It’s Time For Dinosaur Economy And Systems To Go Extinct

My name is Kiki Serantes and I’m an environmental hypocrite.

From the comfort of my Seattle office, I drink coffee that has been through more countries than I have. When I can’t find what I’m looking for on the gaudy shelves of my favorite thrift stores, I’m not immune from that thrill of finding exactly what I crave online. I buy organic and local food when I can — but “when I can” has loose meaning when living on a below-minimum-wage stipend.

It would take just over 5 planets to sustain life for all 7+ billion of us on this blue-green Earth if everyone lived like I do, according to an simulation. At 22, I feel the weight of my massive carbon footprint crushing down on and surrounding me as if I’m an ant underneath an expanding concrete city. I can taste the miasma of my own actions, compounded by the complacency staining the community in which I, however unwillingly, participate.

A screenshot from the simulation before any changes were made to my carbon-emitting habits. Even with consideration of those changes, however, it would still take over 4 planets to support humankind if we all followed suit. Those changes include not driving a car, cutting meat consumption in half and using half as many items that come with packaging. This begs the question — what’s going on behind the scenes that makes U.S. citizens have so much more of an impact than elsewhere? The answer lies in the dinosaur economy and our participation in it.

No doubt that “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” however cliché it sounds, is a crucial mantra in pursuing a better tomorrow. But just as crucial is the deconstruction of the systems that imprison underprivileged and privileged folks alike on the speeding train toward climate catastrophe.

When President Trump — or as many of us in the resistance prefer to call him, “45”— declared U.S. withdrawal from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, he made it all the more important for us to consider our own actions. But what’s more is how 45’s decision has cost us so much of the sparse time we have left to transform, overhaul and, in some cases, eliminate the systems and institutions (aka the “dinosaur economy“) that exacerbate American carbon emissions — norms and practices we contribute to often without realization.

It’s not that I don’t take steps to lesson my footprint: I commute on the bus to work every day. I take short showers. I limit my meat consumption (though, admittedly, I could do this more). But attempts to align actions with, what I feel is, a moral obligation to undo and address the detriment we humans have bestowed on Earth are incomplete when each of us unintentionally contributes to man-made climate change every day simply by living in the nation we live.

The United States produces the second most CO2 globally, with the EPA estimating around 6,870 million metric tons or 15.1 trillion pounds released in 2014 (come to think of it, with 45’s “deconstruction” efforts, this stat could be of the last the EPA provides). According to the World Bank, the U.S. averaged 16.4 metric tons per capita in 2013 — the weight of 30 polar bears, one of the major species impacted by climate change, emitted per American.

Living my same lifestyle — but with S. Africa as my home — that same Ecological Footprint quiz suggested it would only take about 1 planet if everyone were to live a lifestyle similar to my own. The U.S.’s agricultural (with meat production contributing to around one-fifth of carbon output alone), utility and transportation industry norms and practices are all leading causes for such locational disparity in carbon emissions.  Not to mention nondomestic carbon emissions, including military expenditures and out-of-country production.

What’s astounding is that even if I pledge to take instrumental steps to change my own behavior, such as pledging to cut my meat consumption in half and purchase products sans packaging, it only changes my footprint from just around 5 planets to just around 4.

Considering my Ecological Footprint opened my eyes to my own hypocrisy. But it also motivates me to think bigger, to act beyond that which is considered “realistic” within confines of the norms we’re all comfortable and accustomed to.

Uprooting our addiction to convenience and profit, our addiction to the norms and to the systems that forge a false sense of security, are necessary to change the technocentric course that humanity is moving toward — a future devoid of the unabridged wilderness from which all life we know came, a future controlled like an incubator of disillusioned survival.

How can we reach our human potential if we fail to address the institutions and norms that have inherently gifted us with a status quo, spoon-fed version of what’s good in life — of what we all should be striving for and of what happiness itself means?

In terms of addressing anthropogenic climate change, individual action is only as much of a change agent as a drop of water moving against the currents consuming it. No matter how much we change our own lives, citizens of the United States of America will always be environmental hypocrites so long as the dinosaur institutions we’re addicted to continue to thrive.

