The CO2 emissions of sacred cows

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

The CO2 emissions of sacred cows is by Indiana University's Richard Wilk and it is reproduced in full here, with his permission, and my recommendation, as a provocative (in the best sense) read.

I have been thinking about energy conservation issues since 1982 when I had my first grant to study households in California, families that were spending large amounts of money on dubious energy saving devices. Since then I have been to many conferences and symposia and meetings concerning what has come to be called “sustainable consumption”. I cannot claim to be the brightest person in the room, but after more than 30 years, I have begun to see the ethnocentrism and bias that underlies both the definition of the “problem” of overconsumption, and thinking about how to motivate change in consumption behavior.

Let me give you a revealing example. During conference discussions and in classes, I suggest that one of the best trends to encourage in order to save energy is to get people to watch more television and spend more time immersed in video games. I have also playfully suggested that sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll are all forms of entertainment that require little fossil fuel. Sex and dancing even burn calories. People always laugh when I say these things, but I think this is a case of laughing it off rather than letting the point sink in. After all, when I look around my own neighborhood and town to single out the kinds of entertainment that are contributing the most to climate change, I focus upon things like lawn tractors, dirt bikes, pontoon boats with large outboard motors, giant RVs, swimming pools, and even driving across town to let the dog run in the park. None of these things are essential, but nobody points a finger in their direction when looking for energy savings.

Now think about some of the most popular elements of today’s “sustainable” lifestyle. To go fishing, or backpacking, or rock climbing you need to drive a long way in a private car, or even fly somewhere and then rent a car. Or how about the carbon balance involved in a nice lush home garden? Even with no gasoline or electric powered devices, there are many trips to the hardware store, fertilizers and mulch. This is why one critique of the home gardening movement is called “the $50 tomato.”

Even that sacrosanct warm and cozy activity called “a home-cooked meal,” is usually a terrible waste of energy and material, including packaging and waste disposal. Look at the fossil fuel used to get to the supermarket or farmers market and back, the energy used by enormous refrigerators and the inefficiency of preparing small batches of food. A Swedish study found that central cooking and distribution of meals is far more energy-efficient, not to mention cheaper.  A pair of Australian anthropologists studied a farmers’ market, and found that vendors spent almost as much time driving as they did selling at the market, and the customers were burning a lot more gas when they added the farmers market to their other shopping.  While there are a lot of good reasons to learn to cook, saving energy is probably the least realistic. Organic and locally grown produce and meat may be healthier for the grower and the consumer, but how much are they improving the health of the planet? When CO2 emissions become the yardstick, many cherished practices of the middle class turn out to be extremely wasteful. Making families fly all over the country at holidays to sit and eat energy intensive meals may be an important practice that keeps families together, but let’s not make believe that it has no effect on CO2 emissions, even if the turkey is organic, or carved from tofu.

A stranger landing on our planet might ask why we spend so much time and energy driving to cinemas to watch entertainments in a large room, when we have a perfectly good large flat screen television at home, where we are paying for a continuous feed of similar entertainment. Then try explaining why we spend so much energy on professional sports, and why some people are willing to drive thousands of miles to watch other cars driving around in circles. While we are taking an alien point of view, we might as well point to sports cars, SUVs, giant king-cab pickups, low riders and monster trucks.

Life without these entertainments would be poor, but ranking them or criticizing them on the basis of their energy inefficiency seems to be completely taboo.  My university has a sustainability office that is trying to reduce the amount of plastic and food waste produced by tailgaters at our football stadium (undergoing a $53 million renovation while faculty salaries stagnate). Why do we always think about improving the efficiency of energy wasting practices, on energy Star appliances, hybrid cars and solar power installations, but rarely compare the energy intensities of different forms of entertainment and amusement?

Is it because appearances are so much more important than substance in our consumer culture? Going on a kayak trip, cultivating a large garden, buying organic food, and driving a hybrid vehicle to a conference on climate change are all acceptable forms of consumption that appeal to the educated middle-class. A very small minority of the most conscientious people will ride bikes and buses instead of private vehicles, or buy carbon credits when they fly, but these still remain rare and marginal practices in most places. In these same people are likely to seek nature for their leisure and recreation. Perhaps a hike in the forest or a trip to the beach.

