Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Get up, keep running

Looking around at how people come to my blog, I found this interesting article, the one stone challenge. (By "stone" she means the old Imperial measurement of 14 pounds, or 6.3kg, in this case a stone of CO2e.) Essentially it's a watered-down emissions reduction programme, but with more things to keep track of. Praise to Emily for being pointed in the right direction, not so much praise for the slow pace she recommends. Like many Westerners, I think perhaps she doesn't appreciate the urgency of the problem. It's hard to - it's not in our interests to really understand it. 

If you enjoy accounting so much, then you can try the Carbon Account Challenge.

In this, carbon dioxide is the backing for a new currency, the Carbon (¢). Your allowed emissions are treated as an "income". You can earn more income from planting trees and harvesting food. If you are a truly profligage Carbons spender today, perhaps you could take four months to reduce to the current Western average, ¢1,000. Then reduce this by ¢10 every month until you reach the world average spending, ¢300. After that you reduce it by ¢5 per month until you reach the safe level of ¢100 a month.

So you take 4 months to get to the Western average; then 70 months, almost six years, to get from the Western to the world average. Then you take 40 months, three and a half years, to get from the world average to a safe level. In all, in nine and a half years you've gone from profligate wasteful spending of Carbon to a level the world could sustain forever.

People generally take 2-5 years to completely change their lifestyle. In 2-5 years you can move to a new country and learn a new language, get married and have children or get divorced, find a new home and be well-settled in, get a new qualification and a new career, become depressed and suicidal, get deadly cancer and go through chemotherapy, go from being grossly obese to a bodybuilding champion, and so on.

So you ought to be able to make significant changes in your carbon-spending lifestyle in almost ten years. I double the time because you often have to drag a reluctant family along, and a lot of it depends on having the available infrastructure around, like buses and trains and decent food and wind power available from retailers, and that often takes longer than individual changes. You can get all that with moving house or workplace and lobbying local government, and do it within ten years. If you can't, well it's not that you can't it's just that you're not trying. Ten years.

As Emily says, small steps do take you towards a far goal. However, I'd say that one stone is a bit too small a step. It becomes a token effort we know is useless, like Earth Hour.

The thing is that all these carbon calculations are not terribly precise. Maybe my coal-fired station is a bit worse than yours, so that I only get 4kWh for a stone compared to your 7kWh. Maybe my beef is grass-fed instead of grain-fed so it farts less.

In the Carbon Account Challenge, these inaccuracies come out in the wash, in that however inaccurate the particular figures, over time you'll see if the trend in spending is generally up or generally down. That's a bit harder if you've got 157 things to keep track of.

The other issue is that Emily's presented it as "carbon saved." But the problem is not how much carbon we're saving, rather how much we're spending. If I drink ten Guinesses tonight, it will not help my head tomorrow that I said "no" to two more. Ten was nine too many. It's easier to keep track of the drinks I did have than the drinks I might have had but didn't. I cannot "save" drinks, I either drink them or I don't.

Likewise, we cannot "save" emissions. If (say) 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide will turn our planet into misery, that we "saved" 10,000 billion tonnes won't matter. All that matters is the emissions we make. We have to get them down, and fast. It may be too much or too hard, but we've not any choice.

Once in the Army I saw that when blokes fall down on a cross-country run, a corporal or sergeant comes along and kicks them in the guts until they get up and keep going. Lying there gasping, you have a choice: you can lie there being kicked, or you can get up and keep running. Most get up and keep running.

That is overly brutal and people shouldn't do that to each-other, but that's what the Earth is doing to us. Hurricane Katrina, the Black Saturday bushfires, the Bangladesh cyclone, drought in Australia and the Sahel - the Earth is kicking us in the guts and saying, "get up, keep going."

We can lie there in airconditioned comfort and in our SUVs munching on our burgers, and keep getting kicked in the guts by global warming. Or we can switch it off, get out and walk and find a decent meal, and keep running. It's shitty and hard and unfair but we have no choice. As you can see from my carbon account in the sidebar, I'm overspending, so I understand the difficulties. But it's no-one's fault but my own. I take responsibility for my actions and inactions both.  

It's also a social justice issue. As Sharon Astyk likes to relate, one Bangladeshi man was interviewed after a flood. He said, "I am told that the flood happened because of greenhouse gases and global warming. But I swear to you, I have never owned a single lightbulb."

We're being kicked in the guts, but they're being kicked in the balls.

Get up, keep running. You have ten years to get there. Hurry up. 

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