Consumption Durango Herald

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         I have been criticized because I don’t write much about consumption. It is true that almost all of my essays are about is population, although consumption is as big a factor for impact as population.

            You probably remember the formula: I=PAT. It means that the human impact on our environment of a group of people is determined by the group’s Population, their average Affluence (or consumption) and by Technology. Technology seems to be a small player in this formula. As soon as we get a technology to save energy (and thus decrease our impact) we find other ways to spend our money.

We in the USA consume much more than people in most other countries. Does that make us happier? I don’t think so. The average annual income in the 5 happiest countries is about $57,000. Although our income is higher at $70,000, we’re only rated #15 for happiness.

            Why focus on population? Globally, according to the UN, there are 121 million unintended pregnancies. This is because there are millions of women who don’t have access to effective contraception, or because their partners won’t allow them to use contraception, or because their birth control failed.  My hope is that this number of unplanned pregnancies can be decreased by making highly effective contraception more available, and by shifting societies away from pronatalism and away from male domination.

There is another reason I do not focus on consumption. We are surrounded by media urging us to spend, buy and consume. We know that our consumption increases our impact, climate change for example. Although it is difficult to ignore advertisements, it is possible. One really doesn’t need so much stuff! You can learn to keep your eyes on what you are reading and forget the ads; think of them as injurious.

            In March the UN wrote a warning that we need to decrease consumption. I did a quick survey of 8 major US online newspapers, looking for examples of ads that contrast with our need to decrease consumption, On the same pages where the UN warning appeared, each newspaper had advertisements accompanying the stories urging us to consume more! The average number of ads was more than 8, and the maximum was 11. To make things worse, in many cases it was difficult to distinguish what is an ad and what is the news. I am glad the Durango Herald online has few ads! 

            Although the media depend on advertising to bring us the news and to pay their bills, the number of advertisements one is exposed to is as appalling as it is distracting. Fortunately, you can learn to ignore most of the forces that want you to spend your money. One way is to pay extra on many websites to get ad-free service. Another is to just ask yourself if you really need all that stuff.

            When I was in elementary school, I read an ad for an intriguing gadget to broadcast my voice over the radio. I was excited that I could have my own radio station, but didn’t have enough money to purchase the device—my allowance was just 35 cents a week. I begged my mother for enough money to buy one of those transmitters.

            “Do you really need it, or is it just a passing fancy?” was her reply—prescient of the saying “is it need or greed” that would become popular years later. What she said then is even more important than 70 years ago; we need to consume less. Ignoring advertisements is a step in the correct direction.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2023

Durango Herald Greenhouse gases

We Have ALL Lost


Back in January, 2008 the Durango (Colorado) Herald published a unique challenge: “I offer a public wager of $5,000 that the Earth will be cooler in 10 years.” Dr. Roger Cohen, a physicist, proposed this wager.

I responded, and our bet started the next month. Cohen’s rules were reasonable, however, I am a Quaker. Members of the Religious Society of Friends are admonished to not bet, so I countered with a different structure. Each of us would donate $5000 to Durango Nature Studies, and the money would be held in escrow until the bet was over. We also agreed that the decision would be made by averaging the data for three years rather than by comparing 2007 with 2017.

After agreeing on the rules we each pulled out our checkbooks and wrote checks. We realized that neither of us would profit from the bet; we would just get “bragging rights”. The Herald ran an article that February: “I think part of Roger’s goal was to keep the issue of global warming in the public mind.…”

I was curious to know just what Dr. Cohen was thinking. I knew that he had been Manager of Strategic Planning at Exxon—which led me to believe that he must be quite intelligent. When we got together for an amiable lunch I asked him what he really felt about climate change. His answer surprised me: the true reason that he wrote the challenge was that he wanted people to really think about climate change and to question the media. I asked if he thought any of the climate change could be anthropogenic. His reply, as I remember, was that yes, maybe about a third was human caused. In private Cohen did not seem so sanguine about denying climate change.

The Herald printed an update in 2015. “We’ve all lost” ran the headline, accurately quoting me. It stated that Dr. Cohen had conceded that he had lost the bet because the climate was, indeed, warmer than in 2007. This implied that I had won the wager. My response: ‘Grossman, learning of the news, was not the least bit pleased or boastful. “I don’t think I’ve won,” he said. “I think I lost. I think we’ve all lost.”’ Indeed, climate change is probably the worst challenge that all life will face this century.

In correspondence with me after that 2015 article came out, Cohen clarified what he really said—that the climate’s temperature only appears to have increased because the deciding database had changed. We had agreed to use the British climate database, HadCRUT3, but it was replaced by HadCRUT4.

The HadCRUT data are available for public viewing on Internet, and they confirm what anyone who reads the news already knows. Climate is warming. The amount of warming is small in the ten years of our wager, but significant. The average of the 3 years at the end of the bet is +0.231° Celsius hotter than a decade earlier. This may not seem like much, but if this trend continues it means that the climate will be almost 2 degrees Celsius hotter in a person’s lifetime. That’s over 3° Fahrenheit!

Here we are at the beginning of 2018. A decade has passed since Cohen wrote his challenge, and sadly he is no longer with us. He died of a brain tumor in September, 2016. I would have loved to have asked him questions about the wager, but there are some things that we will never know.

Perhaps my biggest question is a seeming inconsistency between a document that Dr. Cohen wrote in 1981 and his wager that the climate was not heating up. Back then he was a scientist at Exxon and was asked to criticize a report another person had written. Cohen felt that the other person was too optimistic about climate change: “…it is distinctly possible that the CPD scenario will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).” CPD probably meant “Continued Product Development”.

Later in this same document he wrote that future data gathering and science “…may provide strong evidence for a delayed CO2 effect of a truly substantial magnitude….”

With the temperature rising, we can consider Earth as having a fever. We have overwhelmed the planet’s ability to deal with our carbon waste emissions. Unfortunately, the fever is a symptom of the illness of overpopulation and over consumption. We must do what we can to limit these for the sake of our grandchildren.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2018