Le réchauffement climatique et la contribution des Walmart

Comment résumer la question du réchauffement climatique en termes simples ? C’est la question à laquelle William D. Hulet répond dans son texte intitulé, « Global Warming and Walmart ».

Dans un style qui évite habilement l’endoctrinement, William Hulet pose la question : « Doit-on prendre le réchauffement climatique au sérieux ? » En rappelant que les scientifiques avancent des théories dont ils ne sont pas à cent pour cent sûrs, il met en garde quiconque prétend savoir mieux.

Et Walmart dans tout ça ? Walmart, comme tant d’autres grandes entreprises, contribuent au réchauffement climatique. Pourquoi ? Parce que le transport de la marchandise nécessite de grands déplacements par camions à remorque. De plus, le consommateur doit très souvent faire de longs trajets en voiture pour faire ses achats. Tout compte fait, le nuage de pollution créé par les voitures et les camions est immense.

Global Warming and Walmart
Why global warming is a municipal government concern

William D. Hulet,
Manager, Guelph Local Economy Trading System
September 1998

o.gif (460 bytes)riginally I had thought to do some research in order to throw statistics around. It has been my experience, however, that when I present that sort of thing people:
(a) rarely read what I write, and (b) the other side usually hires some "experts" who say that "black is white" and "up is down". As Aristotle might have said, if you know the right questions to ask you're half way to the answer.

Do you believe that we need to be seriously concerned about global warming?

When you think about this, I want you to consider the issue in a precise manner. I don't want you to try to decide if global warming is a proven fact. Instead, I want to know if you think that the theory is worth seriously considering as a public matter.

I'm making this distinction because of the peculiar nature of the problem. Almost all scientists will agree that they don't know enough to be able to be absolutely sure that global warming will occur until it happens. And at that point, it will obviously be too late to take any substantive action. So whether we take steps to prevent it is the sort of decision that we have to make, even though there is less evidence than we would like. It won't do to plead that we need to wait for further evidence before making a decision, because that will only be an underhanded decision to do nothing at all.

I'd also like you to consider how important your decision about global warming is. When considering a possible action, reasonable people should consider the potential outcomes. We often take risks when the potential worst case scenario is minimal that we would never take if it were catastrophic. For example, if we walk past a wall with a sign that says "wet paint" we might be tempted to touch it and see if it is still wet. On the other hand, were we to pass some downed high tension wires with caution tape around them, we certainly wouldn't touch them to see if they are still alive. The difference isn't one of evidence but of outcomes. In the former we risk a little paint on a finger, in the latter instant death.

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"These large-scale
commercial outlets are part of the infrastructure of global warming."
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walmart.jpg (13201 bytes)
(photo: NBEN/RENB)

I know time is limited, so I'll ask you to consider only one example of why I think global warming is closer to the example of touching a high tension wire than a newly painted wall.

Apologists will often say that all we risk from global warming is merely a rise of a few degrees. The point that they either fail to realize, or wish to confuse the public about, is that these numbers are averages. When an average rises it usually does so by having higher spikes instead of uniformly rising. In other words, if the average temperature goes up a few degrees, this means that instead of having uniformly warmer weather, we'll instead have more really blisteringly hot days.

This is a problem because life evolves within a narrow range of extremes. Animals and plants live from day to day, not over averages. And all it takes is one nasty hot spell to kill off a particular flora or fauna that hasn't evolved to deal with it. If we have a really hot spell that kills off all the fish in a river or destroys a farmer's crop, it hardly matters that over the year the average increase won't amount to many degrees. Once something has died from heat exhaustion, cooler weather won't revive it.

There are many other catastrophic dangers that could result from global warming. These include melting the ice caps, changes to weather patterns leading to droughts and floods, rapid escalation due to the release of greenhouse gases trapped in permafrost, etc.. If any of these worst case scenarios were to take place it would have devastating and far-reaching effects for human civilization. Waiting to see if this happens is definitely the equivalent of grabbing onto a high voltage wire to see if it is "live".

