Taking steps to avoid global warming

One of the curious features of the debate over what should be done about global warming is what we should be done about it. I can actually understand the position of those who are skeptical about whether things like the Kyoto treaty will solve the problem. I can understand those who worry that government regulations might not work.

What puzzles me are those people who somehow see the actions taken to reduce the production of greenhouse gases as some sort of affront that has to be opposed.

In actuality, what we are being asked to do, as individuals, can hardly be considered to be a major sacrifice. We are not being asked to live in caves and eat our food raw. All that is asked from us is that we tone down out lifestyles by just a little bit. Driving more energy efficient cars is not a hardship. Why do people feel that driving a gas guzzler is somehow a right that they should enjoy? Requiring better energy efficiency standards from the manufacturers of cars and other goods may result in a slight increase in prices for them. But why is that seen as a violation of free enterprise when we have all kinds of other regulations in place already that also result in higher prices? Turning the thermostats slightly down in winter and up in summer, or using fans more than air-conditioners do not really affect our lives in a major way.

Reducing the amount of packaging that is used, or getting in the habit of recycling items, may result in slight inconveniences but are hardly major issues. Maybe because I grew up in a third world country, the idea of reusing things comes more naturally to me. In Sri Lanka, people took their own shopping bags with them to the stores. The small shops down the street would wrap their items for their customers in old newspapers. They bought the newspapers from people like us. Every week or so, a man would comes down our street to buy our old newspapers and bottles and then resell them to the shops for reuse.

(A memory from my childhood. The newspapers were bought and sold by the pound. My grandmother suspected that the scales used by the recycling merchant for weighing were rigged so she developed an independent measure of the weight. My grandmother figured out exactly how many sheets of newspaper made up a pound. As a little boy, it was my job to carefully count out the pages and create one pound stacks of them.)

Everything was used many times before it was thrown away. Something had to become broken or torn beyond repair before it was thrown away. In my recent trips, though, I noticed Sri Lanka has become “modern” now. The bigger stores and supermarkets have everything highly packaged, and put items in plastic shopping bags to take home, just like here.

I noticed that by living in America these many years, I had slowly abandoned many of my instinctive reuse/recycle habits that I once had, but am trying to get back to that now that I believe that global warming is a threat and resources are limited. For example, I noticed that in New Zealand, a lot of people took their own cloth shopping bags to the supermarkets to bring their groceries home in. Since my return, I have also adopted this practice. It is one of those things that are easy to do. I also tell cashiers at bookstores and elsewhere to not put stuff in paper or plastic bags unless I have to carry a lot of stuff and it becomes really necessary. I heard that in Ireland, they charge 25 cents for each flimsy plastic bag in order to discourage people from unthinkingly getting them.

Some of the wasteful things we do are simply lifestyle choices that consume energy and resources, provide little or no benefits to us, but are harmful to the environment. For example, take the bottled water craze. Larry Lack in his article Bottled Water Madness points out the huge negative impact this particular industry has had on the environment and people’s health for no discernible benefit.

Unless you live somewhere where the water actually tastes bad or is known to be impure (and there are just a few places like these in America) or tap water is not easily accessible, there is no real reason to buy bottled water. Municipal tap water is monitored for quality and safety more often and with higher standards than bottled water, so it is actually better for you. In addition, the amount of plastic used in packaging bottled water is enormous and it fills up landfills even faster. And drinking tap water will save you money.

Giving up bottled water is hardly a hardship. It actually makes your life easier. Drinking tap water is so much easier than going to the store, buying cases of water, storing it, getting rid of empty bottles, etc. that I am truly puzzled by bottled water’s commercial success, and impressed at the advertising industry’s ability to persuade people to buy it in such large quantities.

While each conservation measure that we adopt helps, we need to have large numbers of people doing it in order to have an impact and this is where the problems arise. It is not clear that purely voluntary actions are sufficient. As we saw with the demise of Easter Island, entire communities can stand by while their environment is destroyed. Are people willing to demand, let alone merely allow, governments to legislate more actions that conserve energy and resources? Are we willing to simply buy less stuff?

