Carbon offsets alone aren’t going cut it

The Thinker by Rodin

It is not often that a sermon gets to me. This could be because most sermons, while they may be very well written and passionately delivered, have topics that hit my snooze button. Occasionally though I hear a sermon that does resonate. Even more rarely, I hear one that chimes all my bells. Such was the case last Sunday when the Reverend Dennis Daniel (co-minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston that I attend) gave a sermon entitled Footprints, Bootprints and Tireprints… If you have the time, please read it. It deserves a much wider audience than the couple hundred people who heard it in person.

Rev. Daniel articulated the real tradeoffs required to seriously address global warming. I am all for replacing incandescent lights with fluorescent or LED lights. Nevertheless, if this is how we intend to respond to global warming we might as well try to bail out the Titanic with a teacup. Not only is global warming a real problem, it is much, much worse of a problem than we are really prepared to think about.

Perhaps it is best to stay in denial. At least if you stay in denial you can leverage hope. I do not wish to sound like the problem is completely hopeless. However, given our current culture and our human dynamics, to soberly address global warming it will take a seismic shift in attitudes the likes of which have never occurred in human history. Perhaps all it will take is to have a few atolls submerged by rising seas for the worldwide consensus to become overwhelming. However, given our human history it is much more likely that the challenges of global warming will be manifest in massive migrations, war and pestilence. I suppose that if we were to engage in enough global genocide we could seriously reduce our carbon footprint. Dead men are carbon neutral.

The Rev. Daniel nailed it. In his sermon, he suggests that if we could regress our lifestyle to 1950 (with its requisite population) then maybe we could get a handle on global warming. In 1950 because our expectations and salaries were modest, instead of having two or three cars, we felt fortunate to have one. That was all most families could afford. Our electricity needs were similarly downsized. Lacking air conditioning, we got by on fans. Books and a radio were our entertainment. We got most of our produce locally because it was too expensive to ship it from far away places. It was easier to survive without a car because we tended to live either in well-connected cities or in smaller villages.

Could Americans revert to such a lifestyle again? I am dubious but I notice one other telling statistic. In 1950, the population in the United States was about 150 million. In a little more than fifty years, we have doubled our population. To have the same carbon footprint we had in 1950 not only would we have to radically downsize our lives, but also we would have to kill one out of every two of us. Umm, you first.

That is not going to happen of course. We will address global warming by tackling the relatively easy stuff first. Changing out light bulbs is the easiest. We will work at creating more energy efficient cars and appliances, and there is a lot we can do to make our homes more insulated. Solar energy and wind power is there for the taking too. There is promising research that suggests that solar panels can be made as cheap per kilowatt-hour as power generated from coal burning power plants. All this will require a massive amount of reinvestment and research. Instead of using teacups to bail water out of the Titanic, we might be using pails instead. The ship though will still go down rather quickly.

Many of us think we can resolve our guilt by being “carbon neutral”. In case you are not familiar with the term, some speciously claim they can buy enough offsets to compensate for their carbon addicted modern lifestyles. Typical offsets include funding organizations that plant new trees. As the Rev. Daniel points out, this really does little to address global warming either. It is not that we cannot replace the carbon dioxide for our jet trip to Portugal elsewhere. It is just that our real carbon footprint is far bigger than this.

Consider the carbon burned just to get a newspaper to your door. The whole newsprint supply chain is carbon intensive. Of course, it is but one example. Every convenience of modern society brings with it its carbon footprint. Just writing this blog entry, I am consuming carbon, because my computer is using something like 200 watts of power. In some coal-burning power plant a couple hundred miles from here, some chunk of coal is being incinerated so I can post this online.

To be carbon neutral as a society, massive changes are required. Everything in our supply chain must be reengineered to minimize its carbon footprint. Of course we are unlikely to get rid of the carbon altogether. If we are extraordinarily lucky, we may squeeze 30% to 50% of the carbon out of our manufacturing and distribution processes over the next 50 years.

However, all this efficiency reduces, but does not eliminate, the carbon required to run our modern society. Yet this alone means nothing as long as population growth increases. I have seen a number of studies that say the Earth can sustain no more than a billion humans without it having a negative carbon impact on the planet. In short, 5 out of 6 of us need to be planted six feet under, and arguably those of us in first world countries should be the first to be planted.

