The Unmentionable Odour of Death in September

Sharon September 21st, 2007

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

-W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939)

William Cline’s recent study on the implications of climate change for agriculture provides further evidence, just in case there was any real doubt, that climate change represents one of the greatest acts of human evil in history. Without intention, but without caring enough to consider and assess the consequences of their actions, the wealthiest, best educated, most priveleged, luckiest people on earth are going to kill millions, perhaps billions of the poorest, most desperate people on earth by their actions. We are going to commit an act of murder that exceeds anything ever accomplished by the Nazis, Pol Pot, Stalin or any of the great “villains” of history. We are, of course, still denying moral responsibility, or any connection to the bad guys.

And while we do it, we’re going to sit around and debate whether it is “fair” for us to have to give up our appliances, our car rides and our plane trips to visit family. Because, after all, such discussions show our virtue. They show that we’re very seriously willing to actually begin to consider not killing these people…we’re just not ready to actually stop *doing* it. Give us time, we say…give us time. Soon, I’m sure, we’ll stop, but if we stopped now, it would be hard for us. We’d lose our jobs, our economy would slow down, we’d miss our families. And of course, these are real hardships. And it isn’t fair. It is merely more fair for us than for people paying a higher price, who have never derived any benefit from it.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, people with families rather like yours live desperately on the margins, playing the odds so that they might eat, knowing, of course, that if the wheel lands on black (as it increasingly does because of our habits) they and their families and children will die.

In Subsaharan Africa, which has the highest birthrates in the world, the population will grow and food growing capacity will fall. So people who already eat minimal diets will see more of their babies die in infancy, watch more children succumb to illness our own kids would shake off, see more people suffer and die before their time. All so we can have our cars and decide how much meat we want to eat in the name of personal choice.

We want to believe ourselves charitable and kind. We want to believe ourselves just and honorable. And we try to be. But we seem unable to overcome the enormous disconnect between people who are dying because of our actions, people we are killing, because we haven’t found a good way out of our way of life, and ourselves. I am not sure how we should bridge this gap, only that we must.

Over the last 150 years, the rich world has engaged in a massive transfer of wealth from the “have-nots” to the “haves.” We have plundered the natural resources of the Global South, and continue to do so. And now that we have most of what we want from them, we will simply destroy those resources, and the lives that depend on them. We will turn their forests to desert, their food producing lands to wasteland.

Were these people who lived in our towns and our nation, we would be horrified. But somehow, we’re not. We say we believe these people are real like us, but we do not live our lives that way. We choose not to live our lives that way. We act as though the deaths we are responsible for are secondary, and as though those who remind us of them are being needlessly unkind at mentioning that our actions cause the death of innocent people. After all, we need support, help, accomodation, kindness in making our transitions from plastic to cloth. Yes, people are dying in these poorer parts of the world, but it is cruel to mention it, because it might make well-intentioned people feel bad.

And thus we talk about more and more complex ways of “fixing” the problem. Here, we trumpet, is how we can reduce household energy use by 70% - it just involves the production of a few thousand more pounds of greenhouse gasses per household…each. Here, we are told, is the way we can keep our cars on the road without any inconvenience to ourselves…and reduce greenhouse emissions. Here is our plan for allowing us to keep our houses warm and toasty and machines doing our dishes while we reduce greenhouse gasses - because, of course, inconvenience to ourselves is unthinkable. And while we pretend we will accomplish these things, we have more than 150 old style coal plants in plans or production in the US. Each one will produce the electricity to run our computers and washing machines, to give us those glorious conveniences that allow us the time to read blogs and dress nicely. And people who have had no breakfast and no lunch will give their weeping children grass to eat, until the grass all turns brown and dies.

Whenever I write these posts, I’m told I should keep things positive, that I sound too angry, that people need to be gently reassured, since they are doing the best they can. And maybe that’s true, that I’m the wrong messenger, because I do get angry - at myself as much as anyone else. I still have a car, although I drive it vastly less. There are lives on my hands. And I do not wish to be the kind of person who has preventable, eminently unnecessary deaths on my hands.

But I’m not totally sure that the warm cuddly narrative of “we’re all doing our very best job, and we should take our time and do it gradually” is sufficient. What for the people who cannot wait for us, whose lives hang in the balance NOW - for the people who will die tomorrow because of today’s greenhouse gas emissions. Do they get a voice, a vote? Does their fear and anger even count? Do we hope that somewhere, the starving people will say, “Well, you tried. You bought some offsets and used the cloth bag. That was good enough.” How would you feel, were it your life, your child’s life?

