The Carbon Cycle

carbon cycle


Back in 2006 academic Kate Rawles had the idea to cycle from El Paso to Anchorage (completing 4553 miles along the way) as part of a research expedition to investigate global warming. Funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust she went on to publish an account of the trip under the clever title The Carbon Cycle.


This does rather beg the question as to whether she started with the pun and worked back to the project, but that is probably just me and my enthusiasm for punning. Watch this space for my project The Career Ladder in which I investigate the corporate hierarchy by climbing the Shard with a domestic ladder or The Learning Journey in which I investigate the history of education by travelling round the UK on a motorised blackboard mounted on eight roller skates.




What Kate Rawles found on her journey was that people in the US, and to a lesser extent Canada, are frequently very misinformed about climate change. Many have barely heard of it, many have given it very little thought and others are fatalistic or believe that Jesus will save them or that it is simply the will of a (wrathful) God. She discovers that climate change is seen in the US as a contentious political issue rather than a scientific fact. This is pretty different from the UK (remember David Cameron and his huskies?). Of course we have our climate change deniers but the balance of opinion seems to be that it is happening even if it is difficult to decide what to do about it.


Kate speculates about why climate change is so poorly understood in the US. The usual suspects are presented (stand up Fox news, the oil industry and craven politicians). However she also highlights how difficult it is to imagine an alternative to a high consumption lifestyle when you are surrounded by the vast distances and urban sprawl of the US (to say nothing of the TV fuelled celebrity culture or Americans fondness for throwing huge quantities of red meat on a propane fuelled BBQ. America and energy consumption are wrapped tightly around each other and it is difficult to think about how to separate the two.


Amongst those Americans who do accept the idea of climate change she encounters a strong reliance on the idea of the techno fix. Essentially people believe that given enough support science will be able to increase fuel efficiency and sustainability to the point where a version of the current American lifestyle will cease to be a danger to the planet. This is appealing, and there is at least some value in the investigation of fuel efficiency and alternative technologies, but as Kate demonstrates in her postscript to the book it is very unlikely that the techno fix will be able to address the magnitude of the problem.


So through the book Kate moves her position from an early reliance on mass behaviour change to a sort of three pronged approach.

  1. People need to live differently and to challenge the culture and practices of high consumption lifestyles
  2. We need to fund research and development into the techno fix to increase fuel efficiency and sustainability.
  3. We need a new type of politics which is serious about addressing environmental problems and supporting people to live more sustainable lives.

The problem is that (3) really holds a lot of the key to (1) and (2). Without systemic change there is a danger that (1) and (2) at best skirt round the edges of the problem and at worst appear to be a solution that makes (3) unnecessary. Unfortunately Kate is a little short on ideas about how we convince people to stop driving their Hummers out for a spot of Heli-skiing before heading back into their air-conditioned houses, heated pools and propane BBQs. She does however point out that while people are very attached to high consumption lifestyles it doesn’t necessarily make them happy.


What Kate doesn’t really discuss is how all of these ideas connect up to the ordinary ways in which people live their lives. She talks about lifestyle change but doesn’t really explore how that follows through into daily life, learning and work choices. I think that there is some really important work to be done here. The intersection between career  as a personal narrative through life (see regular readers I got it in in the end – there is always a way!) and the grand narrative of climate change seems to me crucial in addressing many of the issues that Kate raises.


In the meantime I desperately need to think up an excuse to ride my bike a long way for a reason that makes sense both to my passions and to my employer.


The Carbon Cycle is an inspiring read and is well worth taking with you next time you go Hummer shopping.


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