What do the wealthy think and do about climate change?

There is a tide turning in one important area—the recognition of climate change. I can feel it among people and see it in the mainstream media. The fires in California have become a tipping point in public opinion on climate change.

There is a sense—finally!!!—that climate change has become a top progressive priority in the United States, up there with institutional racism and health care. There is even a sense that the large majority of people-beyond progressives-now accept the facts. People have seen that science means something in the real world.

Forest+fire+fighter%2C+climate+change%2C+need%2C+survival+-+CC+image+via+pixabay.jpg

That is good, but…

Progressives turning is not enough. The majority of the public in wealthy countries turning is not enough. Even the mainstream media turning is not enough. Only 25 percent of climate-damaging emissions can be impacted by responsible personal choices in diet, energy use, transportation and so forth.

The vast majority of climate-changing emissions come not from personal choices but from the wealthy, the infrastructure politically controlled by the wealthy and the big industry owned by the wealthy. The demographic that matters most is the top five percent or so of the income scale. those with decision-making power over large industries and public institutions as well as over their own fortunes.

And the picture is still bleak there. Kanye West showed what the attitude of many of the wealthy is when he hired private firefighters to keep his home safe while much of California burned.

I recently conducted a small survey of wealthy people to determine their attitudes and actions regarding climate change. Last summer I surveyed an online social network frequented by many wealthy individuals or at least those who self-identify as exceptionally wealthy. This social network is broad enough to encompass every political leaning but those who answered my survey were self selected.

The survey is not large enough to be a good statistical sample. Still their responses are revealing. Individuals in the network reported on their own beliefs as well as those they observe in their social circle of wealthy friends and acquaintances.

My survey question was, “Do wealthy, educated people A. put a large percent of their resources into fighting human-induced climate change, B. not care or not believe the consequences will affect them, C. feel too despairing or apathetic to do anything about it or D. deny the consensus of the vast majority of scientists on climate change?

Of those who reported on their own beliefs, only one in ten said they would do or previously had done anything to mitigate climate change. One out of ten reported the apathy and despair of option C. The rest were split between B (40 percent) and D (40 percent).

The format encouraged explanation of their views and many of the responses were angry and vehement. Typical explanations include the following excerpts:

“It is not the job of the wealthy to take care of everything. It is the responsibility of people as a whole to take care of the environment.”

”If you are so convinced that major climate change is coming then you better do something about it. I think about it about as much as myths like Bigfoot,”

“Fact is many climate predictions have fallen flat, so you could reasonably conclude the latest climate predictions are probably fiction.”

“The climate change prompters (sic) are very loud, and have tried to shut up their opposition. And there are a significant number of people (sic) think the crisis is much smaller than reported. There are also many people who want to use “climate change” to push their political or cultural agenda, such as urbanization, mass transit, solar power, and even vegetarianism.”

It is particularly troubling that people who identify as wealthy and educated so commonly either deny climate change outright or deny the seriousness of the impacts. The reasons thought up about why scientists might fabricate evidence, including the concept that some people want things like public transit and solar power either as money-making schemes or because of personal enjoyment of them, are depressingly under-thought.

Three out of ten respondents also commented on their beliefs about what other wealthy people do or think about climate change. These responses were split evenly between B, C and D. The despair of option C climbed when the answer described the opinions of others. Somehow few respondents wanted to self-identify as despairing or apathetic, which is one big difference between the responses of the wealthy and those of the general population, in which despair and apathy is commonly self-reported.

Another difference between the response of the wealthy to climate change versus that of the general population was pointed out by a respondent, who wrote; “For wealthy people, climate change isn’t so bad. If there is a food crisis, it means other people will starve, so they feel a tinge of remorse, but it won’t impact them directly. If one of their houses gets flooded, they can just move. They have options… So they all feel like someone should be doing something, but not them, someone else. Because for them, doing something would mean losing the benefit of being wealthy.”

If this respondent is correct, it is possible that some of the wealthy who either claim to deny climate change or simply ignore such a survey, actually are banking on the assumption that climate change will primarily affect the poor and middle classes.

What does this mean for people who are highly concerned about climate change and willing to act on this concern?

