This is a repost of a blog post I wrote a few years ago, and the specific issues have changed (very dramatically in the case of China's demand for resources), but the underlying point remains germane. We must change how we live if we want to change the world.
Environmentalists all around the Salish Sea have
been campaigning for the past few weeks to try and block development of a
proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham. I am in agreement that it is a
colossally bad idea on just about every level, and the sole justification for
this activity, which is just a larger part of the ongoing assault on the biosphere,
is to further enrich a small group of people who are obscenely rich. However, I
also have trouble seeing much point in putting my own limited time and
resources into doing anything about it.
I have better ways to use my time in order to make myself, my family, and my
community ready for the adverse changes that will be coming in the future. Even
supposing this bad idea were stopped, it would represent a great deal of effort
that could have been directed towards much more tangible goals that would
increase our society's resilience. Stopping the coal trains will not change
China's desire to import and burn more coal, and they will probably get it from
somewhere else (or even get the same coal via a different export terminal - say
on the Gulf Coast where local opposition would probably be much, much lower).
Stopping the coal trains will not discernibly affect the course of climate
change. And stopping the coal trains will not matter if our society continues
to prize hyper-mobility via privately owned cars, inexpensive consumer goods
(mostly produced in China), and a steadfast refusal to make any significant
alterations to our lifestyles.
And the last point directs us to the real problem. Almost everybody I know,
including the self-styled environmentalists, puts thousands of miles each year
on a privately owned car, spends a significant portion of their income on
consumer goods and the energy required to make those consumer goods work, eats
fresh produce out of season that has been transported hundreds or thousands of
miles, and generally wastes energy and material in a very extravagant manner.
(And I am not attempting to adopt a holier-than-thou stance: this criticism is
as much an indictment of my own behavior as it is anything else.) The
environmental movement has made an art form out of challenging the bad behavior
of XYZ corporation and maintaining that if we could control corporate greed and
misbehavior then all would be well (and by the way, ordinary people are mostly
blameless for our current troubles). The only problem with this narrative is
that it is not true, and even worse, it absolves us from looking seriously at
our own lifestyle choices.
If Americans weren't buying consumer goods by the container ship-load from
China, then China would probably be a lot less interested in burning coal from
Wyoming to power their factories. If Americans were making serious efforts to
reduce private automobile usage, then we might have the moral high ground to
criticize the dramatic expansion of China's auto fleet. And the examples could
So, rather than spend my time, energy, and resources trying to stop the coal
trains, I will use them to find and implement ways
to reduce my own resource usage and try to live a richer, fuller life as some
sort of being other than a "consumer".