antithetical to their existence)

In any case, I hope I can convince you to read this book. If the book causes you to change your lifestyle and vote to end our current suicide pact with each other, it would have been well worth your time. Recommended.

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