Tonight begins Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Repentence, when we remember our dead and ask forgiveness for our collective sins. We beat our breasts, literally, and name the sins that have been spread among our community. On Yom Kippur, there is no escape from the notion that you are responsible for your actions. On Yom Kippur, there is no pretending that the dead do not follow us home and haunt our lives. On Yom Kippur, all the sins of one’s community and fellow Jews belong to us, personally - we expiate, to the extent we can, the sins of others as well as our own.

The rich world has a great number of sins to right. The first step, we believe, to making your sins right is to undo the harm that you have done, or compensate those who you have harmed. But we also believe you cannot make amends to the dead - the dead are dead, and no forgiveness is possible.

The only thing we can do is to cease making more dead. The only thing we can do is to stop killing. The only thing we can do is to recognize that this cannot be a question of comfortable accomodation, that while we can warmly congratulate ourselves on the steps we take, we must always be driven and prodded forward- further and faster -by the reality that lives as valuable as our own are on the line. We must do what generations of humans have tried, and often failed (but occasionally succeeded) at doing - treating others as we would be treated, doing to others nothing that is hateful to us.

And we must stop seeking the perfect technology, the 50K solution, the magic bullet. Instead, we must, as Auden says, love one another, or die.



19 Responses to “The Unmentionable Odour of Death in September”

  1. Anonymouson 21 Sep 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Sharon - personally I find your blog to be very thought provoking. It is one of the few blogs I discuss with my husband. Do I think some of your entries are too angry - yes, but we should all be angry. We’re in our early 60s and have seen highs and lows in our life, our financial circumstances, our community and our world.

    We’ve been discussing this rush to be more ‘green’, more aware of what we do and the global consequences. Most of this was evident in the days of the hippies - late 60s thru the early 80s. Then it was was dropped. Recycling, reusing, growing your own, small houses, efficienct cars - all of it seem to just disappear.

    We’ve seen the shows on TV, read the newspaper and magazine articles and wonder when did our rush to have everything bigger and better(?) and more expensive begin? When did people start turning their noses up at buying used or small or just enough? When did people think that throwing money at problems in less fortunate countries counteracted the over-consumption Americans seem to feel they are entitled to?

    We will continue to ponder these questions and do our best to live a full and pleasurable life lightly on this earth. We will continue to discuss these problems in a non-threatening manner in our retirement community - many residents feel it is their due because they are retired - they’ve worked and saved and scraped by and now it’s time to party!! And to heck with the rest of the world and don’t you dare try to tell them anything else. More than once I’ve been told that ‘I’ll be dead before we run out of gas, water or whatever’.

    Please continue to make us think and perhaps this will help someone change their ways - the pebble in the pond effect has always worked. Bellen

  2. Anonymouson 21 Sep 2007 at 6:30 pm



  3. Anonymouson 21 Sep 2007 at 6:31 pm

    I do think this rhetoric is harsh and demotivating. Your more positive posts inspire me to live more like you. I can’t buy land or support myself in a rural area, but your previous post on squirreling food makes me more enthusiastic about growing what food I can next year. The post before that actually made me think of huddling under quilts as cozy and romantic (usually I turn the heat way down to save money, but really hate the cold).

    This post, on the other hand, clobbers me (who has a mostly-frugal urban American lifestyle) with direct accusations of being a murderer. We do need to know that future global warming may seriously impact agriculture worldwide, leading to many deaths. We do need to hear, e.g., that factory-farmed meat production in Iowa may thereby indirectly cause farmers in Bangladesh to starve. But it’s impossible to attribute exact blame for predicted future dieoffs in the Third World. If they happen, they will have multiple causes, including overpopulation, local overexploitation of soil and water, and warmongering as well as GW. Fifty years from now when there is famine in Bangladesh, nobody will be able to come back with the name and picture of a specific child who starved because I had a coal-dependent refrigerator back in 2007.

    Suggesting otherwise seems to say that no change I am physically and financially capable of making will keep me from being a bad person. Once in a while I do need to use a car or take a plane. If I can walk or take the bus rather than driving 95% of the time, probably the best I can do given the constraints placed on me by my culture and job, most environmentalists would say that was a big step in the right direction. If you portray any use of a car as “killing African children,” then a 95% cut in driving just means you’re “killing” one child rather than twenty. But killing one child still makes you scum, right? If you tell me that the best I can do, at considerable sacrifice, will still make me scum, I am not likely to bother to sacrifice.

