Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

Paraphrasing Tolstoy for Today


In my years working in international development, I often came across this quote by Leo Tolstoy: “I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible . . . except by getting off his back.”

Tolstoy takes responsibility for not relieving his victim’s misery, which is good. However, the quote does not address the fact that he is assisted in his oppression by the system of power and privilege in which he exists, nor his sense of entitlement to do what he is doing. Even if Tolstoy decided to get off the victim’s back, or the victim succeeded in freeing himself from his burden, he remains in a feudal system of servitude, poverty, lack of opportunity and powerlessness.

I keep being reminded of this quote in the context of the biggest issue facing the world today: climate change. In today’s context, the equivalent to Tolstoy not getting off the man’s back to relieve his suffering is our societies not reducing dramatically the greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere.

Daily headlines prompt this reflection. Notwithstanding efforts of some to reduce carbon footprints, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects nearly 50 per cent increase in world energy use by 2050. Even if much of this comes from renewables, the level of hydrocarbon use is not projected to decrease significantly.

Increases in energy consumption are due to many reasons: growing population, the rise in living standards leading to increased demand, changing consumption patterns globally, the limitless thirst for consumer goods and services.

Market-oriented private enterprise systems and planned economies share the same overarching goal: industrial growth and economic expansion from increased production and consumption of goods and services. This growth imperative cannot be squared with the need to reduce “throughputs of material and energy,” to use a term popularized by Herman Daly in his book Steady-State Economics: A New Paradigm.

A May 20, 2021 BBC article headline asks: “Could humans destroy all life on earth?” The article goes on to ask “The seemingly insatiable human tendency to consume is changing our planet and the life on it, but can we change our behaviour?”

Examples of over-indulgence are everywhere. At one extreme, if you ever wondered how many residences and vehicles are owned by ultra high-net worth individuals in the U.S., the answer, according to a 2016 Fortune article, is nine homes and 19 cars. Recently we have seen the rather repulsive sight of billionaires shooting into space, just because they can afford to.

The mega-rich are not the only ones with a high carbon footprint. A September 2020 Guardian headline reads “How SUVs conquered the world – at the expense of its climate.” The International Energy Agency determined that over the past 10 years “SUVs were the second largest cause of the global rise in carbon dioxide emissions, eclipsing all shipping, aviation, heavy industry and even trucks . . . .” A significant impact of a personal choice of transportation.

Even seemingly benign activities have serious energy consequences. In 2020 it was estimated that the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems which support them accounted for 3.7 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. This was projected to double by 2025. All that emailing, texting, zooming and streaming has consequences.

Then there is the current craze in cryptocurrencies and especially Bitcoin mining. The electricity required for the latter is more than the total electricity consumption of countries like Finland or Ecuador. For whose benefit, one might ask, other than money launderers, corrupt operatives and speculators?

Notwithstanding coal being the dirtiest fuel, the world still uses 8 billion tonnes. China’s coal production hit record levels of over 4 billion tonnes in 2021. A Nov. 13, 2021 headline in Forbes says: “Coal Is Out At Cop26 – Except For Countries Where It’s Still In!”, listing China, India, Australia and the U.S.A. as “still in coal.”

A recent Guardian headline claims “World’s militaries avoiding scrutiny over emissions . . . Countries do not have to include armed forces’ emissions in their targets despite estimates sector creates six per cent of greenhouse gases.”

Individual choices can reduce carbon footprints. But just as Tolstoy getting off his victim would not be enough to relieve his misery, personal lifestyle changes will be insufficient to alter the trajectory of global warming. So far governments, oil companies, the rich and the powerful have done everything they can first to deny or ignore the reality of climate change, then to take as little action as possible to confront it, while spending billions gaslighting growing public awareness. Without their commitment to be part of the solution, prospects for reducing greenhouse emissions sufficiently are virtually nil.

Concerns about climate change cannot be separated from growing inequality in wealth and economic opportunity. The top one per cent have appropriated almost all recent economic growth, now owning close to half of global wealth. Reductions in energy and material consumption need to be accompanied by redistribution of wealth and economic opportunity, a move strongly opposed by the political right.

The demands we place on the global commons will eventually have to differentiate between real material and service “needs” such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, and a sense of belonging and well-being, and mere entitlement “wants” for luxury goods and services. Gross and harmful patterns of over-consumption will at some point have to be labelled as unacceptable and inimical to a viable life for all. The strong value we place currently on individual freedoms and choices will have to be balanced by values of environmental responsibility and community welfare.

In today’s world, Tolstoy’s quote could be expanded and rephrased thus: “We indiscriminately exploit the resources provided by nature, producing by-products which damage the prospects of all life on the planet, while assuring ourselves that we are concerned for the welfare of the planet, its humans and its myriad species, and wish to lighten nature’s load by all means possible . . . except by reducing our level of material and energy consumption and redistributing more fairly the wealth our societies generate.”

It is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for humans and other species, but such an admission may be a first step towards collectively searching for and implementing solutions to the mess we are in.

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