Sneezing, Cars, and Cows

“Texas Cow Poke” by Clotee Pridgen Allochuku via Flickr/CC

Sometimes I find it useful to think about things that bear no obvious relation to one another. For example, I’ve recently been thinking about sneezing, cars, and cows, and a connection to the problem of climate change has occurred to me.

First, sneezing. When I was young, I was taught to cover my mouth with my hand whenever I sneezed. Good girl that I am, I followed this rule until a couple of years ago, when I read that in order not to spread germs, it’s best to sneeze into one’s elbow. (You don’t shake hands, set the table, or serve drinks to your guests with your elbow.) But it was no small matter to alter a longstanding habit that was sustained, in part, by a feeling that I was doing what my mother had told me was the right thing. With a lot of conscious effort, however, I learned to tuck my nose and mouth into the crook of my elbow when I was about to sneeze. Once in a while, though, I forget and reflexively sneeze into my hand.

Next, cars.  Because I’m married to a man who can easily identify by sight just about every make and model of just about every car that’s ever hit the road (especially those that debuted during his high school years), I’ve received a lot of informal lessons about automobile engineering and design. I’m still not good at telling, say, a Mazda 3 hatchback from a Ford Focus hatchback, but I have learned to see the car (and its internal combustion engine) as an astonishingly beautiful invention. Using a car as a primary means of transportation makes for tremendous personal freedom, and driving—when the road is good, there’s no traffic, and the car has a stick shift—is exhilarating. In addition, the many designs and colors of cars have helped change our primary visual experience of colors from a world composed mostly of nature’s muted grays, browns and greens into a cheery and brilliant, artificial world of kaleidoscopic, bright, shiny colors. And with over a billion cars now on the world’s roads (and 60 million more slated to be built this year), economies all over the world depend on the production and use of automobiles.

Finally, the cow. In its own way, the cow is almost as much an “invention” as the car, and as with the car, there are over a billion of them on the planet. The current species of cow emerged several thousand years ago as a result of domesticating what was once a wild beast. In some cultures, the cow is sacred, but in most cultures, people raise cows for their milk, cheese and meat—ah, especially the meat!—and leather, dung, and whatever else humans find appetizing or useful. For someone like me, who doesn’t eat meat, the cow seems a harmless creature with an appealing wet nose, big brown eyes and soft, floppy ears, to which, unfortunately, people aren’t all that nice. But people love hamburgers, steaks, and leather shoes and handbags almost as much as they love to travel in cars, which is why we produce more cows and more cars every year.

Alas, there’s a rub to the pleasures derived from cars and cows. To climate-change scientists, it’s clear that driving cars and raising cows together have contributed significantly to the dramatic increase in recent years in the man-made greenhouse gases rapidly heating up our planet. (For stunning visual confirmation of the “rapid” part, take a look at these NASA images of the surface melt of Greenland’s ice sheet this summer.) Why, then, isn’t there more consensus that we should drive less and cut back cattle herds?

The answer, I think, lies in what my experience with learning to sneeze in a new way teaches. Even when we human beings know full well that doing x is better than doing y, if we’re habituated to doing x, it takes an awful lot of work to change to doing y. A concerted, world-wide effort to cut back on driving and eating meat would ease AGW (anthropologic global warming), but people love cars and cows too much to habituate themselves away from them rapidly enough to forestall, or prevent, arriving at a tipping point in global warming. There are other proposals to tackle global warming that don’t require radical changes in habits, but they all require political will and money, and most of them are stalled. Procrastination is another harmful human habit.




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