World, Warming, in a Coffee Mug

World, Warming, in a Coffee Mug

The mug, ready for sale at a (too) reasonable price

A few months ago I got a global warming mug as a gift. It’s high-concept. When you pour in a hot beverage, a world map stuck on the mug changes. Coastal regions disappear (so long, Bangladesh and south Florida). They’re “flooded” by blue, mimicking what’s expected to happen if, as scientists predict, sea levels rise between 11 and 17 inches over the next 92 years. Those sea level increases would be accompanied by (really, caused by) a rise in global temperature of between 1.8° and 4° C by 2100. That’s 3.2° to 7.2° Fahrenheit.

But wait, even if your coffee’s getting cold. Global temperatures may rise even higher, faster: by as much as 6.4° C (11.5° F) by century’s end. So, the mug is pretty cool (although it can’t go into my Energy Star, 18-inch, water-saving dishwasher). But something about it struck me first as odd, then as almost risible. When I turned it over, I saw a familiar three words: Made in China. So much else is, that both does and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, so why not this, too?
The U.S. was, until very recently, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Yet, a mug, sold in the U.S., presumably to raise awareness of global warming (even if at a slightly kitsch level), is made in China. So the emissions toll of that manufacture is outsourced and added to China’s total. China, very recently anointed the world’s new, largest emitter of greenhouse gases, surpassed the U.S. in this dubious honor precisely because of its roaring manufacturing economy and booming consumer lifestyle. China’s making and selling everything from pricey linen clothes to cars to solar-powered battery chargers to…probably billions of coffee mugs, mine among them.

So, what kept me from finishing my tea? Well, something like this: China’s following our lead and becoming the world’s main greenhouse gas culprit, in part because they make nearly all of the stuff we buy. Global warming’s a crucial challenge. But a mug sold in the U.S. to elucidate consumers (and hot beverage drinkers) about the toll of global warming isn’t made at home — saving considerable GHGs from shipping — it’s made in China. And now that mug has helped, in some small way, China ratchet up its global warming impact on the world. It also may have been made by young women or men in a sweatshop…and I try to avoid products made in China precisely for this reason. Oy vey. It was all enough to make me want to drop the mug and see the map — coastlines intact or not — shatter, so I wouldn’t be responsible anymore.

Alas, the mug survives. And so does my quandary. There are many things for which to blame China (suppression in Tibet, stalling on Darfur, imprisoning journalists and rights advocates). But not for this mug. For that, I blame whoever decided to make it in a Chinese factory where labor’s cheap and labor rights scarce. Surely a global warming mug should cost in line with its cost to the Earth. Just as surely, the emissions associated with making and delivering that mug ought to have been as small as possible, meaning local, or localized, production.

I haven’t seen my global warming mug recently. I know it’s still in the cabinet, the map a little rough around the edges now, but I’m mostly happy for it to stay there. The other day, though, I read this interesting poem, posted anonymously on a Website by a “silent, silent Chinese” and quoted in this recent piece in the New York Times. It made me think of the conundrum of my mug…and how we’re all in the climate change conundrum together. Even though my mug isn’t sophisticated enough to spell it out: as the seas rise, millions of people, coastal villages and other coast-dwelling species will be engulfed. That is something to let my tea go cold over. But before your hot beverage gets really cold, here’s the text of the poem, made in China, I presume:

“When we have a billion people, you said we were destroying the planet./ When we tried limiting our numbers, you said it is human rights abuse…When we were poor, you thought we were dogs./ When we loan you cash, you blame us for your debts./ When we build our industries, you called us polluters./ When we sell you goods, you blame us for global warming.”

And when we make global warming mugs, you….