Power and Comfort on Demand in a Carbon-Addicted World

June 14, 2015

The great and powerful G7 nations resolved last week to eliminate their use of fossil fuels by the end of the 21st century. The seven leading industrial nations, including the United States, produce 25% of the world's carbon emissions.

It's hard to imagine quite how this will come to pass. I have great admiration for Germany's green economy—powerful, prosperous, innovative, and a pioneer of environmentally friendlier technologies—and it is fitting that the G7 resolution was shepherded by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who aspires to be the "greenest" world leader of our time. But how exactly do we wean ourselves of carbon dependency?

Life in the modern industrialized world is utterly dependent on instant access to affordable power. It is so readily available to us, woven so deep into our lifestyles, that we literally take it for granted. On the few occasions when we lose power for a couple of hours in the wake of a massive thunderstorm or blizzard, or even when our cable TV or internet systems go down, we walk around like lost souls and we tend to get very grumpy. Our carbon addiction is total.

We know all this, but there are times when we snap (or are snapped) out of our complacency and realize how synonymous modern life and access to carbon-based power really are. Here is my own confessional narrative.

In the last week, I flew to Minneapolis, then Salt Lake City, then Calgary, where I stayed on the 12th floor of a hotel. Had the elevator broken down, it would have been a very long four days. In fact, there were six elevators for a single 18-story hotel. I texted and made phone calls across international lines. I ate sushi. At one restaurant I was assured that the prawns had been harvested in the last 24 hours, flash frozen, and airlifted to my table. $17. Then I flew from Calgary to Minneapolis, and then on to Fargo. From Fargo I drove to Bismarck.

All of these transactions occurred flawlessly and without a single interruption. The North American industrial grid performed its functions to perfection. The biggest disappointment of all of those complex transactions came when a flight attendant announced that she would not be passing out peanuts on one flight because a passenger (we all glared around) had a peanut allergy. Are we spoiled or what?

Once I got home I went into industrial hyper drive. I've been gone a lot and I am going again, so my home time for the moment gets very concentrated. My house was hot and stuffy. I fired up my air conditioner (large use of power to cool things off). I cleaned out my Jacuzzi and refilled it, and watched with satisfaction as the water temperature rose three degrees per hour. Cool down, heat up, make my life comfortable at all times! I watered the entire garden.

I used the microwave. I heated the oven to 400 degrees. I did five loads of laundry. Everything worked flawlessly, except for many human errors of one sort or another.

I fired up my lawnmower and raced around my unkempt yard. I placed heavy tomato cages around my fledgling tomatoes. Imagine what it took to find the ore for those tomato cages, process it, fashion it into a spiral grid work, and then ship it in container modules from China to some giant dockyard in Los Angeles or Seattle?

Then I fired up my weed whacker (two cycle), and whined and whizzed around the garden.

With a little spare time on my hands I drove to the grocery store, purchased some additional flowers, and bought some produce that came from California, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Florida, plus bottled water from Colorado. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine what it took to deliver all of those peppers, tomatoes, oranges, cherries, and cucumbers to a small grocery store in Bismarck, North Dakota. Fertilizers, pesticides, color and flavor enhancers, plastic shipping cartons, the traction required to till, plant, cultivate, and harvest, and then all the shipping by boat, rail, 18-wheeler, and all the front-end loaders lifting pallets at every major stage of the ride. But when I lift the cantaloupe out of the display case and into my cart, I almost never think about what it took to deliver it from its birth to my mouth. And who stooped in a field to pluck it off its stiff vine.

If you add all of this up, one week of one nameless American individual's life, one of 330 million Americans who take all of this vast industrial network of processes, propulsion, and products for granted, it adds up to a colossal carbon footprint. You can say what you want at the G7 meeting, but I vote with my pocketbook every day, almost every hour of every day, for a carbon extraction universe I sometimes pretend to deplore.

If I had to watch a video of what it took to deliver all of these conveniences to me, it would be quite a sobering experience. Strip mines, Saudi oil drilling, oil and gas fracking, the tar sands in Alberta, mining for silver, lead, copper, bauxite, and uranium. Coal-fired power plants, hydro plants, nuclear reactors. Picture the assembly plants that make the giant front-end loaders, the combines, the bulldozers, the draglines, the cranes, the boxcars, the oil tankers, the anhydrous blimps. Imagine the smelters in China that create the steel, iron, and aluminum.

All this so that I can leave my climate-controlled house and get into my car, and drive with the force of 278 horses, two miles to a grocery story on a whim? If I had to walk to get those flowers and green peppers, I'd pare down my "needs" pretty severely. If I had to haul my bottled water, you can bet I'd learn to drink from my kitchen tap with greater satisfaction.

And don't even mention my clothes. If you had an x-ray machine that showed you precisely how the clothes you are now wearing were produced, by whom, and under what environmental and human rights conditions, you might find it harder to sleep at night. But the genius of industrial capitalism is that it "exports" the costs (human, environmental, political, social) while importing the benefits in packaging that allows us to disown our moral and global responsibilities.

I know there are many enlightened individuals who have a much lighter carbon footprint than I do, and I deeply admire them for their Thoreauvian courage and restraint. I aspire to be more like them.

All of this is why I grow a garden in spite of the odds. If I want to go out and snap a cob of corn off its fabulous green stalk in August, and dig up an onion, I have to kneel down in the earth and put my hands in the soil and caress a seed into fruition. Whatever we kneel for is prayer, and when we kneel in the earth we are reminding ourselves of what is really at stake. It makes life a sacrament. It doesn't absolve me of my complicity and addiction in the global carbon economy, but it gives me pause—for a few minutes a day—to think about how precious the basics of life are, and how many tens of millions of people worldwide would give anything to have a garden to grow food in, and a ready and clean water supply to keep it—and them--alive.