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The War of the Worlds

Will the world's elite stop seeing two planets?

When the “summit to save the world” wraps up this week in Copenhagen, 41,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent will have been emitted into the atmosphere – roughly the same output as a moderately sized city. The pollutants are streaming from the tailpipes of limousines (hundreds of which had to be driven into the country from Germany and Sweden to meet the demand), and from the engines of the private jets ferrying in VIPs. So many jets are coming into Copenhagen that the city’s airport is unable to accommodate them, forcing pilots to drop off passengers in Denmark and then fly to Sweden to “park.” Every luxury hotel in the city is booked and offering its high profile guests such sustainable fare as scallops, foie gras and the finest caviar. It’s hardly an example in curbing excess …

Copenhagen is functioning as a perfect microcosm: For every dogged activist, subsisting on tofu and living off the grid, there are untold numbers who somehow consider themselves outside or above the problem; people who are unable to see the irony in jetting across the world to discuss the issue of carbon emissions. Until the world’s elite stop seeing two planets – the one that needs saving and the one on which they live – 41,000 tons of pollution is the only thing this kind of summit will produce.

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32 comments on the article “The War of the Worlds”

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David Mudrauskas

How do we get people to stop wanting to be classy jet-setters and sampling exotic, resource-intensive foods? We have to strip away the archaic elevated status of these kinds of activities. That's how anti-tobacco groups have influenced a decrease in smoking rates in the Western world, by remaking it as inferior and low-class, despite Big Tobacco's efforts to affect otherwise. Smoking resembles overconsumption on the micro-level in a couple of ways: its self-destructive, unnecessary, and reinforced by big scary corporate interests. Relegate foie-gras and limos to the level of twinkies and mopeds in the eyes of enough people, and their sales will fall.

We can see a slight -- but still inadequate -- movement in this direction with trends in green consumerism, where buying environmentally-damaging products is becoming socially unacceptable and thus socially costly. People are learning to pay more for something knowing the higher price translates into a cleaner environment. People are also willing to pay more for something that commands respect (however unfounded), like a fancy sports car.

Since a green lifestyle is becoming increasingly respectable, we can combine these two tendencies and it becomes in people's interests according to three measures -- financial, environmental, and social -- to refrain from consuming. In order for that to happen though, minimal consumers must be made visible and commended and enjoy all the same intangible benefits other people get for living extravagantly. If it's ever to become widespread, voluntary nonconsumption must be made fashionable, as impressive and glamourous as a bourgeois dinner. It's just up to the fringe to forge that connection.

David Mudrauskas

How do we get people to stop wanting to be classy jet-setters and sampling exotic, resource-intensive foods? We have to strip away the archaic elevated status of these kinds of activities. That's how anti-tobacco groups have influenced a decrease in smoking rates in the Western world, by remaking it as inferior and low-class, despite Big Tobacco's efforts to affect otherwise. Smoking resembles overconsumption on the micro-level in a couple of ways: its self-destructive, unnecessary, and reinforced by big scary corporate interests. Relegate foie-gras and limos to the level of twinkies and mopeds in the eyes of enough people, and their sales will fall.

We can see a slight -- but still inadequate -- movement in this direction with trends in green consumerism, where buying environmentally-damaging products is becoming socially unacceptable and thus socially costly. People are learning to pay more for something knowing the higher price translates into a cleaner environment. People are also willing to pay more for something that commands respect (however unfounded), like a fancy sports car.

Since a green lifestyle is becoming increasingly respectable, we can combine these two tendencies and it becomes in people's interests according to three measures -- financial, environmental, and social -- to refrain from consuming. In order for that to happen though, minimal consumers must be made visible and commended and enjoy all the same intangible benefits other people get for living extravagantly. If it's ever to become widespread, voluntary nonconsumption must be made fashionable, as impressive and glamourous as a bourgeois dinner. It's just up to the fringe to forge that connection.

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