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The Jump

Based on research carried out by academics at Leeds University a study asks people people to make The Jump and sign up to six pledges that “could account for a quarter of the emissions reductions required to keep the global heating down to 1.5C.”

The six pledges are as follows:

  • Eat a largely plant-based diet, with healthy portions and no waste
  • Buy no more than three new items of clothing per year
  • Keep electrical products for at least seven years
  • Take no more than one short haul flight every three years and one long haul flight every eight years
  • Get rid of personal motor vehicles if you can – and if not keep hold of your existing vehicle for longer
  • Make at least one life shift to nudge the system, like moving to a green energy, insulating your home or changing pension supplier

It’s worth noting that the request was made of “relatively well off people”. That’s because the pledge would be utterly impossible for low-income people to comply. And that points to the main problem with the pledge: it assigns responsibility to consumers for decisions that are being made in corporate boardrooms.

Let’s analyze:

Diet

It is rare to find a grocery store that offers an affordable means to to achieve a plant-based diet with healthy portions and no waste. And it is almost impossible to find one in the restaurant and fast food industry. Moreover, most of the waste in food production (not to mention the energy costs of transportation and processing) happens long before it ever reaches the shelves. The food industry is rationalized for one thing: profit. That’s why people living in prime potato-producing regions here in Canada see a selection of potatoes mostly imported internationally. Changing our diet won’t change this. To really address climate change we need to change the incentives in the food industry, making it cost more, not less, to sell unhealthy processed foods using ingredients transported over long distances. Addressing some of the significant labour inequities worldwide would go a long way toward addressing this.

Clothing

I’m not sure how the author has counted clothing but taking two years to buy three pairs of socks seems daunting at best. As does dressing for a real four seasons, such as we have in Canada. Though perhaps we could do that – if clothes lasted ten years. Alas, they do not. They rip, they tear, they fade, they get lost (especially the aforementioned socks). We humans change too – we grow, we get wider, we get thinner. Is it our fault for buying clothes to replace them? Or even because we want both a green and a blue shirt? No. What would make a difference? Manufacturing clothing sustainably, and making them more durable. Right now, that would make clothing very expensive, because most of the industry is geared toward low-cost production using low-cost labour. Why do we import clothing from China and India? Because that’s where they allow clothing to be manufactured in sweatshop conditions.

Products

Yes, it is theoretically possible to keep and use electrical products for ten years. We just retired our ten-year old microwave after something burned out somewhere deep inside. But generally, our products fail sooner than that (some, like computers, are designed for a lifespan of less than ten years). You can buy more robust products – our commercial-grade coffee maker seems likely to make it ten years. But that costs five times as much. But very few people can afford this grade of product, and in any case, industry makes more money selling cheap products that break quickly and can’t be repaired. And – oh year – are made in sweatshops half way around the world. Is it our fault that this is the only way to but products? Or – once again – are the economic incentives misaligned?

Flights

Most people aren’t taking any flights over three years. Frequent flyers are almost never people flying for personal reasons; they’re flying for business or commercial reasons. These flights are subsidized by taxation laws. That’s why business class exists (I call it ‘subsidy class’ because our taxes subsidize business travelers). But even if we all made sensible flight decisions, it wouldn’t change much. During the pandemic, airlines continued to fly empty aircraft in order to hand on to boarding gate privileges. Airlines are not set up to care about climate change. This again could be changed through government or corporate policy, but is never going to change on the basis of consumer choice alone.

Vehicles

In this era of high gas prices I’m feeling pretty smug about working from home and driving a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. But our government removed all incentives for electric vehicles (and for renewable electricity generally) not too long ago. Meanwhile, though we chose where we live to be close to public transit, trains (which still run on diesel here, and will for the next 30 years) are infrequent and expensive. Internet access – on which I depend for telecommuting – is far from what it could be. And the bus line closed entirely. So I’m not looking at a lot of freedom of choice here. The only transportation I can but is what’s on offer for sale. And what’s on offer for sale is far from climate-friendly.