What we need is for all countries to reduce their population growth, but especially in first world countries, which produce a disproportionate amount of the carbon causing climate change. China seemed to be on the right track when it limited family sizes to three. However, it is currently engaged in its own frantic plan to become a first world nation, and its carbon footprint is becoming huge. It is hardly alone.

What is the likelihood that humanity can peacefully come together, agree to reduce its population, aggressively move toward carbon neutral technologies, end deforestation and peacefully figure out how to spend generations in a negative growth cycle? Sure, it can be done with enough will. Will we get that kind of will? If past behavior is a predictor of the future, our chances are slim to none.

To end global warming means that each generation should expect to have fewer opportunities and less comfort than the previous generation. It is a depressing prospect, and hardly the sort of scenario that inspires us toward hope. Instead, we will likely choose selfishness and convenience. We will choose it because we can. Let someone else be carbon neutral, is what we will decide. We will take measured steps toward being carbon neutral, but if it involves more than a modicum of pain (and God forbid that it raises our taxes), it will become politically unacceptable.

I have a fantasy that I am carbon neutral. My roof and backyard are covered with solar cells. I have an enormously tall windmill in my backyard that generates electricity too. With these steps, my energy efficient windows and my insulated walls I am all set and guilt free.

Except that I still would need to get to market to buy food. I could not grow it all in my backyard. I would still need to see doctors. I would still need to get to my job. I am fortunate enough where I can bike to work and I could even walk to work if required. I doubt all these things would be enough. I would still need someone to haul away my garbage. If I still had a child in school, she would need a way to get there. I would still need to buy clothes and appliances. All of that takes infrastructure. If it can all be made carbon neutral, it is many generations away.

For me what it comes down to is that at some level to be an environmentalist you have to hate your own species. The reality is that modern man is incompatible with the Earth. We are driven to destroy it. Our selfishness may in turn destroy us and much of life as we know it on this planet. When we go the way of the dinosaurs, perhaps the Earth will become carbon neutral again.

Death by Suburb

The Thinker by Rodin

The suburbs are literally killing us.

Not only are they killing those of us who live in the suburbs, the suburbs are also killing our planet. Somehow, we have to break our addiction to suburban living.

In the short term, this seems unlikely. As documented in the lead article in this week’s Washington Post Magazine, more and more of us are literally driven to extremes. The article documents a few of the more egregious marathon commuters here in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. However, the phenomenon is hardly limited to the area where I live. Los Angeles pioneered it. Two hundred mile daily commutes like Marc Turner’s (as documented in the article) are becoming more and more common. The four hours Turner spends behind the wheel every workday gives him his affordable house in the suburbs for his wife and children. Unfortunately, his affordable house is in Charlottesville, Virginia and his job is in McLean, Virginia. He leaves for work around 7:30 AM and typically does not get home until sometime after 9 PM.

Turner drives 1000 miles a week getting two and from work. Think about this. 1000 miles is roughly the same distance between Washington D.C. and Miami. Imagine driving that distance every week to stay fully employed. But here’s the wackier thing. It would be faster to drive those miles between Washington D.C. and Miami. Even with modest traffic type ups on I-95 you can reasonably expect to average 55 miles an hour, which means you could drive that distance in 18 hours. During a typical week, Turner spends 20 hours a week getting to and from his job. This number will only go up. As traffic volume increases, roads become more congested and accidents increase. This will mean of course a longer commute. Every year a few minutes per day will be added to his commute.

Assuming he gets four weeks of leave a year, he commutes 48,000 miles a year. Turner drives a 1999 Saab 9-3 that according to the EPA averages 20 miles per gallon. Thus, his car consumes around 2400 gallons of gasoline a year commuting. Being kind and estimating only $2.75 a gallon for gasoline, he spends $6600 annually just for gas for his commute. This works out to $550 a month. Of course, there are the other costs of commuting like car payments, depreciation, auto service and other miscellaneous expenses. It is likely that the true cost of his commute is $1000 a month or more.

Those are just his direct costs. What are the costs to the planet? According to the EPA, the average car emits 12,100 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere per year. By my calculation, Mr. Turner’s car emits 53,095 pounds of carbon per year just in commuting, or more than four times the national average.

