Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why Your New Chevy Volt Will Never Save the World



Green living. Green businesses. Green policies. We're drowning in chlorophyll. 

How green are you? Have you been using canvas shopping bags? Did you get a hybrid car, or even an all-electric? Are you a champion for the environment? 



So what good is this green revolution? Will it save the planet? 

Let's imagine a perfect world where we could get 100% out of our seven billion (yeah, that many) world citizens to do the following:

1. Get low-flow toilets and shower heads
2. Buy a Chevy Volt
3. Stop using plastic shopping bags
4. Have a compost pile
5. Recycle
6. Eat organic
7. Turn off anything electrical between uses
8. Exhale less CO2

Anyone who bent this far backwards for the environment must be considered green. Let's take it a step further. In this imaginary Sliders-style parallel universe:

1. All power now comes from wind, solar, and marathon runners on large hamster wheels
2. Somebody cleared out that horrid garbage field in the middle of the Pacific.
3. People stopped dumping oil in the ocean all the time.

This is just about as good as it gets. In this situation, where everyone is doing all of the things that make people say, when they're doing them, "Just doing my part to save the world," the world is, sadly, still going to be fucked.

I will give you a scenario. Let's imagine there's a hundred-acre plot of land in the Pacific Northwest, pre-people. Pre grocery bags and pre-car. There is a whole spectrum of plants, from algae to really big cedars, and all kinds of animals, some of them cute, some of them ugly and creepy and stinky. All of this stuff is balanced, not by God, and not by magic, but in the way that natural things balance themselves. Everything tries its best, and some things do better than others. There is no dominant species. Between plants, animals, insects and funguses, this land is perfect for supporting lots and lots and lots of species. Thousands, maybe.

Eventually, this hundred-acre area is developed. The area is cleared of plants, and large swaths of it are paved for streets and parking lots, sealing over acres of dirt, keeping it away from sun, water and seeds. The same thing happens with big rectangles of area that become building foundations. All of the spaces in-between the asphalt and foundations are cleared as well, and the soil is left exposed, but attention is taken to ensure that only grass grows there, or carefully-selected shrubs. Maybe moss and dandelions, if the landowner is careless. Almost any animal that passes onto this area now runs the very real risk of getting killed by a car. This entire area is now, by design, the perfect habitat for one species. A few other species, like grass, a few shrubs, decorative trees, garden flowers and produce, are allowed to grow. A few others, like squirrels, rabbits, crows, and seagulls, not to mention a number of rodents, insects and spiders, thrive in spite of the changes. On the whole, though, this developed area is ecologically dead. It's comfortable for the modern man, and incredibly trying for just about everything else.

And there are... plastic bags.

And then the century turns, and greenness becomes everyones goal. People are composting like it's going out of business, and hybrid cars fill the streets. They start flushing their toilets less often (unless company is over). There are so many halos over the heads of the citizens that the city uninstalls all of the streetlights. In the meantime, the next 100 acres of undeveloped land to the west is being given the look-over by a real estate company.

You have to, at some point, draw a distinction between what's necessary for us to live our modern lifestyle comfortably, and what's necessary for us to live comfortably as humans. If we insist on living between drywall, on top of concrete, driving over asphalt, creating chemicals that have never existed before (and I don't see any of these things going away), it's not going to get any better. No matter how few aerosol cans you use, or if your car runs on clean-burning garbage, and you flush the toilet once a day, our communities are going to remain ecological dead-zones, and, as our population grows, these dead-zones will continue to spread.

Humans were never perfect, and I'm not going to tell you that indigenous communities shat sparkles, but they had a few things right that we don't have right any more. They could live in an area and allow other things to live there. They ate all organic, all day, and never had to struggle to stay on a diet. They never had sex with a condom. They never had a prison get filled up by a war on drugs.

They lived shorter lives than us, but only if you count hours that we spend at work, watching the clock, wishing our lives would pass by more quickly.*

All I'm saying is, however green we get, I believe we're still heading in the wrong direction.

*This is not mathematically true, but I love the sound of it

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