Prioritizing climate harms the economy. Prioritizing the economy harms the climate. Either way, we’re in for a future with much less free stuff.
Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 2nd this year. Overshoot Day marks the point at which the overall human demand for Earth’s biological resources surpasses that which can be renewed by nature in a year. Of course, humanity’s need for food, fiber, forest products, and other resources didn’t come to an abrupt stop last week. After that point, though, it means we’re drawing down the Earth’s natural “capital” (rather than living on the “interest”), harming the environment by consuming more resources than can be sustainably supplied and and releasing more waste than the biosphere can naturally absorb. Treating the natural world like “free stuff” that we can consume in nearly unlimited quantities is a big reason we’re facing a rapidly worsening situation ahead.
It’s worth noting that Earth Overshoot Day fell in August because a whole lot of people don’t consume very much. If everyone lived as Americans and Canadians do, Overshoot Day would be March 13th. (If we all consumed at the level of the average Jamaican, it would almost work: their Overshoot Day is December 20th.)
Those who live in the United States have long been unusually sensitive about the amount of resources they consume. Arguably, the concept of American Exceptionalism is based in the extraordinary effort put forth to maintain a maximal flow of the world’s resources through American hands. Yet, somehow, rather than being transparently proud of the show of wealth available to the global hegemon, many Americans have decided that discussing our vast appetite for “free stuff” and the ecological cost of supplying it is a politically divisive and impolite topic for public discourse, even as large swaths of the planet’s surface are literally burning around us.
Photo by Sara Cervera on Unsplash.
Let’s take a moment to clarify what “free stuff” means in this context. Clearly, stuff is not really free; everything from sandwiches to smartphones has a price. Consider, though, what it would take for you to really make a sandwich, from growing the wheat and baking the bread, planting and harvesting the greenery, milking the cow to make the cheese, raising and processing the hog, turkey, or soybeans that supply the protein, driving it from all the farms and factories to the store, and slinging the ingredients together behind a deli counter or in your kitchen. You couldn’t get all of that for the modest price we typically pay for lunch without cutting a few corners, such as underpaying workers, undercutting suppliers, failing to account for eroded topsoil, not having to clean up any environmental pollution or carbon emissions involved, and remember, everything is (at least metaphorically) soaked in oil.
Oil functions here like an army of the lowest paid workers. Estimates vary, but the amount of real work (muscle power equivalent) obtained from burning a barrel of oil is straight-up amazing. According to Nate Hagens and D.J. White, “One barrel of oil contains about 1700 kWh of work potential. Compared to an average human work day where 0.6kWh is generated, one barrel of oil, currently costing under than $50 to global citizens [in 2017], contains about 10.5 years of human labor equivalence (4.5 years after conversion losses).” Where else can you get even four years of human labor for the price of a barrel of oil (roughly $83, at the time of writing)?
Combine the low price of oil-based labor with the freedom of not having to clean up the resulting pollution while paying workers as little as possible, and that means we’re getting everything we buy at a steep discount. If we’re not paying the full cost, then part of what we’re getting is “free stuff.”
It’s a truth that the good folks over at the New York Post are so close to understanding. In a recent opinion piece, they break it all down for Joe Public and let him know why he should care more about maintaining the flow of (relatively) free stuff over paying a true accounting that would go toward producing the things we use every day in a more responsible way: because we can’t afford to. “A $70 [electric] bill will surge to over $140” when New York’s Con-Edison switches to renewable power, they say. “Ouch. That could keep you from turning on your air conditioner or clothes dryer.” As if rationing by cost is a new and unfamiliar concept that American conservatives are just discovering, instead of arguing in favor of for the last several generations.
Current polling suggests that this message resonates, at least along partisan lines. While 53% of Americans think that addressing climate change is a bigger priority than the economy, 72% of Republicans prioritize the economy over the climate (as if climate change won’t affect the flow of cheap goods), according to a recent NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll. A full 70% of Republicans don’t perceive climate change as a major threat, and 43% say it has no serious impact on their communities. It is, after all, hard to get people to understand something when their access to free stuff and campaign contributions depends upon not understanding it.
Yet, in a way, perhaps they do.
Consider Florida’s new Black history educational curriculum. Everyone’s heard the part about enslaved people learning skills that are said to benefit them as well as their enslaver (despite the vast transfer of skills from Africa to the Americas, conveniently unmentioned), but it would also teach that slavery existed everywhere, while over-emphasizing the small fraction of Black slaveowners and hypothetical effort put in by the Founders to end the institution of chattel slavery. Pair that with the familiar “come here go away” cycle of sketchy, fear-based, ultra-low wage – and sometimes forced – immigrant labor, weak worker protections and child labor laws, and it’s not difficult to piece together how Red America might insure the continuation of some amount of free stuff in a lower energy future.
None of this gives Team Blue a pass, however. It’s true that paying fairer wages, cleaning up pollution, and higher ecological standards will make many things more expensive (or at least cut into C-suite bonuses and shareholder returns, something conservative outlets are less likely to emphasize). Doing so may be necessary to mitigate the effects of a more chaotic climate, but these are times that require hard choices. Ignoring climate hurts the economy. Ignoring the economy means pushing more people into desperate measures that will hurt the climate and certainly don’t help the social goals liberals advocate for. Moreover, while machines, fossil fuels, poor worker safety regulations and low wages served as a more “moral” substitute for slavery in the industrialized North, advocates for decarbonization still have not served up a substitute that would wean us off of oil while maintaining our current level of consumption overshoot.
In short, neither major American political faction has put forth any viable solution for our social and ecological problems that also feeds our addiction to cheap goods and amped-up prosperity. Nor can they, because there isn’t one. No matter which suite of policies prevails, we’re going to have to get by with less free stuff. How society distributes the pain of that deficit is up to us.
Related: Ghost Acres
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