Again, my survey isn’t a scientific study but it gives some indication of common reactions to climate change in the top wealth bracket. Those who ignored the survey are likely to be more apathetic, but if there had been individuals in the wealthy social network who were acutely concerned about climate change, some of them would have answered over the course of several months when the survey was displayed. It may be that apathetic respondents did not respond because they were apathetic not just about the issue of climate change but even about discussing it in a survey, but the lack of positive responses clearly indicates a real lack of positive thinking on the issue in this economic class.

Given the disproportionate impact of the wealthy on climate policy and industrial causes, it is clear that this demographic is one that should be addressed by serious climate action. The wealthy may suffer less from climate change than others but they will be impacted negatively. They may need more factual education.

On the other hand, many wealthy people today may know the facts well enough but choose to deny climate change publicly for profit or to avoid the shame of being unresponsive on an issue that will cause massive death and harm to many others. The wealthy are not immune to public pressure and the great impact that even a few wealthy individuals becoming active in combating climate change is worth a significant amount of effort to achieve.

It may be helpful to focus campaigns more on the impact of wealthy lifestyles, industry and policy influence, revealing to the public at large the crucial role of the wealthy in driving climate change. In any event, climate campaigns focused on those with wealth and political power will be more likely to get results in the time available.

A local foodie and one more duffel bag

As the first snow of the season turns drearily to slush outside in the navy-blue dusk, I sip tea and crunch thin slices of a giant white radish dipped in vinegar.

It’s an odd sort-of treat to the western way of thinking. But here in cold, agriculturally spartan Bohemia, it is a welcome bit of crispness and freshness in the winter.

The texture reminds me fleetingly of hikima, but it is not nearly so sweet and a touch less earthy. Before being sliced the giant radish is large enough to serve as an impromptu weapon if pressed. Sliced thin, it has a bite in the aftertaste and is better served with a few drops of vinegar.

Creative commons image via Pixabay

Creative commons image via Pixabay

It’s one of those things you get used to after a time in a different climate, especially in a place where imports are either not readily available, prohibitively expensive, of exceedingly poor quality or ecologically unsustainable. In the case of Hikima, it simply doesn’t exist here.

Just about everything fresh—beyond the ever-present root vegetables, wrinkly apples and cabbage—falls into most of those categories this time of year. I’m plotting a salad for tomorrow with frost-sweetened beets (the very last of the garden harvest), roasted pumpkin slices from the cellar, nuts, seeds, white cheese and whatever thinly sliced cabbage can be had.

There are plenty of people who buy the over-priced, pale and tasteless excuses for vegetables that are imported here, but I prefer to live as locally as possible, eating in season and storing what I can for the winter.

Only part of it is due to the price and low quality of the winter imports, though those are certainly considerations. Another part is my own conviction that eating in season is both personally healthier and more ecologically sustainable. And those things matter a great deal.

But I’m not a saint when it comes to importing. I have been recently obsessed with my list of things to buy abroad for a very specific reason.

‘Tis the season to get a bag from America.

The past few months have been full of lists and discussions of what you really cannot get in Prague or reasonably online in Central Europe. Partly this is the normal, pre-holiday scramble of most people with children and extended family around.

But in my case it is complicated by a large physical gap right in the middle of the family—large meaning the size of he Atlantic Ocean and most of the continents of Europe and North America put together. And one small duffel bag making its way from one side to the other in the care of a family friend.

Living on the edge of Eastern Europe, I have kept a running list of things to buy when I travel for the past twenty years. Once the list was topped by ordinary toiletries, household items and food, such as gallon jugs of salsa, hair ties, tubs of school glue, jumbo packs of washable markers, good quality clothing for the next couple of years, dried tapioca, molasses and assorted spices.

As the Czech Republic became more integrated with the consumerist networks of the world that list has shrunk until today it reads as follows.

  • Dr. Bronner’s soap

  • Vicks Vaporub

  • Edible vegetable glycerin

  • Real brown sugar

  • English language games

  • English books

  • A few special children’s toys unavailable locally

Shipping is prohibitively expensive—eighty dollars for a small box that would hold only a fraction of that list. So, mostly we wait until someone makes the trip and pay the $100 fee to send them with an extra bag. That’s what is happening in the run up to this holiday season. We sent a young man to America to learn some English by hanging out with our cousins, and sent him with fresh rye bread and a few other things that can’t be easily obtained there. Now he’s on his way home and bringing a holiday sack with him, like a scrawny, young version of Santa.

