The Consumer Side of Climate Change
Buying into the Status-Quo Won't Solve a Thing!
There is plenty of quick and ready condemnation of big oil, coal and gas with good cause, but far too little is said about the responsibility of everyone else who literally buys into the existing energy structure while condemning the big companies. The problem is that everyone insists on driving their car just about everywhere, which contributes heavily to the collective carbon footprint. But cars are far from the only cause. There is the fact of what we consume and where it comes from. If we are to seriously to address the question of fossil fuel driven climate change, we need to take a deep look into our habits of consumption that drive the whole carbon based system and how we can personally change our input. It is not enough to point fingers. We must also take personal initiative! It is not enough to protest and then drive away in our gas guzzlers; we must practice what we preach! What that means is a thorough investigation as to how much fossil fuels drives our lives and what must be done to reduce and eliminate wherever possible, our dependence on fossil fuels. The areas that fossil fuel use penetrates our lives is staggering. They are not limited to cars and home heating, but include food delivery, food growth, processing and packaging of all consumer goods, power in the form of electricity, manufacturing, the war effort and luxury items. Fossil fuel use is pervasive and highly profitable. It is also deceptive, lulling us into a false sense of security. This will indeed be a tough monster to slay! The short list on fossil fuel consumption is as follows:
Any consumer end product with an internal combustion engine
Foreign food item imports
Off shore manufactured goods
All commercial, private, corporate and military jets, helicopters and planes
Cruise and bulk goods shipping
Most railway lines
Manufacturing of fuels
There are a lot of automobiles and in addition, there are boats, ski-doos, ATVs, motorcycles, generators and toys with tiny internal combustion engines. Every last one of them with the possible exception of a few that are reconfigured to run on bio-fuel, use non renewable fossil fuels that add plenty of green-house gasses to the atmosphere as well as creating small spills due to leakage. In some cases, the consumer may be able to exchange the internal combustion engine to something that is electrical, but even here there is a catch. It is plain to see in any large metropolis almost anywhere in the world that we are internal combustion engine crazy. In many large metropolis, there is the incessant reality of grid lock with thousands of vehicles just sitting and idling, spewing out pollution in a total waste of energy. As almost all of us insist on using a car, truck or motorcycle in order to pack as much activity into our daily routine. The use of these machines is generally considered to save time, but an analysis of transport of the 19th century, versus the 21st, shows that transportation by the horse and buggy was actually faster than city stop and go traffic of today. Where then is the saving, especially in those long commutes to work and home. Unfortunately, most major cities are designed to accommodate large numbers of private vehicles with destination spots spread far apart and many hectares of valuable land consumed as tarmac or parking spaces. No one it seems, will willingly give up the convenience of the car or motorcycle unless they are forced into it by accident of poverty.
Home, shopping center and office tower heating in the winter especially, uses a tremendous amount of energy and much of that directly or indirectly is based on fossil fuels, mainly oil, gas or coal. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep homes and businesses heated, especially if they are poorly insulated. The more extreme the temperature, the more the heating plants are used to keep everything in a suitable living condition. In the summer, air conditioners are in use, and though these do not use fossil fuels directly, the electricity driving them likely does. Over the winter months, the spike of fossil fuel use actually shows up in graphs of atmosphere change, at the same time photosynthesis has by and large ceased.
Hidden from the sight of most is the sources of most of our food. Whether it is mega farms well outside of cities across the developed world, palm oil from tropical regions, out of season fruits from half way around the world or items that simply do not grow in any particular region, many foods are shipped of flown it with a huge carbon footprint. There is a growing movement concerning growing and eating locally, but there is still a huge international shipping industry that moves millions of tons of food around to various destinations of the planet. US and Canadian wheat and grains are shipped to China and China sends the west mandarin oranges and other foods not grown locally. In the middle of the winter, fresh strawberries are flown in from New Zealand to all parts of the northern hemisphere that can pay up. Another choice food is chocolate that grows mostly in tropical Africa. Then there is the banana republic factor where huge numbers of bananas are shipped all over the world. Most of the shipments are via tanker and container ships that are heavy carbon producers. These are booming businesses and carbon heavy as they have to be flown or shipped across the ocean to be distributed all over the developed world to waiting buyers. Many of us have gotten used to non-local foods and that is by no means all that is produced that is shipped. We have a choice; to eat in season from local producers where possible, or forgo certain foods altogether, or learn to produce these locally. The same can be said for most natural fibre clothing items.
