Fear, greed, and carbon emissions

Written by erik


I shouldn’t be feeling so grumpy, not now that climate change and carbon emissions are part of the political conversation at the highest level. But surveying the wreckage of the global financial system, I can’t help feeling that some of our most basic human impulses are being laid bare, and that the financial crisis bears directly on the climate crisis.

After all, how many times over the past several weeks have we been reminded that the financial markets are, at their root, a tug of war between fear and greed? Fear gives rise to regulation, while greed thrives in a more perfectly capitalistic system. Right now we’re watching that pendulum swing from greed to fear in our financial markets.

Retirement savings are disappearing, and we can hardly believe that as retirement age approaches for much of the country it might now be too late to do anything to continue the lifestyle we were so sure we were going to be able to maintain. Credit has frozen up, and even after it thaws, it’s going to be a lot harder to live on debt. Everyone sighs with relief as the federal government jumps into the fray with a $700 billion rescue plan, we demand more stringent regulation, and we know in our hearts that complicity in the problem extends far beyond Wall Street.

You don’t have to be an English major to see where I’m going with this. Any chart of total indebtedness in the US over the past fifty years looks an awful lot like any chart of carbon emissions — up and to the right. To my mind, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are a way of quantifying our debt to nature, a measure of the extent to which we’re living beyond the capacity of our natural systems.

Ned Davis Research


Our financial day of reckoning appears to have come, once again. We look back at the Depression and think to ourselves that we’re lucky it won’t get that bad again. Maybe one day we’ll get it right.

But our environmental day of reckoning, as I think we all recognize, is still out there somewhere. Our indebtedness to nature rises with each passing year, and though we all (well, almost all) at this point realize that our personal “environmental savings rate” is negative, as a society we are reluctant to admit to the fear that would lead in turn to smart regulation while there is still time.

“Economy trumps environment” is another one of those things I’ve been hearing a lot these past few weeks. But we need to get our environmental house in order as desperately as we need to get our financial house in order, if not more so.

This whole rant is inspired by my wife’s recent trip to Nevada to canvass to get out the vote. All over the country voters are already pulling levers and mailing in absentee ballots. Election Day in many households is today, not November 4. So let me just make this plea: vote the environment. Please.

We don’t do political endorsements here at TerraPass, but I urge you to vote for political leaders who see the wisdom in putting smart rules in place around our carbon emissions and other environmental borrowings, before they come due (current estimates put that point at approximately 450 parts per million of atmospheric carbon, or even 350ppm).

Because if you think the credit markets are tough, wait until you see how Mother Nature deals with deadbeat debtors.

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  1. kirk nevin

    Your wife went to Nevada? Did she fly? What was the environmental burden generated by her trip? How can we expect improvement when such folks think nothing of just hopping on the plane? It all boils down to the same thick soup: personal choices. And we’re making an awful lot of really lousy personal choices. Use the phone next time, please.

  2. Tom Harrison

    Adam —
    This is an excellent analogy. We have talked about “carbon footprint”, “global warming”, and so on. It’s all scientific and disconnected from reality. But the real truth of the matter is simple: we’re living beyond our means, as you say.
    As the impact of living beyond our financial means affects more and more people in real ways, we’ll understand the real, personal impact. And as that happens, voices for common sense have the challenge to help the rest of us understand that the analogy is real.
    But it’s no sure thing…
    On the one hand, there’s less capital, and less financial incentive to address alternative energy than there was (seemed to be) a few months ago. The urgent problems of the economy could overshadow the need to think about CO2. If we keep acting like we have since 1980 and before, this is the way things will go.
    On the other hand, we may now understand what the implications are of living beyond our means financially. Can we accept that living beyond our means from a CO2 standpoint is just as fraught with peril?
    While some predicted the financial meltdown, few knew (or know) how it will play out. We also don’t know how global warming will play out, just that it is going to be bad.
    If we’re smart and look beyond the ends of our noses, we’ll see that addressing global warming is far more important than the transient, if painful, issues we’re facing in the current economy.
    We’ll see how smart we are this time around. I am hopeful that good leadership will make the difference.

  3. Tom Harrison

    Oops — sorry, Eric, not Adam 🙂

  4. Pete

    I’m sure Ms. Blachford considered that the environmental benefit of assisting in electing the best candidate on the environmental front justified the trip, particularly to Nevada. One can usually be more effective in person than in a telephone call. There’s no problem here.

  5. kirk nevin

    It is always possible to ‘justify the trip’. Grandma died, my friend is being married, my company wants me to go to Africa, our team is invited to be in the bowl game… the excuses are endless, and each is perfect. But this does not solve the problem. We are living as a nation of adolescents… making decisions based not on the carbon reality but on the pleasure (or the anticipation of pleasure) we get from the decision. It is bad enough that our culture refuses to take meaningful measures to reduce our carbon footprint… it is far more important that we’re causing untold suffering everywhere on the globe. My Tibetan relatives will soon be starving… the glaciers are melting, the rivers are erratic, the storms are horrendous, and the frosts unpredictable. Is that flight to Nevada okay? No, it is not okay. We need to grow up and face the scientific facts. Grandma died? Send a note, sit under a tree and remember her… then get on with your life. And allow others to have a life too.

