Outsourced pollution rides the trade winds home

How timely, that just as the U.N.-sponsored climate talks are going on in Durban, a new report comes out  from the Global Carbon Project informing us that global greenhouse gas emissions grew by a whopping 5.9 percent last year, the largest leap in any year since the Industrial Revolution began.

The U.S. remains the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, trailing only China.  But as we all know, China has become a factory state of the U.S. and Europe–isn’t virtually every manufactured thing you own “made in China”?

As I hear all the time from travelers to China, air quality is noticeably bad there.  Most cities seem to be in a permanent miasma of smog, sometimes approaching the sooty fog Charles Dickens used to describe as veiling London in the coal-burning 19th century.

Here in the U.S., air quality has improved since I was a kid in New York, when smog was a daily occurrence and you just learned to live with noxious blue bus fumes blown in your face on every street corner.

But apparently what we’ve done is simply outsource our pollution to China.  Let them deal with the smog over there; we’re paying for the goods they produce aren’t we?  If they can’t figure out how to manufacture cleanly, that’s not our problem.

So goes the smug line of American entitlement.

But welcome to the new century.

First of all, the great American credit bubble has burst, and the middle class is having trouble affording those imported manufactured goods, no matter how “cheap” they are.

Second, it’s obvious that the trade winds are blowing Chinese smog our way, in the form of global climate change that will affect us here as much as it affects them over there.

Politicians the world over continue to take a short-sighted view of both of these issues, imagining that a little re-tooling is going to get us past the bumps in the road.

The media isn’t helping matters–you will have to peer deeply into the New York Times this morning to find the small buried news story about the biggest leap in global carbon emissions on record.

People who are already living on the edge understand the stakes.  Thousands of African women farmers have been marching in Durban, along with indigenous forest defenders from around the globe.  They’ve been kept away from the politicians inside the gates by riot police.

Guess what?  All the riot police in the world cannot keep climate change havoc from our doorstep.  Here in the U.S., in China, in Africa, and all over the world.

It’s time to deal with it.

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  1. I am reading an interesting book right now about the history of feminism called “Sisterhood Interrupted” (research for my novel-in-progress!). I bring this up because the first chapter talks about the shift that occurred during the ’60s and ’70s in the focus of the women’s movement from being group-centered to individual-centered. (Same thing, the author says, happened with the political left of the ’30s vs. that of later years.)

    In fact, it seems to me that our response to ANY overwhelming social problem for the last 50 years has mostly been to look at “what can I do as an individual?” Take “environmentalism.” From the early days of clean-air legislation we “evolved” to promoting recycling and electric cars (interestingly, both things that probably make more money than clean-air legislation).

    As I have been reading your posts lately I realize that this bent toward individualism, from which I suffer myself, is one of the most enormous obstacles standing in the way of change. We can separate all the plastic and paper we want, and tool around in our Priuses (Prii?), but change needs also to happen at the highest levels, the Kyoto Protocol levels. Sometimes it might actually take–gasp!–LEADERSHIP to help us as individuals make change of the scope that’s required.

    Let’s all write to our members of congress.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  December 6, 2011

      Well, I think it goes both ways. We want to “be the change we want to see,” but recognize that this is not enough to bring about the big, systemic changes our society needs at this point.

      I wish I could share your enthusiasm for writing to members of Congress. Today I look to the decentralized “Occupy” movements as the decentralized social engine of change. Those old coots in Washington better start paying attention; they are becoming increasingly irrelevant. They do still control our Treasury and our military, and let’s not forget those riot police. But as leaders? Hmmph!

      I still retain some respect for President Obama, but what an uphill road he’s had, fighting Congress every step of the way. If he wants to win, he has to join the 99% wholeheartedly. I hope he will see the light and realize there is no other way forward but together with the majority of the American people. We shall see.

      • I agree that writing to congress is a woefully inadequate response. Really, we should all be in the streets. And I do agree that there needs to be both personal change and political change. It’s just sad to think that individuals feel powerless because problems such as inequality, poverty, and environmental degradation are somehow seen as the result of a personal lack of will.

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