    Worse, if you seem to be accusing me of already “being a killer,” having already killed people who will live in 2047 by having had that coal-dependent fridge (car, burgers, airplane flight, whatever) back in 1997, there is nothing whatsoever I can do about that now. I therefore am powerfully motivated to deny so harsh an accusation, to say “That’s ridiculous, that can’t be so.” Once I say that, though, I have been primed to have the more general feeling that “Nothing I do at home can really affect the future in Bangladesh.” This will surely make me less likely to make future sacrifices that could make some (however tiny) difference. If I accepted the accusation, though, I would feel hopeless. I have never been part of the shop-till-you-drop consumer culture; I have mostly consumed resources as my society has caused me to, through social, economic and legal pressure. If my failure to foresee global warming at 18 and move to a shack in the woods has already made me a killer of children, well, it’s too late, I’m already a horrible human being — so I might as well turn the furnace on.


  4. Theresaon 21 Sep 2007 at 7:05 pm

    Sharon, I appreciate the passion and anger in your posts, and the call to wake up and see things how they really are. We need to be reminded that our actions do have wide reaching consequences, including the deaths of others due to our rampant greed.

    Since what is killing “them” is also killing the planet and therefore killing me and my family, being told bluntly about such consequences encourages me to do more in my efforts, not less.

    I’m inclined to Taoism and tend to see things all interconnected like that.

  5. jewishfarmeron 21 Sep 2007 at 7:06 pm

    Dewey, I admit, I’m puzzled by the idea that one would respond to “Oh, g-d, while I wasn’t paying enough attention, I accidentally ran over a person and killed them” with “Ok, Grandma, look out, I might as well take you out too!”

    Now I am exaggerating, and I know that isn’t quite what you mean. But at no point do I accuse anyone of willful killing. But in this country, we still hold people legally and morally responsible for negligence, including negligent homicide - in fact, we include that in our possible definitions of murder.

    Your argument seems to be that knowing that one has done evil without intent makes one more likely to go ahead and do it with intent, or to be even less concerned about others, because you are already immoral, that this generates an instictive nihilism.

    My own observation is the contrary - that people who think of themselves as basically good are utterly horrified when they do harm through their own negligence, and are determined to never allow that to happen again. But perhaps that’s not the norm - I couldn’t tell you.

    What I can say with assurance is that if someone really wanted to, they could create a useful calculator of how many deaths due to global warming each of us is responsible for. Yes, there are other complicating factors, just as there are in any analysis, but regression analysis can handle that. We have not figured it, because we do not want to know, not because it is untrue. And while you are right, we cannot place names and faces on things, we can accept that the people we kill do have names and faces and lives that matter - or not. The UN esimates, and the agricultural analyses all control for other factors, and the results are quite clear.

    So I guess the question for me is this - if we can’t even admit that we’ve done evil, if all such discussions return not to the harm we’ve done others but how unhappy we are even discussing it, how do we go forward? And if nihilism is the result of telling the truth about the harm we do, do we lie?


  6. Sacheenon 21 Sep 2007 at 7:32 pm

    Sharon - thank you for a thought provoking and conscious raising post. I am a graduate student and teaching assistant trying her hand at many things to decrease my impact and also to live a life that allows for others to have a life on a small stipend. My efforts may be small in comparison to others but each decision I make matters as your post reminds us.

    I am reminded of a question in one of my favorite comics where one character shared some silly but bad news with another and then asked that character why he was crying. The response was “Why are you NOT crying?!?” It was meant to be funny and it was but it reflects how I feel about the post. You say others may say you seem to angry and I would say “Why are we NOT angry ENOUGH?”

    In the land of plenty, we are decimating ourselves and others in the name of “more and better”. I, for one, need to be poked and reminded that I am part of the problem and part of the solution so that I can ask for change to happen and be the change I want to see happen (yes, I know this was taken from someone far more intelligent than I but I am drawing a blank on who it might me).

    In closing, I would just like to applaud your courage. I take my laptop to class to use during my lectures and my screen saver says “Live simply that others may simply live”. I would like to believe I am trying and I know I am not trying hard enough.

    Once more into the breach…


  7. Anonymouson 21 Sep 2007 at 8:07 pm

    This is the line of analysis I beat my head against over and over again. Everytime I write ethics I keep coming back to this. Maybe I’ll think differently or more clearly next year. But this year, it seems to me that your line is simply too optimistic. Most of the time every choice we have involves doing wrong and being guilty of wrong, even though we have a duty to do the best wrong we can.

