Elizabeth Kolbert is one of my favorite writers on the environment. She writes regularly for the New Yorker and for the New York Review of Books. And she also wrote one of the best books on mass extinction, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
In 2014 Naomi Klein wrote a popular book called This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. The basic idea of this book was that western capitalism had caused global warming, and that since global warming was so horrendous, the world would revolt against capitalism and thus global warming would cure the world of capitalism forever.
This idea of Klein’s seems to me rather naive, but Kolbert came up with an even better critique of the book. She points out that the real problem comes when you show people just how much we would have to cut back on consumption, if we are to make even a dent in global warming. When people realize they are going to have to give up driving and flying and air conditioning and big screen TVs and the cloud to save civilization, they are suddenly not so interested in this project.
Here is Kolbert on the problem:
“What would it take to radically reduce global carbon emissions and to do so in a way that would alleviate inequality and poverty? Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change, a group of Swiss scientists decided to tackle precisely this question. The plan they came up with became known as the 2,000-Watt Society.
The idea behind the plan is that everyone on the planet is entitled to generate (more or less) the same emissions, meaning everyone should use (more or less) the same amount of energy. Most of us don’t think about our energy consumption—to the extent we think about it at all—in terms of watts or watt-hours. All you really need to know to understand the plan is that, if you’re American, you currently live in a 12,000-watt society; if you’re Dutch, you live in an 8,000-watt society; if you’re Swiss, you live in a 5,000-watt society; and if you’re Bangladeshi you live in a 300-watt society. Thus, for Americans, living on 2,000 watts would mean cutting consumption by more than four fifths; for Bangladeshis it would mean increasing it almost by a factor of seven.
To investigate what a 2,000-watt lifestyle might look like, the authors of the plan came up with a set of six fictional Swiss families. Even those who lived in super energy-efficient houses, had sold their cars, and flew very rarely turned out to be consuming more than 2,000 watts per person.
Only “Alice,” a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target.
When you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.”
Kolbert’s main point in this essay is that Klein’s ideas on climate and capitalism are not particularly well thought out. Climate is not going to cure capitalism.
However, her essay also implies that the climate change problem is probably not going to be solved and that there is a good chance that we are all doomed.
I like Kolbert a lot, and I think she gets a lot right. But I’m personally not ready to give up on at least trying to fix the global warming problem, at least partially. After all, we really haven’t actually tried yet. Up till now the world has been pretty much hogtied by conservatives and no serious global warming solution has actually been tried.
However, I don’t think it will be long before that serious attempt comes. It feels to me like the days of Trump and the Republicans and all of the rest of the climate denialists are close to over. I may be wrong but I would be surprised if a real solution is not in place in the next ten years. Waiting this long will be surely a disaster and we will pay for it dearly. But it may not be the end of the world either. We just don’t know.
And I don’t think Kolbert thinks we are irrevocably doomed either.
The image at the top of the page was taken on a snowy day
on the Snake River in Teton National Park