By Donella Meadows
–October 26, 1989–
By some stroke of providence, every step we need to take to reverse the greenhouse effect is worth doing anyway. Every step is technically possible. Most of them will even save money. Unfortunately for our sense of drama, preventing global climate change need not be a great, grim sacrifice. We are not called upon to save the world. Instead we have an opportunity to build a better one.
Here’s a list a list of anti-greenhouse measures, in order of effectiveness, as I heard them presented to an international meeting last month:
- Use energy much more efficiently (which would also cut fuel bills, urban smog, acid rain, oil spills, toxic wastes, and oil imports),
- Phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) completely and quickly (an international treaty has already mandated a partial phase-out, in order to repair the “ozone hole”),
- Accelerate the transition to solar, wind, hydro, and biomass energy sources (which would have all the beneficial effects of energy efficiency and ensure an inexhaustible energy supply),
- Shift fossil fuel use away from coal and oil and toward natural gas (an interim measure until solar sources are tapped — it would also reduce many air pollutants),
- Stop deforestation and accelerate reforestation (thereby sustaining the supply of forest products, reducing soil erosion, flood, and drought, moderating temperatures, and preserving endangered species),
- Increase use-efficiency and recycling of all materials and of water (which would save money, reduce energy needs, extend the lives of mines and groundwaters, and reduce municipal solid waste, toxic waste, mine waste, and water pollution),
- Practice low-input agriculture (reducing farm costs, increasing energy efficiency, restoring soils and wildlife, reducing water pollution, improving health).
- Slow population growth in poor countries, where 90% of population growth takes place. Slow wasteful consumption in rich countries. (These two measures would ease every environmental problem and most economic ones — and without them the other steps listed here would just be stop-gaps.)
Some people find this list an exciting challenge. Others think it sounds like Exercise Properly, Get Enough Sleep, Floss Your Teeth. We know our lives would be better if we did these things, but somehow there’s a barrier of habit to get over — we’d really rather not think about it. People will never change their comfortable little self-destructive habits, some say. Let’s talk about adapting to climate change; we’ll never prevent it.
I’m not willing to be that fatalistic. I believe in good old self-serving human rationality. I think that anyone, however lazy or greedy, who looks at the full costs and benefits of preventing climate change, as opposed to enduring it, will see that there is no better payoff on the planet than greenhouse prevention.
At least the first few steps could be trivially easy. If West Germany put a speed limit on its Autobahns, it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 million tons per year. By buying efficient refrigerators, Americans have already cut electricity use enough to avoid building 80 coal-fired power plants (and saved $5 for every $1 spent on the refrigerators). We could save more money and reduce refrigeration energy by another 2/3 by installing the most efficient models now on the market.
WHO should lead the way? Governments? Individuals? The only possible answer is both, with the realization that in democracies the people are always out in front. And there’s plenty we can do. The Greenhouse Crisis Foundation has come out with a list of 101 things YOU can do to stop global climate change. You can imagine what’s on it.
Buy energy efficient appliances and a car with the highest possible gas mileage. Insulate your home, caulk and weatherstrip your doors and windows, turn off lights when you’re not using them. On nice days use the sun, not the clothes dryer. Reuse, repair, recycle everything you can. Don’t buy stuff you don’t need. Shop with a re-usable canvas bag; turn down BOTH paper and plastic bags from the stores. Shun overpackaged products and bug manufacturers about them. Don’t take unnecessary car trips. Don’t speed. Buy organic food, not junk food. Plant trees. Plant a garden and don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides on it, or on your lawn. Write to Congress and the President.
It may sound like Eat Balanced Meals, Don’t Smoke, and Balance Your Checkbook, and in a way it is — it’s what adult people need to do, as an unremarkable matter of habit, to make their lives and their planet work. As Winston Churchill once said, “Sometimes you have to do what is required.”
Or as Buckminster Fuller used to say, it’s time to grow up. The human race has been like a bird in the egg, supplied with an abundance of nutrient, and an unpolluted space into which to develop — to a certain point. We’ve exhausted the nutrient and the space. “We are going to have to spread our wings of intellect and fly, or perish.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989