Tech Won’t Solve Climate Change and American Consumer Addiction, But Therapy Might.
“I’m American.” I said to my cousin at a table in Israel. It was our last night out before I’d move back to the US. “American isn’t a nationality” he replied, “It’s a diagnosis.”
This phrase struck me as one of the most insightful things I’ve ever heard. Everyone who has emigrated to the US, came for two reasons: to make a better life, or to survive. No one came to the US for the culture, or for the land, they came for an opportunity to profit from that land, to take something, whether it was its riches or a refuge.
I don’t know if this is the reason why Americans have a love for stuff. This love for things is a different relationship from what I have found in all of my travels. It is more than liking objects, it is an addiction. The kind of addiction that leads to full garages, packed rooms and a multi-billion dollar industry of storage places. It’s the kind of addiction that people who gave up everything so that they could have more than they could ever dream of.
The result of this one addiction, Climate Catastrophy. US produces 15% of CO2 gasses through our eating and spending habits. China produces double that, but nearly all of its pollution results from the manufacturing that they produce for us, Americans. In essence, it is our demand and our companies that manufacture in China produce together nearly 50% of all CO2. In the world.
We often hear that the solutions to this problem are to become vegetarian, drive less, produce less, and find some technical fix to absorb the CO2. These sound good but I’ve become convinced that none of these things will work in truly solving the problem. There are several reasons why these solutions won’t stop Climate Catastrophe.
Number one, our population is expanding, and it is expanding around the world. Thus even if we are to become 50% vegetarian, there are still too many people eating too much, throwing away food into dumps where it becomes methane, and too many people eating things in plastic packaging that pollute oceans and landfills, and that number increases every day.
We can’t drive less because more people means more cars and even if they are more efficient, they still collectively produce more CO2, and the production of those cars also produces CO2. So as more people enter the middle class, the more cars are purchased for kids, for spouses, for recreation, etc.
But what about the electric cars? Electric cars still require metal and plastic and rare earth minerals. These cars require batteries that do not last forever. To charge these batteries one requires electricity. None of this comes without cost in CO2 and other pollution. In fact as number of people who enter middle class and purchase cars, these electric cars do not offset the rise in car consumption. This is also called tragedy of the commons. Those who purchase these cars feel no qualms about driving, it’s just electricity, but electricity still arrives generally through the production of CO2.
But what if I use solar power? Solar power production requires CO2 to build the panels. The panels are not everlasting, they have to be repaired and often coupled with either batteries or traditional power, requiring CO2.
In essence, my point is that we can’t fix things with technical fixes because any fix to absorb CO2, will simply create the moral hazard that recycling created. Moral Hazzard is where you do more bad because you think that the good you do offsets that bad, except that it doesn’t. The more we recycled, the better we felt about buying plastic and the more plastic was made and sold. As a result, the amount of plastic produced and discarded today is magnitudes more than when the plastic industry first came up with the idea of recycling.
Lastly, we can’t produce less because we Americans love crap. We love buying, using, and making crap, that is how we make a living. We are so invested in companies that make crap, our schools, our pension funds, our entire economy that we cannot stop making it. And we need that crap because I believe that we solve our deep psychological traumas with crap. We buy things not to enjoy them, but to ignore the things that cause us pain.
Dr. Gabor Mate describes addiction as a human response to pain. People have addictions because they are suffering and the only way to deal with that suffering is to forget about it. America has deep, deep trauma and pain. It stems from our treatment of each other, our Black citizens, Asian and Jewish citizens, our Latino and Native American citizens. Our traumas are furthered by wars in Vietnam and the Civil War between each other. We even suffer the trauma that every European immigrant brought with them when they set off to a foreign land leaving their family and loved ones behind and every refugee that came to these shores because they were forced to flee the place where they were born and grew up. We live in a country where no one truly feels like they belong, and that scares the crap out of us.
These traumas have never been dealt with. Instead, our country has used various addictions to deal with it. We expanded and took more land. We had black people build us mansions, we had Asian people build us railroads, we went to China and South America and every continent to take resources to build stuff, to sell stuff that would make us feel better. We build big homes with lots of things that gave our brains dopamine, that gave us comfort, and saved us time as we lost ourselves in our work to provide for the family, for pensions, for college for the kids. We buried that trauma in those homes and in that work but the trauma remains.
We further that trauma by losing community. We send our kids off to college and our parents to nursing homes. We live alone, we divorce and we chase strangers. We meet for a few holidays using up our vacation time and hating them for that. When we see family over Thanksgiving, we take all our frustrations out on them because they were Republican or Democrat. We take out our frustrations on them and call them stupid and ignorant, or worse failures. We called our kids naive and weak as we watch them get hooked on drugs, alcohol, and videogames. We fell into the addiction to porn and shopping and exercise fads and dieting and eating.
All of this, all of it, are actions of denial, actions of avoidance, everything in our power to not look back, to not deal with who we are and our pain and trauma.
Our problem is not shopping, not driving, not racism, and not climate change. These are the effects of our problems, not the causes. But we try to solve problems with the same result as those problems through capitalism or socialism, social justice or punishments, or legal drugs and illegal drugs, plastic straw bans, and CO2 emission limits. And none of it works.
It doesn’t work because all of those problems, all of those addictions are our ways of coping. When we replace one, we find ten other self-destructive, world destructive ways to ignore what is truly the problem. The problem is that we are landless and stateless people, forced to live and work under one flag and we cannot stand ourselves and because we cannot stand ourselves, we cannot stand each other.
This is why we get bigger cars, bigger homes, more pretty things on us, more pretty things in the home. We are alone, we want others to notice us and we cannot look at ourselves. And because we cannot look at ourselves, we want things that will make us look away. We will look at a computer and our phone and our TV, because we cannot look each other in the eye for fear of what they will see, for fear that we will have to deal with what they see. We will chase sex and drive away connection. We seek time savings so we can waste our lives at jobs we hate that produce the very thing that in twenty years will kill our children.
American is not a nationality, it is a diagnosis, and we need therapy. We need collective help. But how do you fix a nation? How does a nation go to therapy? Who can prescribe a nation a pill?
America has been a superpower, we are the strong economy, we are the superhero who has come to save the day. We grit, we tough it out and we prosper. That’s our story and we stick to it. But America has to come to terms, that as strong as we are, we are not invincible, we are sick and we need help.
We must ask for help, we must heal our wounds and trauma, we must find a way and the world needs to help us. Because the world is with us on this. The world is our parents, and our children and our friends, and we are the addict in the family. And if the family ignores the addiction, stays in denial about the addiction, the addiction will take down the whole family.
We must ask for help, and the world needs to find a way to help us. Because if we don’t get help, we are all doomed. And no amount of Elon Musk rockets, or Facebook groups, or Prius hybrids will help us get out of it. Because they are what put us deeper in the hole, of our own trauma.