Dan Jones: Magical thinking won’t solve climate problems
This comment is from Dan Jones, a sustainability advocate who lives in Montpellier.
“Sometimes I’ve believed up to six impossible things before breakfast” – The White Queen from “Through the Looking Glass”.
Every day as I read the news about the growing crises in our climate and our economy, I find myself plagued with questions. I am more and more skeptical about the solutions marketed to solve these major challenges.
We see solutions such as Vermont prioritizing the purchase of electric vehicles to supposedly provide dramatic climate impact. As the fortunes of our middle class dwindle, business economists believe that creating more debt will actually promote growth and reduce our crippling inflation.
Every day my inbox is flooded with promises to reform our democratic failures, simply by signing a petition meant to force our crippled government into action.
Perhaps, as a society, we should heed the warning of those financial services advertisements in which they admit that “past history is not predictive of future success.” I fear we are about to discover that many of the promised solutions to our mounting dilemmas will, upon further investigation, prove implausible, if not downright destructive.
Yet we cling to our beliefs that things will happen as promised because, to maintain our current lifestyles, we have no choice. In desperation, we seem to have accepted the power of magical thinking.
By “wishful thinking” I don’t mean the religious illusions of those who believe in an embrace of fundamentalist superstitions or those who want to go back and make America great again. Instead, I focus on the beliefs of other people like me, middle-class liberals who really want to do the right thing. We are now the true believers in magic.
Magical thinking ignores difficult problems. For example, our media machine has reinforced the national belief that our techno-industrial system, which has solved so many previous challenges, will surely meet this challenge posed by climate change. We sincerely believe that the technological magic will always be there – because, “my god, it’s what the United States does best”.
Magical thinking right now and especially in blue states like Vermont is Elon Musk’s faith that we can continue to power our future industrial economy through the magic of renewable energy.
American capitalism and the consumer society are built on wishful thinking. It is even difficult for us to imagine a future without this system of consumption, which today makes our lives so convenient.
The fundamental belief in the current hope of well-meaning people is that renewable energy will provide an acceptable long-term solution to the climate crisis. After all, what other choice do we have but to continue such an optimistic faith? Most of us simply see no other way to respond than to believe in the magic of “green” consumer choices.
It’s not like our leaders and media sources are offering us any other plausible direction, other than telling us to obediently stay within the confines of our mental boxes and keep doing what we’ve been doing.
Even our climate advocates think they need to sell this bullish consumer talk. While they know that deep changes are needed, they also know that Americans will not accept personal sacrifice, no matter how necessary. It’s agreed that people just “ignore” these realists, talking about the demands of super hard problems.
Yet because Americans are natural rebels to our very fiber, we hate the thought of limitations. So we put all our faith and hope in the next “miracle solution”.
Take the miracle solution of the electric vehicle, for example. Here in Vermont, we all believe that buying electric vehicles will reduce our collective carbon impact. Electric vehicles, we are told, will help solve the climate crisis.
Like the “chicken in every pot”, this message is rooted in generations of social conditioning and advertising designed for us that our individual freedom is secured by owning a personal car. This created an emotional dependence on the car equal to freedom – “See America in your Chevy!” – allows marketers to bewitch us, promising that owning electric vehicles will allow us to pursue this dream.
By ending dependence on the billions of barrels of oil now burned for transportation, these cars will magically free us from the guilt and cost of our gas guzzlers.
Do not mistake yourself. I would like to own an EV. After all, what’s not to like? They are calm and cool. You could get a generous government subsidy and you won’t have to pay an ever-increasing price per gallon.
But there are more than a few issues, the first of which is cost. Data from Edmonds 2022 indicates that in February the average electric car cost over $60,000. Then, to get one, you have to join a waiting list, for which you have to pay a large deposit. Then you have a very long waiting period.
It’s a tough game to play for those of us who don’t have a lot of cash. Such combined realities mean that the promise of EV in every aisle will only be possible by magic.
On top of that is the massive carbon cost of producing and powering these promised machines. Growing resource limitations, along with the real carbon costs of EV production, make the promised future production impossible to achieve. Coupled with the rapid disappearance of purchasing power in our inflation-stressed personal economies, the dream of electric vehicles is receding.
One wonders if the oil-fueled industrial magic that has propelled American managerial and technological prowess for more than 100 years is now beginning to fail. All of this implies that there can’t be a terribly happy automotive future for quite some time.
Certainly, given the increase in climate emergencies. an economy powered by renewable energy would be nice. However, credible energy developers I have spoken to believe that renewables could meet around 30% of our total current energy demands. And that will only be possible if we are very aggressive and willing to commit massive resources and landscape to wind, hydro and solar. generation. (Unfortunately, our history of tech salvation usually fails to mention that these renewable technologies have a lifespan. Generating capacity must be rebuilt every 25 years, which means there will be a substantial carbon cost with each rebuild. )
So it seems to me that if we are to meet 30% of our energy needs with renewables, while committing to a low- or no-carbon future, then our narrative of our future economy and way of life must change dramatically.
We can start by honestly looking at reality. A low-carbon future will require more shared and less convenient means of transport. By extension, rationally coping with many of our other challenges will require further adjustments to all of our expectations.
It is time for a Reformation. To address the ever-growing list of profound challenges, we need to stop pretending that what has worked before will work in the future. We need a serious debate, at our state and local levels, about what we need to do now to adapt to the new realities of a post-oil and climate-altered future, without making matters worse.
There are many possibilities to imagine possible directions with the right political and economic will. We could look at what a full shared transit system might look like. In Montpellier with the MyRide microtransit service, we see a possible approach. Now it needs to be redesigned as a universal approach, not as an alternative bus system for the poor. We could reimagine our land use to make renewable energy possible.
We could do a lot of great things to create a livable, albeit slower, future. But to do that, we have to let go of our wishful thinking and start treating the world as it is.