I picked up this book because I had enjoyed Lab Girl, Jahren’s first book, which I discussed at my branch library’s book club a few years ago. I also thought The Story of More would nicely follow Braiding Sweetgrass, which my neighborhood book club discussed last November. Beyond following the breadcrumbs though, sometimes I have found myself wishing someone would take a step back and explain the larger story of climate change to me, to give me some kind of grounding on which to consider so many mini-conversations and news reports.
My family is at a crossroads frequently found in American culture: we have outgrown our house. Perhaps six people need more than two bedrooms and one shower? Perhaps six people might need a little privacy? Isn’t this the American dream? Isn’t this why when we look at those who have less, perhaps not even indoor plumbing, we want to improve their lives?
Jahren points out though, that:
“If the Story of More becomes the Story of Everyone -- if everyone on our planet adopted an American lifestyle -- global emissions of carbon dioxide would be more than four times what they are today. It is not certain how much of that carbon dioxide would dissolve into the ocean (and how much damage that would do), but as the scientists of the 1970s found, it is very difficult to envision an atmosphere with less than double today’s carbon dioxide content by the year 2200. At least two degrees Celsius of net temperature increase will accompany that rise in carbon dioxide, as well as the cataclysms attendant upon that amount of warning. / It’s not time to panic, it’s not time to give up -- but it is time to get serious.” (140-1)
That’s hard to hear, especially when I’ve felt good about my family’s carbon footprint up to this point. We have a small home. We rarely drive our one car. We rarely fly. We recycle. We compost. We don’t eat a ton of meat. We limit our purchases out of necessity -- we don’t have space to store them. We donate used items. Though on a small scale, we distribute money and resources to people who don’t have enough food, or clean water. We do a lot, right? Then I think about where we’re starting from.
One of Jahren’s points is particularly hard to hear, especially for someone highly educated, like myself, who has also birthed four children. Jahren points out that countries with the “lowest gender gap (that is, the least difference between male and female health, opportunity, and participation)...are also populated by women who give birth, on average, half as often as women who live in societies with a high gender gap...close to four [versus] just under two. It makes sense that the most effective and long-lasting mechanism for curbing global population growth revolves around an elimination of gender inequality.” (12-13)
I feel pretty out of place when I read statements like this, which I also found in Melinda Gates’ book The Moment of Lift. I diverge from the tendency in low gap countries for women to birth just one or two children. I had the opportunity to help eliminate gender inequality and pursue a profession. And yet, I didn’t choose that. Fortunately, at this point in my essay, my husband was able to weigh in and argue that there are pros and cons to shrinking the population and that it might get confusing to pair gender equality with population goals, even if they seem correlated. Hearing this made me glad that my choices can't be strictly regarded as a failure to society and also reassured me that my husband doesn’t regret having so many children. Beyond our house though, at this point in our cultural awakening, even in a country such as the U.S., I’m starting to think that until every living person on the planet takes a turn cooking dinner at least twice a week (perhaps especially politicians and CEOs), gender inequality will persist. Until we all make small sacrifices to take care of each other, some will always be more relegated to serve, rather than succeed by western standards.
This is the spirit of Jahren’s message: that we all go against the grain and cut out a little here and there.
Jahren remarks upon the revolutions that have taken place in the food industry over the past several decades -- how farmers have improved food so much that they are able to sustain our ballooning population. Still, she points out that much of this food is actually wasted. She argues that:
“Most of the want and suffering that we see in our world today originates not from Earth’s inability to provide but from our inability to share...it is because so many of us consume far beyond our need that a great many more of us are left with almost nothing.” (14)
This was hard to wrap my head around. I wanted to know how my consuming less could translate into food redistribution to those who are starving. It’s not a simple process but rather multi-step, if I’m understanding her correctly. That, if we decrease demand for grain, meat and fish products, then the incentives to overfarm and overfish decrease, eventually decreasing the activity that is changing populations of species and leading to climate change that is decreasing available land by way of rising sea levels. Or, perhaps farmers could use their grain surplus to feed the hungry, rather than supply cars with biofuel? This is one of my favorite sentences in the whole book:
“Biofuels are considered “renewable” because every year that we renew the world’s agriculture, we get the option of taking a portion of the harvest, mutilating it, and then setting it on fire.” (108)
But seriously, on reflection on the amount of food waste, she writes: “I am honestly unsure whether to feel more depressed or hopeful about it, but the magnitude of global waste is in many ways equal to our need.” (77) She then goes on to argue for global food redistribution, as well as curbing consumption in general. This is a brief summary of her message:
“The last fifty years is a Story of More -- more cars, more driving, more electricity and more manufacturing; because of this, it should come as no surprise that it is also a Story of More fossil fuel use….If we want human society to outlast the finite resource that it is dependent upon, then any movement away from fossil fuels is a step in the right direction, and one that can’t happen too soon.” (104, 105)
Jahren calls for humility in how we approach these issues, both in public and private conversation, and I accepted a large portion of that humble pie as I reflected on my recent house search. I realized I had placed (and lost) a bid on a 5,000 square foot house that would take a small fortune to heat and cool, all so we could have more space and so we could enjoy nature from within the most Hollywood-esque backyard treehouse you’ve ever seen. I think of that, and then I think of my son’s assistant teacher from Bangladesh and how Jahren writes:
“The river-delta nation of Bangladesh lies just barely above sea level. Within its borders, a population half the size of the United States ekes out a living from a piece of land the size of Alabama. If the sea continues to rise, the area of Bangladesh is likely to shrink by 20 percent over the next thirty years, crowding people into even less land and fewer resources. Incidentally, the people of Bangladesh produced far less than 1 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere during the last fifty years, yet they are poised to pay the highest price incurred by its effects. This is a common trend: the people benefitting from the use of fossil fuels are not the people who suffer the most from its excess.” (151)
I read that and pictured our teacher’s family members and friends. And I wondered, what can we do for them? If we consume less, if we use less, then maybe the sea won’t rise as fast. Maybe we could literally give the country of Bangladesh room to grow.
I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book, even if you feel you’re an expert in this area. Jahren writes with a humor and humility that makes me want to quote every page. Hers is a book that is so satisfying to read that it begs to be read again, so we can enjoy her writing, and perhaps also discover how we can work towards a better life for the nearly eight billion souls on our planet.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.