Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Coal For China

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 go on.

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".

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