Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Global Warming and World Views, Part I

Did you know that if you travel on an airliner from, say, London to Frankfurt, you use about ten times the greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuel that it takes to carry you the same distance by train? Did you care?

That idea is the gist of an ad campaign sponsored by European environmental groups. The ads take the form of statements by an imaginary airline head who makes arrogant, disparaging comments about environmentalists, who he calls "lentil mobs." In Europe's largely pro-green culture, such comments are as inflammatory as running ads in U. S. media that show a fat white Southern sheriff saying disparaging things about blacks. Technique aside, the point the ads make is true: airline travel uses much more fossil fuel per passenger-mile than surface travel, and especially more than rail, which is more efficient than private cars. The way you react to that fact should depend on your view of the world and what it is all about.

Suppose you think this physical world is all there is, death is annihilation, and we are here to propagate our gene pool and along the way pick up whatever transient enjoyment we can. You may therefore view air travel as one of the greatest boons to humanity, since it lets us get from enjoyable place to enjoyable place much faster than surface transportation. Strangely, though, that attitude is uncommon in cultures where a frankly atheistic outlook prevails. In places such as France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, where publicly expressed religion is almost invisible, Greenpeace and similar green parties and beliefs are most common. The reasons for this are complex, but I can speculate.

If you believe man is the supreme intelligence in the universe, then he is therefore responsible for the efficient running of the planet. After all, we can't trust the elephants or the insects to do a good job. Or can we? They were here first. Down that line of thought lies the branch of environmentalism which views mankind as an unmitigated plague upon the planet, one which the Earth would be much better off without. In this view, the ideal world might be one in which the human population was reduced to the point where we could all live off the land like the pre-agriculture American Indians. The trouble with that is, estimates of the pre-Columbian population of North America run in the low dozens of millions, and that would be true in proportion to the rest of the world. To achieve that ideal, then, most of the world's people would have to go away. As it happens, the population of native Europeans (including Russians) is undergoing a population implosion that would be right on target to reduce Europe to its pre-civilization population levels, if it weren't for all the immigrants. But that is another story.

Even if you don't think mankind should commit mass suicide for the betterment of the planet, you may still feel some personal responsibility toward the globe which you cannot possibly fulfill. You may feel like a ten-year-old child put in charge of running General Motors: impossibly underqualified for the job. Accordingly, you turn to the experts, who are not quite as unqualified as you to run the planet, and they tell you that yes, the Earth is getting warmer, and yes, our burning fossil fuels has something to do with it, probably. So are you going to form an ironclad rule never to set foot on an airplane again?

Probably not. Instead, you'll fly when you can't avoid it, or maybe whenever you feel you can afford it, and feel guilty about it. And rightly so. Because if everybody quit flying and took the train, we'd burn less fossil fuel than we do now. Then what?

Well, you as an individual might live long enough to see a slight slowdown in the global-warming trend. But maybe not. And suppose it's too late? Suppose we've passed the invisible tipping point of no return, and the atmosphere is headed inexorably toward a catastrophe that will make the worst disaster movies look like child's play: storms, floods, inundated coastal cities and plains, radical rises in temperature. Again, there is nothing you can do but watch. In this case, the thought that years ago, you quit flying in airplanes as a protest against what you saw as environmental irresponsibility might furnish you some small solace, but it did nothing significant in the long run.

I don't know about you, but I find all these alternatives profoundly depressing. Doing nothing is bad, but doing something like abstaining from flying has such a small chance of making any real difference that it's not worth the effort. Of course, there is always the great mysterious process by which public opinion changes. And something like that might happen here, as it did in the sixties in the U. S. when environmentalism grew from being viewed primarily as the peculiar obsession of a few left-wing crackpots to something that President Richard M. Nixon himself embraced when he founded the Environmental Protection Agency. But such things are hardly predictable, and to trust in their occurrence takes a kind of faith akin to those who regularly buy lottery tickets.

Lest I appear to be bringing a counsel of despair, I will take a look at a different world view next week. I'll tell you right now, I won't necessarily come to any different conclusions about what to do. But the reasons will be very, very different.

Sources: The report on the spoofing airline ads is an Oct. 29, 2006 New York Times article by Eric Pfanner at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/30/business/media/30fuel.html. According to the Wikipedia article on the population history of American indigenous peoples, estimates of the North American native population before 1492 range from 12 million to over 100 million, and are probably no more than educated guesses. Whatever the figure is, it is much less than the current population.

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