Part 3: Globalization, global warming, Toqueville, and democracy as we know it

I’m changing the header a little here for those of you who don’t seem to have realized these are different posts. I’ve lumped a bunch of stuff together, because in my mind it’s all connected, but it’s way too much for me to expect anyone to read in one sitting. So I’m trying to break it up a little.

Today I want to expand a little on the topic of global warming.

Earlier this week, I received a presentation from a former brother-in-law about global warming. If I’d liked my former husband as much as I like most of his family, we’d probably still be married. But that’s a story for some other time.

It’s a good presentation. It addresses a lot of the facts and a lot of the possible mitigations. But even though Allan is one of the smartest people I ever met,  I think his approach falls short in this regard: It doesn’t put the issue in the larger context.

“What?” I hear you asking. “There’s a larger context than global warming?” A good question to be sure. But the key of the matter here is in the word “global.”

So much has been written on this topic. Some of it is science; some of it is pseudo-science; some of it is just plain fear-mongering. Like so much of our information-overloaded communications today, it becomes very difficult to sort out wheat and chaff. So, here’s what I believe.

Global warming is real. It has happened before and it’s happening now. Some part of it is undoubtedly driven by the things people do. Some part of it may be natural. Our best guesses about the consequences over the long term indicate that the result won’t be pretty. I wouldn’t be buying a house on the Waldport spit or even a condo in Manhattan right now if I were buying it with the idea that many generations of my descendants will be enjoying it in the future.

Based on what we know about the impact of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, human activity contributes to global warming. The things we do in the pursuit of a better life are having a major impact on our planet. Notice that I didn’t say “negative impact,” although in truth I suspect that is the case. But I don’t know enough to assert that. I do know enough to believe that there is a “major” impact.

But these activities are the direct result of our efforts to chase a more sophisticated, full-of-variety-and-new-gadgets lifestyle. They are the result of our wanting to hop a plane, train, or automobile and be somewhere else whenever we want to. They are the result of the endless pursuit of more effective marketing to consumers. They are, in short, what Toqueville called “the American attention to the short-term gain without regard to the long-term consequence.”

Allan’s presentation is addressed to a sophisticated, environmentally aware audience. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s only a very small part of the whole story.

All around the world, “developing” countries are discovering some of the things that we Americans have taken for granted for decades, if not centuries. And they want them, too. I’m not sure I blame them.

It seems to me that every step that any of us can take to reduce our impact on the planet is a good step. But I don’t think this is going to happen as a result of any major campaign or quick fix. If it is to happen at all, it will happen by making each person aware of the costs associated with his decisions. It will happen by promoting what Toqueville called “the right habits of the heart.” And it will require major lifestyle changes.

It can’t be done by activating the already environmentally conscious folks in the U.S. It can’t be done by legislation even. It’s going to take a global effort and a global awakening. It’s going to take a major shift in how we think about the true costs of things.

Science tells us we are already too far down the path of “negative effects” to avert them completely. But there are things we can do to mitigate the damage. Allan’s presentation addresses these fairly well, I think.

But this is like globalization (see previous post): It’s here, it’s happening, and it will have an impact on you and upon all of your descendants unto generations. There is no quick fix. There is no easy answer. I’d consider it a major step forward if we all started asking some pretty tough questions.

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