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writing for godot

Polluters are not patriots

Written by Edward Boudreau   
Monday, 22 April 2013 21:39
Imagine that you were a businessman with investments in land, buildings and machines in the Sichuan earthquake zone. Obviously, the majority of your employees – your human capital – lived in the quake zone.

If you had known ahead of time that the quake was imminent, would you have tried to prevent or mitigate the disaster? We can assume most people would say “Yes.” Certainly, the friends to whom I posed this question each replied with a surprised “Of course” or an annoyed “Yes, of course!”

Now let’s think in terms of nations and the globe. The United States, with just 4.6% of the world’s population, is the greatest per-capita producer of greenhouse gases that cause global warming: 5.49 billion – yes, billion – metric tons (bmt) of carbon dioxide in 2011, plus 1.3 bmt of carbon equivalents (methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) in 2010. China, however, with 20% of world population, ranks first in emissions of greenhouse gases: 8.712 billion metric tons in 2011. (I could not find carbon equivalent data for China, thus the number must be higher.) Combined, the U.S. and China accounted for about half of all greenhouse gas produced in the world. Note that my source is the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy. Note, too, that carbon dioxide equivalents in the atmosphere, at over 420 parts per million, is at the highest level in some 675,000 years or more years. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the level was 270-290 ppm. Think: Ilya Prigogine.

Whether or not humans cause global warming is not the issue here: greenhouse gases support all life on Earth by warming the planet such that it is inhabitable.

The issue is that we contribute to radical, sudden, warming by fouling our own nest – our nations, our globe. Some of the gases we put into the atmosphere destroy the ozone layer that protects all life as we know it. (Check the Web for simulations based on real-time monitoring of the ozone holes over the Arctic and Antarctic, the loss of Arctic ice, and how it waxes and wanes. Scary stuff.) Furthermore, we know what happens when greenhouse gas emissions reach levels with which the atmosphere cannot cope: Environmental meltdown results.

This should not surprise anyone who has read the science. Ilya Prigogine, the 1973 Nobel laureate in chemistry, proved that once the symmetries of complex “dissipative systems” in dynamic equilibrium are fractured, the systems will collapse. Earth is one such system.

Ozone holes, glaciers and Arctic ice in retreat, entire Antarctic ice sheets plunging into the sea: These are indicators that global, environmental symmetries are under dramatic assault. Unlike the Sichuan earthquake, climate change is a catastrophe in slow yet rapidly accelerating motion.

For the flint-eyed “realists” out there, the captains of industry and business, who may not be moved by such facts and figures, I recommend The Summer of Acid Rain in the 19 December 2007 issue of The Economist: “Molten iron raining down like cowpats; ice floes at New Orleans. The weather of 1783 was an extraordinary case of sudden climate change driven by atmospheric gases.” You may or may not be moved by the accounts of mass starvation in Alaska, Egypt, Iceland and Japan. It was not good for business. 522

I raised these issues each year with my students of Economics because the majority of them intend to go into business. When we studied development, the concept of negative externalities, such as pollution, comes up. Negative externalities are external costs or effects that are suffered by people who are not parties to a given economic activity. I tried to make this issue as personal as possible. I asked the 12th-graders, “Do you love your parents?” Of course they did. “Do you love your grandparents?” Again, they did. “Do you think your grandparents love you?” By that time, they were a bit restive, if not angry. One young lass said, “Teacher, of course they love me! What does this have to do with Economics?” So I asked her if she would love her children and her grandchildren. “I know I will,” she replied, in a tone equally disdainful and furious. I told her I was certain she would. “Now, bear with me, OK? Raise your hands to answer. How many of you are patriots, love your country? Love China?” They all shot their hands into the air. Some of the lads leapt out of their seats. They demanded to know why I was asking them such personal questions.

Well, the answer went something like this: The looming environmental meltdown will affect -- adversely; significantly -- you, your children, your grandchildren, your country and your world. Listen, peole: 70% of all water in China is so polluted it is unfit for drinking or irrigation. Just think of Lake Taihu! Some of the most polluted cities in the world are here in China. Thus, if you go into business, industry, politics or government, your love of family and your love of country will be tested and proved by whether or not you solve or mitigate the problem of negative externalities. You cannot logically say you love your family or that you are a patriot if you knowingly continue to poison the water, land and air your family and your country rely on for their very existence.

The same is true for my students’ elders anywhere in the world: Polluters are not patriots.

Ned Boudreau teaches in Shanghai. your social media marketing partner
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