The industries that produce the greenhouse gases know that most people, being reasonable, are not going to balk at taking these very minor steps (they cannot even be called sacrifices) to conserve resources and reduce emissions if the risk of not doing so is to destroy the environment. So the debate has been framed as one of rights. How dare people be told what car they should drive! How dare they be asked to turn off the lights when they leave the room! How dare they be asked to save energy by adjusting the thermostats! It is each person’s right to be able to do whatever they can afford!

It seems strange to me that a public that is so unconcerned about their violations of privacy, civil rights, and age old constitutional and legal protections, can get so riled up about what are basically minor consumer issues.

I can understand why people get fired up about evolution. It does, after all, go against many people’s deeply held religious beliefs. But the vehemence with which some people oppose any measures to reduce greenhouse gases is truly puzzling to me. Even if we suppose scientists are wrong in their consensus beliefs that there is no global warming. All that would mean is that our greenhouse gas reduction strategies were unnecessary.
But why is that such an awful fate to contemplate, so much so that some people are willing to fight it with such vehemence? I just don’t get it.

POST SCRIPT: I’m back!

I had a terrific drive across the country to California last week with my daughter, taking her (and her car) to start graduate school there. I enjoyed it so much that I am wondering when I can do it again, taking a different route. To create another excuse, I am already urging my younger daughter to think about also going to graduate school on the west coast.

I’ll write more about the trip later.


  1. Paul Jarc says

    Why do people feel that driving a gas guzzler is somehow a right that they should enjoy?

    Part of it, I think, is the advertising that pushes the “you deserve the best” message. Also, waste is a sign of wealth, and telling people to be more careful in how they use a resource can be taken as “your time is less valuable than this resource”. It strikes at pride.

    I heard that in Ireland, they charge 25 cents for each flimsy plastic bag in order to discourage people from unthinkingly getting them.

    Around here, Zagara’s does something similar -- they give a 5 cent discount for each bag you bring. I try to reuse plastic bags to the point where they are about to tear, and then finally use them in a small garbage can or for recycling, taking new bags just to replenish this supply. Some supermarkets also accept old bags for recycling now, which is at least better than throwing them away, though not as good as reusing them.

    Unless you live somewhere where the water actually tastes bad […], there is no real reason to buy bottled water.

    And if the bottled water is Perrier, it tastes worse than any tap water anyway. Ugh.

    I am truly puzzled by bottled water’s commercial success

    Jim Gaffigan has some ideas. (Jump to about halfway through.)

    It is each person’s right to be able to do whatever they can afford!

    That would actually work fine, if the costs of products were increased to fund repairing the damage caused by their production and use. The problem comes when the environmental damage is an externality.

  2. says

    Last year I was at a lecture at the Natural History museum, when Bruce Latimer, their director and a member of our faculty, made what seemed to be a very good point. Even if we can’t agree on global warming, the steps we should take to reduce it have other positive benefits, and will help reduce problems that we already agree exist.

    Driving more fuel efficient cars and working on alternative fuels is not only done to reduce global warming, but also to improve the quality of the air we are breathing right now, as well as to reduce our oil dependence.

    Most of the strategies needed to prevent global warming have other positive benefits. This is why I share your puzzlement. Even if we weren’t confronting climate change, we would still have to deal with dwindling resources and concerns regarding air, water and food quality.

    I have to imagine that those who don’t care whether their fish is laden with mercury, whether our animals are running out of habitat, or if our neighbors in many countries are dying from water borne bacteria, do care about the cost increases for oil, timber, aluminum, etc. If we address issues of re-use and recycling we can also probably make a positive long-term economic impact.

    Regarding water, I once heard we have some of the best tasting tap water in the country. I couldn’t find the study, however I did find one about local water quality, that said “while two thirds of the bottled water samples had lower bacterial counts than the tap water samples…one quarter of the bottled water samples contained bacterial counts more than 10 times higher than those of the tap water samples. Similar results were noted in a survey of 103 brands of bottled water that found that at least one third had levels of bacteria and chemicals that exceeded the industry’s own guidelines for purity.” The full study can be found at http://archfami.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/9/3/246. I think I’ll stick to the tap water rather than play bacteria roulette.

  3. says


    You are absolutely right that waste is a sign of wealth, and for that reason few people are willing to cut back on their waste for fear of looking poor.

    Ironically enough, however, many people are jumping on the “Go Green” bandwagon, and being green is now a decidedly trendy thing to do. While I hate to see the country enslaved by marketing, I suppose it is all for the best.


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