5 Bizarre Ways a Single Human Has Impacted the Environment

You’ll feel a lot less guilty for leaving that one light on overnight after reading this
5 Bizarre Ways a Single Human Has Impacted the Environment

Real talk: Your average barista has little chance of meaningfully impacting the environment all by themselves. They could build their house out of cloth totes or drive a Hummer all day, and it wouldn’t create more than a lot of rolled eyes. If they’re super-rich and/or scientifically inclined, however, a single person really can destroy (or save) the world. A single person like…

Taylor Swift

Remember when they told us to take “one less transatlantic flight” as a hot tip for reducing our carbon footprints, and we were all like, “Okay, I will cancel my monthly jaunt to Paris in July only, thank you for the advice”? But there are people who get on a plane every month, week or even day sometimes, usually their own private one, which is the air travel equivalent of refusing to carpool.

The list of people responsible for the highest private jet emissions is full of the rich and famous, but at the top is Taylor Swift, who emitted as much carbon as more than 1,000 normies by taking 170 private flights over the course of 200 days in 2022. She wasn’t even on tour at the time. Where was she going? Was she on a mission to own a sparkly bodysuit from every state in the country?

To be fair, she did claim through a spokesperson that a lot of those flights were carrying other people to whom she’d lent the plane, but that’s kind of like disowning all responsibility for your buddy Jeff’s midnight redecoration of city hall when you’re the one who gave him the Cheez Whiz.

Roman Abramovich

Possibly the biggest individual polluter, though, is someone you’ve probably never heard of. Roman Abramovich is described by everyone as a “Russian oligarch,” but his ventures span everything from sports teams to the governorship of autonomous regions you’ve likewise never heard of. The “Controversies” section of his Wikipedia page is longer than the one for “Business Career.”

Basically, we’re a little scared to criticize him, but he’s responsible for more than 33,000 tons of carbon emissions every year, which is more than some countries. That’s mostly due to his ownership of two of the world’s largest superyachts, which are way more harmful to the environment than private jets. Just one of his superyachts emits almost three times as much CO2 as Taylor’s little plane and looks like a floating republic, which it may very well need to serve as if things keep going the way they are for him.

Thomas Midgley Jr.

Of course, somebody had to invent every modern force of destruction — the atomic bomb, the electoral college, TikTok — but one man somehow managed to invent two. Thomas Midgley, Jr. was the engineer behind both leaded gasoline (created to stop engines from making funny noises, which was comparatively not that big of a problem in hindsight) and Freon (created to stop refrigerators from exploding, which, to be fair, was), two of the most environmentally disastrous inventions of the 20th century. According to the New York Times, “There may be no other single person in history who did as much damage to human health and the planet, all with the best of intentions.”

Well, some of the best intentions, at least. There’s good evidence that Midgley knew leaded gasoline was poisonous, mostly because he got lead poisoning, for which he prescribed himself “a suitable golf course in the state named Florida.” He also knew there were cleaner alternatives, but as the Times pointed out, “you couldn’t patent alcohol.” In the end, the guilt may have gotten to him. He was choked to death by one of his own inventions, and it’s still unclear whether it was accidental or intentional and even less clear which story Midgley would have preferred.

Donald R. Currey

Bristlecone pine trees are believed to be the oldest trees, and until 1964, one named Prometheus wasn’t only the oldest tree, it was the oldest living thing, period. But it wasn’t identified as such until 1964, either, so they apparently just hand out sweet-ass names to all the boring old trees.

It sounds like a riddle: How can a tree not be the oldest until 1964 but also not be the oldest after? It’s all thanks to a dude named Donald R. Currey. That year, Currey was a grad student doing research on the glacial features of the Nevada park where Prometheus lived. He asked the Forest Service to take samples from the trees, and for unknown reasons, he decided the sample he needed from Prometheus was the whole Prometheus. Again, the Forest Service said okay, and only after Currey cut it down did anyone realize the tree was nearly 5,000 years old and he’d just killed a living piece of history.

Maybe one tree isn’t so important, even if it is old as fuck, but that’s where it gets interesting. Conservationists were so outraged by the death of Prometheus that a huge campaign, which included Currey, to protect the bristlecone pine resulted in greater protections for the trees and the creation of Great Basin National Park to conserve them. Yay?

Genghis Khan

In 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science began looking back through history to see what we could learn about patterns in carbon emissions. It turns out we’ve been fucking it up for a real long time, but there were certain events (you know, war, plague, the usual) that seemed like they should have interrupted our bullshit, specifically the clearing of forests to grow food. For the most part, though, that didn’t happen. Not even the Black Death could stop the agricultural train. Only one event had any meaningful impact on carbon emissions: the Mongol invasion of Asia. That is, Genghis Khan happened.

How did he accomplish this? Hybrid horses? Recycled weapons? Nope: straight-up murder. He just killed so darn many people — as many as 11 percent of all the people — that deforestation slowed to the point that the forests had begun to regrow. The result was 700 million tons of carbon yanked out of the atmosphere, which is “equivalent to the world’s total annual demand for gasoline today” and thousands of Taylor Swifts. 

Astonishingly, even that big of an effect was short-lived, probably thanks to all of Khan’s illegitimate babies evening everything out. So we’re not saying mass murder is a viable climate policy, we just know who we’d start with (slow walkers).

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