For most of human history, where you lived was a decisive factor in what you ate, what you wore and every other detail of everyday life. Today, our global society likes to pretend that isn’t true anymore. It largely isn’t for those with money and even the rest of us consume a lot that comes from distant places.

But due more to social, political and economic trends than to distance and geography, there are things that are difficult or even impossible to obtain in one area that are common in others.

Receiving such a large package is like a holiday all it’s own. The preparation spans weeks, if not months—careful lists, family discussions of priorities, predictions of needs for the next year or so, ordering items, Skype conversations with the person receiving the orders and assembling the pack. more discussions of weight and size limits, revision of priorities, coordination of flights, schedules, transport to and from airports, and then at last the keen anticipation as the final days count down.

When the duffel finally arrives with a jetlagged traveler, there is all the sweetness of hope and anxiety. Things are often broken in transit, and if they happen to contain liquid that could mean stains and a mess to clean up, instead of a celebration. There are also battery operated toys for the children, which we have read and reread the US air traffic regulations on but still harbor anxiety about.

Finally, the moment of unpacking is at hand. Everything is tightly compressed in the pack and a faint whiff of the pine forests and wood smoke of my mother’s home in Oregon lingers poignantly on the taught canvas. It’s hard to unzip but I work the zipper down.

The first sniff smells clean. Nothing too terrible could have spilled if it smells good.

After twenty years, this has become a tradition that would be hard to break. And yet, I know that it is no more sustainable than eating out of season. There will likely come a day when flying is either too expensive or limited to make any such packages feasible. Then those of us living far from childhood homes and families will be cut off from small comfort foods, little luxuries and preferred clothing.

For now I savor it, a bit of guilty pleasure, one more duffel from across the world, filled with treasure and home and celebration. Tucked amid the good fabric, toys, games and Dr. B’s, there is homemade candy from my mom and pickled peppers from my brother’s garden. These, of course, are the things no money can buy and no import shop will ever satisfy.

The first reason for outrage: Living with climate change

Your grown children scrape at the rock-hard ground with salvaged hand tools, trying to turn the baked mud. They have realized their dreams and they have professional careers but today—in 2050—everyone has to keep a garden to supplement the limited food they can buy at exorbitant prices.

A torrential flood came through last winter and took away what was left of the homes built in better times. But the water didn’t stay.

When the three-day storm was spent, all that was left was stinking mud on everything—tainted with the bodies of people and animals and with chemical spills. Now the drought has returned with a vengeance. It hasn’t rained in weeks and early spring looks like late summer used to look, at least in the sky.

Creative Commons by Asia Development Bank

Creative Commons by Asia Development Bank

There are no trees left. Those were cut long ago for fires and to build makeshift shelters when houses were destroyed by winter floods and summer brush fires. What is left are mostly the hardier sort of weeds. Even if they can plant the seeds they have left, your children won’t see much of a harvest. Just like last year, the insects are the only life that is flourishing and they swarm in clouds that can make breathing difficult on some days.

Even with their career jobs, they need this garden. Your youngest grandchildren—which you may well not be alive to meet, if you were in your twenties in 2018—sit listlessly in the dust beside the garden. The low-nutrient diet and grinding stress of survival takes its toll on both mind and body, especially for the youngest ones. They can barely muster the energy to cry, let alone play. They are wracked by sicknesses that your generation believed banished from your wealthy country forever.

They are still better off than the wretches your children see along the road outside, refugees from the south. Long lines of refugees were something you saw on the news. They are now something your children and grandchildren see on their doorstep and all along the high fences your children built to protect their scrubby garden.

The lines of people trudging by never end and they look like walking skeletons. They don’t beg as much as they used to. By now they know that your children don’t have enough for their own and they go on, hoping against all the facts to find a place with some rain… but not too much rain.

This is what famine and drought look like and it’s what life will likely resemble in 2050 in the US Midwest and Southern Europe, if carbon emissions from coal, gas or oil burning and factory farming continue apace. According to the recent report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this is the kind of impact we can expect from a 2°C rise in global average temperature, a level we’ll reach by around 2050 if we continue as we are and by 2100 even if we implement the more widely accepted agreements on emissions reduction.

