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Dan Jones: Magical thinking will not solve the climate issues

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This commentary is by Dan Jones, a sustainability advocate who lives in Montpelier.

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” – The White Queen from “Through the Looking Glass.”

Every day, as I read the news on the growing crises in our climate and our economy, I find myself plagued by questions. I am increasingly dubious about the solutions being marketed for solving these big challenges. 

We see solutions such as Vermont prioritizing the purchase of electric vehicles to supposedly provide a dramatic climate impact. As our middle-class fortunes diminish, corporate economists believe creating more debt will actually promote growth and lower our crippling inflation. 

Daily, my inbox is flooded with promises to reform our democratic failures, simply by signing a petition that will supposedly force our paralyzed government to act. 

Perhaps, as a society, we should heed the warning of those financial service ads in which they admit that “past history is no predictor of future success.” I fear that we are about to find that many of the promised fixes to our mounting dilemmas will, upon deeper investigation, prove to be implausible, if not downright destructive. 

Yet we cling to our beliefs that things will work out as promised because, to keep our current lifestyles, we have no choice. In desperation, we seem to have accepted the power of magical thinking.

By “magical thinking,” I do not mean the religious delusions of those who believe an embrace of fundamentalist superstitions or those who want to turn back the clock and Make America Great Again. Rather, my focus is on the beliefs of other folks like me, middle-class liberals who genuinely want to do the right thing. We are now the true believers in magic.

Magical thinking ignores hard problems. For instance, our media machine reinforced a national faith that our techno-industrial system, which has solved so many previous challenges, will surely rise to this challenge posed by climate change. We devotedly believe that technological magic will always be there — because, “by golly, that is what the USA does best.”

Magical thinking, right now and especially in blue states like Vermont, is the Elon Musk-like faith that we can continue powering our future industrial economy through the magic of renewable energy.

American capitalism and consumer society are built on magical thinking. It is hard for us to even imagine a future without this consumer system, which now makes our lives so convenient. 

The core belief of well-meaning persons’ current hope is that renewable energy will provide an acceptable long-term solution to the climate crisis. After all, what choice do we have other than continuing such optimistic faith? Most of us just can’t see any other way of responding other than believing in the magic of “green” consumer choices. 

It’s not like our leaders and media sources are offering us any other plausible direction, other than telling us to stay obediently inside the boundaries of our mental boxes and keep on doing what we have been doing.

Even our climate advocates believe they must sell this optimistic consumer narrative. While they know that deep changes are needed, they also know that Americans will not accept personal sacrifice no matter how necessary. It is agreed that people simply “ tune out” those realists, talking about the demands of super hard problems. 

Yet, because Americans are natural rebels to our very fiber, we hate the thought of limitations. So we put all our faith and hope in the next “silver bullet.” 

Take the silver bullet of the electric vehicle, for example. Here in Vermont, we all believe that the purchase of electric vehicles will lower our collective carbon impact. EVs, we are told, will help solve the climate crisis. 

Like the “chicken in every pot,” this message is rooted in generations of social conditioning and advertising designed to us that our individual freedom is provided through the ownership of a personal car. That manufactured emotional dependency on the car equaling freedom — “See the USA in your Chevrolet!” — allows marketers to then weave a spell over us, promising that EVs ownership will allow us to continue that dream. 

By ending dependency on the billions of barrels of oil, now burned for transportation, these cars will magically free us from the both the guilt and cost of our gas guzzlers. 

Don’t get me wrong. I would love to own an EV. After all, what’s not to like? They’re quiet and cool. You might get a generous government subsidy, and you won’t have to pay an ever-climbing price per gallon. 

But there are more than a few problems, the first of which is cost. The 2022 Edmonds data says that, in February, the average electric car cost over $60,000. Then, to get one, you must get on a waiting list, for which you have to pay a hefty deposit. Then you have a very long waiting period. 

That’s a hard game to play for those of us without a lot of ready cash. Such combined realities means the promise of the EV in every driveway will only be possible through magic.

On top of that, there is the massive carbon cost connected with producing and powering these promised machines. Growing resource limitations, along with the actual carbon costs of EV production, make promised future production impossible to achieve. Coupled with the rapidly disappearing purchasing power in our inflation-stressed personal economies, the EV dream recedes. 

One wonders if the petroleum-fed industrial magic, which has powered America’s managerial and technological prowess for more than 100 years, is now starting to fail. All this implies that there can’t be a terribly happy motoring future for a while.

Certainly, given increasing climate emergencies. a renewably powered economy would be nice. However, credible energy developers I have talked to believe that renewable energy might meet roughly 30% of our total current energy demands And that will be possible only if we’re very aggressive and willing to commit massive resources and landscape to wind, hydro and solar generation. (Sadly, our technological salvation story usually fails to mention such renewable technologies have a shelf life. The generation capacity must be rebuilt every 25 years, meaning there will be a substantial carbon cost in each rebuild.)

So it seems to me that if we are to meet 30% of our energy needs renewably, while being committed to a low or no-carbon future, then our narrative of our future economy and lifestyle must radically change. 

We can start by honestly looking at reality. A low-carbon future will require more shared and inconvenient ways of getting around. By extension, rationally facing many of our other challenges will require further adjustments to all our expectations. 

It is time for a Reformation. To meet the ever-growing list of deep challenges, we must stop pretending that what has worked before will work in the future. We need a serious debate, at our state and local levels, as to what we must do now to adapt to the new realities of a post-oil, climate-changed future, without making things worse. 

There are lots of opportunities to imagine possible directions with the right political and economic will. We could look at what a comprehensive shared transportation system could look like. In Montpelier with the MyRide microtransit service, we can see one possible approach. Now it needs to be reimagined as a universal approach, not an alternate bus system for poor people. We could reimagine our land use to actually make the rebuildable energy possible. 

We could do a lot of great stuff to make a livable, albeit slower future. But to do that, we must give up our magical thinking and start dealing with the world as it is. 

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