    You say “I do not wish to be the kind of person who has preventable, eminently unnecessary deaths on my hands.” What makes you think that you have the power to avoid having deaths on your hands? That seems like such an arrogant misunderstanding of our power. People will kill in your name whether you want them to or not. Everything you value about yourself has been inherited from people who acted justly and unjustly in the past. Histories injustices as well as justices have made you who you are. You grew up benefitting from the destruction of the Native Americans. You grew up in a family that allowed you to go to college. In a world where the US allied with the monster Stalin to try to defeat the monster Hitler. You lack the power to rip those things out of you. Unjust deaths in the past made you who you are, they are built into your hands, your hands can never be clean. Unjust deaths in the present are are the warp and woof of our society. People who have had no breakfast and no lunch will give their weeping children grass to eat, until the grass all turns brown and dies. And you will benefit from it. AND YOU DO NOT HAVE THE POWER TO CHANGE THIS! It will continue to go on whether you “oppose” it or not. Do not pretend you can change things so easily, that is arrogance! You do not even have the power to make their deaths not your fault. You can and do work seriously to minimize your fault, but you cannot eliminate it. You could eliminate all you greenhouse emissions, and still your participation in the economy would entangle you in the problem. You could drop out, form a commune, live apart from society as much as possible, and still you would be benefitting from the protection of the US government which does horrible things in you name (and wonderful things too). You could leave the US, move to Bangeldesh, and feed your children on what you could grow as things get worse, and I’ll bet dimes to doughnuts that within a few years, you would find yourself in uncomfortable compromises with the local government that involved entangling you in the injustices present there.

    But perhaps you reply I’m OK with having the injustices of the past and present on my hands, because I can’t prevent those, its the preventable deaths of the future that bother me. Again it seems like arrogance to say that you have the power to prevent these
    these future deaths to climate changed based starvation. And so in that way I think you are too
    optimistic about individual power.
    Even if it is just barely possible to still prevent climate change from spirally out of control, don’t pretend that it is somehow easy to transform a whole entrenched society. I wrote some dark comedy about this, and it got put on my wife’s blog at #73117.html#cutid1 if your interested.

    But no one gets to have clean hands. Clean hands are an illusion. Clean hands are a lie. Everything we value about ourselves and our lives is based causally upon the suffering of others, typically the unjust oppressive suffering of others.

    And even Dewey is wrong, because although you are already a killer of children, a horrible human being whether you want to be or not, that doesn’t mean to go ahead and turn on the furnace. Even though no option allows us to escape doing wrong, we can still do more or less of it. The energy-wastral is worse than the person trying to cut back, even though both have the blood of starving children on their hands.
    Among the many choices we DO have, all of them involve being morally wrong, but some are still worse than others, and we must do the best wrong we can with out fooling ourselves into thinking that the best wrong action is somehow right or OK, because it is the best that we can do.

    This is why Jews wisely take responsibility not just for their own individual sins, but for the sins of the whole community and of all Jews at Yom Kippur. You benefit from them and are causally entangled in them whether you can prevent them or not. And in fact, you have no real power to prevent the whole community or all jews from sinning, you just aren’t that strong. Just as none of us has the power to stop global warming, but we still have the responsibility to stop it. Human responsibility simply extends further than our actual power does.

    You say that most people who think of themselves as basically good, experience horror when they hurt others via negligence. I agree, at first. But then eventually they start suspecting how often they are indirectly responsible for harm, and injustice and torture and their horror envelops them and they shut down and start putting up every defense mechanism they can from denial to rationalization to false optimism. The scope of the problem is simply to big to take in.

    And so as you give up hope for being rich in the future, or for being able to live the kind of lifestyle we live now, give up also the notion that somehow you we be able to meet all these calamities with a clean conscience or clean hands. Lower your expectations, and just hope to have as clean of a conscience as you can manage. A clean conscience is simply one more illusory luxury that can no longer be afforded if it was ever really in reach. I know I’m even more depressing than Sharon, and went on too long again, but I write and brood about this stuff all the time. Thank you for reading this far.

    Brian M.

  8. Anonymouson 21 Sep 2007 at 9:42 pm

    Hi Brian! I used to know a Jedimom - are you from Alabama (?) by chance?

    Sharon, I disagree that we could calculate “how many deaths…each of us is responsible for.” To me, the folks who see population decline coming through vast dieoff, with billions of corpses piling up, rather than by a gradual combination of premature deaths and reduced births, seem extreme. Few prophecies of doom have ever been right, but over decades we’ve been presented this same scenario time and again (nuclear war, economic collapse, AIDS, Y2K - no matter what the crisis, we’re always supposed to turn into the fabled starving hordes two to ten years from now). Even if there were to be dieoff, exactly how many people in, say, Nigeria, would die prematurely? And how many of those would die because global warming had ruined their agriculture, versus how many because they had overpopulated or destroyed their topsoil? Asking for estimates of how many existing people might be killed by global warming would generate answers varying by several orders of magnitude. I can’t spend the rest of my life wallowing in guilt and berating myself daily for having “killed people” without having evidence that those deaths will really happen someday.

