Consumerism, airlines & junk

Lately, I haven’t been much for travel and generally don’t like flying. But something feels rather manipulated and artificial in the current anti-flying, anti-tourism, eco-ascetism campaigns.

To quote Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary:

I always feel somewhat aggrieved that the airlines are the poster child for climate change, when airlines account for 2% of CO2 emissions. Shipping accounts for 5%, but nobody ever posts a picture of a boat chugging out of a harbour and goes: There you go: the globe is warming up’.

And O’Leary’s thoughts on sustainable” aviation fuels sound like something straight out of Vaclav Smil, who has influenced my thinking on climate more than anyone else — his book How the World Really Works will challenge much of what you believe, regardless of your starting position.

Back to O’Leary:

[Sustainable aviation fuels] are a wheeze. Unless governments get in behind the production and sourcing of sustainable aviation fuels — and they’re only going to come from, ultimately, the oil majors, the only ones who are going to make them — I don’t see where we will get the supply in the volumes we need. You want everybody running around collecting fucking cooking oil? There isn’t enough cooking oil in the world to power more than one day’s aviation.

Which is also Smil’s point about electric cars, windmills, and solar panels. They’re expensive toys for the upper middle class, but cosmetic solutions, perhaps even hindrances to decarbonization. Unless someone’s touting nuclear power plants and backyard chickens, they’re a partisan hack, not an environmentalist.

About that boat, chugging out of a Chinese harbor and polluting far more than air travel, I turn to fellow indie webber Robert Rackley’s post about drop shipping on Amazon. The linked Atlantic article says much of what anyone paying attention already knows: American (and European) consumers are conditioned to buy cheap, disposable garbage from Asia, and by and large, won’t pay more for quality.

When I moved to Amsterdam two years ago, I had to quickly stock up on clothes more appropriate to the climate, as my Eastern European winter wardrobe was made for weeks of -20˚ rather than a nearly constant 10˚ (~40s for my Fahrenheit friends) and even more constant rain. I bought everything at a cheap, mass-market store. Most of it is ready to be thrown out. This time around, I’ve spent a lot more money to get some gear that will hopefully last more than a couple years.

When you’re in a pinch, it’s hard to opt out of the disposable, consumerist treadmill. But if we’re going to have a saner relationship with the environment, cheap and disposable consumerism can’t stay the default.

Looking at the eco-ascetics as a whole, I think the problem is their absolutism. Few are thrilled at the prospect of a lifetime of processed tofu meals, but few would even notice eating vegetarian meals half the week. I’m all for more local travel, but let’s keep flying an option for a rare treat. And let’s keep electric cars, because it would be cruel not to let the urban upper middle class virtue signal. But I’m keeping my trusty bike.

The absolutism of the eco-ascetics isn’t designed to actually make a positive change in the world. It’s mostly about show. And that’s what makes them so easily manipulated.

Few things would horrify a group a tech workers more than telling them that you took a short-haul flight to an all-inclusive in a warm country. That rage is artificial. It’s cultivated. It’s been part of a well-organized campaign.

My guess is that travel doesn’t really benefit the tech and media companies. Unboxing some crap from China and stuffing it with affiliate links makes Amazon and Google happy. Rage posting that someone took a vacation and enjoyed it, while saying nothing of the environmental costs of data centers, is great for Facebook.

If there’s any conclusion I’d draw from all of this, it’s to really question outrage. Is it organicl or is it manipulated, cultivated by someone else?