Planet Shame

Let’s get started.

American Public Media’s Consumer Consequences game is basically an online carbon footprint calculator dressed up as a slick, animated adventure. Once I’m done, I’m told, I’ll know how many Earths would be required to support our global population if everyone lived like me.

I’m feeling pretty good about this. I’m a carless twenty-something almost-vegetarian who lives with a roommate in an Oakland, California, neighborhood where residents recycle with the same zeal that folks in other places play competitive sports. After signing on and selecting a glamorous avatar, I breeze through the Home section, entering the number of people in my apartment — two — and the size of my home — between five hundred and one thousand square feet. Since I can hear my roommate chewing in the kitchen when I’m lying in bed, I suspect this is not exactly living large. I’m right. If everyone lived like me, the game says, we’d need .8 Earths. The Trash section is easy, too. I estimate that my household recycles about 90 percent of paper, glass, aluminum, and plastics. My score doesn’t change.

Next it’s time to enter my commuting and travel stats. The game tells me that 76 percent of American commuters drive to work alone, 12 percent carpool, 5 percent use public transportation, 3 percent work from home, 3 percent walk to work, and 1 percent bike or find another way to work. I carpool in the morning; in the evening I take a commuter train. Not too bad, but air travel’s got me kind of worried, since I’m kind of bicoastal, flying from the West Coast to the East about three times a year, plus one or two other short plane trips. I estimate that I spend forty hours a year on a plane. Ouch. I’m up to 1.9 Earths. But since the next section is about food, I’m hoping my farmers’ market addiction will redeem me.

The game wants me to estimate how much of each food group I consume, and I come up with the following (extremely reasonable, in my opinion) breakdown: 10 percent from meat and fish, 20 percent from dairy, 30 percent from grains, 40 percent from vegetables. But wait — what’s this? They want me to say how often I eat out. A curveball! A few times a week I don’t have time to go home and cook, but I have to eat something. So dinner often comes in the form of a burrito, hastily inhaled en route to an evening activity. That habit, combined with the nine cups of coffee I drink every week brings me up to four Earths. My avatar smiles at me innocently from the corner of the screen. As if everything’s okay!

On to Shopping. Even with my rather modest spending habits (thank God they didn’t ask me what percentage of my wardrobe comes from the ecological horror show Forever 21), my final score is a sobering 4.7 Earths.

I’m kind of freaking out, so I call up Joellen Easton, an American Public Media producer who helped develop the game, and fess up. Joellen’s totally nice, and not appalled at all by my mortifying score. She’s gotten a lot of feedback from the quarter of a million players who have completed the game so far. “We’ve heard from people who use six Earths,” she says. “They’re horrified. Then they come back a few months later and leave a comment saying they’ve made changes, and their score’s gone down.” Joellen has discovered a true secret eco-weapon: shame. Neatly packaged in an adorably unassuming game. Brilliant.


  1. No bail-out from global warming!Will the warnings ever cease?
    Will humanity heed them?

    There’s no bailout for the next crisis

    Monday, October 20, 2008 The Oregonian

    The recent haggling over how to solve the nation’s economic crisis seems to have done little to ease the anxieties of either Wall Street or Main Street. And with good reason: Intuitively, we know we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.

    Watching a lifetime of stock options head south? Worried about where you’ll find the money to pay for college or about the spiraling costs of health care? Certainly nothing could hurt worse than a foreclosure, could it? Well, maybe it could. If $700 billion sounds like a lot, try fathoming $9 trillion — roughly 13 times the cost of today’s hotly debated bailout. That’s the projected cost of letting global climate change go unaddressed within this decade.

    The thorough shakeup of today’s economic climate foreshadows an even more disastrous global crisis heading our way. The same belief in unlimited, unchecked growth (some would say outright greed) that fattened our economy on a diet of junk bonds and hollow lending is also strip-mining our planet’s environment of the currency that nature safely invested for us over millions of years, and upon which all life — including our own — depends.

    The concept of peak oil is not just some naysayers’ delusion. According to the U.S. Energy Department’s own findings, commonly called the Hirsch report and issued in 2005, it’s an unavoidable reality, one that is hurtling toward us faster than we know what to do about.

    But like the blind eye that was turned on the proliferation of high-risk, foolhardy mortgages in the midst of a slowing economy, we’ve bolstered our bravado in the face of such warnings while enthusing about drilling offshore and in the arctic.

    While we’ve been busy digging our fossil-fuel foundations out from under us with the same kind of naive bluster and faith in infinite growth that gutted the economy, we’ve also been busy ruining things at the top as our upper atmosphere becomes choked with carbon dioxide, leaving us in an environmental demise of our own doing.

    When it comes to the economy, a few sleights of hand and a heavy toll on taxpayers, all partisan bickering aside, can be called upon to help us avert disaster and restore faith in the unlimited expansion model. But when it comes to nature’s bank, cashing out is forever. No amount of midnight meetings, government-ordered buyouts or credit freezes can save a habitat laid fallow by years of unregulated dumping of chemical waste, nor can they lower our thermostats to an inhabitable temperature in the face of global warming.