    We were all born in a culture in which living without utilities, commercial food, etc. was highly impractical. Maybe you (and Brian) see that as being the equivalent of having run your car through a playground full of kids. You’re quite right that accidentally doing one harm should not make you more willing to deliberately do a second. But I can’t live a “zero carbon” life, so if I were convinced that I would be “killing people” no matter what I do, as if you were being forced to drive a car and there was at least one kid in the road whichever way you turned, I would feel utterly hopeless. I also might figure that it sounds like those people are doomed to dieoff anyway, for whatever reasons, and nothing I do will save them.

    I don’t think you can make large societal changes via the crushing-guilt approach. Where you might say, “The future for all the world’s children will be better if you make these big sacrifices,” you’re saying instead, “Make these big sacrifices and you’ll be personally responsible for the deaths of a smaller number of Third World children.” You may get a few extra-zealous converts, but the average person will reject the message altogether. There’s a debate on Grist right now that questions whether we should be reducing the amount of meat consumed, or reducing the number of humans who eat meat. Some participants’ only purpose is to convert people to strict veganism. Others observe that if you could, e.g., get the whole population to reduce their meat consumption by half, this would have a much greater actual benefit than getting 2% of the population to go vegan while everyone else maintained the status quo. Mathematically, this is true. What the PETA types don’t get is that the people not ready, willing and able to be vegan are not likely to make that 50% cut because someone screams “Meat is Murder!” in their faces. And yes, I am in that group. If I feel that no matter how good I become, I’ll still deserve and receive only criticism for whatever sins I do commit, that’s demotivating.


  9. craftydabbleron 22 Sep 2007 at 5:14 am

    Thank you for your post. This is the sort of thing that helps me make the right choice when I just want to make the easy choice.

  10. Anonymouson 22 Sep 2007 at 6:11 pm

    Hi Dewey, I’m married to Jedimomma! We lived in Auburn, Alabama for a year and now live in Terre Haute.

    Skepticism about the future makes a fair about of sense to me, we don’t KNOW what will happen. But we can make pretty good guesses. If you think global warming, peak oil, and economic collapse are no more probable than Y2K or nuclear war, then fair enough we’ll have to wait and see, but keep your eyes and mind open as the evidence comes in. Neither Sharon nor I believe in quite the proverbial starving hordes, we believe in increasing poverty and poor agricultural performance leading to starvation and other poverty deaths.

    But on the guilt front, look at the people that are suffering and dying today based on past preventable actions of the US. Iraq? We set up Saddam Hussein in the first place. Colombia? Look at American cocaine consumption in the 80s. For Afghanistan look at heroin and the cold war. Indonesia, look at our sweatshop labor practices. Darfur? Its the beginning of the climate change/agricultural collapse problem Sharon is worried about hitting India in the future. Many deaths in Darfur being casually linked to first world energy production is not a prediction, its a retrodiction! I could go on. Any folk already killed by your refrigerator? Lets talk about coal miner deaths, or the statistical increase in asthma illness and lung disease deaths in the vicinity of power plants. The guilt argument does not rely on prediction.

    Now what message reaches people? Good question. Is crushing guilt a good marketing strategy? HECK NO! But marketing won’t fix the problem or even help people cope. It will convince people to adopt easy cheap band-aids, maybe make a few little sacrifices. That’s a start but it will never be enough. If you potch “sacrifice big for the sake of all the world’s children” people will sacrifice a little and fool themselves into believing they are sacrificing big. In fact that marketing pitch is already decades old. It is a good thing to have beginner-friendly messages out there like Colin Beavan AKA No-Impact Man. He does a great job of the uplifting version of the message. Go read his page when you want to be reassured. Heck read his page for useful advice on walking the walk too. But if you want honest analysis instead of uplifting spin dig a little deeper, and come back to places like this. I firmly believe that Gandhi’s method of satyagraha - truth-power, can create deeper changes than positive spin marketing can, but it does take longer and hurt more. The key to Satyagraha is facing hard truths honestly and looking for the moral high-ground. As Pratchett, says, a lie can run around the world before the truth can get its boots on, but once the truth finally does get its boots on, it kicks ass.

    Do what you can. Start where you are and try to prepare and make things better where you can. My lifestyle isn’t anywhere near as good as Sharon’s, we do what we can, and we get better slowly. The guilt doesn’t help me change, it is just part of the high price of trying to be honest with myself.