Another growing business, especially since the crash of 2008, is the manufacturing sector. Thousands of factories have closed and relocated. Millions of jobs have been replaced by off-shore labour. The US, Canada and UK have lost a huge amount of manufacturing jobs and the “:gainers” have been cheap labour pools in China, Asia Minor and India. Labour there is cheap, there are little or no health and safety standards and the wages are low. The several garment factory disasters of 2013 in Bangladesh and Pakistan exposed a lot of corruption, but little in the way of real change has occurred. Many jobs are also heavy on the environment due to little protection for the same. The cheap goods are manufactured there and shipped to the US, Canada and UK and sold to waiting buyers. In some cases, raw materials are shipped across the oceans, manufactured into useable goods and then reshipped as commodities back to the places where the raw materials cane from. Even after all the carbon added shipping and middleman costs, the goods are cheaper than the equivalent locally made ones and this is the reason why it is still going strong and growing. One might argue that the loss of jobs locally means a shrunken market, but some of the goods are so cheap that even the poorest here can afford them. One of the worst development ever under the Thatcher regime in Britain, was the closure of still productive coal mines in favour of shipping in cheaper coal all the way from China. Extra carbon was added to the atmosphere, just to ship the coal that would be burned in Britain for home heating and running power plants and the like. It is like a double whammy as Britain still has lots of coal reserves now sitting idle and many former coal miners now on perpetual dole. This was clearly a political act, but it has a heavy impact on the environment as many people still rely on coal, even though shipped half way around the world.
One of the ubiquitous materials of the modern world is plastic and astronomical amounts of it. Plastic is now absolutely everywhere including in huge archipelagos in several locations in all the major oceans. It litters most of the land in large cities in India. Plastic is made from chemical derivatives based on oil mixed with other chemicals to create many unique types. It is found in packaging, in electronics, toys, clothing, cars, lighting, in Canadian bank notes, credit and debit cards, as a building material and other applications we can barely fathom. Most plastic is not biodegradable and in itself represents an environmental threat. That is on top of the fact of toxic run offs from production, waste trimmings, the processing of oil and its derivatives to make it and the shipping involved to refineries and huge chemical and plastic production facilities. In short, it is one of the worst of the offenders in consumer products and all of us would do well to limit the amount of all plastics we use inasmuch as possible for substitutes, such as used by our ancestors before the advent of plastic. The main difficulty in weaning off plastic is its extreme versatility, but with modern innovation, even this limit can be overcome, such as through plant based bio-plastics that do break down in the environment and are safely recyclable.
A Presentation on Consumer Contributions to Fossil Fuel Use
Almost everything that flies outside of birds and insects, relies heavily on oil derived fuels. They also tend to be heavy consumers, but most of us would prefer to fly if we have to go some distance as going by train, bus or car takes too long and is often grossly uncomfortable if not impossible. All commercial flights, all combat planes, corporate jets, police and rescue helicopters all rely on some form of oil based fuel. Though some electric planes are under development, these so far, are a weak copy of the robust, fuel driven jet turbine. The amount of fuel consumed by all of these flying machines is staggering. When aloft in the major airways around the world, one can see a brown haze from all the fuel burned by previous flights, even at 35,000 feet, cruising altitude. The brown haze stretches from horizon to horizon in all directions. Much of the fuel for planes is consumed by fighter jets and now drones. These contribute nothing but destruction and mayhem when in combat and add hugely to pollution, War is one of the main contributors to pollution and war is driven by blind consumerism, backed up by imperialist adventurism as foreign policy.
The very worst fossil fuel polluters of all by far are cruise and bulk container ships. They are slow, ponderous and emit many thousands of tons of carbon into the atmosphere for a single cross ocean passage. The cruise ships are opulent floating hotel and casinos with plenty of other options. Some are huge. Most are the size of small towns, floating and cruising the high seas. But for every cruise ship, there are a hundred container and tanker ships. There are also plenty of warships too, but at least a few of these are nuclear propelled. There are still and handful of tall ships that can sail entirely by wind power and these are usually naval training vessels. Almost all of these ships spew out pollution like there is no tomorrow. Most aboard them could not care less as they enjoy all the amenities that are offered in their bid to escape from the high pressure world of civilized life. Being waited on hand and foot by the crew is a very pleasant escape despite the damage done to the environment.
