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Groundwork’s Bite-size books No. 1 —

Climate Change & Culture by Jeff Wagner

First edition, June 2019


Introduction We’ve been having the same conversation about climate change for 30 years, and it’s not working. This booklet is meant to be a glimmer of something different that might break through dogmatic or narrow discussion about climate change. The perspective I offer is partly from formal education in environmental studies, but mostly from experience as I have sought broader answers in places outside of the US norm. I teach study abroad semesters in Asia and Latin America, and my work puts me in touch with environmental and cultural leaders who are kind enough to share their wisdom. Their conversations feel very different from ours. I originally wrote this booklet for my US-based students, and I use “we” to refer to the general US public. But it’s really for anybody who has felt angry, guilty, or powerless in the face of climate change.

Part I: The Lens We See Through Feeling overwhelmed by climate change In high school, I learned that personal consumption causes climate change. I learned to feel guilty about my actions. From environmental activists and lawyers, I learned that corporations cause climate change. I learned to feel angry and powerless. As a teacher, I meet many students who feel overwhelmed by climate change. They have learned that they have two choices: feeling guilty or angry. Usually they feel both. 


What causes climate change? One day in a Tibetan monastery, I asked a Buddhist monk if he knew about the causes of climate change. Yes, he told me. He knew about greenhouse gases, but he said that we need to look deeper. He said a culture that creates an unending desire to consume is the deeper cause of climate change. It’s easy to feel the need to blame somebody for climate change. We often blame consumers, corporations, or politicians. We can’t blame just one group. Our consumption depends on fossil fuel extraction and fossil fuel extraction depends on our consumption. We are part of corporations, and they are a part of us. In our culture, we could not exist without each other. We know the scientific causes of climate change, but we have been ignoring the cultural causes.

Living beyond our means US culture lives well beyond its own means. In fact, we are living off of other people’s means. So many things we consume come from other people’s carbon footprints: clothing from Vietnam, cars from Japan, copper from Chile, lithium from Bolivia, fruit from Guatemala, vegetables from Mexico, and electronics from China. When we talk about our carbon footprint, we overlook the people who produce CO2 on our behalf. It would be catastrophic if every person consumed at US levels. For example, if every Indian consumed like we do, India would emit more CO2 than the other 4 top emitters (China, the US, the EU, and Russia) combined. If we say that other countries shouldn’t consume like we do, we continue like colonialists, expecting to 5

consume their resources while they remain frozen in a global position: providing raw materials to the hungry appetites of the rich. We reassure ourselves with talk about renewable energy infrastructure, smart grids, electric cars, and carbon sequestration technology. Technologies like these will certainly be part of our strategy for addressing climate change, but they can’t be our only strategy. They just validate our excess while ignoring other factors, like land use, deforestation, industrial processes, concrete, and fertilizer production. We must look more deeply. Climate change is staring us in the face, and these fantasies let us look away. We don’t like that climate change looks rich, white, and as irreverent towards the Earth as US culture. 


Our solutions are about maintaining affluence We in the US have not seriously considered any solution to climate change that might threaten our current affluence. We like recycling because it lets us feel good about treating all things like trash: just throw it away into two or three bins instead of one. We do not ask what happens after that. We like electric cars because they support our selfabsorbed travel habits: speeding anywhere we desire and outsourcing the pollution. We feed ourselves fantasies of renewable electricity, ignoring our ever-increasing usage and other greenhouse gas sources. A broad carbon tax would be paid by consumers, and therefore unpopular.

We cannot ask for change until we’re ready for it Many solutions to climate change are quite simple. Quitting our use of electric dryers would cut our emissions by 1% (and save us money). We don’t seem to have the patience for that. We cannot blame policymakers for failing to enact broad-reaching climate solutions. Contrary to popular belief, politicians serve us too, not just lobbyists and big money. Effective measures like a 55mph national speed limit would be universally unpopular. We are not a patient society. We need institutional-level change, but our culture isn’t preparing for it. That’s why our proposed solutions are so narrow. In order to really change at a political or economic level, we need to foster a culture that would support the changes we are asking for.