    Suppose we could get half of US household to cut their household electrical consumption in 1/2 (and that’s quite difficult and ambitious). That would barely make a dent in global warming (US household electrical consumption is less than 5% of the problem to start with), it would delay peak energy problems by a year or two at most, and wouldn’t help prevent an economic crash, it might even provoke it. But it would help US households prepare for the day when they have to use vastly less electricity whether they want to or not. It might be that your current motivation for improvement is to feel good about yourself, I can’t help with that. As long as that’s your motivation, you’ll do better to donate to charities, or buy cleverly marketed products. But soon I believe your motivation will be simply coping with the many problems directly confronting you. And then Sharon’s advice on canning, and knitting, and food preservation, and root vegetables vs grains, and coping with your family, etc. will be invaluable.

    -Brian M.

  11. Sueon 23 Sep 2007 at 2:27 am

    Most horrific to me are the things being done “in my name” by the US Government. Although there is plenty that the government does that I think to be positive and useful, the things I can’t abide are SO bad, to me, that I want to be sure I contribute to those efforts as little as possible.

    So, I make sure to pay no war tax. Since we are not given the option of distinguishing between war tax and other tax, I pay little or no income tax at all.

    Fear not about me mentioning it in a public forum — I do this legally, by keeping my income in the range of $8000 per year.

    I know not everyone would do this even if they could. But it works for me, as the lesser of several evils.

    It’s something I can do.


  12. tkon 23 Sep 2007 at 6:57 pm

    I never can think of anything thought-provoking to say in these comments, not even “Amen” or “you go, girl” although that’s the closest I can get to it.

    Thank you a million times for this blog, and the writing varying from the joys of knitting to this very timely, sad, and inspiring entry.

  13. jewishfarmeron 23 Sep 2007 at 7:39 pm

    Sue, I admire you for that. We keep our income as low as we can, but not that low - with four kids we simply can’t live on an income low enough to be tax protestors. But we console ourselves by the fact that we actually don’t pay out much, if anything, in the way of taxes, although that’s in large part because of child tax credits, which I’d love to see done away with - so that the economic incentives ran towards not having kids.

    Brian, I think you mistook my basic discussion of avoiding preventable and avoidable blood on my hands to mean that I had some expectation of clean hands - that’s simply untrue. But I do think that there is a meaningful category of “things done for comfort that hurt other people” that fall visibly and recognizably into the category of both preventable and avoidable. It is not that the problem isn’t grey areas and difficult choices - but I think your discussion of those grey areas and difficult choices (and Deweys) both blur the line to suggest that we can’t sort through all the muck and find right and wrong. And sometimes that’s true - but not always.

    There are all sorts of useful tools out there for making fine moral and ethical distinctions, and we have to make them. There’s blood on my hands, and always will be, but that doesn’t mean I have to volunteer for more, or that I can’t look carefully and distinguish black and white sometimes in a sea of grey.

    Dewey, I think you mistake “guilt” and “responsibility” for one another here. I don’t do guilt - guilt is a stupid and wasteful emotion, usually used when we are about to do something wrong and want to justify it by feeling bad, “Oh, I really shouldn’t eat another cookie…oh, I really shouldn’t eat one more cookie…” And I agree with you that guilt won’t help.

    But this isn’t a call for guilt - because guilt focuses you on your feelings, not on your actions. I’m not going to take responsibility for your feeling guilty, because I think guilt is an emotion we volunteer for, when we turn on our own emotions and make them the center of the world, and sit there contemplating how bad we feel. I’m not trying to pick on you - trust me, I know how guilt works because I’ve done plenty.

    I think one of the biggest problems we in the west have is that we feel so strongly that our feelings should matter. Think about how much we emphasize them in places where we are uncomfortable - how much we talk about our inner feelings when we talk about racism, or environmentalism - “I’ve never hated anyone…” “I care…” - frankly, I think we all should get over ourselves and stop talking about our feelings and start thinking about our *ACTIONS* - which is the territory of moral responsibility, not emotion, and where emotion can’t be used as a justification for not acting.

    You are, of course, right that things may not turn out as badly as has been predicted. That said, however, if it were you whose dinner depended on those estimates not coming true, you who stood to drown in the floods, you who were going to get to go hungry, would you want others to bet on it? To say, “well, I don’t feel obligated to stop it because it might not happen?” Because I wouldn’t, and that makes it very simple for me personally, but it may be different for others.


  14. Anonymouson 24 Sep 2007 at 2:20 pm

    My problem is that we don’t and can’t know what will happen with global warming. As Brian implies, the next few decades could see starvation due to overpopulation and agricultural resource depletion, or a world war due to peak oil. But global warming is a longer-term problem. You and I won’t live long enough to see how severely the climate changes, or how well humans will manage to adapt. Scholarly sources, like IPCC and the Stern Report, claim we can avoid serious problems by reducing fuel use slowly over 40 years. Certain green authors claim we have to make massive changes instantly. Apparently, nobody really knows.