Ever since the European romantic movement of the early 19th century, seashores and majestic mountains have been firmly connected to the bourgeois love of nature. Before that time majestic mountains and sandy beaches were considered ugly and depressing wasteland occupied by poor people eking out a pitiful existence. Nature only became beautiful after the middle class was secure in the knowledge that they would never have to dig in the dirt for a living. But practicing this love of nature in the raw or tamed in a zoo or Marine Park is an extremely wasteful form of entertainment.

Similarly, participation in the arts, visits to museums, attendance at the opera, gathering in church, summer camps, and endless rounds of sports and self-improvement keep us driving and emitting greenhouse gasses. And the surfeit of material culture is so great that many households in the United States have to hire specialists to help them deal with “clutter.” After they filled their garage to the roof, they may have to rent storage space, or perhaps turn the room into a closet, or furnish a vacation home or condo closer to their favorite form of nature.

The bourgeois aesthetic disparages passivity, using the label couch potato for those supposedly tasteless people who just sit and watch TV all day. And it has become almost sinful for adults to stay away from the gym and other forms of exercise. In contrast, poorer and rural people here in Indiana like to spend their weekends burning gas in their riding lawnmowers, putting their kids on dirt bikes, hauling a jet ski to the lake, or camping in an RV with 0RVs strapped to the roof. The bourgeois would rather be out tasting craft bourbons, flying down a zip line in the rain forest, or driving across the state to see and hear a famous musician or a play. Older members of this class tend to be worried by internet addiction video games, electronic communications, sexting and Instagraming, activities that save a huge amount of energy that might otherwise be spent driving to see each other in the flesh. Environmentalists and the climate change community seem oblivious to the importance of this change from physical to virtual worlds – because it conflicts with middle class values.

I am not suggesting that we need to plug into pods that sustain our bodies while we experience the world vicariously, as in “The Matrix.” Yet, if entertainment is one of the major sources of greenhouse gas, why should it be off-limits to critique? Perhaps it is because consumer sovereignty is such a powerful ideology, (perhaps more dominant in the USA than elsewhere)? In “A Consumer’s Republic” Lizbeth Cohen says that the freedom to buy has replaced other kinds of political and intellectual freedoms. Yet even in the United States, that freest of markets, there are many potentially popular products that have been prohibited, heavily regulated or highly taxed. You cannot simply walk into a pharmacy and ask for antidepressants, or find heroin it in a vending machine, or bring your own sandwich (or dog) to lunch with friends in a nice restaurant. Most of these market taboos are justified in the name of health, which requires inventing many new diseases like “low T” or “neophobia” (when children refuse to try new foods).  Until recently most citizens have passively accepted regulation made in the name of health, but distrust of science and government, and outbreaks of food-borne disease have eroded even that boundary.

I overheard a comment while flying out of New York, about the time when the city’s Board of Health banned soft servings of more than 32 ounces; “Soon the government’s going to be telling us what we can and cannot order in the sushi bar.” Yet one more blow against our most basic freedom. They seem to be unaware that their raw fish on sushi rice has already passed through customs regulations. USDA standards, and health codes at the federal, state, and local levels. And indeed many health regulations have no basis in science – for example it is illegal to eat raw quail eggs on sushi in Indiana, for fear of salmonella, though there has never been a single incident. In this politicized environment how is it possible to get people to accept restrictions based on the health of an ecosystem or the planet’s atmosphere? Consumer sovereignty desperately needs to be renegotiated, but so far convenience and entertainment have taken precedence over the distant problems of melting ice in Greenland or drowning tropical islands.

It is time that we start to compare different forms of entertainment, and think about ways that low impact activities can substitute for the most egregious energy wasters. Do we even know if it is better to exercise at home on a machine, instead of driving to a health club? How could we make a farmers market a more efficient collection and distribution system? On the other hand, we know that having sex doesn’t necessarily consume any fossil fuels (especially when you can find partners through your cellphone instead of going out to a bar), that listening to music on the Internet uses a minuscule amount of electricity compared to live concerts, and that computer gaming may have much less impact than the other forms of recreation it is replacing. The only reason we cannot think about television as a major energy saving appliance is because of bourgeois prejudice against what my parents’ generation called the ”idiot box.”