  6. Adam Stein

    Uh, yeah…no. I really do sympathize with the notion that we need to be more conscious about the consequences of our personal choices, but it’s simply not true that every time we take a plane trip, we’re causing someone in Tibet to starve. The long term solution to climate change involves technological progress, not deprivation. We should all be working to conserve, and more importantly to elect politicians who favor carbon pricing and other policies that will favor clean energy.

  7. kirk nevin

    Hi Kirk —
    You’re done here. Thanks for your cooperation.

  8. Sandy

    Erik’s post was scary … I dunno how much use it has on a blog where people are mostly green anyway … but it did strike the usual stabs of fear inside me.
    I say, All the more reason for people to end their consumption of animal products – or atleast work towards reducing it. I am an animal rights activist, and I argue primarily on ethical grounds. But as I have discovered since I turned Vegan about one year ago, there is a very strong motivation to go Vegan on non-ethical (non-ethical?? really?) grounds – our environment. The impact of animal farming is massive, as we all probably know. And the worst thing is – carbon (methane) emissions are just a fraction of the whole thing. Land and water Pollution, deforestation, top soil erosion .. well, I could go on and on. It is overwhelming to think what we are doing to the planet for something -meat and milk- that has good, and healthier alternatives anyway !
    I hope this is not dismissed off-hand as animal rights propaganda. Erik’s post and Kirk Nevin’s made me think of how urgently changes are needed – even if they are thought to intrude into things that matters dearly to us – our diets. That is the excuse I get very often. ‘My diet is such an integral part of who I am.’ .. Well, if everyone thought that way and never gave a logical and simple solution like Veganism or vegetarianism (a solution to ethical issues, or the environment, or health .. whatever) even a try, then we’d never evolve on this planet.

  9. Erik Blachford

    Pete – you are correct, we thought about the carbon implications of getting to Nevada, and made the call that it was justified. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for others to question that call, though I would make it again, for the reasons you mention – the long term implications of the wrong short term political outcome.
    Sandy – I agree wholeheartedly that changes are needed, but in this political season I think our best bet for the changes we need is collective action through our political system. I don’t for a minute dismiss actions that anyone takes personally – they are the foundation for everything else.

  10. Marc

    Another reason that getting the right leaders in place is of highest importance is that the environmental problem and its solutions are so colossal that powerful top-down leadership is critical if real change is to come about. We’re largely a nation of compliant people. If laws are made and enforced to protect the environment, we will complain but we will, for the most part, comply. I say to the future lawmakers, bring it on!

  11. Sandy

    Of course Erik, neither you nor anyone else will ridicule actions taken “personally”. But my point is: Is it enough to simply “not dismiss” such actions?
    In today’s pro-environment rhetoric, we associate ‘green’ with solar heaters, and Priuses, and plastic recycling and what not. Once thing that is ‘not’ and is constantly undermined as a result is how big a part diet plays. I am often told, “My diet is too personal an attachment to me. I cannot change it.”. I fail to understand how changing one’s diet is any harder than say, carrying one’s own bags for shopping and actively recycling. (As a matter of fact, for me the latter two are so much more troublesome).
    The reality is that we can do so much more for the environment every time we pick up our spoons and forks. For that reason, I always find it astonishing that environment groups focus so much energy on recycling and re-use and other matters which are in numerical terms, so trivial compared to the effect our dietary choices have. Come on, let us start to put some energy and thought into exploring more plant-based food options and substitutes that are more energy-efficient. Let us do more to locate and popularize good vegetarian/vegan restaurants around. Let us learn about which snacks are most eco-friendly (and healthiest). But this does not usually happen because “altering diet is just too radical”. So let us all buy our Priuses and install solar heaters on our roofs, while we munch on chicken fry and roast beef that took so many more tonnes of CO2 and so much more of energy and land and water and plants.
    For whatever reasons, we have collectively neglected the role our diet plays. And thereby, we plant the idea in people’s minds that going ‘vegetarian/vegan’ for the environment is “radical”, when logically it is no more radical than forking out a few thousand dollars extra to buy a so-called “green” car or to stuff one’s pockets with grocery bags before going shopping.

  12. Adam Stein

    Hi Sandy,
    We agree that people tend to overlook the environmental consequences of their diet. We’ve actually advocated for reducing meat consumption quite a bit on this blog (see here, for example), and we’ve even written up a bunch of low-meat, veg, and vegan recipes.
    It’s true that we don’t push the vegan option very hard, on the theory that we’ll end up just turning people away. But we admire those who make this earth-friendly choice.
    – Adam

  13. Sandy

    Thanks Adam.
    Yes, I have read your posts on the subject before. But my point was a wider one, I wasnt referring to Terrapass, but to the broader environmental movement itself.
    I mean … even the Inconvenient Truth totally ignores the one bit of truth that is most inconvenient – that our EATING habits are unsustainable and one of the leading causes of environmental destruction. But then I guess, the dairy and meat boards won’t be pleased to have their politicians telling people the truth about them.
    Well, part of why I wrote the posts above was just frustration. Frustration at how screwed up our world is, and at what I perceive to be a costly and unaffordable marginalization of the one solution that can go a long(est) way in tackling the problem.