Our collective habits and the norms that we perform and participate in serve to reinforce the systems that make mass carbon emission the norm. Taking responsibility is an essential first step, but sitting around feeling bad and blaming ourselves will never provide the solutions so necessary at this crucial time. This is not to justify my hypocrisy; rather, it is to rightly place the role of advocacy, activism and education of and for climate justice in cultivating a new American (and, indeed, global) culture and system.

Too much of the carbon reduction debate emphasizes discrete, individual actions when global problems require global analysis and action. And though questioning the systems and institutions that breed human habit is indeed a gargantuan challenge that — to 45’s distaste — requires creative use of human mental faculty, continuing to see solutions to the carbon problem from an individual lens alone will never be enough.

Ultimately, our goal must not be so small-scale to eat less meat or drive less — though these are truly important steps in aligning habits with your environmental ethic. Our goal must be to ask why we are encouraged and at times forced to participate in mass carbon emission to simply survive in urban society. We must ask why our current system is so out of sync with that which is natural and harmonious in the first place, and we must ask what we can do to dismantle that system. We must go beyond reforming the systems we born into — we must transform them into something else entirely.

We must not let 45’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement thwart our grassroots efforts to dismantle the systems that are literally paving the way toward climate catastrophe. The resistance requires us to show up — with our creativity, with our donations, with our hearts.

Individual actions are strong when it comes to walking the walk: Collective actions are strong when it comes to changing the path you walk on.



  1. As I read this post on the sag Environmental Ethics Lab, I recognized many of the arguments that Kiki stated, articulated many of the things I believe. She essentially argued that while individual actions are critical to “talking the walk” they are not the entire solution to the crisis we are facing. It is key that we practice individual action in order to remain true to our environmental ethic, but individual actions alone will not address the systems and economies that perpetuate the abuse of the environment.
    Many of the concerns that Kiki mentioned were almost identical to my own, particularly those that arose as I completed my footprint assessment. She explains that even when she made significant changes to her lifestyle, her footprint was still remarkably unsustainable. Despite this, she still emphasizes that individual action is still critical in transforming our systems and economies. Oftentimes markets and business reflect the demands of the consumer, so if we continue, or begin, to demand sustainable products etc. perhaps the economy will adapt in order to reflect this.
    In order to successfully transform our habits and practices into a sustainable state, we have to recognize that the system (s) that we partake in are inherently unsustainable. While I believe that Kiki, and many other grassroots environmentalists, are correct in asserting this truth, I am concerned that actually uprooting the systems in place is a much more difficult task. I am additionally concerned of what system (s) would take their place, that could support a nation as large and diverse as the United States. As I mentioned, it is possible that markets will reflect consumer habits and demands, therefore we should seek sustainable, organic products and businesses with low carbon footprints. We must also vote “green” and attempt to elect official and politicians who will consider the simultaneous health of humanity and the environment.

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  2. Your blog resonated with me on many levels because I have found myself asking myself many of the same questions you ask yourself and have been struggling with many of the same issues you struggle with. Like you, I ride my bike, carpool, take public transportation etc. I eat locally whenever I can. I constantly think about how my actions are negatively impacting the environment, and feel more guilt because I am aware the unsustainable aspects of my lifestyle.

    I agree with you that our nation needs a new approach and way of thinking. Changing our eating and transportation habits is a good step, but in order to make a bigger difference, we need to change our habits with genuine intention. I think a great place to start is with our spending. Gonzaga has been trying to divest from fossil fuels for a while now. It has been a slow process, but actions like this are more than necessary if we want to make any sort of real change. We influence our economy through our decisions as consumers. To make lasting changes for the greater good, we need to be persistent and put our money where our mouth is.

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  3. In our modern society though, reducing one’s footprint seems like it would be impossible without an almost self-imposed exile it seems. I worry that we ultimately have little control of so many different factors in our life that ultimately, even the most drastic measures will fall short. What I guess I’m trying to say is that individual goals are important and necessary for reducing one’s footprint, but, reaching the goal of living with sustainably with the correct footprint probably will likely require a larger movement in society as a whole.