    Sound policy and the pursuit of new technologies might ameliorate some of our excesses, helping to slow down the rate of climate change and postponing the date of disaster. But like the banking and credit crisis that arrived to the surprise of so many experts — despite the many warnings sounded years earlier — environmental failure is going to rear its ugly head someday.

    And when mother earth forecloses on us, there will be nowhere else to go.

    Lisa Weasel is an associate professor of biology at Portland State University and a board member of The Greenhouse Network.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  2. Thanks to Scott Walker and everyone else for what is being communicated in the Orion Blog.

    Please understand that Dr. Lisa Weasel is an honorable scientist. She neither hides, nor hides from, the empirical evidence to which she refers in her letter, “There’s no bailout for the next crisis” (see above). At least to me, her behavior is exemplary. We need to see her example displayed in the actions of many other scientists who presently seem to be unwilling to communicate what their science tells them is real and true.

    So far as I can tell, Dr. Weasel does not formulate policy or engage in action planning. She does the work scientists are supposed to be doing: helping people see the world we inhabit as it is.

    Of course, her reporting is off-putting precisely because the message from science is apparently unforeseen, distinctly discomforting and most unwelcome.

    Reports of good science, when that science is new, is routinely difficult to acknowledge, much less address. But that is what we are called upon to do. Grasping good science and adjusting to whatsoever could be real is required of us, I suppose. Nothing else will do as an adequate substitute. It appears that the human community could soon have genuine challenges to overcome.

    Despite all the efforts of denialists and naysayers, scientists need to do their duty, as Lisa Weasel is doing, by urging the family of humanity to open our eyes and see what looms ominously before us on the far horizon. By avoiding science, we are losing the exquisite value found in one of God’s gifts to humanity.

    Ignoring Dr. Weasel’s science cannot be allowed to prevail, even though her reasonable and sensible evidence comes into conflict with what culture prescribes as real and true. Is it possible that the standard for determining what is real and true in our culture is often this: whatsoever is widely shared, consensually validated and judged to be economically expedient, politically convenient, socially agreeable is true and real? In that case, Dr. Weasel’s science does present our culture with evidence of inconvenient truths.

    Each culture presents its membership with much that is real and also much less that is illusory. From the standpoint of a psychologist, because humans are shaped early and pervasively by cultural transmissions in our perception of reality, it looks like an evolutionary challenge for humankind to see the world as it is.

    It appears that cultural transmissions or memes generated within a culture may at times mesmerize human beings in that widely shared and closely held memes occasionally “produce” illusions of the world as it is. Dr. Weasel’s research seems to be disturbing in some basic way because her work comes into conflict with certain culturally derived notions held by leaders of our culture about what it means to be human and about the “placement” of humankind within the natural order of living things. Unexpected scientific evidence of this particular kind is uniformly difficult for people to see immediately, I suppose, because such evidence undercuts the ‘pedestal’ from which human beings prefer to arrogantly look upon other creatures and nature. We humans may introject culturally biased and scientifically unsupported transmissions (i.e., memes) that confuse human reasoning and promote a certain cortical conceitedness which is not helpful when trying to see what is real or to recognize certain requirements of practical reality. For a very long time cultural transmissions or memes appear to have been passed from generation to generation, distorting human perceptions and making it difficult for us to see scientific evidence for what is real about it.

    When a psychological practitioner like myself thinks a patient is suffering from a mental illness, that determination is a matter of evidence-based clinical judgment. However, general standards of what is normal are not clinical judgments (and sometimes do not objectively correlate with reality), but are often unverified, specious ‘evidence’ of cultural norms and social conventions that contain occasional misperceptions of what is real. Because some misperceptions are valued by those who share them, these memes get passed along as if they represented reality.

    In cases of deeply disturbed mental patients, they are inclined to distort reality so drastically that their distortions are not widely shared and closely held by other people. Instead, these mistaken impressions are labeled as examples of craziness and disregarded. By contrast, human aggregations in governments, social organizations and cultures appear not to misperceive and misrepresent reality so sharply, yet distortions of what is somehow real are still taken to be true and shared as if factual by aggregates of people.

    A term of art in psychology is useful here, folie a deux. The term means that two people share an identical distortion of reality. This understanding leads to other terms, folie a deux cent million for a social order or folie a deux billion for a culture. These terms refer to misperceived aspects of reality commonly shared and held by many people in aggregates. One way to define the highest standard of what is normal for the individual and for people in aggregations is in terms of being able to see what is reasonably and sensibly free of illusion, what appears to be real based on scientific evidence. Hence, in taking note of the process of humankind becoming evermore aware in the passage of space-time of whatsoever is somehow real by means of acquiring good scientific evidence, we can track the evolution of science.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

Commenting on this item is closed.