    You seem to favor the precautionary principle: if an action (slow adjustment) *might* cause serious human suffering, we should avoid that action (and instead change rapidly). But the latter course of action is certain to cause some human suffering — less the former *might* cause, but if the chance that it will actually do so is small enough, it becomes rational to favor the latter. Personally, I suspect that Monbiot et al. are unlikely to be right. They don’t have greater scientific expertise than the IPCC, and their vision and timeframe look suspiciously like those of every other prophet of disaster, from Paul Ehrlich to Gary North.

    Your situation has equipped you better than 90% of us to set very stringent goals for resource use while maintaining employment, housing and food security, and some human comforts. Still, you are making real sacrifices and enduring significant inconvenience. How will you feel, fifty years from now, if the rest of us remediated slowly and the climatologists believe that catastrophe has been avoided? Will you regret having made those sacrifices “for nothing,” or will you still be content feeling that you chose a lifestyle good for you? I know I would bitterly resent having needlessly made the sacrifices - possibly including my marriage - that would be necessary for me to hit those 40-year goals next year. Right now, I feel as if you resent me, and the other slackers who are changing too slowly [or sometimes not at all], for messing up your planet. If the IPCC turns out to be right, will you still resent us for not having sacrificed as much as you, or will you feel that we both made the right choices for ourselves?

    Brian, I think using NoImpactMan as an example of “beginner friendly” rhetoric exemplifies the disconnect with average people. A guy who comes home and announces to his family that “they” will no longer be using toilet paper is extreme. Most of us who put bread on the table via jobs rather than book deals do not have the option to instantly abandon typical Western hygiene practices.


  15. Anonymouson 24 Sep 2007 at 7:08 pm

    Dewey - I said NIM was beginner friendly because his MESSAGE is friendly, not because his lifestyle isn’t extreme. I agree his lifestyle is extreme. But he says over and over that others don’t have to follow it. He doesn’t ask anyone else to give up toilet paper. He doesn’t really ask much of his audience at all, instead he gives a few gentle suggestions, much milder than his own lifestyle. That seems pretty beginner-friendly to me, but hey maybe I’m just to bitter or musanthropic or disconnected.
    - Brian M.

  16. jewishfarmeron 24 Sep 2007 at 8:39 pm

    Dewey, I guess I don’t see how the IPCC report could be right in any sense - simply because what we know has changed so much. The IPCC report imagined we had decades or until the end of the century to worry about arctic ice. We now know (and this is not speculative in any sense) that we have nothing of the kind - decades at most. So given that the IPCC and Stern reports are both already factually wrong on timescales, I think we are obligated to base our thinking on current research, not older data. And I follow this very carefully - there is not a single major predicted change that isn’t happening significantly faster than predicted by the IPCC. It isn’t just the ice - its the rate of carbon release in seas and the rate of rainforest loss.

    The reality is that I’m only 35, and I’m going to live to see an ice-free arctic in all likelihood - in fact, I’m going to experience it in my late middle age. And since that’s one of those tipping points, and there’s considerable and compelling evidence that climate change happens *VERY QUICKLY* once it really gets going in some cases, you and I might well see far more than we expect to.

    And of course, while no one is free from politics, the data in things like the IPCC and Stern report is so heavily skewed by politics as to be troubling. There’s no scientific report at all that takes the 500 ppm figure listed by the IPCC as standard - if you don’t accept the Potsdam Institute figures Monbiot uses, you could use the NASA figures or a host of others - all of which agree that tipping points are most likely well before 500 ppm.

    So no, I don’t think this is just a matter of choosing between two models - it is a matter of using current science vs. outdated science, good data vs. bad data. For example, the IPCC doesn’t include global dimming at all - a matter of four or five degrees difference. But there is no major scientific controversy about global dimming - it is universally accepted. But it isn’t *included* in the thinking.

    I agree with you that we have to evaluate the applicability of the precautionary principle, but we also have to weight the comparative pain and suffering. You seem to be implying that your personal inconvenience should be listed up evenly against those who might die, both of them in the category of “suffering” and thus we should simply decide based on how likely it is that one would have to suffer. But, of course, that’s not how we’re *supposed* to treat human life, as though it is a fungible kind of suffering, right up there with “job loss.”

    Is this a personal attack at others for “messing up my planet?” No, that’s why I say “we” - not “you.” I’m messing up my planet too. But I see no evidence that we are even remotely on track to meet in the inadequate IPCC goals, much less the ones that we’d have if science, rather than politics, were at the center of this. I see a great deal of evidence that people have no intention of being inconvenienced, even though in the abstract, they’d like us to magically do something about global warming. I guess I’d be more compelled by your argument if I saw some evidence that we were even responding to the IPCC report, which besides saying we have 40 years, also calls for very short term responses in a number of areas.

