Oxymoronic sustenance and sustainability


NEW YORK — Earlier this month there was held, in a midtown hotel, an International Conference on Climate Change. Yet another one? you might ask. But, no, this one was to make the case that Al Gore, with his argument in “An Inconvenient Truth” is a fraud, a swindler. One of the conferees’ premises was “a 2003 survey of 530 climate scientists in 27 countries,” which found 86 percent agreed that global warming was happening, “but only 56 percent said it’s mostly the result of human causes.”

In the continuing climate debate, citing a survey five years old strikes me as misguided. Lately, even the stubbornly anti-environmental U.S. government has been relenting a bit, though perhaps in the vain hope of sweetening President George W. Bush’s “legacy.” Also, to a nonexpert, the “causes” on which more than half the scientists surveyed agree seem to demand serious attention simply because those very causes are at the heart of the debate.

The conference was followed, in any event, by a news report on more recent papers that predict that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission cuts of 50 to 80 percent by the mid-21st century proposed by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are not nearly enough.

One of the papers, published in Geographical Research Letters in February, simply states in its title: “Stabilizing climate requires near-zero emissions.” Does that mean virtually all human activities that emit GHG into the air must be abandoned? Yes. As its abstract puts it, “future anthropogenic emissions would need to be eliminated in order to stabilize global-mean temperatures.” The authors of the paper say that human life as we know it may not come to an abrupt end but without such a drastic action the atmosphere would get far hotter, unbearably hotter, well into the coming centuries.

Once you start paying attention to the talk of climate change, one thing that amazes is the chasm between dire prognoses and what we actually do — BAU (yes, this acronym for “business as usual” seems to have become part of the climate jargon). Worse, we have started to congratulate ourselves in a palpably silly fashion. So, now “sustainable,” “eco-friendly” and such words are everywhere.

On my desk, for example, is “Spain Gourmetour,” a “sponsored supplement” that recently came with The New York Times. On its cover is a picture of a sooty chocolate hind quarter of a pig, with the phrase, “sustenance and sustainability.” Open this glossy pamphlet and you first see an homage to the Iberian swine raised by “sustainable farming” to produce jamon Iberico, “considered by gourmets worldwide as the finest tasting ham in the world.” This is followed by a description of the upcoming Expo 08, to be held in Zaragoza to “promote awareness about the sustainable development of the planet.” It, in turn, is followed by similar articles on Somontano wines and black Aragon olives.

No, I have nothing against Spain. It is one country I’d like to visit at least once in my life. When it comes to the theme of the expo, Japan has already done something similar. The 2005 Expo, held in Nagoya, was to show “nature’s wisdom.” I was involved with it, peripherally, and know that it provoked environmental objections.

Holding a large-scale exhibition with such a theme is a contradiction in terms.

Monica Hesse has captured the absurdity of stressing “eco” themes in our age of consumerism in “Greed in the Name of Green” (The Washington Post, March 5). For example, go to the Web site of Anna Sova Luxury Organics, a vendor of very high-class home products, and you will see the page open with the words “organic,” “eco-safe” and “sustainable” — only to urge you to buy “Turkish towels, 900 grams per square meter, $58 apiece,” “the eco-friendly 600-thread-count bedsheets, milled in Switzerland with U.S. cotton, $570 for queen-size,” and so forth. As Hesse notes, a “green consumer” is an oxymoron.

Then, there is the question of “food miles.” The idea originally was a simple one: Given GHG emissions that are inevitable to any mode of transportation, the closer to you your food is produced, the greener you can be. You will indeed be surprised how far much of the food we consume today travels. For example, “Checking the Food Odometer,” a 2003 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University, reports that, on average, produce sold and eaten in the United States travel 2,400 km, and that even produce grown locally (that is, in Iowa) 90 km.

Little wonder, then, many U.S. colleges and universities with green programs emphasize the use of local produce. Some even have their own vegetable gardens.

But some scholarly investigators pooh-pooh the idea of food miles as “provincial, damaging, and simplistic,” says Michael Specter in his recent article in The New Yorker, “Big Foot” (Feb. 25). Specter’s title naturally echoes the talk of “carbon footprints.” And there are analyses to prove their point. A 2007 study by the Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit of Lincoln University, New Zealand, for example, concluded that Britons, if they care about food miles, should eat New Zealand’s milk solids (dairy), lamb, apples, and onions rather than their own.

The reason: When all factors, including transportation to Britain, are taken into account, New Zealand’s products release far less GHG emissions into the air. The unit’s report is called “Food Miles — Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry.” Similarly, a 2007 New York University study titled “Red, White and ‘Green’: The Cost of Carbon in the Global Wine Trade” found that New Yorkers concerned about carbon footprints ought to drink French wines rather than those from Napa Valley.

Such analyses carry a strong dose of rationalization, if not sophistry, but no matter. Life goes on. I profess interest in global warming, but over the Easter weekend, my wife and I flew to Naples, Florida, to visit our friends — something we started doing a few years ago. The first thing we noticed was the continuing expansion of Kennedy Airport. Arriving at Fort Myers, north of Naples, we saw highway expansions going on in the usual mindless way and vast acreages continuing to be stripped of vegetation for development. For us urban-dwellers visiting to savor a few days of more “natural” environs, the destruction of “nature” was particularly disheartening.

But, of course, we knew that by traveling the way we did we were contributing to that destructive process.

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato’s most recent book is “Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology.”