Finding enough We’ve designed a culture that causes climate change. Now, instead of trying to design a culture that prevents climate change, we’re trying to solve the problem by plugging ourselves into a new power source so we can go on with our consumption. But climate change is rooted deep in our way of life, which is why it’s so hard to cut CO2 emissions. If we designed sustainable culture from the ground up, it would look nothing like the modern United States. We’re looking for ways to change what we consume, not how much we consume. When will we decide that what we have is enough? 


What would a culture that loved the earth value? Our values and attitudes have the capacity to slow climate change. As individuals and as a society, we would be able to implement a broader range of climate change solutions if we could learn to accept things that happen slowly, to be satisfied with what we already have, and to change how we think about our goals as a society. What would a culture that loved the earth value? If we designed a sustainable culture, how would they teach their children to move through the world? Here are a few values that we will consider: • Patience • Enoughness • Peace • Broad definitions of success


Part II: Values in Action Patience on a personal level The two most energy-intensive things we can do are creating heat and making things move. So a spinning oven would use a lot of energy. Most people in the US use spinning ovens to dry their clothes. We call them clothes dryers, and they consume 4 or 5% of US electricity, amounting to 1% of US CO2 emissions. Hanging clothes to dry is what most of the world does on a daily basis. However, some US neighborhoods have banned clotheslines as an “ugly� sign of poverty. Our taste for spinning ovens also comes from our desire to appear wealthy. For these aesthetics to change, we need clotheslines to come back into the public eye, to be normalized again.  11

Patience as a society In the 1970’s, the US faced an oil shortage from an embargo. A national speed limit of 55 mph (89 km/h) was put in place to conserve oil. Reducing speed from 70 mph (113 km/h) to 55 mph can reduced fuel consumption 25%. That’s a 2.5% reduction in gasoline, since not all driving is at highway speeds. A Dutch study found that a 50 mph speed limit could reduce transportation emissions by 30%, since some people would move to public transport or make other lifestyle changes. On US roads, drivers can be quick to anger. If you drive a few miles per hour under the posted speed limit, other drivers might yell at you (though you can’t hear them). Speed limit reductions would require patience.


Enoughness on a personal level Every year, US businesses spend $207 billion on advertising to convince you that your current life is not enough. They want you to think you need more to be satisfied. We don’t have space in our lives for what we buy, so we rent 1.7 billion square feet of space in storage facilities. That’s equal to a 5½ square foot closet for each US citizen, and over half of storage facilities offer climate control in their units. Much of what we buy is made in foreign factories that don’t even count towards US CO2 emissions. In 2010, about 10% of China’s CO2 emissions came from factories producing goods for export. When will we arrive and feel that we have enough?


Enoughness as a society When you have enough, you can stop working. The industrial revolution was supposed to allow us to work less because producing things got easier. Instead, we work harder. As goods got cheaper, we bought more. Today, feeling enoughness is un-American. But how can we feel happy if we never have enough? The earth is telling us that there is a limit to our consumption, and that our “work hard, play hard” mentality won’t work anymore. The best thing we can do for the world is to work less and try to enjoy life, because we have more than enough. We could remember how to sit on the porch, how to plant a garden, how to watch the clouds and the stars. There is a reason why people always seem happier in the park than in the shopping mall. The park is enough.

Peace on a personal level “If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.” “In modern society most of us don't want to be in touch with ourselves; we want to be in touch with other things like religion, sports, politics, a book—we want to forget ourselves. Anytime we have leisure, we want to invite something else to enter us, opening ourselves to the television and telling the television to come and colonize us.” -Thích Nhất Hạnh, Being Peace A peaceful culture is made up of peaceful people: people who respect peacefulness over violence. Our history is full of violence, and we often celebrate it.


Peace as a society This page is too small to be about the suffering of war. Instead, it will contain a question: what could we do with our money and effort if we did not spend it on war? Since 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost $5,900,000,000,000. With that money, we could have: • hired a team of 29.5 million people for 10 years to work on climate change (paying $10/hour). • built enough commercial-scale 2MW wind turbines (1.48 million of them) to power the US, China, and Germany. • given $76,000 to each Iraqi and Afghani. When our culture makes peace a priority, we will free up the resources we need to address climate change.

