Hot, Flat, Crowded, and Oblivious

We are official finished with our series of essays titled, A World War II Effort and today we continue our series of the winning essays submitted to Dean of Freshmen, Fred Siegel.  These freshman were selected from over 300 of their peers to attend a dinner with Dean Siegel and author, Thomas Friedman.

Our featured essay of the day is by freshman, Christian Ewing.

Reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded this summer has been much more fun than I expected, and not just because of Thomas Friedman’s engaging and witty writing style. I picked up Hot, Flat, and Crowded at the GW bookstore during a free moment at my Colonial Inauguration and flipped through the first few pages at the airport before heading home. Home, for me, is Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you haven’t been, let me describe the Sooner State in general terms. It’s pretty flat, both in the Freidmanian sense (in that most of us do have access to the Internet and do not live in teepees) and geographically. The summers get very hot, and “global weirding” is all around us in our anomalous weather patterns (as many of us say: “if you don’t like the weather here, wait five minutes). With the Tulsa metropolitan area population climbing towards a million, things are also getting a bit more crowded. But that convergence of hot, flat, and crowded is about all most Tulsans are willing to see eye-to-eye on with Thomas Friedman and his assertions about global warming in a world in the midst of an IT revolution and exponential population growth. The reason reading his book was such fun is that some Tulsans have given me disapproving looks upon noticing my reading choice! After spending a summer reading what Mr. Friedman has to say and looking at my hometown (especially its residents’ views on global warming) through “Friedman goggles,” I’ve realized that much of my fellow Tulsans reject theories of climate change because we have accepted zero accountability from where our merchandise comes from and where our waste goes. We don’t take responsibility for either because the environmental and humane crimes committed by the production of most of our merchandise occurs thousands of miles away, not in our front yards. We don’t take responsibility for waste ends up because we don’t sense the deleterious effect our waste has on the environment, nor do we see dumps or landfills on our side of the city. Even though many kids my age refer to Tulsa as “the Bubble” and believe “the real world” exists elsewhere, I’ve realized that many of the objections to addressing climate change aggressively in my conservative hometown of nearly one million actually represents a national and even global sentiment preventing the launch of “Code Green.”

My mini-investigation of Tulsa’s general anti-green stance began with a walk around my house to see how many origins of our goods I could actually determine. I’m proud of our herb and vegetable gardens the yield significant crops without exploiting large swaths of big-corporation farms. I’m also proud that some of our furniture, namely the cedar desk chair in our living room, came from local craftsman. Sadly, that’s where my feeling of responsibility and ethicality ends. Most of our clothing comes from Asian countries, such as Malaysia, China, and Taiwan. I couldn’t account for the working conditions or pay the machine operator responsible for my favorite t-shirt came from. Nor could I account for the treatment or slaughter-methods employed to create my favorite leather dress shoes. Perhaps most relevantly to Friedman, I couldn’t account for the carbon footprint left by the numerous manufacturing plants responsible for creating my, admittedly immodest, wardrobe.

However, I took some comfort in knowing that almost no Tulsan could account for where they got the produce, even the poor. In fact, the poor of this city may be unintentionally the most unaccountable for their consumer goods. While I am privileged enough to have a yard for an herb garden or to shop organic every once in a while, the poor primarily depend on bargain superstores like Wal-Mart to supply most of their food, clothing, and appliances. I’d be lying if I denied that if I need something cheap and immediately available, I can drive less than a mile down the road to my local Wal-Mart Supercenter and pick it up for the lowest price in town. Tulsans aren’t bad people who have turned their backs on the suffering workers abroad or on the environment, we’re simply hard working people who most understand and concern ourselves with our immediate surroundings. Many of us, especially the less fortunate, know only how they can provide decent goods for their families on their paycheck. Both unfortunately and fortunately, the damages done to the environment never become apparent other than maybe in a few minutes on the news (which most people don’t choose to watch anyways).

I continued my mini-investigation by considering where our goods went after we no longer had any use for them. I’m proud to say we started recycling plastic, glass, and aluminum this year, meaning all our water bottles, wine bottles, soda cans, and other products can now reenter the cycle of consumption. I’m also proud that we have garage sales or drop off our old possessions at Goodwill or Salvation Army rather than throwing them in the garbage. Again, I find my pride squelched by my shame in how much of a negative mark my humble home of three humans and four pets made on the environment. Besides our plastic, glass, and aluminum, almost all our other waste most likely ends up in a landfill, producing toxic gases and contributing to climate change somewhere very far away from my South Tulsa neighborhood. I’m also disturbed by the amount of food we put down our disposal, and I admit I have no idea where it goes afterwards but I can’t imagine it makes a helpful contribution.

Perhaps most embarrassing is my family’s use of gasoline-powered cars. My mother, my father, and I each have our own cars. My mother drives the largest SUV provided by Lexus. My father and I both drive coupes. My extended family all has one car per household member over sixteen, and some even have an “extra” car for the weekends or road trips, usually an inefficient van or sports car. It is even harder for us to conceive of our wastefulness in the form of fossil fuel emissions, because their primary consequence is environmental changes that we do not feel.

I was fascinated by the two stories Friedman shared about men who lived off of the land who could recognize climate change. Friedman quotes Montana’s governor, Brian Schweitzer, “ ‘Old-timers, just regular old-timers who have never had a tie on their whole life and don’t plan to, will tell you, ‘Oh, boy, things are changing’’” (Friedman 132). Friedman describes noticeable changes in Montana’s environment that the hunting population living there notice, such as trout river closures and changes in elk hunting seasons. Friedman also mentions a Peruvian farmer whose giant corn crops stopped growing as well consistently with visible changes in the surrounding environment; he says “ ‘I tell my wife… the day that [nearby] mountain loses its snow, we have to move out of the valley’” (160). Two populations in opposite hemispheres in very different cultures both point to visible environmental changes that convince them the world is changing faster than it should.

The problem here in Tulsa is that we can’t feel, hear, smell, or see any kind of change like the Montanans and Peruvians Friedman interviewed can. I mentioned Oklahoma’s erratic weather patterns earlier; for as long as the oldest men in my family can remember, weather here has been completely unpredictable. Perhaps there is a pattern to the latest “weirdness” in our weather patterns just like in Peru or Montana, but we can’t tell. Therefore, Tulsans can say quite honestly that the environment they know hasn’t changed considerably in fifty years. A society that can’t sense the destructive impact of its actions will not change.

I’ve dedicated most of this essay to talking about my hometown, but I do so to stress that Americans can speak with confidence about what they are familiar with, but also because I feel Tulsa is not unique in much of what I’ve described. Many communities, particularly landlocked communities on fairly level terrains are unlikely to notice any change in weather patterns or sea levels. Communities who have worked to isolate their upper crust citizens very well from the ails of the poor and the regions were most of the pollution occurs also will speak little of environmental concerns.

Perhaps Friedman’s proposal to expand access to information and innovation goes beyond providing energy and Internet capabilities to struggling communities in Southern Africa. In order to organize our people to put the full force of the United States behind Code Green, we must have systemtic change; yes, we do need the systemic change Friedman advocates in change our dependance on fossil fuels and consuming clean electrons for power, but also in how we do business politically. The green movement must become a bipartisan effort motivated by science and united decision to preserve or planet and to preserve our race. As an incoming GW freshman, I’m excited to learn more about the environmental lobby and use my great power, humankind’s greatest power, the power to effect change.

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