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Wait, Don't Push that Button If You Want To Slow Down Global Warming!

Changing consumption patterns is not the solution we should be focusing on.

15/12/2016 9:19 PM IST | Updated 23/12/2016 8:56 AM IST
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Do you know that each time you are too lazy to open the door and hit that automatic door opener you are contributing to global warming? A Stanford University study found that nearly three-fourth of the people pushing the button are not handicapped. The estimated cost of each push of the button is about 2 cents but you can add it up for a building for the whole year and it runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of course there is a significant additional use of energy as well due to the fact that the doors stay open for a few seconds leaking out the air-conditioned or heated air.

Humans' instinct is to consume resources every minute of every day without ever worrying about what impacts that may have on global warming.

So yes. This is basically a kvetch but also a reality check on just how daunting climate action could be if we really want to rely on human behavioural changes being a big part of the solution. The kvetch is based on a mishap I had the other day during a rainy day in Washington DC. The drip-drip-drip of oil and petrol from each vehicle on the road are a significant source of pollution for all water bodies everywhere. Even worse, when there is even a small amount of rain the oil layers convert the roads into skating rinks. So I was heading to work and accelerated to merge into the highway traffic and boom! I skidded off the road into a ditch and ended up with some serious body damage to the car. Fortunately, my body didn't have a scratch and the car is still running great! The problem? The insurance company considers the cost to fix the body damage to be too high compared to the value of the car! So I am required to take a settlement for the value of the car and buy a new car. That's the rule. I can keep the car if I want to but it may not be certified as safe by the motor vehicles department.

Myriads of such regulations exist in many countries and are considered the most economic solutions in each case—at least in terms of the profit margins for the companies. No consideration is given to the cost to the environment caused by reducing a perfectly good engine or a building or a computer with all the accessories to just a junk heap to be salvaged for scrap rather than fixing and using them for a few more years. One can imagine a billion such things that are perfectly good for business and innovation. On the other hand, we irreversibly convert natural resources to un-recyclable junk.

For example, each phone company creates a different power chord for recharging phones and new models often make the old cables obsolete. Great for competitive advantage and for forcing people to spend more money each few years. And this also leads to innovation of other products— such as universal chargers— which are sold by third parties. Great business opportunity for all of course. But there are mountains of discarded phones and charging cables that are considered too expensive to recycle. These business practices are now clubbed into so-called consumerism.

I am complaining about the fact that most articles on climate change focus on consumption patterns, as if reduction in consumption is an easy thing to accomplish...

The philosophy of designing consumer products to be obsolete quickly started only after World War II and is attributed to a relatively unknown retail sales expert, Victor Lebow. He was a businessman and a consultant and is mostly known for his prophetic philosophy on how to sustain consumerism and grow economies forever—which is something he proposed in a paper in the Journal of Retailing in 1955. Here is the briefest summary of how we ended up here.

This appears to be a universal evolutionary instinct. Consumerism also maybe addictive if one considers the worldwide culture of malls and shopping. If this shop-till-you-drop culture is not damaging enough to the environment, there are many other subtler behavioural patterns that are also contributors to global warming. For example, it is always interesting to see youngsters and able-bodied adults waiting patiently for elevators instead of climbing a couple of flight of stairs or pushing that automatic door button or standing on escalators and moving walkways as if they are amusement park rides and not conveniences. A scarier aspect of our instinctive behaviour is that even when we wish to help slow down global warming by buying environmentally friendly things like hybrid cars, hybrid owners are found to drive more than they otherwise would have and faster! Even worse, non-hybrid owners are found to resent hybrid owners and express their resentment quite aggressively. Go figure. Another subtle thing about hybrid cars is that a vegetarian with a big car may in fact be less harmful to the environment than a hybrid owner who eats a lot of meat!

We must rely on finding carbon-neutral energy sources and design all our consumer products to be carbon-neutral so that we can support our evolutionary instincts [for consumerism].

So what am I complaining about? I am complaining about the fact that most articles on climate change focus on consumption patterns, as if reduction in consumption is an easy thing to accomplish and can be a major part of climate action. It pains me to repeat that this is a serious uphill battle. Humans' instinct is to consume resources every minute of every day without ever worrying about what impacts that may have on global warming.

So whether it is the way cars are junked or cellphones are dumped, it is clear that consumerism is here to stay as an economic growth model. Solutions to global warming are not going to come from expecting humans to change their behaviour at so many levels as to be a major contributor to emission reduction. We must instead rely on finding carbon-neutral energy sources and design all our consumer products to be carbon-neutral so that we can support our evolutionary instincts to ride all the automatic stairways to the heaven of luxurious living.

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