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Image Credit: Claudia Dea

Let’s talk about legal defenses that should not work. You get pulled over. You get asked if you’ve been drinking. You have. You try to deny it. You conjure up all the rationale and excuses you can find in your ethanol addled mind to explain why this isn’t what it looks like. But when the officer asks you to step out of the car, you, with vapors of gin and whisky stumbling off your tongue, come up with the perfect legal defense: You can’t be drunk because you weren’t paying for the alcohol. “Solid point,” says the officer, and lets you on your way to continue careening down the freeway; endangering everyone that shares the road with you that night.

For the past thirty years, the United States has been employing this same defense as to why it shouldn’t be held responsible for the emissions that we spew into the atmosphere like a debauched club goer. The language should sound familiar. “But China won’t do anything!”  Employed by politicians and everyday people alike, the argument goes how can we be expected to act when our actions will only be a drop in the bucket as compared to the big polluter that is China? Or India? Or Russia? Putting aside that fact that the U.S. still emits far more per capita than China (16.4 kilotons per person to China’s 7.6), a large portion of the United States’ carbon bill is actually paid for by China. This is because the groups that tally up carbon bills use the same method that a bar does: Whoever directly creates the carbon spewing activity gets the tab. But what happens if that activity is slid down the bar to the U.S. who has convinced other nations to buy the drinks? The carbon emitted for all of the TVs we buy, the clothes we wear, and all of the cheap chachkies we mindlessly consume gets charged to China even though we get the physical goods. And, for the record, all of the emissions cause by shipping those good across the Pacific on heavily polluting bunker oil don’t get charged to anyone. They don’t really get tracked or accounted for at all.

In this way, the United States (and, indeed, all developed nations) have found a way to hide a sizable part of our total emissions within other nations ledgers. The demand originates in the rich nations, the items are consumed in the rich nations, but the pollution, including the carbon dioxide, is burdened by the developing world.

Yet we wonder what on earth is wrong with nations like China when they can’t seem to get their air pollution under control. “If only they could be environmentally conscious, like those of us over here, they wouldn’t have to suffer under a hazy smog that is literally choking the life out of them.” And so, confident in our assessment that we can’t do anything until China does something about the pollution that we have put there, we tell ourselves that we might as well wait until they get their act together. After all, it’s only fair. Meanwhile, our world continues its slide into a future where the environment is so chaotic that we can’t fully predict how many (or even how) humans may live on it.

Now, in case you’re thinking “we don’t force this on China. It’s their choice to engage in this type of global trade,” you must remember that this problem of outsourcing environmental consequences while importing physical goods isn’t isolated to one country. The history of globally produced consumerism is clear on the business model: park in the cheapest country with the loosest labor and environmental regulations for as long as possible. When that country decides to improve the standard of living for their people, you move on to the next nation. This migration is easy to track based on who the stereotypical producer of cheap stuff is. Japan, to Korea, to China, and now to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The wave of consumerism sweeps from developing nation to developing nation while we hide our pollution in their skies.

But how can consumers be expected to curb this dangerous cycle of climate blame laying? To be sure, the average American consumer has no power in the court of the World Trade Organization. But they do have a wallet, and the solution to rampant, mindless, climate-destroying consumerism can oddly be solved by some of the rallying cries of American capitalism itself. “Vote with your wallet.” “Buy American.” “Shop local.” All credos of the same lawmakers that abhor any attempt to place the needs of the planet before that of the bottom line. But buying local goods cuts down on untracked cargo ship emissions. Buying American ensures that we must bear the pollution burden of our consumption. Voting with your wallet by buying products that are mindful of their impact helps us internalize our personal impact. Alternatively, voting by not opening your wallet for all of those cheap chachkies may be the most socially and environmentally sound vote you could cast.

Personal responsibility. Another rallying cry of the laissez-faire politician. But in this they are correct: when we take seriously the responsibility to balance our consumption with our environmental impact, we can improve ourselves. When we insist that the products we consume are made with the same attention to planetary preservation as we are in selecting them, we can improve our world. And when we tally up this mindful consumption in whole, acting with sober mind and clear understanding, we can save our future.

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