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  4. This article was a reminder of how I feel in many of my environmental courses. I think that often we are taught to make individual changes in order to reduce our carbon footprints because it appears hopeless to appeal to the masses to make societal changes (during one final our class concluded we are plugging holes on a sinking ship). Yet at the same time, we are often quick to forgive ourselves of our hypocrisies because there are an overwhelmingly large amount of things we do on a daily basis that horribly impact the environment. While I may reduce my meat consumption and walk where I can, I allow myself to fly home during breaks regardless of the large carbon emissions that accompany my visit.
    Last semester I took a course called Capitalism, the Environment, and Justice. This class was a reminder that it is of extreme importance that we seek to change society on a broad scale and look for environmental regulations that span the globe. We need to dismiss the idea that we are locked into a capitalist society that relies on natural gas and environmental degradation for our economy to continue. In order to make these global changes we need to participate in the democratic system we are gifted to live in – involving ourselves in activism and government and politics to push change. While it might feel hopeless in a time with “45” in power, the power of the people is still an influential force that can spread awareness and demand difference.

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  5. As I was reading through some posts for inspiration for my Environmental Ethics final paper, I came across this one which I caught my eye. I love the term “dinosaur institutions” as I feel it encapsulates the dichotomy we live in now of a progressive, scientific, and technological era paired with hundreds of years old political policy and economic structures. And obviously, being an environmental studies student, the term “dinosaur” also brings to mind another outdated system – the burning of fossil fuels. Why on earth (literally) are we still doing this when there’s so many alternative energy sources and technologies out there? Because our current economic and political infrastructures aren’t set up for it, that’s why. I loved the statement you made immediately before the bolded section, “No matter how much we change our own lives, citizens of the United States of America will always be environmental hypocrites so long as the dinosaur institutions we’re addicted to continue to thrive.” As I have been thinking about my own environmental ethic for the final paper, I feel that this is very much in line with my own feelings. Being vegan or bicycling everywhere is great and will certainly reduce your individual footprint, but it really doesn’t do a damn thing when the Arctic was just opened for oil drilling. We can do simple albeit sometimes difficult things to change our lifestyles and ourselves, but in order to actually change the world and minimize climate change we have to change the systems in charge.

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  6. Individual actions such as taking the bus or reducing meat consumption are honorable goals with measurable impacts when applied by many people, however they barely do anything compared to the size of the climate change issue. Addressing the “dinosaur economy” and its extreme carbon emissions directly is more effective. A complete change of electrical power generation, manufacturing, and transportation is required for meaningful change. A treaty like the Paris agreement is good, but like riding your bike to work, it is not nearly enough. Even if the US stuck to its Paris agreement it would not be enough to meet the global warming target of 1.5-2 degrees.

    You rightly state that advocacy, activism, and education are necessary to change the current US system. Unfortunately, like eating local and reducing meat consumption, these aren’t enough to change the system on their own. Please don’t mistake this for saying they are not important, they are essential, as is individual reduction of consumption. To fully address the issue the powerful entities of the US economy must do their part. Relying on the government, especially one promoting coal mining and other fossil fuels, is reckless even with thousands of activists, advocates, and educators. Luckily the economy is controlled by people. Using the idea that 80% or more of the change will come from 20% or less of the people or groups the idea that one person can have an impact becomes relevant again. People who are educated, intelligent, motivated, and care about the environment can do more than through their work than a thousand protesters in terms of measurable change. One team of scientists and engineers who develop a more effective form of renewable energy can do more than a thousand advocates. One salesman who convinces people that electric cars are just as cool and practical as gas powered cars does more. One billionaire investor choosing to only support companies actively working toward eliminating the “dinosaur economy” does more. Accomplishing ones dreams of having a big impact on climate change doesn’t necessarily require a majority backing them (although it helps) it requires innovative thinking, hard work, and big dreams.

    I’m not saying one should ignore their civic duties to vote responsibly and speak out against injustice and harmful practices. I’m saying that people have a tendency to get bogged down in looking at what others could be doing better. Working diligently towards ones potential can be a better use of resources, as ones potential is often much more than they initially think.

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