    I would very gently add to you that I don’t think my “circumstances” are particularly special, except to the extent that I made them that way. You don’t have to live where I live or do what I do to make a dramatic cut of 50% or more. There are almost 1000 people doing that on the Riot for Austerity right now and they live all over the world, in every climate, environment and community, are every age, every family structure, and have every reason to make excuses. They just don’t. To the extent that my life works well for this right now, it is largely because I have put my energies towards making it work well that way - economic, personal, interpersonal. That is, I didn’t just magically get a marriage with a husband who shares my goals - we worked it through and continued to do so together for a long, long time. I didn’t just get a farm by magic - we busted our asses saving to get it, and then to improving it. There are a few things about my situation that wouldn’t be easy to duplicate by most people, but comparatively few.

    If we’re going to look backwards, let us also bring in some other perspectives. Let’s say we do as I suggest and history proves a more moderate course would have been sufficient. How do you think future generations would judge those who, not knowing what was best, went to extreme measures to preserve them, or to those who chose a moderate course, and failed to preserve them?

    And how will we judge ourselves, amidst our regrets, if the worst is true, and we made it happen? How will we compare the regret that we might not have taken such an extreme measure and the regret that we became mass murderers?

    That doesn’t mean there’s an easy solution, and it is fair to say, I think that most of us ought not pay the price of our marriage. But if you’ll forgive me for being blunt, I have no doubts that there are choices that either of us could make that we are not that would not come with quite so heavy a price, no? That is, it is always easier to believe “I can’t” than “I won’t.” At least, that is true of me.

    Dewey, I seriously appreciate this response and your analysis, even though I disagree. Thank you for the lengthy replies and this discussion.


  17. jewishfarmeron 24 Sep 2007 at 8:48 pm

    Dewey, that’s a very kind comment, thank you.

    I think Colin over at NIM will come to a happy medium, a lower impact life that doesn’t quite draw so much media attention. And while we’ve disagreed in the past, I respect Colin - I think in order to draw the kind of audience and attention he has, you have to do the “life as art” publicity stunt thing.

    Personally, I think the publicity thing is horrible, don’t mind writing a book but *hate* the idea of the book tour, and mostly want to be left alone to grow my garden and write about it. So I’m really, really glad there are people who have a desire to go out and do the public life thing. This is public enough for me by far.

    Thank you again for the useful discussion.


  18. Anonymouson 25 Sep 2007 at 3:49 pm

    Thank you! I think some of us are responding to the IPCC report. I am consciously working to cut my resource usage each year and am seeing progress. But I’m aware that some people are still not interested — unfortunately, my spouse is one of those, so everything has to be done without his involvement. I am optimistic that declining fossil fuel production may bring about the necessary conservation measures automatically. When the price of fuel quadruples, people will become interested in saving energy — and they will become less tolerant of local governments that prohibit clotheslines or neighborhood grocery stores. We do need individual change but, at least for the folks who live in urban areas, we also need those social changes. As individuals, we have to be willing to ride the bus to work, but the bus also has to be there for us to ride. I wonder if you emphasize individual action because you, on your farm, can live pretty much as you choose, while I think in terms of cultural and legal reforms because I live in a big city and am to some degree constrained by the preferences of those around me. Anyway, thanks to you for the interesting discussion.


  19. jewishfarmeron 25 Sep 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Dewey, That’s a good question - to some degree, I emphasize individual action because I have some flexibility in some areas (although urbanites have flexibility in other ones - transport, for example), but also because, while I believe strongly in integrating the individual and political, I honestly think that we feel more powerful, and in many ways *are* more powerful when we use “individual” actions collectively, rather than in the traditional political model.

    That is, our traditional political models have emphasized public action - marching and writing and talking - but not how we spend our dollars. It has emphasized the exceptional (the March on Washington, the strike, the public demonstration, the town meeting) over the everyday (what we make for dinner, how we get to work, what we do with our money, etc…

    And I think that emphasis has been wrong - it isn’t that I don’t think in terms of political change, I do, although I think the more localized the better in many cases - but I think that the individual *is* the political.

    That is, I think we are more powerful when many individuals put their dollars and their energies into making what they believe in happen now, rather than seperating out the political, spending time on that, and putting one’s dollars and everyday actions into unrelated or even contrary projects.

    I think it might be most accurate to say that I believe strongly in the integration of self and society - that we are most powerful when the whole of our lives - our economic lives, our personal lives, our political and communal lives - are working towards the same basic purposes.



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