Op Ed: Choosing Survival

In order to choose sustainability, we need to be given sustainable choices...

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By Tom Moore via The Cornell Daily Sun, 11/13/12

Two weeks ago, as Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc up the East Coast, I wrote a column entitled, “Freak Storms and Fossil Fuels,” in which I attempted to connect the dots between extreme weather events, global climate change and human factors such as “the single-minded profit-seeking of the fossil-fuel industry.” It was the last of these characterizations which readers have most passionately disputed. One reader wrote:

“The profit-seeking fossil-fuel industry you mention is as much a service industry as it is anything else. That service to humanity is to provide the world with energy ... Of course, we all have the choice whether to make use of these energy resources or not. Mostly, people choose to use energy rather than to disconnect from it.”

This response articulates a common objection to environmentalist attacks on big industry. Companies do what they do because they have customers willing to pay for their product. The responsibility for climate change therefore lies not with the fossil-fuel industry, but with the consumer base (read: everyone except the fossil-fuel industry). Catastrophic climate change will therefore only be averted if every human, on an individual basis, chooses to stop consuming fossil fuels. Don’t blame the CEO who chooses to explore the Arctic for oil instead of investing in renewables; blame the everyman who chooses to continue using electricity and gasoline. If, as this argument seems to suggest, saving the planet will require every human to take up a path of radical renunciation, our goose, which is to say, our planet, is undoubtedly cooked.

Blaming a fossil-fuel economy on individual consumers, though, fundamentally misrepresents the nature of consumer choice. When the reader claims, “Mostly, people choose to use energy rather than to disconnect from it,” his use of the word “choose” is misleading. It implies that the consumer has been given two feasible options and has chosen one over the other. How far such a model is from the truth comes into sharp focus in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. For those in New York City left stranded without power, no electricity or gas often means no heat. No heat, on a November night in New England, is not an option. This is not consumer choice. This is survival.

The same misunderstanding of consumer choice drives many environmentalists to privately celebrate whenever gasoline prices rise, thinking to themselves, “Maybe people will finally stop driving so much!” The assumption here is that most car-drivers choose to drive, presumably because they are too lazy to ride bicycles. In reality, however, the highway system doesn’t give a damn about the price of gasoline, and for the vast segments of the American population without access to decent public transportation, no car means no mobility. No mobility quite often means no work. Thus, while higher gasoline prices might incentivize the purchasing of more fuel-efficient cars, there is little evidence that anyone actually stops driving altogether because they can’t afford gas. More often, higher gas prices just mean less money for other expenses, like food and health care.

Heating your home on a cold November night or driving to a job you need to feed your family does not put the blame for climate change on your shoulders. Because I exist within an infrastructure built on fossil fuel consumption, an infrastructure to which I have never given my consent, my consumption of fossil fuels is, to a large extent, outside of my control. Consumer choice, especially when it comes to energy consumption, has more to do with the choices offered than with any actual preference on the part of the consumer.

Moving beyond our current energy infrastructure will be an immense task, perhaps the most difficult humanity has ever faced. Surely some part of the struggle will have to do with getting consumers to choose more efficient cars and light bulbs, but let’s not kid ourselves. The proven coal, oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies and fossil-fuel exporting nations is already five times the amount it would be safe for us to burn without doing irreparable harm to the planet. As long as they keep mining, drilling and fracking, it won’t matter worth a damn what light bulbs we use.

Hurricane Sandy demonstrated not only how urgently we need to overcome our addiction to fossil fuels, but also the degree to which people on the ground are virtually powerless to do so on their own. In order to choose sustainability, we need to be given sustainable choices. The power, and therefore the responsibility, to give those choices lies with the multi-billion dollar energy companies already running the show, and with the governments that have made themselves servants to those companies. If we do manage to pull this planet back from the brink, we will do so not by consuming, but rather by holding those in power accountable.

This means pressuring Cornell to divest its endowment from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewable energy. This means electing leaders with sustainable energy policies (something we failed to do when we re-elected Obama last week). And if our governments and energy corporations continue to carry the rest of us down the path to catastrophic climate change, I believe it will mean mass insurrection. It will mean open war between those with the power and greed necessary to make Earth uninhabitable and those with the courage and determination necessary to chain themselves to heavy machinery.

I, for one, really hope it doesn’t come to this. I believe a sustainable world is possible, and I want to believe that those with the power to build it will come to their senses before it is too late. But let’s not pretend that we as consumers have the power, within our current infrastructure, to choose a sustainable lifestyle. That power lies in the hands of energy corporations that are built to maximize profit at any expense. As such, they’re likely going to need some very forceful prodding to choose planetary survival over personal gain.

Tom Moore is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ­tmoore@cornellsun.com. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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