Complacency II

July 10, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More

I wrote about complacency once before. I focused on the complacency of most Americans in the face of the energy crisis that is clearly upon us. We have no assurance that gasoline won’t double or triple in price over the next five or 10 years, throwing our economy into a massive depression. With stakes like these, you would think that prolific energy wasters like us would immediately jump on our energy consumption problem by enacting a national conservation plan to cut our petroleum use in half. This could be accomplished by modifying our wasteful energy usage in dozens of ways. For instance, we really could carpool. We could build up our mass transit systems and encourage their use. We could walk and bike more. We could make our homes much more energy-efficient. Instead of building new homes in existing farm fields, we could renovate homes that already exist. While we’re at it, we could cut our use of all other forms of energy in half too. For instance, the technology already exists to make zero-carbon footprint buildings.

Others have written extensively regarding many methods by which we could reduce energy use. Due to the widely accepted law of supply and demand, cutting our use of energy would also have the effect of lowering the price of energy (relative to whatever it would have been had we not taken such measures), thereby diminishing the financial damage from our perennial trade deficits and budget deficits.

My concern is that so many people (including many people I know personally) are absolutely complacent about the need to change the way we produce and use energy. I keep hearing people say that “they will make our gasoline out of corn” or “we have plenty of coal” as though some unspecified “corn plan” would produce net energy without causing people to starve or some fantasy “coal plan” could be a foolproof substitute for petroleum, without somehow contributing massive amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

People are finally buying more energy-efficient cars, but that is only in response to the spiking costs of gasoline. It’s like we need to be kicked in the shin in order to get our attention. Many mainstream news articles discuss that this price jump of gasoline occurred “suddenly,” as though it was impossible to see that high gasoline prices were in our future. We still don’t get it, though. For example, many news articles are currently talking about the high price of gas as though gas will continue to be five dollars per gallon five years from now, as though we’ve hit a stable plateau.

As I suggested in my prior post about complacency, I sense that there’s a rampant attitude that most of the big things in life are not under our control. Rather, they simply “happen.” According to many people, the “free market” decides what will be available for sale and at what price it will be sold. Similarly, “God” makes decisions about disasters and diseases such as heart attacks and lung cancer (even though people cause many of their own problems through climate change in lifestyle at choices). The people who are big believers in the free market and a sentient God see humans as powerless children who simply react to situations. We act like there’s nothing we can do to root corporate corruption out of our national political system.

From so many people, I hear this solution: “They” will come up with something to solve our energy problems, our medical problems, our food production problems, our natural resource supply issues and our pollution problems, as though these problems don’t start with each and every one of us. As though we are not responsible for what “they” need to do. As though we don’t make the messes that “they” need to clean up.

I have no doubt that we could cut our energy usage in half. We could substantially reduce our risks of certain diseases by changing our lifestyles. We could eat foods that are friendlier to the planet, such that the average item of food would not actually need to travel 1000 miles or more to our plates. We could start making difficult decisions that would ensure sustainable supplies of water well into the future, at least for many communities (Las Vegas might not be in the plans). By using much less of everything we consume we could substantially cut the amount of toxic waste we generate. When “we” live more responsibly, “they” have less work to do to save us.

Admittedly, some bad things do seem to just happen to us. On the other hand, many of our biggest problems are caused by us. Therefore, to act complacently as a general rule is a huge cop-out virtually guaranteeing disaster. The real solution is to force ourselves to follow the chain of production through our use of our products and resources so that we can see that our local actions often have tangible national and global consequences. We are incapable of assessing these big problems to the extent that we allow ourselves to overlook problems that have solutions that would be expensive or inconvenient to us.

Sacrifice is a dirty word these days. No politician wants to tell the citizens that we will need to give up some of our wasteful ways. The same thing goes for the many “greenwashing” articles out there. For instance, I read several “green” magazines, including Plenty; they are extremely light on the need for self-sacrifice. Reading these magazines, one would think that nothing interesting is going to change in the United States. You’d think that living “green” is an optional fad and that if don’t change our ways, life is going to go on much as it has been going on for for the past few decades. There’s no sense of urgency. For example, you would never suspect that air travel has a huge carbon footprint and that, therefore, responsible people will need to reconsider the extent to which they travel by airplane.

The bottom line is that most people think that they do not have control over the things that are happening to us due to our own poor decisions in the aggregate. They want to believe this because they are incredibly resistant to any self-imposed personal sacrifice. The truth is that individual people can and should make numerous lifestyle changes (often involving minimal sacrifice) that can have dramatic effects in the aggregate. Nonetheless, most people act complacently (many people refuse to do simple things such as buying energy efficient light bulbs–how much easier can things get?). It’s more convenient to believe that things simply happen to us.

It is true that there are many things out there that are beyond our control. In 150 years, every person currently living on earth will be dead. At some point, many of us will be facing diminished mental capacity through mental deterioration and there might not be much we can do about it. Our bodies will all eventually sag and ache. So, yes, there are many things about which we should get worked up because there is nothing much we can do about them.

The point of this post, is that we need to work hard to become self-critical; we need to make sure that we spend sufficient time so that we can tell the difference between those things we can change and those things we can’t change. This is all sounding a bit like that classic prayer (or see here for the version I learned in Catholic School):

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

It would be a real shame if we falsely assumed that the dangerous consequences of our own actions were things that we could not change. It would be equally shameful if we didn’t force ourselves to look at our own actions self-critically so that we could employ the wisdom to decide what we can and cannot change about our world.


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Energy, Environment, Food, global warming, Good and Evil, ignorance, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition, snake oil, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Ben says:

    These are everyone's problems.

    The word is getting out, don't worry E.

    Instead of buying another case of bottled water, I'm going to go to the nearby park (campground) and fill up 3 jugs of mineral water.

    I will try to drive my 4 cylinder more often, instead of my 6 cylinder.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsif says:

    I've often said that the most sensible answer to renewable energy is something like this:

    Develop strains of genetically modified plans which produce oils or xylenes. Set up greenhouse in the western desert areas that use solar powered equipment to seperate CO2 from the air and enrich the CO2 in the greenhouses.

    ANd then we need to take a serious look at reducing world population growith.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Nik: Anaerobic bacteria produce hydrocarbons quite nicely. That's the current best theory for where crude oil came from. Their reign ended when algae with chlorophyll poisoned their environment with molecular oxygen. But many species of them can still be found.

    The root calculation for sustainable energy and living is how many acres of land are necessary to support each person. This includes living and working space, food growing area including grazing land, timberland and mining area for building materials, and collection area for portable energy (batteries, oil, whatever). Only so many kilowatts can be collected from an acre in a year, however advanced the technology.

    So the true limit is Malthusian: How many people can be supported when we run out of fossil fuels?

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's what Al Gore has to say:

    We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change.

    But if we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard, all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we're holding the answer to all of them right in our hand.

    The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels.

    . . . Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

    This goal is achievable, affordable and transformative. It represents a challenge to all Americans — in every walk of life: to our political leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers, and to every citizen.

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