First World Problem

It seems perfectly reasonable to say, “I don’t want to give up my car, my indoor plumbing, my electronics, the big yard that the kids play in…” Who wouldn’t want that stuff? And where’s the harm in wanting to maintain a lifestyle that I am accustomed to? I would like to investigate what some of that harm might be.

We have a long tradition in the United States of America of ignoring the rest of the world. Not that that’s evil, necessarily. Not that other countries are necessarily less ethnocentric and provincial than we are. It’s just a fact. Americans (by which I mean residents of the U.S., rather than of the Americas) know little and care less about foreigners, until they come here, spending their money or looking for jobs, or until there is an event in the world that directly affects Americans.

I say this about Americans because there is a problem that involves us and the rest of the world. Technically, it is about the rich and powerful part of the world, the “developed countries”, and the rest, the parts that get ignored until we discover that they have been selling us lethal drugs or training terrorists. What I refer to is the problem of sustainability, or how much stuff can we use up and throw away before the planet becomes essentially unlivable, and the related problem of carrying capacity, how many people can the Earth support?

Living in the First World

I’m not so much talking about resources, in general. We keep using what is available to make things out of, and if we start running out of something, we find substitutes. If we run short on aluminum ore, the price of aluminum goes up and we recycle more cans and things. No problem. Food and water are different. If the population of the world ate and used water like middle-class Americans, it is estimated that the world could only support about two billion people, whereas living at a subsistence level would enable up to 40 billion. As the current population is about 7 billion, we are clearly far past the point where everyone can consume like Americans, even with new technology that increases food production.

We also need to consider disposal. How much of the waste we produce can Earth handle, and still be a good place to live? Right now, the most dangerous thing we produce, Fukushima notwithstanding, is greenhouse gas. If every country had CO2 emissions proportionate to U.S. per capita output, the world’s greenhouse gases would be increasing nearly four times as fast as now. (Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.) We are already feeling the effects of global warming-induced changes in weather patterns. Not only will this make some areas less habitable, it will also likely reduce crop yields, aggravating the food supply problem. This doesn’t just mean we can’t handle four times the CO2 emissions, it means we can’t continue emissions at our current rate.

The thing is, while the U.S. struggles to half-heartedly reduce our emissions, most of the rest of the world would like to emulate our standard of living, which means they are likely to increase their emissions. And they would like a more ample diet. Do you begin to see where we are kind of in a bind?

A friend of mine asked me what I would be willing to give up because of my “belief” in global warming. That’s the wrong question. I don’t have faith in global warming, I know it is happening because of the data. I know what is likely to be our future because of climate models that can be tested for accuracy. It doesn’t matter what I am willing to give up. Soon, one way or another, we will be forced to give up some of what we hold dear. Even if we could somehow defend our way of life while deliberately withholding its benefits from most of the world, we would still have no choice but to cut back on our greed.

I don’t want to give up my car, my indoor plumbing, my electronics…” Does that mean I am going to have a car, but insist that 80% of the world can’t have one? Or can we redefine what a car is? Do I insist that 80% of the world is not entitled to cell phones and computers, or can we get our electricity in ways that don’t poison the atmosphere? If everyone in the world insists on living like Americans have been, we will all go down together. If we are all willing to give a little, we may have a chance.

Many of us in the U.S. are already getting by with less, thanks to the grindingly slow pace of our economic recovery. The next recession may have more to do with the effects of global warming than traditional economic factors. We will change our way of life, we will give up some things, because we won’t have a choice. But I prefer to say that I am doing it so that my grandchildren can live. Sounds more noble.


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