How goats in China cause smog in LA

Tatiana Schlossberg, who visits Vermont next weekend, pulls the hidden threads in 'Inconspicuous Consumption'

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This story was updated at 12 p.m. Sunday to correct the dates of Ms. Schlossberg's appearances in Vermont. She will be at the Northshire Bookstore on Friday, Oct. 18, and at the Brattleboro Literary Festival on Saturday, Oct. 19.

MANCHESTER — Tatiana Schlossberg acknowledges it's easy to feel helpless or depressed when confronting the enormity of climate change and the global economic systems that perpetuate it.

That said, the author of "Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don't Know You Have," wants people to know they're not powerless, especially if they can work together to influence government and businesses.

"We know that it won't get better if we don't do anything," Schlossberg, who appears at Manchester's Northshire Bookstore next Friday, Oct. 18, and at the Brattleboro Literary Festival on Saturday, Oct. 19, said in a phone interview. "I want people to feel like there's a possibility of making a difference. It's never too late."

Schlossberg, a former New York Times reporter, didn't set out to discourage readers by laying out the systematic global connections between consumers and products that contribute to climate change and environmental damage. The book's conversational tone is a conscious choice to avoid gloom and doom while acknowledging the seriousness of the problem, she said.

"I acknowledge that the topic is serious and scary I wouldn't want to write a book that made light of it," Schlossberg said. "At the same time, personally, fear is not a motivator in terms of making me want to read more."

Rather, she's hoping readers will educate themselves on the science, make educated consumer choices, and push political leaders to take climate change seriously and act accordingly.

"I guess the main point I wanted to make is that we shouldn't feel individually guilty for climate change but we should be collectively responsible about fixing it and building a better world," Schlossberg said in a phone interview. "The more important thing to do is act collectively. That means putting pressure on the government, voting, and getting involved in the political process and putting pressure on corporations."

The book, and Schlossberg's visit to Vermont, come at a crucial moment in the climate movement. Millions of students took part in a global climate strike last month, and 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg's visit to America — in which she addressed Congress and the United Nations, was seen by millions of television viewers, and spoke before thousands of supporters — got the attention of a perpetually distracted nation.

"I think she's amazing," Schlossberg said of Thunberg. "Going from not going to school on her own a year ago to leading a march of four million people around the world is so amazing at a time when it's easy to feel powerless and defeated because of what's happening here, especially on the federal level."

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"I think she's right to be speaking about it in the very intense terms that she does. Clearly people respond to that," Schlossberg added. "I guess my approach is slightly different ... I think both are valuable."

The book's title, "Inconspicuous Consumption" is more than a clever play on words. It's also a reflection of the roles consumers play in perpetuating global systems that damage the environment on the other side of the world, often without realizing their impact.

One of the book's more memorable examples shows how the demand for cashmere sweaters contributes to the growth of desert in Mongolia and China and air pollution in Eastern China and the Western U.S.

As Schlossberg explains, a number of geopolitical and economic factors led to increased demand for cashmere, the fine underdown from certain goat breeds that produces soft, durable fiber prized for sweaters and scarves. That in turn led to an explosive growth in the number of goats raised for cashmere on high plateaus of Mongolia and parts of China.

How explosive? An estimated 24 million in 2004, up from 5-6 million in 1990. "That alone is kind of staggering," Schlossberg said.

But here's the trouble: These goats graze by eating the entire plant, pulling it up by the roots. That, together with their sharp hooves, destabilizes the soil. Dryer, hotter temperatures, thanks to climate change, worsen the problem. And all that is creating an additional 1,000 square miles of desert every year, Schlossberg said.

It doesn't stop there. She explained that the dust from that desert blows across China, worsening coal and factory-produced smog in cities like Beijing. In another five days, it has traveled across the Pacific to California.

"That to me was an incredibly powerful example," she said. "Something that feels incredibly intimate - something that we own - is part of an immense global system, not only in fashion production but these kinds of pollution interactions between China and the U.S."

While many in the U.S. point to China's greenhouse gas emissions and burning of coal as causes of climate change, "it's easy to forget a lot of the emissions they are producing, they release to make things they send to us," Schlossberg said. "These things are global and we're all connected to them, whether we think about it or not."

Greg Sukiennik is editor of Southern Vermont Landscapes.


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