Tuesday, 15 December 2009

World War II

The growing seriousness of global warming and other environmental problems is now clear and unambiguous. As more and more data is collected, we are learning that things are progressing much faster than scientists had predicted even two years ago. Despite this, however, many are resisting reductions in carbon emissions, and others say it is impossible to reverse global warming without committing "economic suicide" or reverting to "the stone age". It's too hard, they say, we just can't change fast enough. This is a self defeating attitude, and one that is clearly disproven by recent history.

Aside from the obvious fact that if we destroy our environment and make most species extinct, we will also destroy ourselves, and any advanced economy, there are precedents for quick and dramatic change. World War II is perhaps one of the most apt examples. The Western allies all undertook rapid and sweeping changes, and their people endured real sacrifices. Entire economies were changed, people's way of life changed, yet the war was won and fascism defeated. Many of the people involved are still alive, and the experience of WWII is still a part of living memory. To suggest that defeating climate change is impossible is an insult to our grandparents generation.

Today any discussion about reducing the number of cars on the road, or switching to more rail, is met with incredulity and protest. The American "way of life" is non-negotiable. Yet during WWII, the use of personal cars was banned in many places, except in cases of official use in aid of the war effort or for essential services. In other countries, such as the UK, gasoline was simply unavailable for extended periods. People walked or used bicycles, and we carried on. It was not the end of the world.

Another significant change was the widespread use of rationing and price controls. Everything from food, to household supplies, to gasoline (when it was available) was rationed. Supplies of meat were severely limited. Everything was reused as much as possible, and then reused again. A common slogan at the time was "Use It All; Wear It Out; Make It Do; or Go Without!" Everyone was guaranteed the basics, and no one was allowed to hoard. Indeed hoarding was a grave offence and theft from supply depots could even lead to execution in some countries.

Another way food supply was maintained was through the use of "Victory Gardens". People were encouraged to grow food on their lawns and this was widely done. This, along with the rationing, ensured that people had enough food. Despite all the sacrifices, people maintained their health and did not starve. Some studies actually suggest people's health in the US improved because of an increase in the consumption of vegetables. None of these efforts were labelled as "communist", quite the opposite. They were viewed as patriotic and honourable, and were widely praised.

As far as the economy goes, there were massive changes virtually overnight. The entire auto industry was converted to war production in a matter of months. New cars simply weren't manufactured for several years. The factories and workers were dedicated to making tanks, airplanes, ammunition and other goods essential to the war effort. Frivolous products simply weren't made at all. Some metals were so vital, many products were manufactured using alternative materials, including national currency. Scrap metal was highly prized and recycled as quickly and extensively as possible.

Today, with the challenge of global warming, we have it easier in many ways. While we do need to make serious changes, we don't have bombs falling on our heads as they did in the UK during the war. We do not need to send hundreds of thousands off to fight and die. While we do need to sacrifice, our sacrifices cannot be measured against those of our grandparents. We are not being asked to give up our lives. Yet, even the most obvious and simple changes to help reduce emissions are being ignored or rejected. Are we truly so feeble and weak hearted?

Another advantage we have today is that we don't need to engage in massive war production. Obviously that would generate a lot of emissions! Instead the focus needs to be on conservation and reducing production in as many areas as possible. The goal here is to scale back, not switch production from one product to another. In some cases, we might want to switch factories from making automobiles to train cars, in others, we might focus on green energy components. Overall though, the total production needs to decrease, and we need to get by with just a bit less. This is a very small amount of sacrifice as compared to WWII.

I have not seen any proposals for emissions reduction that involve anything as radical as the methods taken in WWII, nor am I suggesting we try to replicate those methods. The point of the comparison is to show that quick and radical changes are possible when there is a will. If anything, the experience of WWII should show us that we can likely solve global warming using a much smaller effort than what was needed to win that war. In other words, we can solve this problem with less of an effort than our grandparents made for us. Surely our grandchildren deserve as much.

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