Carbon Culture
Partying Like There's No Tomorrow

by Michael I. Niman ArtVoice (etc.) 8/9/07

People living within five miles or so of any major American waterway can hear their psychotic roar on hot summer evenings. They’re “dick boats”—long, sleek, overpowered speedboats that can cut a sunset cruise into a deafening four-minute drag race. Their nickname is based on common beliefs that their owners are compensating for anatomical deficiencies.

A dick boat on the Niagara River, for example, can be heard by more than 100,000 people. One circling Manhattan could be heard by millions. But the noise pollution only makes this summer pastime obnoxious, like the midlife crises cruising their throaty Harleys up and down urban avenues. What makes the dick boat fetish criminal is that they burn upwards of 25 gallons of gas per hour.

Perhaps dick boat operators can afford $75 per hour for their thrills—Viagra’s expensive too, I guess. But the real cost hear isn’t in dollars, it’s in pollution and the squandering of dwindling oil reserves. While the focus lately has been on carbon dioxide and global warming, oil consumption also fouls waterways through spills and runoff and is a main cause of smog, both in its refinement and in its end-use burning. Obtaining oil, more and more, leads to global political instability as nations compete for dwindling reserves, fight wars over control of oil fields and often fund despotic regimes and terrorists with their oil dollars. Your dick boat operator isn’t just some poor, pathetic bastard loudly masturbating—he’s destroying the planet.

Every month new studies link global warming to human activities. Other studies attribute radical weather patterns to global warming. This summer headlines report a massive drought in California, heat waves in Europe, floods across Britain and the American Southwest (Arizona’s new “monsoon season”) and so on. In response, some of us are buying more efficient light bulbs, carpooling, insulating our homes and basically downshifting our consumptive ways. Others are partying like there’s no tomorrow.

This summer I’ve been observing carbon culture. In Buffalo I listen to air conditioners hum on 65-degree nights. Their owners never open their windows, so they don’t know how cool the outside world is, and the magic that a small fan could accomplish. I’ve been in office buildings that were hypercooled so their inhabitants could wear the standard white collar uniform of jackets and ties on hot, humid days and still be comfortable. The business class in Miami wears the same coats and they air-condition their buildings to the same temperature despite being in the tropics.

In the Finger Lakes there’s a 7,000-square-foot house. Its windows never open. Air conditioning runs during the months when the heat is off. It’s usually occupied only by a caretaker. The owner flies in on a chartered seaplane a few weekends a year. This house is not an anomaly. It’s actually small compared to the trophy homes recently built up and down the eastern seaboard. And its owner’s chartered seaplane, while guzzling far more gas than a dick boat, is still frugal compared to the private jets so prized by the nouveau ultra-rich. America’s upward transfer of wealth is hell on the ecosystem.

On the New Jersey coast I stayed in a friend’s family bungalow, purchased by a grandfather in 1948 and maintained by a circle of siblings who struggle to pay the taxes. It’s one of the last of its kind—a 900-square-foot beach house. Its neighbors have all been torn down so that colossal beach chateaux could be jimmied onto their lots. In this neighborhood of newly minted multimillionaires, SUVs are standard transport, clogging all the arteries leading to New York City and its North Jersey suburbs like big blobs of metal cholesterol.

The SUVs of the Jersey Shore seem well adorned with a bumper crop of oversized American flag stickers, like frontline assault vehicles in a patriotic push against salt marshes. Despite the semiotic jingoism, there’s nothing patriotic about driving around in a giant car. Of course we don’t call them giant cars, nor do we use the 1980s descriptive, suburban assault vehicle. No, they’re “sporty.” Get it, sport? Their drivers wear them like high-fashion body armor despite the social cost of this consumptive fetish. Insecure neurotics feel powerful in their 250-horsepower, 6,000 pound, obese cars—and hurricanes batter Haiti.

A middle-class American family saves for years to take the dream vacation of a lifetime—an 8,000-mile sojourn in a rented RV. Three thousand gallons later they’re home, having taken a toilet, shower, stove and refrigerator for a tour of the country. Other families head out to local lakes, “personal water crafts” in tow. The worst of these jet skis, the old two-stroke buzz bombs, still commonly in use, consume seven gallons of gas per hour, burning five and dumping two raw, mixed with foul exhaust, into whatever waterway they operate in. This is sort of like pissing in the swimming pool, only gas is a much nastier pollutant then urine.

When the consuming classes in America come home from vacation, they’re returning to larger and larger houses. Since 1970, the average size of a new American home grew by over 60 percent, while the average size of families occupying those homes dropped by over 15 percent. This translates into lots of heated and air-conditioned empty spaces. One of the biggest differences between older homes and newer ones is in storage space, with closets and garages growing like tumors. The most prominent architectural feature on new suburban homes is the two- or three-pod attached garage—or loading bay.

Let’s go back to New Jersey, which seems like an epicenter for apocalyptic consumerism. While there I saw an ad in a local newspaper: “Replace your old obsolescent home,” on your own lot, with a new modern home. The advertiser offered a complete demolition-construction service. You just move out of your “obsolete” old home, wait a few months and move back into your new McMansion. Same neighbors. Same view. New digs. The old house gets trucked off to a landfill. Lots of new plastic and flake board is delivered. Your new home is built. Voila!

Even with these bloated new homes, however, Americans still can’t find places to store all the useless stuff we feel compelled to buy and somehow need to hoard—so there’s recently been a boom in the self-storage industry, which has grown by 740 percent over the last 22 years. Last year Americans spent almost $23 billion dollars renting storage spaces from over 59,000 storage facilities, totaling 78 square miles of indoor storage. Those unlucky enough to still be living in old, obsolete, closet-deprived homes can load giant cars with big green and red plastic tubs of Christmas gear, orange tubs of Halloween frights and clear tubs of miscellaneous goods for a trip to the storage locker. For nearly 11 million American families, such trips are becoming ritual.

The problem is a runaway culture of consumerism where commercial culture conditions people to seek fulfillment in the purchase of products. Only products aren’t fulfilling—not for long, at least. So like good addicts, obedient consumers take their credit cards out for a spin, perpetually trying to fill permanently empty vessels: their souls.

All of this consumption squanders precious, nonrenewable resources both in production and shipping while producing all sorts of waste products such as carbon, the effects of which we are only now beginning to understand. Fetishistic consumerism isn’t harmless—it’s adding up to the biggest threat humanity and the world has ever faced.

So one more time, let’s go back to the New Jersey shore. All those giant cars. The dick boats. Air-conditioned trophy homes. This all adds up to one motherfucker of a carbon footprint. And that adds up to the global climate crisis we’re just seeing the beginning of. And oil spills killing oceans. And sewage, garbage and global-warming-induced offshore dead zones. And, by most accounts and models, ocean level rise and an increase in hurricane activity that together or separately will wipe out all those multi-million dollar homes built on a series of barrier islands we call the Jersey Shore. I guess we reap what we sow.

Dr. Michael I. Niman teaches journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His columns are available online at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com and available globally through syndication.


ęCopyright 2007

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