Broad definitions of personal success Will your culture say that you are successful if you… • spend all your savings to buy tree seedlings and plant a forest? • cut your carbon emissions in half by living in a trailer park instead of a big house? • divest from fossil fuels, though it slightly lowers your income? • give your car to charity and spend 30 minutes walking to work each day? • cut your work day down to 6 hours and drink tea instead of working?


Broad definitions of societal success When US travelers visit countries that they think are less successful than the United States, they often exclaim, “People are so kind and generous here!” Kindness and generosity are faces of collective success. In the US, you are typically not seen as successful if every day you use your neighbor’s tools, car, bicycle, guitar, and oven. But why not? Building a generous, open community is one kind of success. Our main measure of collective success is GDP growth: the sum of money spent by all individuals. But natural disasters caused by climate change will increase GDP: you need to pay to rebuild. Is that success? In parts of South America, some are defining success as “Buen Vivir,” a collective well-being. If you earn money in a way that hurts your community, you wouldn’t be successful by that measure.

Part III: Growing Values The garden of culture A culture is a garden full of many kinds of plants: language, daily routines, art, aesthetics, assumptions about the world, ceremonies, and common practices. They all grow and change with time. If we neglect our garden, weeds will grow. Once weeds take root, they can grow large and overshadow the more tender plants that we want in our garden. We design and create our garden, but our garden also shapes us. If I can imagine beauty, I can plant flower seeds and tend them as they grow. But I won’t be able to imagine that kind of beauty if I haven’t been in a beautiful garden.


Making space in our garden Where do we try to plant new seeds in our culture? When we want to plant any seeds of things like patience, we need to make space. We can see which plants might be choking out our patience. It’s easy to observe that patience doesn’t grow well near overpacked schedules and instant communication. Just 20 years ago, it was ok to respond to a phone call the next day or a letter the next week. Now, our work culture consistently expects instant response. We can also look at other cultures to see where in their garden they grow patience. Tea-growing regions of Asia have tea ceremonies that grow patience. People can enjoy hours calmly drinking tea together. Spanish and Southeast Asian cultures build in daily afternoon naps, and life slows down every day after lunch.


Who can see our garden? For people to imagine alternatives of culture that would support sustainability, they need to see it first. When we can see a flower in the garden of our culture, we can be inspired to plant more of them. Installing LED light bulbs or conserving water are good small steps toward consuming less, but they aren’t visible to others. If I grow vegetables in a suburb, I should grow them in front of my house, not behind. The cultural landscape changes when my beautiful vegetables grow on display. Imagine a US suburb where you could walk past a pumpkin patch, a rack of drying fruit, a clothesline, a rainwater collector, neighbors drinking tea in the morning, people playing music. When something is public, it can become part of a culture.

What to plant in our garden? What would it be like to live in a society that didn’t value exponential growth of affluence above all else? What would a culture that loved the earth value? What kinds of daily habits, cultural practices, and ways of thinking would help support that society? If we designed a sustainable culture, how would they teach their children to move through the world? When we begin to ask ourselves questions like these, we begin to have a deeper vision. Those are the seeds we need to plant in the garden of our culture.


Bigger conversations allow better futures Mainstream conversations about climate change are so narrow, focusing mainly on renewable energy infrastructure, electric vehicles, and small adjustments to personal habits. Shifting the conversation about climate change towards sustainable culture means engaging with broader and deeper issues while still considering the solutions proposed by the mainstream. Climate change demands urgent action. We need an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030. Sooner would be better. That means at least an 8% reduction every year, beginning today. It’s time to broaden our perspective and engage in a way that our children and grandchildren will be proud of. 



Profile for Groundwork

Climate Change & Culture  

We’ve been having the same conversation about climate change for 30 years, and it’s not working. What's stopping us from taking meaningful a...

Climate Change & Culture  

We’ve been having the same conversation about climate change for 30 years, and it’s not working. What's stopping us from taking meaningful a...