The Final Parallel, Please //
Tobacco and fossil-fueled energy have curious parallels. Both have provided users with benefits, both got entrenched in behavior and society, both have grievous unintended consequences. But the story of one is more resolved, to a point.
Back in the day in America, virtually everyone smoked, or so it seemed. Ads that look outrageous, even hilarious today – try this “scientific” one and this endorsement by doctors – sold cigarettes as keys to the good life, even good health. And no question – there were benefits. I remember trying them as a teenager, and feeling that intense nicotine rush. (It was a brief fling.)
But even during the well-documented cover-up by tobacco companies of the health risks, the evidence was right there in the ads. Check these for examples of “protesting too much.” “Camels agree with your throat.” “Nose, throat, and accessory organs not adversely affected by smoking Chesterfields.” “Medical authorities recognize Phillip Morris proved less irritating to the smoker’s nose and throat.” Uh huh.
Fast-forward to today. Smoking bans make it harder and harder to puff in public. And the habit hits the wallet harder and harder. Check the taxes per pack by state. Makes me glad not to be a smoker, especially in my native state of New York. Though the revenue from these taxes goes to various purposes, the logic is clear – put a cost on a product which creates costs to the user and to society generally. But this is where the parallel histories of cigarettes and fossil-fueled energy diverge.
The benefits of fossil fuels are so massive they are hard to quantify. Cheap coal and natural gas have fueled the rapid growth of population and cities. Plentiful oil has powered our cars, trucks and airplanes for decades. And in ways most of us don’t realize, our entire food system is oil-powered. According to author Michael Pollan, when you tally up oil-based agricultural chemicals, plus all the fuel used in production and transport, it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce each calorie of food we consume. So you might say that our whole society is built on fossil fuel – in a real sense, we eat oil.
Just like with cigarettes, the dark side of fossil fuel burning has gradually come into view. And just as reliably, the people amassing fortunes purveying the offending products are not at all happy with the science – in this case the science of how greenhouse gases are changing the atmosphere and the climate. The predictable action – still playing our today – is to “teach the controversy” and paralyze policy supporting the common good. Read about the whole denial-pushing cabal right here in this resourceful Media Matters blog post. Former Vice President Al Gore also makes the tobacco/fossil fuel connection in recent comments on video here.
Higher tobacco taxes have been one factor in reducing smoking rates. And that points to the way this parallel story needs to play out, and not over decades. We have summoned the political courage to charge some of the cost of tobacco use – both to users and society. Isn’t it time we do the same with the cost of fossil fuel use? Cap and trade has been a failure. But putting a price on carbon – either through a tax or through James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” plan is the only way to keep our fossil fuel addiction from ultimately becoming a suicidal pursuit.
And the discussion is proceeding – in Australia, recent site of unprecedented heat so intense they needed to add new weather map colors, at NASA meteorologist James Hansen’s blog, and even, of all places (Grover Norquist and James Inhofe aside), in the Republican Party.
As long as we continue to ignore and externalize the cost of fossil-fuel pollution, we are behaving in a way satirized brilliantly in this Saturday Night Live video. We can and must do better. Here are two organizations working for rational carbon pollution policy – the Citizens Climate Lobby and the Carbon Tax Center.
Sensible Policy from the Barrel of a Gun
Why – for so many of us – does it take immediate exposure to the dangers of gun violence to build commitment to rational gun laws? Think James Brady, Ronald Reagan, Mark Kelly and now these doctors from Sandy Hook. This past week, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords provided brave testimony in favor of gun regulation. Here is the handwritten version. And here is the video. Now watch the diversionary pro-gun propaganda delivered at the same hearing from the chief lobbyist for the gun industry, Wayne LaPierre. He has supported enhanced school security, not necessarily a bad idea. He has also suggested that arming teachers – think Rambo at the blackboard – also can help. Here is what one prominent St. Paul teacher has to say about that on her blog.
As usual, satire cuts through the baloney. First – how different is LaPierre’s approach from this Tom Tomorrow character? Second, hats off yet again to Jon Stewart. He has once again discovered a current right-wing radical debating a more rational opponent. That is, his former less extreme self from a decade or so ago. Senator Grassley gets a howler award here as well, folks – discredit where discredit is due.
I like this mayors’ organization fighting for the cause. I also love the fact that this group – led by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg – is slated to run an ad favoring sensible gun regulation at the Super Bowl.
George Carlin said “they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Star Tribune columnist Bonnie Blodgett wrote a thoughtful commentary recently that packs so many issues into a short Sunday column. Pay inequity, unfettered growth, our switch to a “me first” ethos, it is all here and very thought-provoking. A fitting examination of the complicated, elusive American Dream. And the parting shot reminds us of the legacy of our creeping embrace of “every-man-for-himself.” We are in the horse race now for the most unequal society in the world. How is that for “American Exceptionalism?”
The Growth Affliction
A promising new book has hit my reading list. This Excerpt from Enough is Enough suggests that authors Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill will tread where few sustainability activists dare – fingering unfettered population growth as the root cause of environmental ills. This also made me think of Dave Gardner, director of an informative documentary, Growthbusters. Watch the trailer here, and read a short article by the director right here.
In this guest post, Ottawa’s Rolly Montpellier brings the wisdom of that great 18th-century thinker, Thomas Paine, to bear on our modern climate crisis. Recommended.
Rolly blogs at the Boomer Warrior.
Light in the Darkness
One of the things that strikes a city kid like me when spending a night far from the city is just how much you can see in the night sky. Light pollution has been growing for decades, and as a result, most city dwellers have no idea what is up there. Some speculate this reinforces our view of humans as separate from the natural world. With our ongoing destruction of natural habitats, more separation from nature is exactly what is not needed. That need to connect is behind the work of photographer Thierry Cohen. In this slide show, Cohen shows what could be seen with light pollution under control in eleven major world cities from New York to Hong Kong. Magical.
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
― Thomas Paine
Contributed links or content to this posting – Allyson Harper, Rolly Montpellier, Brendan Murphy
Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN