October 18, 2012

Climate Justice and Our Shopping Choices

Welcome to the October 2012
Natural Living Blog Carnival:
Ethical Shopping Choices

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Natural Living Blog Carnival hosted by
Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project through the Green Moms Network.
This month our members have written about
how they make purchasing choices.


You're standing in a name-brand store at the mall, holding a hoodie in your hand that you might buy for your child. The usual questions go through your head: Will it be comfy and warm? Will the colour match the rest of your child's wardrobe? Is it easy to wash? Does the price give you good value? Was it not made in a sweatshop? How much carbon emissions did its manufacture cause?

Whoa. Come again?

What do carbon emissions have to do with your decision to buy a piece of clothing?

Every consumer item takes energy to manufacture, ship and sell, and most of that energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels, leading to the emission of carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas that is contributing to global climate change.

Climate change is happening now. Just look at the searing summer heat and the related drought that has caused so many wildfires and that has taken out a large fraction of the US corn crop this year. It's part of a trend: temperatures have been higher than average for the last 329 months in a row. But what is even more devastating is that weather patterns have become both more erratic and more extreme. The lack of predictability does not bode well for us humans, both for our food and water supply and for the very land that we call home.


Food security.
Extreme weather variations invariably lead to reduced crop yields. They make it very difficult to plan crops: a cold-hardy crop is going to wilt in excessive heat; a xeric crop will drown in excessive rain. Season-dependent plants get thoroughly confused: when cherry trees bloom in December, what will they do at their proper blossoming time the following April? Chances are they will have fewer blossoms, and therefore a reduced harvest of fruit.

Home security.
The land on which we live is increasingly threatened by fires resulting from extreme drought, or by flooding and landslides from extreme rainfall. And the risk of river flooding holds for every river, from the Chao Phraya in Thailand to the Rhine in the Netherlands to the great Mississippi here in the US.

Water security.
In arid regions, water is receding and people either have to drill deeper wells, or women have to walk farther to fetch it - somehow it's always the women fetching the water. Every day. In wet areas, flooding is actually a threat to supplies of safe drinking water. Either way, sanitation and disease prevention become thorny issues.


To most of us living in the industrialised West, these issues do not pose risk of the life-threatening kind. On the whole, we lead cushy lives: we don't have to carry water, it comes out of the tap. We complain when food prices go up, but most of us don't go hungry. We have safety margins.

But things won't be that easy for even those people who live in rich countries but are already struggling to make ends meet. In other places, where human existence is precarious in the best of times - in Africa's drought-prone regions, in shanty towns built on flood planes on the coasts of Asia, in places where poverty is endemic - in those places an erratic climate means nothing less than a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen.

Is it fair, that the people who are least responsible for pumping out the greenhouse gases are the ones most threatened by climate change?

We find it hard to live with the idea that a young child spends his days in a sweatshop stitching our sneakers and soccer balls: we demand that companies practice the principles of social justice, we support fair trade. Should we stand by while entire populations are put at risk from a climate-change induced catastrophe? Can we live with the idea that it's the most vulnerable groups: the very poor, the very young, and women, who will suffer the most from a lack of climate justice?

Well, you might say, why us?
Because we made most of the mess: If you look at all the human-caused carbon emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Age, we in the industrialised countries are responsible for 70% of those emissions, even though we account for only 20% of the planet's population. in 2010, the 5% of the world population living in the USA emitted 25% of all greenhouse gases - and that's not counting our imports, which is more greenhouse gases emitted on our behalf. The carbon emissions figures have improved over the past few years, mostly because US electricity generation has shifted from coal to more carbon-efficient natural gas. But our energy use has kept growing.

Aren't the Chinese just as energy hungry? And did they not surpass, in 2011, the US for energy use, burning dirty coal at that, and not very clean diesel? Yes, yes, and yes. And we too have been where the Chinese are now, mucking the air in our manufacturing cities (London in the 1890s, Pittsburgh in the 1940s) so that you couldn't see the end of the street for the smog.

Besides, a large fraction of Chinese greenhouse emissions are made on our tab, in the manufacture of goods to be shipped to our malls. And, for their own good reasons, the Chinese are doing their bit for population control, reducing the fertility rate in an amazingly short time, from 5.9 before 1970 to 1.7 today. We may have our own opinions about the wrenching and socially problematic One-Child policy; the Chinese government claims that without it, there would be 400 million more people on the planet now, each with his or her own carbon footprint.

The developing world may have larger fertility rates, but by and large those rates are declining. They may be burning dirtier fossil fuels - but they do that not out of profligacy but for survival, just as we used to burn dirty coal when we ran out of forests from which to get cleaner-burning wood. (Think about it: many of Grimm's and other European fairy tales feature dark, dense forest. They're mostly gone now, we've chopped them all down).