At this point, I hope that some of you will see the peculiar elements of the global warming debate. First of all there are no definitive answers; merely theories, opinions, and, concerns. Secondly, we cannot wait until all the evidence has been gathered because by the time that could be done, it will be too late to make a decision. Thirdly, the possible results from inaction are so catastrophic that any sane person would accept a great sacrifice in order to avoid running the risk.

No doubt some of you are wondering what all this has to do with Walmart and big box stores in general. These large-scale commercial outlets are part of the infrastructure of global warming. Primarily, I'm talking about transportation and how it affects the development of a city.

Giant retailers are only able to make a profit if they are able to buy in huge quantities. And this centralized production and distribution is only profitable if one can cheaply transport things long distances. And it only makes sense to buy in large quantities from wholesalers if you can sell in huge quantities. This means that you have to be able to draw shoppers from a large area.

So cheap transportation is the key to the success of big box stores. If it wasn't for cheap, deregulated trucking, smaller stores that bought from local wholesalers would have an advantage. And if it wasn't for the personal automobile, smaller stores that are attached to public transit or close to high density housing would have an advantage over big box stores with their giant overheads.

I don't think I need point out to you that trucks and automobiles are major contributors to global warming. As well, I think that anyone who takes a moment to reflect on the issue would be able to make the connection between big box stores and suburban sprawl. To use big box stores one needs to have a car. If society allows and encourages the creation of big box stores, they can, and will, out-compete businesses that are tied to public transportation. This means that the stores that you don't need a car to shop at will disappear. The result will be that more and more people will be forced to purchase an automobile.

People often talk as if businesses only respond to what customers want. This is simple-minded. A successful large business not only adapts to an existing commercial environment, it also changes it. By taking advantage of a society that refuses to take global warming seriously, Walmart will be able to out-compete businesses that are inherently less wasteful. And once these other businesses are gone, it will be extremely hard to recreate that niche --- if only because consumers will have had to adapt to the new reality.

Unfortunately, it seems to be incredibly hard for our society to formulate and implement policies to prevent global warming. I suspect that the key reason for this is because of the peculiar way in which our liberal democracy splits up the public and commercial arenas. The free market creates wealth best when it is unfettered by government controls. Unfortunately, in one form or another, preventing global warming is about telling businesses that they cannot do what they want. Since business has a great deal of influence upon government, for a whole variety of reasons, it has been extremely vigorous in preventing any real controls over carbon emissions.

What this means to citizens who hold the same concerns as I is that we find ourselves "frozen out" of the political process. We support political parties that say they support our concerns, but when elected they pursue policies that work against our interests. We lobby government departments and support non-governmental organizations to build international agreements--- which are then ignored. It isn't that there have been any substantive arguments against our theories and concerns, it's just that no area of society with any real power is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve the planet for future generations. Every powerful person on the planet seems to want to pass the buck.

omer.jpg (6788 bytes)
(photo: William Hulet)

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"... the majority of important social problems have been resolved by people who step outside of their roles, bend the rules, and force the system to
"do the right thing"."
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Ideally, the issue of global warming should be addressed by jurisdictions other than municipal governments, but other jurisdictions seem impervious to logical arguments. When confronted by desperate situations people should exhaust every option before giving up hope. I want municipalities to consider the issue in the same way that municipalities declared themselves "nuclear free zones" during the cold war. I think that if municipalities start considering global warming in their zoning decisions, they will be making the same sort of symbolic gesture.

Of course, folks could easily say that global warming is not a municipal concern. I'm sure that the laws and regulations were not intended to allow that leeway. The sad thing is, however, none of the laws and regulations are.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of important social problems have been resolved by people who step outside of their roles, bend the rules, and force the system to "do the right thing". To cite just one example, slavery was outlawed in England by a judge who used the maxim "Fiat Justia Ruate Coelum", or, "Let justice be done though the heavens fall", and set a precedent that led to outlawing it for the whole British Empire. I ask planners to keep that Latin phrase in mind.

 

(Adapted from a presentation to the Ontario Municipal Board)