10 05 20 Who Picks up the Tab - Jeff Wheeldon

Climate Change and Global Warming are household terms these days, with continuing controversy over whether or not they even exist.  The arguments sound as though the whole thing is either some kind of scam, or the end of the world.  They make it seem like we either need to change everything, or face complete destruction.

But not everyone is that pessimistic.  With advances in alternative energy and other technologies, many are convinced that we can continue to consume the way we do, simply switching from oil energy to renewable energy and higher efficiency products.  If they’re right, we can have the lifestyles we do now and still lessen our impact on the planet.  And so another debate picks up where the previous one left off: if climate change is even real, can we just rely on new technology to absorb the cost of our lifestyles?

Both of these debates ask good questions – but they both miss the point entirely because they distract us from the concrete realities that our world is facing.  As long as we’re arguing over whether or not our consumption has a warming effect on our climate, we forget that our consumption has an enormous impact on the planet, and the rest of humanity, in many other ways.

The entire Western world, and particularly North America, has been built on cheap energy.  When we were colonies, we exploited the First Nations peoples; after that, our neighbours to the south used slave labour to build their society.  By the time slavery had ended, the industrial revolution was providing machinery that burned coal and produced electricity, giving us relatively cheap energy by burning coal we found in the ground.  By the early 1900’s, oil consumption had begun to take off, with each litre of oil producing more energy than dozens of slaves could in an entire day.  And until recently, we’ve always had the cheapest oil in the world; the true cost of all that energy, we’re now discovering, may have been paid by our planet.

We consume so much because everything is, relatively, cheap for us.  We haven’t paid the true cost of most of the products that we consume, because we’ve always been able to make someone else pay it.  Cotton was cheap because slaves paid its true cost by having no wages; today, most of our products are produced overseas by people who are paid a fraction of our minimum wage, if not in outright slavery.  It’s cheaper and easier to buy food grown in South America, because their workers are paid so little and the fuel it takes to bring it here is so cheap – so my cheap groceries are in effect subsidized by a poor farmer who has taken a pay cut and the environment that has to absorb the toxic emissions.

Whether or not climate change is real, our consumption has a major impact on the rest of the world.  How long can we live the high life and expect the rest of humanity – and the planet itself – to pick up the tab?