The cumulative effect

the-cumulative-effect

Small actions and choices have the power to destroy or save the planet

This is my post for Blog Action Day 2009 regarding the topic of climate change. When I think of climate change, I think of energy utilisation and waste production, especially in my own household, as this is my direct contribution to climate change. As a thought experiment, I mutiplied this by the approximate amount of people on this planet that live similar or better lifestyles, and the sudden realisation of our effect on this planet had me reaching for the floor to pick up my jaw and return it to it's rightful position. Consumerism, you see, has seen such rampant growth lately that small actions by many individuals has resulted in large-scale damage to our environment. 

I call this the cumulative effect, and while it is obvious to many, the real problem is that these small actions by themselves seem perfectly acceptable and reasonable. Take for instance garbage.  I average about 2 black bin bags full of garbage a week. If that can be taken as an average for say 15 million households across South Africa, that's 30 million bags of garbage a week! What happens to all that garbage, and how much energy is used to move it around? What happens to 120 million bags of garbage every month? What's the total for the world? It's staggering!

Recently, I've been reading a book called Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. One particular conversation stood out for me. To paraphrase the book, one character defines evil in a novel way: by observing the world and the universe, and it's evolution from the big bang to what we have today, we can state that the universe is growing in complexity. In this way, it is heading towards a state we might think of as the Ultimate Complexity. Anything that hinders this progress towards this Ultimate Complexity could be considered evil. So the way to judge an act as evil or not, is to ask: if everyone did this action, would it help move us towards the Ultimate Complexity, or hinder it? If the latter, then the action is evil. So, for instance, killing is evil, as we would end up wiping each other and all life out. What I like about this definition of evil, is that it applies the cumulative effect without ambiguity and answers the question: is what I am doing evil or not?

Ask this question in your daily life. Is leaving a light on that doesn't need to be on evil? Is using a heater in a room when there is warm sunshine outside evil? Is buying packaged fruit when there is perfectly fresh unpackaged fruit available evil? Yes, yes, yes! The small actions that you do, or the choices that you make that even in the smallest way has a negative impact on our environment (whether directly or indirectly), are infact evil, because everyone else is making the same choices and performing the same actions. It is no longer alright to worry only about what comes into your life, and then stop worrying once it leaves - you need to concern yourself with how it got to you in the first place, and what happens to it once it leaves. The companies that bring the stuff to you, or take it away, do not necessarily concern themselves with the effect they have on the environment.

One of the truths that come from applying the cumulative effect is that you realise that you are either saving the planet, or destroying it. You cannot be neutral. It is the unfortunate truth that living the consumerist lifestyle means you are helping to destroy the planet. Even the food we eat is helping to destroy the planet. Meat consumption, for instance, has lead to large-scale farming to such an extent that even the methane gas emissions from the animals are having an effect on our climate. Let alone the way those animals are treated.

While I applaud the efforts of those who have forsaken meat for the cause, I believe in a more phased approach. For instance, have one vegetarian meal a day to reduce consumption of meat. The nice thing about the cumulative effect is that it can be made to work for the planet. If we all reduced our average garbage output to one bin bag or less per week, then we may well be reducing the country's average garbage output by 60 million bags per month. If we all replaced one 100watt light blub with a 11watt CFL blub, we'd be saving over 8000MWh (mega-watt hours) of electricity consumption (based on 6 hours a day usage for 15 million households). That is a LOT of energy that we don't need to be leeching off our planet. How many 50watt downlights (yes, those innocent looking 12V lifestyle items) do you have in your house? Evil.

In a way, I was quite glad about the positive side-effects of the global recession, load shedding,  and the electricity price hikes. People have started to take interest in energy consumption, as it now directly affects their pockets. I still believe that electricity is too cheap: I worked out that to leave my pool pump on for 3 hours a day, every day, only costs me R30 per month at the current rates. That's too little to bother anyone. In 3 years' time, that will cost around R90, if Eskom have their way. That might be enough to switch off a few 50watt downlights!

Ultimately, I believe that it needs to start making business sense to save this planet, in order for the planet to survive. Maybe this means heavy taxes for companies contributing to climate change, or maybe it means a lifestyle attitude change to create high demand for companies producing environmentally friendly technologies (like efficient solar panels). Perhaps we could even on-sell excess capacity from our own solar projects back into the grid (like in some countries) to help us to make a living out of  saving this planet. It all starts with everyone being aware of the fact that ignorance is not an excuse, that a 1000watts is a lot of power to be using, that every item thrown into the garbage bin is an item contributing to the demise of this planet. Then, maybe, there will come a time when consumerism and the cumulative effect will actually help save this planet, instead of helping to destroy it. Till then, we need causes like Blog Action Day to beat the reality into everyone's minds until it is glaringly obvious.