Soon after the energy crisis of the 1970s, power companies and university researchers started to focus on increasing efficiency of appliances, cars and other energy-using devices like air-conditioners and water heaters. They needed a way to measure the savings gained by increasing efficiency, in order to do cost-benefit analysis. They came up with the idea of “negawatts,” the kilowatt hours of electrical energy saved by increasing efficiency and reducing consumption. The funny thing about negawatts is that because you can put a value on them, you can buy and sell them, and this was the antecedent of the idea of carbon trading as a means of cutting down emissions. Someone else is running an energy hogging paper mill? They can buy my negawatts I earned when I installed energy-efficient lighting in my stores.

This provides a useful way to think about what kinds of everyday activities are liable to generate the most negawatts. How can we credit people who lower their carbon footprint?? What would it mean to offer people a payment for staying home on the weekend instead of going on a driving vacation? It’s not that different from paying indigenous people in Peru to protect rain forest instead of burning it down to plant corn, or selling the timber to a plywood factory. What if you had to pay a certain number of negawatts to take an airline trip over 500 km? Or to buy a refrigerator that has a greater capacity than 25 ft.²? Negawatts accounting could be easily automated using existing wrist – activity – monitoring devices. The nice thing about this form of accounting is that profligate rich people are going to have to buy negawatts if they want to keep their yachts. Poor people who do not produce much carbon dioxide will receive negawatts that they can then sell to send their children to school, pay for medical care, or put a concrete floor in their hovel.

This may seem like a ridiculously large amount of accounting. But think about carbon emissions – invisible, and mysterious. When people talk about the carbon emissions of driving a car, it’s not about that particular car, but about the average of that model of car, as defined by an arbitrary set of tests and standards. Carbon dioxide and methane are just abstractions; so a carbon tax has no real referent. If you drove every person out to a coal burning power plant to see what was coming out of the smokestack, they still would not see any carbon dioxide. A carbon tax seems totally arbitrary; the person with an energy efficient car pays the same amount of tax per gallon of gasoline as someone driving a monster truck. That hardly seems fair given that the first person has already paid for that energy efficiency (unless it turns out to be emitting a lot more pollutants than stated by the manufacturers).

But let’s come back to the bourgeois mentality, rooted in the romantic movement and the kinds of suggestions that still bubble up from new devotees of the arts and crafts movement, the ones who want to replace mass-produced goods with craft products, hand knitted sweaters for the cheap ones from China. We know where this goes. Cheese shops where the cheapest cheese is $12 a pound, compared with two dollars at Walmart, locally handloomed cloth which is actually made from sheep in Australia, costing 10 times as much per yard as the same wool that has passed through a factory in India.

Several years ago we had our kitchen rebuilt by a local couple who designed and then built gorgeous cabinets out of wood that came from a sawmill right here in town. The whole thing cost about three times as much as it would have cost to buy nice cabinets at the superstore and have them installed by a journeyman carpenter. The superstore would have finished quickly, while the skilled crafts people took three months. We were initially thrilled with the beautiful results, but now  I find myself wondering if mass producing the cabinets in a large factory using generic materials and efficient machinery may have been much more energy-efficient than having our specialists constantly driving back and forth, running woodworking equipment for hours at a time, and ordering both tools and hardware from China. In retrospect, we should have had to buy negawatts for the luxury of a kitchen like that, in order to wake us up to the true environmental costs of the different options.  We might still prefer to pay friends of friends in our own community, rather than an anonymous country and faceless workers far away.  But that is a political and economic issue, not one based on the urgent issue posed by climate change. Our aesthetic was actually a class based notion of the value of human skill and community, a set of values that are probably going to have to fall by the wayside if our children are going to keep their heads above the rising sea level.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • Thanks for reposting this. I've been a fan of Wilk's work for some time and read this when it first came out. I really wish more people in EE would turn the gaze inward a bit and look at their own practices. I tried to do this a bit in my dissertation and made a class critique of the private school sustainability education phenomenon here in the US. Was accused of "shitting in the punchbowl" during my dissertation defense. Good times.

    I find myself moving further and further away from environmental (education) circles these days, mainly because of the elite politics and aesthetics that too-often come to shape what counts as acceptable inquiry. I suspect that it's my own rural, working-poor background that makes me sensitive to such conceptual myopia. Still trying to figure that out though...