The American Dream and the Climate Monster

Trevor Neilson
Jun 25, 2019 · 5 min read
Speech from Entrepreneurs Impact Summit 2019. Fire Video Credit: Rupert Sanders

Every day we are confronted by new, terrifying examples of the climate emergency we are living in.

A historic drought in Chennai, the sixth-largest city in India, is so severe that it’s now visible from space. Over 4.6 million citizens are coveting every drop of water. The city has 99 percent less water than it had at this same time last year.

In America’s heartland, the problem is the opposite. Corn and soybean farmers are in crisis because it’s been the wettest 12 months ever in the U.S., with scientists agreeing climate change is the cause.

How did we get here?

There are three key dates that helped create the economic structure and climate emergency we are now in.

In 1754 Joseph Black discovered C02. Black noticed that upon heating, calcium carbonate (CaCO3) produced a gas more dense than air that could not sustain animal or plant life. He called this gas ‘fixed air’, but we now know it as carbon dioxide.

In 1776, as a new country was born across the Atlantic, Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations which became the intellectual underpinning of postindustrial age economic growth. The book brought the phrase “the invisible hand” into the mainstream, a phrase which has been often been used to justify a lack of government regulation of the private sector.

In 1791 one of the earliest versions of the gas-fired internal combustion engines was invented by entrepreneur, John Barber. This design was meant to power a horseless carriage and Barber’s design included a chain-driven, reciprocating gas compressor, a combustion chamber, and a turbine.

These dates are symbiotic.

Smith’s notion of modern capitalism and fossil fuels are the engine that drove and grew modern capitalization. This has propelled us towards this American dream we have been living in ever since.

Modern capitalism along with fossil fuels have propelled our growth. They have put us where we are now.

Global wealth is over $317 trillion and the United States has the largest share of it, at almost $100 trillion.

Cars, trucks, highways, power…all of these things and many more have been at the heart of this economic growth, and that has come at a cost.

Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years. The global average atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2017 was 405.0 ppm ( claims it has reached 413.52 as of April 2019). The annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000–17,000 years ago.

But let’s be honest. Most people do not want to think about carbon. For hundreds of millions American’s the American dream is really great, and it is not something we want to change.

The dream is comfortable. It can be really fun.

This dream propels us. It propels me. At its best, it’s a dream about individualism, social mobility.

But far too often it’s a dream about consumption with hyper-materialism being the scorecard it is measured by.

We see this and occasionally may pause to wonder who defined this dream. Who decided what was in it? Who decided how it is measured?

And while that dream plays in our heads, on our social media feed, and on television, there’s something else happening that really could only be described as a monster from some horrible nightmare.

We all want to stay and live in the dream. Maybe, on occasion, we think about the monster, but it is just too hard. It hurts to believe it, see it or think about it.

This monster doesn’t look like the ones we know, the ones we imagined in our childhood, the ones our books have described or our movies have shown.

Media tells us not to look at the monster and instead to stay focused on the dream. Our friends show us the dream every day, putting their best foot forward on Instagram and through social media. We don’t want to look at that monster because the dream is so great.

If we don’t want to think about the world, we can look down at our phones and go into another world.

Or if we want to get away from our phones for a minute, then we can turn on the TV and find some person doing something that helps us turn off anything in our brains that might be uncomfortable. “Reality” shows are always available to help us escape reality.

We have amazing video games. We have augmented reality, we have virtual reality, we have sports, we have e-sports, we have cannabis, we have crypto. We have Fox News. There are a lot of ways we can look away from the monster.

Until the monster comes to our town in the form of sixty-five mile an hour winds.

In California one million acres on fire at the same time.

Walls of fire that were so high and so fast that nothing any human could do could ever slow them down. Walls of fire that forced my wife and two year old to jump in the car and join 250,000 others in a long line of cars trying to escape the inferno.

In one neighborhood in Agoura, California called Seminole Springs, half of the mobile home park burned; it is as if a nuclear bomb went off.

In Paradise, California it was much worse. Hundreds of people died, and people ran while their shoes melted into the pavement.

There’s a monster and it is everywhere. Which makes it hard to see.

It is also somewhere — Southern California in the case of the Woolsey Fire, Northern California in the case of the Camp Fire, in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or in Churu, India, which was recently named the hottest place on the planet reaching 124° F.

Hundreds of millions of people will soon be at risk of starvation due to droughts, floods, crop failure yet there are so many different floods, typhoons, monsoons, tsunamis and famine, we lose track.

It all blends together.

So, we go right back to the dream as much as we can.

Desperate to avoid looking at the monster, to avoid waking up.

At some point for intelligent and empowered people, this becomes a choice. No one can now claim they didn’t know.

The place I have come to, for me, my family, my three kids is that I want to look the monster in the eye.

I want to stare at that monster and to understand it clearly.

I want to see it — to understand what it is taking from us.

I want to grieve for what it has already taken from our world, and what it will take from my children.

I want to know I did all I could do in my imperfect life, using my time and resources.

I want to come to terms with the truth, and act like that terrible truth is real.

I want to fight the monster with everything I have.

Trevor Neilson

Written by

Co-Founder and CEO, i(x) investments; Co-founder and Chairman, Climate Emergency Fund; Co-Founder, Global Philanthropy Group

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