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We're a Nation of Lemmings

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By Dave Lindorff

Listening to the endless stream of cars passing my house every day,
and knowing, from watching them from my mailbox, that they are almost
all carrying just one person, either commuting to work or running some
kind of errand, I know we are headed for disaster.

Two days ago, there was a report by Agence France Presse
about the ongoing destruction of the world’s remaining wetlands (60
percent have already been destroyed by man over the past century), and
how they contain within them an amount of stored carbon equal to all
the carbon currently in the atmosphere. Global warming and property
development are drying out those remaining wetlands, causing the
release of that carbon, which will more than negate even the most
radical efforts at reducing carbon emissions from power plants,
factories and automobiles.

There are also credible, well-researched reports
that even a few more degrees of temperature rise in the arctic regions
of Siberia and northern North America will melt the permafrost and
release as much 400 gigatons of methane gas trapped in frozen
clathrates for millennia—the release of which would cause global
temperatures to soar to levels not seen in 250 million years (methane
is 20 times as potent a global warming gas as CO2). Vast regions of
Siberia are already bubbling with releasing methane as the permafrost
line moves north.

Now I grant that our corporate media, ever focused laser-like on
important stories like Brittany Spears’ return to the stage and on the
latest gaffe of one or the other presidential candidate, have not been
very interested in alerting the masses to these disasters now in
progress that could end humanity’s run on the planet (along with
exterminating most of the rest of the life on the planet too). But that
said, at this point everyone has surely heard enough, and witnessed
enough in person of the dramatic changes taking place in the earth’s
climate, to know that something scary is going on.

And yet, people are not just going about their business as
usual—they are actually, for the most part, complaining not about the
lack of highly energy-efficient transportation, the lack of alternative
and less energy-wasting public transit, and the lack of government
funding for a crash program into researching carbon-free energy
solutions, but rather about the high price for carbon fuels. People are
clamoring for solutions to make gasoline cheaper!

Years ago, back in the 1970s during an Arab-led oil embargo, when
gas prices soared, there were mass campaigns to organize car pools. No
such campaigns are being organized today, and if any are they don’t get
any media attention. Instead we read that geologists are saying that
massive quantities of untapped oil reserves exist in the far north.

Now the last thing we should be wanting to do is take that nicely
sequestered carbon out of the ground and burn it into CO2! But that’s
what many Americans want done. Screw the climate! We want our cheap gas!

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There are so many things we could be doing right now to reduce
carbon emissions—as individuals and as a nation. Turning off
air-conditioners would be one. Why should entire houses be cooled by
central air? Cool one room and use it for the hottest part of the day
if need be. Live downstairs during the hottest months and close off the
upstairs when it gets too hot. Ditto in the winter. There’s no need to
occupy and heat an entire house when it gets really cold. Most
Americans’ homes are way too large anyhow, but if you need that much
room, use it when it doesn’t require all that extra energy to heat and
cool. (When I lived in Cambridge, England as a kid, we used to sleep in
unheated bedrooms under cozy comforters, and then in the morning, I’d
go down and light a fire in the living room where we’d be during the
day. It would be cold as hell until the fire started, but not for
long.) Share rides. Plan errands so that many things get taken care of
on one outing, instead of in multiple run-outs. Use bicycles. I have
yet to see, on my own bike rides in town or when driving anywhere,
someone who is actually riding a bike on some errand—carrying a load in
a basket or in a backpack. The only bikers I see are people dressed
like Tour de France racers out for some exercise. What’s the matter
with using bikes for a purpose, instead of the family car?

I’m not trying to criticize, or to say I’m more ecologically
virtuous. I’m looking at this as an unprecedented disaster that is
dooming my kids, or their future children, to a life of strife, misery
and maybe even catastrophe. If I don’t take serious action—and I don’t
just mean individual life changes, but political action—to try and save
their world, I am guilty of a serious crime. And so are we all.

What the hell happened to any sense of shared responsibility, not just for society, but for our own offspring?

Most decent parents are ready to sacrifice in their lifestyles in
order to send their kids to college, or to help them out financially
when they are starting out as young adults. But for some strange reason
nobody seems ready to sacrifice at all when it comes to rescuing their
collective future. This makes no sense.

And yet, this is what our mass culture has done to us. As a nation,
as a people, we cannot think beyond our own noses. We cannot even think
about the need to act in our own and our children’s interest.

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Seventeen years ago, I had occasion while living in Shanghai,
China, to visit a rural area in Anhui Province that the year before had
been devastated by a flood so huge that the entire region had been not
just flooded, but put deep underwater. As I neared a county seat town
that was my intended destination, the bus I was on passed a
dike-building project. Thousands of peasants were laboring by hand,
with shovels and wheelbarrows, to erect a 50-foot wall of earth to keep
the river in its banks in the event of another such flood. I got off
the bus and, with my travel companion, started walking towards the
project. When we were spotted, thousands of those workers dropped their
shovels and ran towards us. It was a terrifying moment to have so many
people heading towards and surrounding us, but they were very
friendly—just curious because none of them had ever met a westerner. We
began talking with them, and learned that they were all peasants who
had left their fields to build this colossal new Great Wall of dirt.
They brought us to the worksite and showed us how they would bring
their wheelbarrows to the base of the dike, and then attach a cable,
which was connected to a winch operated by those ubiquitous
one-cylinder, two-stroke kerosene tractors used across rural China. The
winch would whip the barrow up the steep hillside, with a peasant
running up behind keeping it upright. At the last minute, the peasant
would flip the barrow, dumping the dirt and releasing the hook. Then
he’d be off down the hill to collect more dirt.

What struck me, besides their ingenuity, was how all these
thousands of people had left their own fields to labor for the
collective good that year.

I tried at the time to contemplate my fellow Americans doing the same thing, and couldn’t for the life of me imagine it.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of the collectively-owned, journalist-run online newspaper www.thiscantbehappening.net. He is a columnist for Counterpunch, is author of several recent books ("This Can't Be Happening! Resisting the (more...)

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