A different approach to climate change

Greener living alone will not end global warming.

Sarah Giskin

Environmentalism can’t be just about the environment, not if we want to truly save the only place the human race has to live.

On Sept. 21, I went to the People’s Climate March in New York City, which Huffington Post reported was attended by more than 400,000 people – making it the global environmental movement’s biggest march to date. It was exciting to see so many people passionate about reversing the impending global environmental crises and committed to being a part of that process.

Talking to people from all over the world, who I met at the march, I heard one false belief over and over – that individuals making personal lifestyle changes could be the way out of global warming. People voiced this belief with a variety of arguments, whether advocating for the use of green cars like the Prius, dedication to recycling, or for a vegan diet.

Gillian Mead, an undeclared freshman  at Tyler who also attended the People’s Climate March, encountered a similar sentiment.

“The environmental movement needs to look toward issues beyond individual initiative to ‘go green,’” she said. “Sustainability isn’t a personal issue, it’s a systemic one.”

However, responding to the crisis as if it were a personal issue remains common.

One controversial 2007 article by Chris Demorro, published on the Central Connecticut State University Recorder Online, sparked debate among environmentalists everywhere. Demorro argued that the Prius, hailed as one of the most eco-friendly cars around, is actually more harmful to the planet than the Hummer.

Demorro said the nickel necessary for the car’s battery is mined and smelted at a plant in Ontario, and then “shipped via massive container ship to the largest nickel refinery in Europe,” then “hops over to China to produce ‘nickel foam.’” After that it is sent to Japan, and finally back to the US. Large amounts of fossil fuels are burned by the boats, planes, trains and trucks required to ship this one material around the world for every Prius built. So, he argued, the Prius is bad for the environment before it even hits the road.

Even  recycling, despite what we are led to believe, is an incredibly inefficient system. For instance, glass is ground into an indiscriminate mix called cullet, which Michael Munger, a writer for the online periodical Cato Unbound said “just isn’t very valuable.” This is partially because it cannot be sorted back into the various types that it came from, so many manufacturers do not want to use it in their products.

Munger said few companies want cullet, so the vast majority of glass products end up in landfills anyway, even after being processed at recycling plants. Recycling plastic can be even more complicated and inefficient.

When it comes to veganism, I won’t deny that it can reduce one’s personal impact, because the factory farming industry is a massive contributor to carbon emissions and other types of environmental degradation. But one person’s carbon footprint is miniscule in the grand scheme of the issue, and is unequivocally not the problem.

More importantly, it is impossible for every person to go vegan. Eating a strictly vegan diet requires a certain amount of access, time and money that many Americans, and definitely many Philadelphians, frankly do not have.

But even if every person possible went vegan, drove a Prius and recycled, the environment would not yet be saved – not even close.

This is because some of the biggest contributors to climate change and pollution are big businesses and the American Military, according to Truthout. Changing my personal lifestyle will not eliminate the impact of these entities. In fact, the emergence of “green” products on the market like Prius is evidence of Big Business’ ability to adapt to people’s genuine desire to save the environment – and find a way to profit off it.

I am glad that so many people care about preserving the planet we live on and are willing to make personal sacrifices to do so. But if we want to realistically achieve this goal in our lifetimes, and it may be critical that we do, we are going to have to be ambitious.

Mead said there should be “a systematic change that tackles corporations’ and the government’s role in this.”

“There needs to be a large scale movement not to just get governments to pass regulations to cut down their carbon emissions and to end harmful activities like fracking and [oil] pipelines across the world … but to change [to] a system that values the sustainability of humanity and the entire earth over profit,” she said.

In a society where corporations literally degrade the habitat the human race relies on to the point where it becomes unlivable, just to make a profit, it is hard to imagine an economic and social system that prevents this; one in which the safety, health, and quality of human lives and cultures take precedent. Like Mead, I not only believe that this change is possible, but necessary.

Sarah Giskin can be reached at sarah.giskin@temple.edu and on twitter @SarahBGisky


  1. Okay, I have to stop you at the Prius thing. The Prius is NOT worse for the environment than normal cars. DeMorro’s paper was a blend of two sources of misinformation, namely the Daily Mail and CNW Marketing. This idea was soundly debunked seven years ago, and should not still be around.

    The Daily Mail’s article about the environmental impact of nickel mining was retracted, because the damage both happened, and was cleaned up, decades before the Prius ever existed(1). In other words, the Prius wasn’t responsible for any of it.

    As well, shipping is the world’s most efficient method of transport. At an efficiency rating of over 1,000 miles per gallon per ton (2), the overall environmental impact of shipping is negligible relative to the car’s full lifecycle environmental impact.

    Finally, CNW Marketing’s paper, which was the one that said the Prius is worse for the environment than a Hummer, was thoroughly refuted after it was found that they made very biased assumptions against the Prius and in favour of the Hummer, and making assumptions that flatly contradicted nearly every other lifecycle analysis ever produced (3) . In reality, the Prius incurs 35% less energy usage and 35% less emissions overall throughout its life (2).

    In other words, the Prius actually is better for the environment than normal cars. It’s sad to see that misinformation from seven years ago continues to poison the discussion around hybrids, because they are the real deal.

    On a larger note, I take exception to the defeatist attitude of this piece, that we as individuals can’t make a difference. If we believe that, then we are already doomed. The fact is, we can make a difference at our individual levels, and should. Promoting efficiency, recycling, and environmental awareness at a societal level comes forth from changes at the individual level, but that won’t happen unless we embrace the fact that we can, and should, make a difference where possible.


    (1) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-417227/Toyota-factory.html

    (2) http://www.environment.ucla.edu/media_IOE/files/BatteryElectricVehicleLCA2012-rh-ptd.pdf

    (3) http://www.pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/hummer_vs_prius3.pdf

  2. Hello, I just wanted to say that I really liked your article. I’m extremely concerned for our planet. Every year seems to get worse. These last four years have been getting noticeably warmer. These corporate interests are really strong but the truth is much more powerful when the right people say it. I fear that if we don’t do anything in the next 2-4 years, too much damage will be done. If we can find the problem(s) causing our climate change, I believe that the American people and America will do the correct thing. I hope to hear more from you and others. Thanks for the great article. Signed, guy in OH.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.