How climate change enthusiasts jump the shark

Making people feel guilty about their inhalers isn't going to solve anything

A waterskiing polar bear.
(Image credit: Illustrated | JohnPitcher/iStock, Vector/iStock, ap-images/iStock, yopinco/iStock)

It is a lot of work keeping up with all the things that are bad. This is especially the case for those things that were, until very recently, good, in some cases unambiguously. Bottled water is a good example. Remember when everyone who was not some kind of toothless Mountain Dew-addicted deplorable used to go through one of those big Costco-sized containers of bottled water every week? Now we are still expected to drink half of our body weight in water every week, but only with a refillable container. (Whatever happened, I wonder, to that marvelously democratic institution the drinking fountain?) Meanwhile, carbonated soft drinks have been #problematic for ages, along with cigarettes and hamburgers and toilet paper.

I have to say, though, that I did not expect asthma inhalers to join hard-hitting NFL defenses on my list of problematic faves. If, like me, you have a sibling who was born prematurely and spent a good part of his early childhood breathing medicine from a nebulizer and his teen years sucking on an inhaler, you would know how valuable these devices are. The fact that in the process they are said to release something called hydrofluoroalkane into the atmosphere probably would not occur to you as something we should be too worried about. But according to research reported by the BBC, inhalers are, in terms of the environmental threat they pose, "as big as eating meat."

Wowee zowee. Being responsible stewards of what I stubbornly insist on referring to as "creation" in many cases means not doing certain things that we find fun or convenient. In most cases I come down proudly and heartlessly on the side of the former. All those plastic toys and holiday decorations? Shut down the factories. Fast fashion? Check out American Giant or buy second-hand, you goon. Meat? Save your roast for Sunday, and meet my new friend the Impossible Whopper. I really am happy to be a joyless scold about nearly everything, unless I happen to like it myself, in which case I have an airtight defense ready if you want to hear it.

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But when it comes to medicine? Come on. This isn’t a wasteful hospital visit for Dylan’s sprained ankle or turning healthy, complication-free pregnancies into $50,000 hospital stays involving risky drugs. This is climate researchers jumping the shark. Their objection isn’t even to the no-doubt growing piles of lost or abandoned inhalers that will be sitting in landfills for centuries — it is to their use in the first place, on account of the hydrowhatevers. Admit it, kids, you weren't thinking about the polar bears when you huffed on that puffer there — you were thinking, selfishly, about your own pathetic lungs.

Where is the sense of proportion here? The so-called "global economy" is organized around the idea that natural resources must be extracted as carelessly as possible so that Third-World wage slaves can transform them into worthless objects that are handed to us at counters or shipped to us in plastic packages and disposed of almost instantly, all in order for GDP numbers to go up on a screen. It is as senseless as it is violent and unnecessary. The large-scale changes in everything from what we eat and and where we live to how we conceive of work that we need to adopt in order for all of this to change will meet with resistance everywhere in the world. Shaming poor people because they lack the resources to commute via bicycle and buy organic salt in bulk, and the sick because they need gas-releasing medicine is not how we are going to fix the problem. If we confiscated every inhaler in the world and replaced them all with some kind of equally helpful alternative zero-emissions therapy, the world's most advanced electron microscope would not be able to detect a shift in the position of the dots on the carbon graphs.

Which is not to say that it wouldn't have any effect. Blaming inhalers will certainly empower those who insist that there is nothing wrong with the way we live now. They are wrong. But so are those who think that our ecological crisis — which is also economic, political, and, above all, spiritual — needs solving at the expense of humanity. The planet is here for us, not the other way around.

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