Creative Commons image by Tim J. Keegan

Creative Commons image by Tim J. Keegan

A 2°C temperature rise doesn’t sound bad to many people in northern climates. The problem is that it is an average and it isn’t equally distributed. It also is a lot more drastic than it sounds for the earth’s climate. Even such a small-sounding temperature change would mean widespread drought.

Extreme weather events would hit temperate areas the way they are now hitting desert areas such as the Middle East. The areas hit today will become uninhabitable.

Still many people don’t register the realities of such impacts. Scientists often call out people who predict the collapse of civilization due to climate change. A 2°C temperature rise may be bad but it would probably not mean the complete destruction of modern industrial and consumer society. And most people in wealthy countries will still live, just poorer and shorter lives.

Scientists deal in probabilities and theories. They aren't supposed to look at impacts personally or allow emotion in. That prevents them from extrapolating out what their data would actually mean for their own family as I have done here. And even so, many climate scientists are suffering from clinical levels of anxiety and depression due to their understanding of what is coming and the lack of response from the wider population or the outright denial of many in positions with the power to change it.

If you are over thirty and your children are already half grown, this may be the fate in store for your grandchildren and great grandchildren instead. But he fact still remains, that this is the life we are creating. On paper the predictions don’t sound that bad for people in temperate climates. Most predictions focus on the fact that some more vulnerable areas which are already very hot will become uninhabitable either by flooding or extreme drought. Many people in the equatorial countries may die outright.

But those countries are far from the English-speaking world. And the predictions scientists put forward about us sound dry and theoretical. “Decreases in crop yields, increases in pest infestations and extreme weather events, increases in disease, spreading drought in certain areas and increases in coastal flooding.”

If you have never been bothered by any of these things and do not currently raise food from the land, it all sounds distant and like someone else’s problem. Many people assume it will simply mean that food is more expensive. But I have spent a fair amount of time in countries where this type of weather is common today, the countries likely to be hit hardest and earliest by climate change, such as Bangladesh. The weather that scientists predict for much of the American west and the Midwest and for large parts of Central Europe is the weather these vulnerable places already have and their dismal economic realities may be a crystal ball in which we can see our own future.

Creative Commons image by Tavis Ford

Creative Commons image by Tavis Ford

Food is likely to become so expensive that many more people will have to be engaged in growing or attempting to grow food, even if it is only to supplement what they can buy.

The lackadaisical view of climate change so common in society today isn’t really surprising. On the one hand, we have dry predictions which give little indication of the wrenching realities they factually describe.

On the other hand, there are the more fictionalized predictions of the collapse of civilization as we know it and the death of whole swaths of the population.

One sounds incremental and abstract. The other is easy to dismiss as unrealistic and if it were actually likely, many people would decide it’s better to live with all comforts now than struggle to be one of the few miserable survivors in such a world. Better to die quickly is the trendy, distanced logic, so why try to fight it if we’re doomed anyway?

But neither of these is a real depiction of what climate change means for us and our families. The reality isn’t total annihilation and neither is it merely a matter of higher prices. It means a lot of real hardship and heartbreak. Life will go on unless global average temperatures reach the 4°-5°C-above-pre-industrial-temperatures range. But it will be a much harder life than it needs to be.

Climate change is currently the umpteenth reason for outrage. Many of us are so exhausted by poverty, discrimination, racism, sexual assault, war, ableism, denial of health care, general bullying and immediate environmental pollution that climate change gets put on the back burner or at least low on the activist’s list of grievances.

It should be the first reason for outrage and the rallying cry. Climate change effects everyone and it is the thing that across all underprivileged groups we have contributed to least but which harms us most. It is caused only slightly by individual actions and more by corporations and heavy industry. It is the most essential injustice and those who will suffer most from it are those who have no voice at all—small children and those not yet born.

At the new moon, I will paint another word picture about climate change—this time about the sort of effort and lifestyle it would take to prevent this level of climate change. Outrage is necessary and so is hope.

Manifesto of a plastic bag washer

There are things that come naturally to me: turning off the water while I soap up my hands; saving a leftover potato to make dough, hording empty pickle jars, separating recycling from compost; making old clothes into washrags or drying ziplock bags. These seem to have always been habit.

