No Impact, Man
A few weeks back a New York City writer named Colin Beavan blogged about our book, and we began an email exchange.
Colin is "No Impact Man," made famous through a profile in the New York Times and appearances on television. Colin, his wife, and his young daughter are doing their best to have as small of an impact on Nature as possible, in particular, by reducing their consumption of energy. They turn down the lights, buy very little, and have even given up toilet paper.
Colin praised and agreed with our point in Break Through that action on global warming need not be motivated either by fear of climate change or love of Nature. It could be motivated, for example, by concerns over national security, or the desire for a new kind of economic development.
This was nice praise to hear, but I was surprised to hear it from No Impact Man. The first half of Break Through is a critique of the environmentalist "politics of limits," I was a bit incredulous that Colin had either a) read the book or b) agreed with it, given his focus on the need to limiting consumption to deal with the climate crisis.
So I pushed on this point and others over email, and we got into a nice little debate. We decided we'd post the exchange on our web sites over the next few days, and then continue the conversation in person after Ted and I speak at our Focus the Nation talk at NYU on January 31. You can read Colin's take on our exchange here.
Michael: It's great when we meet people who understand the very important point that action on global warming need not be about Nature or global warming, but could instead be about economic development, energy independence or something else.
I would also be interested in your take on a) our argument against the sacrifice framework in chapter 6, and b) our contention that we can't reduce our way to 80 percent emissions reductions in the U.S. (and 50 percent worldwide) by 2050, by reducing our carbon footprint.
Colin: Well thanks for saying nice blog! I'll get back to you on your questions, but to clarify, by question b) do you mean your contention that we need to institute new technologies and need massive federal funding to get them going?
Michael: Let me put it in a more pointed way. I don't think we can convince very many Americans or Chinese to do what you're doing. And I don't think we should try because we'll only alienate them. Instead I think we need to find ways to allow people to keep on consuming without generating emissions or depleting resources. Technically, renewable energy and infinite materials recycling should make this possible. Both, however, remain expensive. Hence, the need for breakthroughs in performance and price.
Also, to be even more pointed, I don't think you are a "no impact man," as you claim. I think you're probably a "lower impact man." But that's been made possible by living in a high impact society. You've been able to reduce your emissions drastically because a) your ancestors, grandparents, and parents prospered thanks to coal and oil; b) you received a good education (judged by your writing) that required fossil fuels consumption; c) you live in an astonishingly modern city built and sustained by fossil fuels so that even if you don't directly consume fossil fuels, the garbage men, police officers, and school teachers who make your life and the life of your family possible, do consume fossil fuels; d) you pay taxes, and the government takes a portion and subsidies fossil fuels with it; and on and on.
Don't get me wrong. I try to reduce my emissions as much as the next guy. But I believe my biggest contribution to overcoming eco crises will come neither from convincing others to do the same but rather from convincing Americans that a major investment in new technologies and infrastructures, here and abroad, will make their lives better and safer, and restore America's founding purpose: greatness. That's a fairly different project than asceticism, which I think can be creative and fulfilling but not a solution to the crises we face.