Nudge

My pension is run through my union, and my union is very sensitive to climate change issues. If more people had unions, we’d have more impact over what our pensions support. Sadly, most people leave it to financial institutions, who have no real incentive to do anything but make money. This is bad for both pensions and the climate. Similarly with energy. In Ontario, almost all electricity is generated through zero-carbon processes (hydro, wind, solar, nuclear). But our production capacity is still far from where it needs to be to use electricity to heat homes, and governments and industry continue to subsidize fossil fuels much more heavily than alternative sources. We live in a well-insulated house, but many many people rent, and have zero control over home insulation.

You see the theme here, right? This article is a thinly veiled attempt to make it seem like we can make significant change in climate impact through personal lifestyle choices. But we have far less choice in these choices than the authors seem to think. We cannot – as individuals – change our global government and corporate infrastructure. And it is that – not we the consumers – that needs to change to protect the planet.

This article, instead of focusing on changes we make as consumers, should be focusing on changes we should be making in the workplace. It should be most directly at those who have an influence over corporate incentives and how those incentives are supported and fulfilled. It should be a demand that workers be able to push back on environmentally irresponsible corporate decisions. But this requires vesting control of the economy in the hands of people who actually care about climate change, rather than a handful of rich old men who could care less.

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The Wild Fields

I watched a lovely bit of propaganda from Russian television on prime recently, the first two seasons of Ekaterina, the story of Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia in the mid 1700s. Though the second season paled in comparison with the first, it was still entertaining, and I’m looking forward to more. And I don’t really mind the propaganda; I’m watching Atlas Shrugged right now, which is even more heavy-handed. It’s all about perspective.

Anyhow, the point of the second season of Ekaterina is to depict the eastern region of Ukraine as ‘the Wild Fields’. To be sure, there was no Ukraine at the time; western Ukraine was at various times part of Poland or Poland-Lithuania, while the south and eastern parts, historically the lands of the Golden Horde, were occupied by the Crimean Khanate and Circassia (the conquest of which was the longest war in Russian history. Over the years Russia expanded into the region, first under the direction of Ivan the Terrible, then later under Catherine the Great.

In the television show, the lands are depicted as basically unoccupied, outside the domain of civilization and of Europe generally, and where Russian settlers were attacked by marauding outlaw Turks, to be bravely defended when solders like Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin would come riding in to the rescue. After prevailing in her wars against the Ottomans, Catherine eventually occupied and defined the region as Novorossiya – New Russia.

So yeah, there’s some history there. But it should be clear that it’s a history of conquest and colonialism. The land lies beyond the furthest reaches of Kievan Rus and parts of it were resisting Moscow into the mid-1800s. It is no more Russian than it is Bulgarian, Turk, Mongol or Khazar. What makes it Ukrainian – now – is the fact that it lies within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. There isn’t some magical historical or demographic fact that makes it Russian, no matter what the doctrine of the Wild Fields or Novorossiya may say.

I am the first to say that national borders are stupid, that they are a legacy of Europe’s colonial past, and that they don’t sufficiently respect history or culture. I personally would welcome a world in which people of regions of a certain (small) size can determine for themselves how they would like to be affiliated. But that is not grounds for the reassertion of colonialism. Nor is it grounds for the forceful redefinition of borders.

The world quite rightly protested when the United States unilaterally invaded Iraq on a trumped-up pretext, and many people presciently warned of the consequences of diplomacy based on invasion and regime change. We are seeing more of the same here, and the same objections apply. Whatever Russia may feel its right may be, or where its interests lie, it does not have the right to invade another country in an effort either to alter borders or change governments.

The willingness of major powers to intervene militarily into smaller nations’ affairs is precisely why nations like North Korea and Iran seek the protection of nuclear arms. Ukraine, when it split with the U.S.S.R. in 1991, made the decision that it would give up its nuclear arsenal and join the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty. The present Russian incursions and potential for invasion should rightly cause other smaller nations to consider that a mistake.

Nobody in Russia is going to listen to me tell them not to invade. I have no illusions. And we in the western world have not been angels. We’re scarcely in a position to argue against their militarism or their propaganda. But that still doesn’t make it right, and we should be clear that tales of the historic Russian claim to the region are nothing more than fanciful rationalization. At some point, all colonizers must give up their colonies. The only question is how steep the cost will be in blood and treasure.

It would be nice if Russia, which has suffered so much from invasion from the west and the east, could offer a better example for the rest of us, and let its neighbours live in peace.