I didn't grow up during the Depression, as some of my friends like to joke. I did grow up poor, but it was an odd kind of poverty. Some call it "voluntary poverty."

Technically, my parents could have pursued more prestigious careers earlier. We had a few good toys--legos and sleds--and the great wealth of a natural playground just beyond the door of our scrap-wood shack in Northeastern Oregon. But we also had old, faded clothes, socks that always fell down into the toes of our boots, nothing that matched, healthy homemade lunches or free school lunches and a TV twenty years out of date (when we had one at all). 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Living that way voluntarily is something quickly ridiculed today. I've heard it on-line, read it in popular new books, seen it in movies and recently gotten it from two fairly close friends. Voluntarily living modestly is considered naive, hypocritical and just plain stupid. 

The pressure is on in our society to get the most high-paying job possible, to pursue a major career and to use material bounty to keep you sane in the rat race.

I can hear the "buts" already and there is some literary and social lip service paid to frugality and "the simple things in life." However, those things fly out the window when it comes to a discussion of saving for your health care or your children's educations in the United Sates. If you don't have a near or above average income, that level of saving isn't realistic. And the excuse that you didn't save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you were living modestly and working at consuming less--which precludes high-powered careers with expensive clothing, classy social obligations and extensive travel and commutes--will get you exactly nowhere. 

I have the utmost respect for people who have worked their way out of poverty and don't want to ever go back. Immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged people often work hard and focus on a career at the expense of everything else in order to gain a secure material life. To many people who came from poverty, the idea that those with the education and privilege to live a middle-class or wealthy lifestyle today might elect to live with less must appear ludicrous and, yes, hypocritical. 

And yet we know that it is not reasonable or sustainable for most of us (let alone all of us) to live the high-consumption lifestyle of today's western wealthy and middle classes. Environmental crises grow year upon year, setting new standards for a dismal new normal like clockwork.

The polar bears were threatened. Now they are simply dying. In a few short years, they will be gone. Hurricanes, droughts, desertification and wildfires set new records each year and claim more lives and more livelihoods. On the one hand, we know it cannot work for all of us to consume at the levels some of us have become accustomed to.

But acquaintances recently ribbed me for washing and reusing ziplock bags. Some because glass jars are a better way to keep food in recycled containers, others because they think one should just buy new bags. Both groups are wealthier than me, have greater storage space and don't store many leftovers in the first place. They can chuckle all they want. 

A friend of mine described how his partner insists on throwing out pasta that spilled onto the counter, not because it is dirty or contaminated but because it is a "poverty mindset" to spend time carefully picking something like pasta up. And I'm not even getting into all the people who refuse to eat leftovers or habitually buy new clothes simply because they have worn an outfit the requisite three times. 

Often the reason given is not even a desire for comfort, but an insistence that living lavishly is a matter of self respect, proof that one is not living in poverty. 

I have not appreciably drug myself out of poverty. I grew up in a family with very little monetary income. I pursued the work I loved and made ends meet but little more. Today my family lives modestly and does it well. We wear second-hand clothes more often than not. My children get new clothes when the old ones get too small. I get new clothes when the professional clothes get downgraded to gardening clothes and the gardening clothes fall apart.

And I still wash plastic bags, just like my mother did. I have no intention of stopping so long as plastic bags continue to invade my kitchen. I'd love to have shelves full of healthy and expensive glass storage containers and I agree that plastic bags are a modern evil, even when reused, but living well with less entails compromises.

I think there is special jargon for this in ecological circles and I do care about the environment, other living beings and the earth a great deal. But I am not doing these things to make a statement, to prove a point or even to make my own little impact on the environment better.

I do these things because not to do them feels wrong. To waste resources feels unwise and unethical. For a few years, when I lived in an Eastern European city without recycling or any place to put compost, I was forced not to separate garbage and it made me feel unwashed. 

Even if it doesn't matter whether we let the faucet run here and now because the local community has plenty of clean water, I can't abide it. The habit is wrong. The modeling for children is wrong. There is always reason to conserve, to reduce consumption and to live well with less. 

Those who belittle this may not understand. But it is my self respect that matters to me.