Individual Problems and Group Solutions

Pop TopNot many years ago, the metal pop-top tabs from soda cans were everywhere. At any picnic area you could look down at your feet and see several, maybe hundreds, of these cluttering the ground. We were told to hold onto the tab until we were finished, then drop it into the empty can, but the problem persisted until the manufacturers came up with what we have today: a tab that peels back and stays attached to the can.

The clutter of tabs was a group problem; it affected us all, and it needed a group solution. The first solution, to drop the tab in the can, was an individual solution that could never work. Each person had to be motivated to follow the extra steps just to make life a tiny bit more pleasant for others he never saw.

And this brings me to my take on global warming, but stay with me!  I am sneaking up on the topic.  We are all sick of being nagged about global warming, but that is not my intent.

Not to argue the point, but I have no doubt global warming is real and its effects will be catastrophic. The problem is we can do nothing about it. For one, we are probably well past the tipping point. Vast areas of frozen marshes are already thawing and releasing greenhouse gases, and that creates more warming, more thawing, and still more gases. Can’t stop that train wreck now. For another, getting people to cut back sufficiently to make a difference would require such draconian measures on an international scale that we would have world-wide revolutions. Only North Korean style of dictatorships could enforce measures requiring such sacrifices.

About ten years ago, I was at a party talking with an older widow who proudly told me she had traded in her Buick for a Prius. But, I told her, she should have sold her Buick and lived without any car if she was truly serious about global warming. Oh, she couldn’t do that, she assured me. She needed to drive to the doctor’s and to the grocery store. Of course. Everyone on the road has a similar story. And even if she gave up her car, with great sacrifice, this would not stop global warming, only postpone it. For how long?  Five minutes, maybe?  Global warming is a group problem and her sacrifice would be attempting an individual solution. But how would she feel if a government agency took away her car as part of a group solution?  An individual solution is ineffectual, a group solution would not be tolerated.

Recycling plastic bottles and soda cans as if that will solve the problem is only a feel-good joke. Such individual solutions will never work.  A group solution, such as immediately stopping all beverage production and limiting electricity use to one hour a day, would not be tolerated.

One small personal peeve: I admit I drive slowly. If I see a red light ahead, I take my foot off the accelerator and coast up to it. Almost always, impatient drivers behind me will speed up to pass, vent their rage by cutting sharply in front of me, then break hard when they reach the light where we soon meet again. Our eyes meet, and I smile.

Now try to expand proposed solutions internationally. Tell the multitudes in the third-world countries to keep riding their bicycles because the world can’t support a car for every family. We already have cars, often several per family, so we get to keep them. How do you think that would go over?

When we toured China a few years ago, we arrived at the Beijing airport in the late afternoon on a sunny day.  Immediately the women in our group complained about the lack of air conditioning.  They even complained to the Chinese guards who seemed puzzled by their distress.   This was in October, and Beijing is a northern city.

In China, people live in cramped, energy efficient apartments.  Air conditioning is rare.  Hot water is rationed from solar collectors on the roof.  Laundered clothes are dried on poles projecting from their balconies.  Do you think Americans are ready for that?

Finally, I never hear of any time-based analysis of conservation methods. We are told how many tons of carbon dioxide we will save if we replace our incandescent bulbs with LEDs. But that saving is accumulated over many years, while manufacturing an LED bulb will create greenhouse gases right now, and those gases will be working their harm throughout all of those same years. Which is really better? How many tons of greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere to manufacture a Prius?

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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