As the world gets more wired for electrical power, many of the new plants coming on line are oil, gas or coal fired which adds to the environmental carbon load. Most new coal fired plants are being constructed in China and the US. As Japan has had a triple meltdown, they are now also turning to fossil fuels. Despite carbon cap and trade offs and pledges to reduce emissions, the output is actually escalating rapidly.
Our ever expanding dependence on fossil fuels means that pipeline construction can't keep up. So as a stop gap, rail shipment is under increasing use. The problem here is two fold as seen most dramatically in Lac Megantic earlier in 2013. The train pulling the filled oil tankers ran on diesel and got out of control causing a huge fireball after derailing causing the volatile N. Dakota crude to eplode, killing 47, levelling the downtown and contributed substantial ecological damage right across the board from air, land and water. From a paltry few thousand tanker cars a year a few years ago to more than 400,000 now, rail business for transporting oil has exploded exponentially by 2013. Oil is shipped by rail from N. Dakota and the Alberta Tar Sands, mainly to the east coast. Train shipments threatens to grow even more, risking every city and town along the main rail transport. There are talks of train shipping liquified light natural gas as well. All of this has happened because the major pipelines have not been completed.
The manufacturing of fuels is on full throttle as demand for fossil fuels continues to escalate. However, getting the easy oil is long over and the harder to process oil is now the main supply. These oils come from fracking and from the viscous bitumen of the Alberta tar sands. It takes a lot of energy just to extract these resources and that is before the are refined that takes more energy. That energy, you guessed it, comes from the consumption of fossil fuels.
Believe it or not, many pharmaceuticals are made from by products of fossil fuels. As pharmaceuticals are the number two profit making business right after war, there is a lot of fossil fuels used to transport, manufacture and to be included in the chemical makeup of many of these medicines. There are alternatives, but these are under attack as the big chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow and Bayer are heading the blockage of alternatives as this would cut into their profits.
Buying consumer goods of the status-quo will not help the lessening of the use of fossil fuels one iota! In fact, our use is increasing due to consumer based demand, instead of shrinking. If we at the consumer end are so concerned about the health of the planet for ourselves and our children, we are going to have to act! We have to change our ways by producing more locally and seasonally to cut down on food and fuel shipments. Talking locally, we should bring back manufacturing of everything closer to home to cut down substantially on cross ocean shipments. But the problem here is one of international economics and labour cost, so the situation will have to be addressed on that level. We are going to have to consider using the car or truck less and think of alternatives like bicycles and riding horseback. At the very least, we need to consider electric vehicles and mass rapid light electric transit. Our ancestors lived without plastic wrapping and we should return to those methods as plastic is highly toxic, lethal to wild and domestic animals, and does not degrade in the environment for thousands of years. There are plastics being made that will degrade faster, but this is only covering the real problem cosmetically. Plastic gets into the food chain and ultimately into our own bodies. There is no telling what kinds of diseases may be caused by ingesting indigestible materials like plastics. Planes that fly within a continental airspace can be replaced by high speed bullet trains, such as in use in Japan and China. These bullet train rail lines are electric powered, reducing the need for fossil fuels. Power grids can be run from geothermal sources, such as in Iceland, but the consuming masses are going to have to force these changes. The change will not do itself as long as the established businesses continue to fight to maintain the status-quo of how they have always done business. Change will come only when the majority of us force it into development. One of the proven methods is what is called sanctions and boycotts. Entrepreneurs can develop new ways to do the same jobs we have gotten used to without relying on fossil fuels and develop as viable competition to established businesses. Homeowners and landlords should consider more insulation to cut down on heating costs. Passive solar collection is another option to cut down fossil fuel heating. Forget the cruise ship and consider a sail boat or at least a tall ship cruise instead. These are many of the things that consumers need to consider and act upon if any real change is going to unfold. We must act!
Some Alternatives to Fossil and Nuclear Fuels
Another Part of Consumer Pollution: The Most Radioactive Places on Earth & A Crisis of Overproduction
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