Yes, there's a recession on. But let's face it: by and large, we are the privileged few; our lives are easy. We are not clawing our way out of extreme poverty. We don't carry our daily water on our backs. We are not building a 21st century economy from pre-industrial beginnings within a few decades. We enjoy life in a mature, industrialised economy. But maybe we have become soft, and a little greedy: for the easy life, for convenience, for material goods.

To support the kind of lifestyle we lead in the USA takes, on average, 12,000 watts of energy. That's six times the average rate on the planet. Europeans consume 6,000 watts, Chinese 1,500 watts. People in Bangladesh get by with 300 watts. You can't very well ask a Bangladeshi to reduce their energy footprint even farther from where it is. You can't ask a newly affluent Chinese or Indian to give up their car for the sake of the planet, because they would ask, and rightly so, what are you, rich person in the West, giving up for the sake of the planet?

Why us, personally?
To return to the original question: why does it have to be you and me, Jane Doe standing in the mall deciding whether or not to buy a hoodie? Wouldn't this be a government affair?

It was. In 1997, the governments had a big meeting in Kyoto, where they hammered out a plan to reduce the world's carbon emissions to a few percent below what it was in 1990. As of last year, 191 nations had ratified the Kyoto protocol. The US was not one of them. Late in 2011, Canada withdrew its signature. Even among the "Annex I" nations of developed and developing countries that remained signatories, many had failed to even curb carbon emissions, let alone reduce them to pre-1990 levels.

In short, our governments failed.

But then again, governments don't have the kind of conscience that would respond to the idea of climate justice or, more broadly, environmental justice. Neither do the corporations which are so free with their campaign contributions and, generally, so free of ethical consideration. Remember Dick Cheney (of Haliburton) saying that he wouldn't sign on to a protocol that would crimp Americans' lifestyle? That is not the kind of leadership we need to deal with climate change on a global scale.

Now it's our turn.

The buck stops at our front door, because we - you and I - denizens of the rich and industrialised world, are the consumers for whom a huge fraction of fossil fuels are burnt. It is in our name that carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere. Climate change is imposed on the global community so that we few can enjoy our easy lives, climate controlled, with an entertainment suite in every large home, more than enough calories, and a lot less exercise than we need.

Benefits to us
"Energy security" is so often interpreted as getting enough fossil fuels to keep our wheels turning at the outlandish rates we are used to now. Even if it means drilling in the fragile arctic zone, even if it means engaging in resource wars. But it's not about that: real energy security means managing it so that there is enough for everyone now, and for generations to come, without endangering the planet which is our home. The way we've been living, it's like we're a size 6, but have been wearing size 12 clothing. Why? If we right-sized our lives, we would feel better.

The good news? We wouldn't even feel a 1,000 watt reduction off our current 12,000 watt energy consumption rate. If we do it right, by playing the energy efficiency card, we can probably reduce our consumption by 20-25 % without giving up much in the way of creature comforts. A larger reduction than that will need concerted action. Isn't it worth it, to ensure that all our children can live and enjoy this beautiful planet?

And we can start right now. With our next shopping decision. That hoodie, for instance: do you really need it? Will your child wear it more than once a week, or will it join the other few dozen hoodies languishing in the closet? Could you get your child warm in a hoodie that has belonged to a cousin or a friend, or one that comes from eBay?

Here is the really good news: reducing energy consumption generally saves money. And starting from our over-consumptive lifestyle, turning down the dial on our consumption will generally make us healthier.

Ready? Here are a few places to start:

Buy only what you need.
You need a few sets of clothes for each season. You don't need a few dozen sets. Corollary: you don't need a few dozen pairs of shoes to match your outfits. Apply this approach to all your other possessions. Resist Upgrade Mania.

Keep your life simple.
Get away from clutter in your life: it keeps your spirit from soaring. Keep as few tools as you can in your house; avoid buying single-purpose gadgets. For those projects where the right tool is half the job, see if you can borrow one from a friend, or rent one for the time that you need it.

Learn to repair.
There are a lot of things you and I can fix ourselves. Find a mentor who is good with their hands: most repair jobs are straightforward, once you know how to go about it.

Go plastic-free.
This belongs under the broader umbrella of environmental justice, but I have found that avoiding plastic, either in products or their packaging, is a great way to reduce consumption. My leading light and inspiration: Beth Terry's Plastic-Free Life .

Don't waste food.
A lot of energy goes into producing our food; it's precious stuff. In my own kitchen, I have a new tactic: If I buy, and cook, less than what I think my family needs, I end up at just the right amount. If it's a bit short, well, CelloDad and I can deal with a meal with fewer calories. (When the children have a growth spurt, and I see CelloDad make himself a piece of toast after dinner: that's my sign that I have to adjust the portions).

Eat low on the food chain.
An inordinate amount of energy goes into the production of meat. While we are carnivores, our digestive systems are built for mostly vegetable foods, and tends to suffer from a meat-heavy diet. So eating lower on the food chain will benefit our health, that of our checkbook, and also that of the planet.

