If you are fat, most people would say you should probably go on diet. Cut down on what’s causing your love handles and that bloated beer belly. The same thinking, it seems, applies to climate change: having gorged ourselves on the bad stuff — fossils fuels and carbon emissions — while skimping on the greens, what we need is a carbon diet of sorts, a way of cutting down on the environmental equivalent of cakes, koeksisters and beer.
It’s really quite a simple thought process that has broken the complex problem of climate change down to a straightforward linear equation, stating that what you put in directly relates to what you get out. Put in carbon emissions on one side of the equation, and you get climate change on the other. So if we want to limit the amount of climate change we experience, we need to cut down the carbon emissions. And having followed this thinking it’s no wonder we have “solutions” like carbon sequestration, hybrid cars and carbon credits trading. But something just doesn’t seem right.
Let’s go back to the example of how we tend to tackle weight loss. While the stock standard solution to belly bulge is dieting, time and time again we see that ultimately dieting just doesn’t work. And I think that’s because we’ve misunderstood the problem in the first place. Sure being overweight is directly caused by overeating. But perhaps instead of stopping there we should go one step further and ask: But why are you overeating in the first place? Understanding “over-weightedness” as a problem of too much eating gives us “solutions” like appetite suppressants, stapled stomachs and no-carb diet frenzies. And sometimes they work in the short run but ultimately these are patches that only treat the symptom of an underlying condition. If we re-think being overweight as a more complex problem caused by an interaction between environmental factors, lifestyle choices and socio-economics, then perhaps we’d have more success in “treating” the problem.
In other words, I may be fat because I sit behind a desk all day, rarely exercise and can’t afford to eat a fully balanced diet — and because I happen to quite like beer. Sure, I’m fat because I consume more than I expend energy-wise but I consume that amount for a number of reasons, of which my being overweight is a spin-off. Telling me to cut down on what I eat or to stop eating a particular set of foods just isn’t going to deliver the goods — it’s simply not a sustainable solution for the life I live.
Now, in the same way, a simple carbon diet is also not a sustainable solution if everything else stays the same, and especially not if another couple billion people start living like we do. And on that note, I read an article from The Economist about how the newly raised wages of Chinese workers could be what ultimately ends the current recession. More Chinese workers getting paid more, means more consumption and more market expansion. It also necessarily means a bigger carbon waist-line, no-matter how “green” manufacturers and consumers try to be.
And that, I think, is the crux of the matter. For as long as we reduce climate change to a simple problem that can be solved by cutting down our carbon emissions, we’ll keep missing the goal of stopping or even slowing climate change. We’ll continue to see it as a problem that we can “invent” ourselves out of. Or a problem that can be dodged if somehow we manage to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it underground. And for as long as we keep seeing the problem in this light, we’ll miss what makes climate change a real problem in the first place: that our entire economic system and therefore the whole way we live our lives, is ultimately what drives our addiction to fossil fuels, our rampant consumption, and the carbon emissions we create. It is a lifestyle that’s wholly unsustainable and needs to change. Yes, we need to cut down our emissions, but that goal in itself will come to nothing if we don’t make other drastic changes too. As said above, dieting helps with weight loss, but actually keeping the weight off in the long run requires a change in lifestyle that goes far beyond just consuming less. As the causes are complex and often systemic, they need to be responded to with systems-based solutions that replace reductionist answers. And I would argue that the same applies to tackling climate change: unless we change our lifestyles and our economics in addition to our carbon diet, efforts made to reduce carbon emissions are unlikely to be effective in the long run.