October 1, 2007
The Global Contract
The raging, unregulated world economy is now one we all share. How we reconcile that with the threats facing us will be the moral and technological dilemma of our time.
At the moment it’s difficult to be hopeful about the future of the environment. The news these days is pretty much all bad. Every week there’s another catastrophic storm or systemic failure: collapsing bee colonies, poisonous pet food, lead-painted toys, teenagers dying of strokes in rural China, Olympic athletes choking in Beijing, carbon-emissions targets abandoned in Canada, world trade negotiations stalled. The U.S. federal government is so dysfunctional that even if there were an overwhelming demand for change, it’s unlikely that either political party could get enough members of Congress to support it. The threat of job losses and the interests of local industries automatically preempt the national interest, and the idea that the provincial hacks running the country (destroying it mostly) would find a reason to care about the effects of American consumption and manufacturing practices beyond our borders seems preposterous.
On the other hand, everyone is talking about the weather. We’re like those characters in Don DeLillo’s White Noise who flock to a bridge to watch the spectacular sunsets after an industrial accident. “Is it getting warmer?” “But it’s been so nice this summer.” “Ah, but last winter was so warm.” “It was like negative 10 degrees!” “But only for one week!”
The violent thunderstorms in the Northeast last August could be thought of less as a Romantic evocation of moods or a novelistic foreshadowing of some personal drama than as a mirror of the chaotic roller coaster of the stock market, the unpredictable price of oil, a measure of the damage to come, perhaps. A recent Princeton University study found that thunderstorms are also intensified by human changes to the environment: urban heat islands, tall buildings, air pollution in cities.
Our main clue about the unstable weather comes from the vast quantity of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. According to a report in Nature, human activity produces about 8 billion tons of carbon each year. Around 5 billion tons of it is reabsorbed by the ocean, soil, and forests—especially tropical forests—which suggests the degree to which biological processes can compensate for the human propensity to fuck things up royally. But tree decomposition also produces CO2, and tropical forests are disappearing, contributing about a billion tons to the total, so that around 3.2 billion tons remain floating in the atmosphere every year.
The United States consumes the most oil by far (number one!): more than 20 million gallons a day, almost equal to the next five biggest consumers—China, Japan, Russia, Germany, and India—combined. Global carbon emissions are increasing by three percent a year—close to the average growth rate of the advanced economies. The greatest increase is coming from developing countries like China, which now uses more coal than the United States, Europe, and Japan together. It burned 2.3 billion tons last year, mostly for electricity and industrial production, largely without basic emissions standards common in the West. The resulting toxic gas has engulfed China and been traced to dark clouds hovering over Japan and Los Angeles.
It’s sobering to realize that even a one-party state whose president has made it a mission to improve environmental conditions is unable to get corrupt local officials to enforce its directives. But China is still a poor country whose ten percent growth rate is dependent on trade with the West. Every new piece of bad news seems to reiterate the connection between the interdependency of the world economy and the borderless consequences of unsustainable environmental practices. Global climate change and the unregulated global economy, along with the attendant destabilizing social and political effects, are the next century’s Axis of Evil—and they’re a problem for all of us.
Yet despite all the bad news, it would be extraordinarily easy to change our carbon-footprint trajectory. Not because of fear about global warming, which is far too amorphous and indirect an incentive to compete with the desire for stylish clothes, new electronics, phat cars, or tasty meats. It’s just a matter of applying existing knowledge and technology toward energy conservation, use of renewable materials, clean energy production, fuel efficiency, and recycling. (By the way, Metropolis is organizing a program to recycle paper in the office—a process at once simpler and more complex than one would imagine.The magazine is not printed on recycled stock, but next year the glossy paper will be FSC-certified.)
Japan is pouring billions of dollars into China to clean up coal plants that spew acid rain over its cities and degrade its air quality. A few regions in the United States are enacting tougher regulations in the absence of responsible federal policies. Designers are playing an important leading role in cleaning up manufacturing processes for the products they specify and design. And leadership counts enormously: Al Gore has helped bring public awareness near the tipping point by putting global warming on the international stage.
Now we’re ready for the next step—federal legislation that encourages energy conservation in local industry as well as in outsourced materials and production through tax incentives, emissions credits, and outright restrictions. If the government fails to act, we need a humanitarian intervention: binding treaties that discipline countries treating the social contract—the theoretical basis for freedom from tyranny—as a matter of choice and convenience rather than a moral necessity protecting us all from devastation.