Thursday, April 15, 2010

Worriesome, Wacky Tales from my (Virtual) North American Tour which Hari Batti has a principled but civil disagreement with a US environmental leader and is later called a "moron" for suggesting that Americans help clean up the world that they've done so much to pollute.

World Tour 2010
A couple of months back, Mrs. Batti left me at home with the kids for the evening.  After getting them to bed, I decided to do a bit of world traveling courtesy of the information superhighway, to use a very twentieth century American-sounding metaphor. 

First Stop: Huffington Post
I stopped first at the Huffington Post, where I found Partrick McCully, director of International Rivers, telling his fellow American environmentalists, "Don't Mention the Climate Debt"-- in other words, don't talk about the historical responsibility the US and other rich countries have for producing a very large share of the green house gases that are currently in the air.

To his credit, Mr. McCully does acknowledge there is a problem with the damage the US has done to the earth's atmospheric commons, and he says the US should do something to help poor countries to adapt to the worst affects of climate change.  But he doesn't think American environmentalists should talk about it much:
"Of course the US does owe a whoppingly big climate debt. And some funds do need to be found for climate aid. Most important (and easiest to defend politically) is aid for climate adaptation for the poorest and most vulnerable countries. We helped make the lethal mess and we've got to help people cope with it. But even money for adaptation should not have a prominent role in public messaging on climate in the US."
Furthermore, McCully rejects those activists like Tom Athanasiou of EcoEquity who say that according to the "polluter pays" principle, the US should be pay something along the lines of $275 billion in 2020.  Here's McCully again:
"Of course leftists will rightly argue, and Tom and his colleagues do, that $275 billion isn't a big deal compared with, say, a military budget of more than half a trillion a year. But, no matter how much we wish it were so, the US military budget is not about to be slashed in order to pay our planetary dues. Even in the era of big bank bailouts, $275 billion is still frighteningly huge, and especially so when state, local and household budgets are being slashed; millions of families have lost, or are losing, their homes; one-in-ten US Americans are unemployed; and the national debt is going into the stratosphere."
Well, if American environmental leaders have given up on ever slashing the US defense budget, that makes me worry!  The war in Iraq alone has cost the US well over $700 billion--and counting.   (If you include the war in Afghanistan, the number is very close to one trillion dollars.) And since the financial collapse in 2008, the US has spent, much, much more than that to bail out banks and financial markets.  These numbers really do put $275 billion in perspective.

But perhaps the larger problem is that many environmentalists don't want to admit that there will be ever be any price to pay for our past excesses--here, in the US, anywhere!  They are happy to have us believe that the world can keep on growing, pretty much as before, as long as we make a few investments in smart technology.  That's what I call, "light bulb environmentalism."  I'm not convinced that infinite growth--at least growth as it is currently measured--is possible on a finite planet.  And I can't imagine there won't be a price to pay for the environmental destruction we've already wrought.  My guess is that the US's share of that price will actually be more than $275 billion. People all over the world, especially poor people, are already paying the price for climate change in the form of more extreme weather, weaker monsoons, and rising food prices.  And those costs will almost certainly escalate in the coming decades.

I think Partrick McCully is wrong to think that he should sugar coat the truth until the American public is ready to hear it.  Doing that would take so much sugar, I'm not sure it would qualify as honest.  And I find this strategy worrisome because if people like Mr. McCully don't try to educate the public, who will? Still, I have to say I was just a tiny bit encouraged by the fact that he was polite enough to respond to my rather irate comment.

Second Stop: No Impact Man
My next stop on the Information Super Highway was less encouraging.  After the Huffington Report, I stopped by the No Impact Man's blog, where I had left a comment the week before. The No Impact Man had asked readers to say whether they agreed with this quote:
"Don't ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." 
-- Howard Thurman
I'd replied in what I think was a polite, but somewhat provocative way, embracing the need for passion, acknowledging the over-consumption of many in India, and then asking whether people in the US would be willing to act in solidarity with the poor countries of the world "even if it hurts." You can read the full text of my response and the responses that followed here--I'm not making any of this stuff up.

A reader named "Proud to be an American" replied with five reasons why what I'd said was wrong, starting with these three:
You are wrong on so many levels, I don't know where to begin. First of all, China is now the #1 polluter in the world. Secondly, we have much stricter standards of emissions than China, India, Bangladesh or similar countries, we just have more industry. Thirdly, yes, we do have a consumptive society, but our dollars have gone to support the economies of these other nations and given them the revenue and technology to improve the standard of living for the citizens of those nations. Unfortunately, they have not adopted a more environmentally friendly way of life....
That was interesting-- apparently, it's OK to dump greenhouse gases into the atmospheric commons as long as you have "more industry" ...and of course there's China...but we'll get to that later.   Then things got a really wacky when "brimsonedd" responded to my comment with this:
...China is the number one contributor to the environmental collapse.  Quit trying to blame the problems of your poor country on America... Your country has been around a lot longer than the US and has had a lot more opportunity to get things right so how bout you take responsibility for yourselves instead of whining to Americans like most of the rest of the world. In conclusion your a moron and the reason your country sucks is because of the people in it not the rest of the world. (emphasis mine; spelling error, his).
Well, after reading that, I could almost understand Mr. McCully's reluctance to talk about the "climate debt": a lot of people are going to call him names if he does!

After I said some self-affirmations and got over my hurt feelings (which took all of 3 and a half seconds)  I realized that someone in the US must be running a very strong "anti-China" campaign these days.  China is not without it's problems, and it is the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. That's all many Americans care to understand--it kind of let's them off the hook.  But of course, the reality is not quite so simple.  You see, China has a much, much larger population than the US, so its per capita greenhouse gas pollution levels are four times smaller than American levels.  And its historic levels of emissions are also much smaller. Those are not trivial matters, as anyone who thinks for a moment will see.  And neither is the fact that much of what China is making is actually consumed in the US! So it's not clear who is morally responsible for the pollution that goes into making those things.

To be fair, someone named "YUi" jumped in at that point to agree with me, and later a reader named "Kavita" joined in as well.   But this did get me thinking, because I did not expect this kind of response at an environmental blog in the US, or anywhere else. 

Fortunately there are other, more reasonable voices in North America.  There are environmentalists who are willing to speak plainly about what needs to be done.  There are the good people at the Council of Canadians, the Dogwood Initiative and  EcoEquity, to name just a few. There are writers like Naomi Klein, who's not afraid to point out that 5% of the world's emissions have been produced by just 20% of the world population, whereas something like 75-80% of the problems caused by climate change are falling on the developing world. 

If you've got a few minutes, go listen to what Ms. Klein says in this clip at Democracy Now. No sugar added, but it makes a lot of sense.


  1. There no bounds to which human beings can deceive themselves. I also think you're missing a crucial point - many americans define themselves by their consumption. They're proud of it and it's a status symbol.

    So asking them to cut back is the worst way to win over their hearts, cause you're attacking their identity. The response you're likely to get is "Oh yeah? Just wait and watch while I leave my tap on the whole day."

    There isn't an easy answer to any of this and honestly I'm not sure there is one easy or not...

    Can get pretty depressing you know.

  2. @Bhagwad--can get depressing, you are correct :(
    Good to see you :)


What do you think?