Your house.
Live in the house that's the right size for you. If you don't have a lot of stuff, you don't need a lot of storage space. A large house invites a lot of stuff, takes a lot of cleaning, and requires more energy to heat in winter and cool in summer.

If you can, switch to an energy provider that will sell you electricity from renewable sources. Buy the smallest, energy-star rated, refrigerator you can live with. Many vegetables and fruit are best kept outside the fridge, anyway. Mow and rake the lawn by hand: the exercise, fresh air, and hearing the birds sing are all good for you.

Climate control.
Heating and cooling our homes and cars takes a huge amount of energy. We've started to believe that we can survive only between 68F and 72F, but in fact you can widen that range considerably by learning ways to control your body temperature. In the winter, apart from putting on extra layers of clothing (preferrably wool), I try to do my vigorous tasks in the morning: it gets me all warmed up, and then I'm fine with turning the thermostat way down. In the summer find a nice breeze, or invite one into your house by opening the windows. Shower often for an effective cool-down. And learn to embrace sweat, which is largely beneficial, and is seldom really smelly unless you sweat out of fear or stress.

The single largest source of carbon dioxide for a typical US household is our car, or cars. They are too large, and their engines are way too large for what we really need. They have too many gadgets, some dangerously distracting, all requiring energy. And we drive them mostly alone, all that steel and horsepower moving just the one occupant.

Bus in West Bengal, by Shayan via Flickr
Traffic in Southern California, by Daniel R. Blume via Wikimedia

Of course, the healthiest, cheapest, lowest-carbon way to move about is by walking or biking. But we have to live in our inherited infrastructure, which is often only friendly to cars. We can still choose to drive smaller cars, or the same models we know and love but with smaller engines (150HP is more than enough to drive a Honda Accord on the nation's Interstate highways, anything more is an indulgence). Cars with smaller engines are cheaper to buy and cheaper to run; I personally feel no need to switch to expensive and unproven technologies. And with the recently introduced federal CAFE requirement that new cars' fuel efficiency reach 54.5mpg by 2025, car manufacturers will finally start selling us the gas sippers that our friends abroad have been driving for years.

Start now.
The best part of life is not about stuff. It's not about getting the latest widget, the fastest widget, or the widget with the loudest vroom-vroom. Don't let the admen tell you what is important to you.

There's no better time than the present. More than that, there is no time to lose. Bill McKibben offers a sobering view on climate change, and a cogent argument for action now. I respectfully disagree with his identification of Big Oil as the ultimate culprit. Big Oil wouldn't have nearly the power it has now, if it weren't supported all the way by us, the consumer, so eager to consume all the energy that Big Oil can dig out of the ground.

Even so, McKibben's piece is chilling. Afterward, maybe you want to recover with this musical offering from Symphony of Science, featuring Bill Nye, David Attenborough, Richard Alley and Isaac Asimov. "We can do this: we can change the world". More heartwarming. Same message. Catchy tune.

"We can do this: we can change the world."


One last thing: Teach your children.
They are the future stewards of the planet. As with anything you want to teach children, you have to be living it: children are the best fake detectors. Talk to them about the link between consumption and climate change. This Christmas, try giving your child no more than three gifts - that's how many the Child of Light received. Our children might not appreciate receiving gold, myrrh and frankincense; but we could give them one thing they want, one thing they need, and one item of clothing. Perhaps a new hoodie?

This year, how will you celebrate the Friday after Thanksgiving, Buy Nothing Day?



Visit Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project to learn more about participating in next month’s Natural Living Blog Carnival!

Please take some time to enjoy the posts our other carnival participants have contributed:


  1. Great points! I especially agree with stop wasting food. It almost seams criminal to waste food after talking about how the crops have been wasted, water shortages,and so forth. Unfortunately consumer never see it, and go about their day wasting delicate resources. Thank you for this information!

    1. Hi Kelley, yes, we have to keep reminding each other to be careful with our resources. Kind of like getting your children to clean their rooms...

  2. There is a lot here that we can all take away. I am very big on keeping things simple, only buying what is needed and buying used whenever possible.
    Thanks for this post, I completely agree that American's need to get a hold of our hyper-consumerism and stop buying into the menatlity that we must have more, more, more.

    1. Thanks Destany, it's like you say, a matter of mentality. I guess we didn't always have this consuming mentality, which also means we can get away from it again. With a bit of will.

  3. Your article really showed us where we stand today and what we really need to do about it! It really gave alot of insight to me! I think it is high time we take responsibility for our actions and start doing all we could to change our mentality!

    1. Thanks Izzy; there's no time like the present, let's go for a course correction!

  4. We've been learning to repair more things around the house instead of just going to "get a new one." It's definitely helping us to have less waste.

    1. I agree, Becky: reducing consumption and reducing waste go hand in hand - love that win-win deal! And it's so _satisfying_ to fix something!


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