I suspect his job in Tysons Corner, Virginia pays a lot more than he could make in Charlottesville. Presumably, that helps compensate for the time, distance and expense of his commute. Nevertheless, you have to wonder. He spends at least twenty hours a week commuting. Let us assume he has a high tech job in Tysons Corner that pays $100,000 a year. That is $48.07 an hour. However, if you consider the time commuting as working time then he is working 60-hour weeks and is earning $32.05 an hour. My bet is that he could find a job in Charlottesville that is equivalent, pays at least this much per hour and he would have 20 more hours a week to do something other than commute. His marriage would improve and he would do more than glance at his kids every day. He probably makes the commute in part because he wanted a larger lifestyle than he could afford earning $32.05 an hour in Charlottesville.

Turner’s case is perhaps one of the more egregious ones. Yet as the Post Magazine article points out, he has plenty of company. Rush hour traffic is starting well before 6 AM on roads in West Virginia heading for Washington D.C. All that time sitting in a car though by yourself though is unhealthy. First, humans are social creatures. Not many of us would choose to spend four hours in a locked room by ourselves every day. Doctors worry about people developing blood clots from long airplane rides. What do you do to your health sitting in a car seat four hours a day? As the article documents, commuters have three times the likelihood of getting a heart attack in a car as opposed to not being in a car. I am also betting that with his marathon commuting lifestyle, Turner is not getting anything resembling regular exercise.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Most likely, we are chasing the lifestyle our parents knew. Our desire to have a similar lifestyle is understandable. We are comfortable having this kind of lifestyle and it would be disconcerting and embarrassing if we cannot have it. There are many reasons why this kind of lifestyle is increasingly challenging. The principle one is that there are many more human beings than their used to be. There is also a big disparity between where the good jobs are and where affordable housing exists.

The suburban lifestyle is also bad for our health. You cannot live in a suburb without a car. Instead of walking somewhere, you are likely to drive there instead. Of course, with all that commuting getting any exercise if problematical. And speaking of commuting, if your suburb is like mine then it is probably missing a bus service. We actually do have a bus but it operates during rush hours only. Most of the time it runs empty. We cannot be bothered to take it because it is not convenient. It does not run frequently enough and it does not necessarily take us where we need to go anyhow.

Of course, most of us who do have access to a bus in the suburbs are already living out here. We bought in when prices were affordable. I could no longer afford to buy a house in my own neighborhood. My house, bought for $191,000 in 1993 is now worth close to half a million dollars. Unless a new couple comes complete with some very generous parents or have excellent jobs, the $3000-$4000 monthly mortgage payments are probably out of their price range. Therefore, they are buying further out instead.

There are alternatives, but they require reorienting your perspective and values. One alternative is to move far away from major metropolitan areas and live a smaller, more downsized life doing work that probably is less challenging and does not pay as well. Another alternative is to surrender those dreams of a house in the suburbs and a good neighborhood school for your kids. You have to imagine a lifestyle like in that 60s TV show, A Family Affair, where you and the kids live in an apartment or condominium somewhere in or very near the city. Unless the walls between units and floors are very thick, expect to have your neighbors in your face a lot more. You will still pay a lot for that apartment or condominium and it will have half the space or less of that house in the suburbs. However, at least you will be close to where you work. You will probably not have to spend twenty hours a week like Marc Turner commuting to and from your job.

These are essentially your choices for living in America in the 21st century. If you are emulating the Marc Turner lifestyle, expect that every year your lifestyle will become more difficult and more aggravating. At some point, it will become unendurable. There are West Virginians who rise at 3:30 AM in order to get to work in the city. The human body cannot endure such crazy hours and sleep depravation forever. If you lust after the suburban experience, you should face reality and downsize your expectations.

Our planet will appreciate your thoughtfulness.

No silver bullet

The Thinker by Rodin

Those of us of a certain age remember the presidency of Jimmy Carter. While Carter’s post presidency was far more successful than his actual presidency, Carter also had a bad habit of not telling us what we wanted to hear. In the midst of rampant high inflation, oil shocks and other systemic problems most of which were decades in the making he asked Americans to sacrifice. He told us we needed to change ingrained habits to ensure a brighter tomorrow. He talked about the urgent need for our country to establishing energy independence from the Middle East. He told us to turn down the thermostats in the winter and turn them up in the summer.

Americans did not cope well with these suggestions. I cannot remember a time when my fellow citizens were in a sourer mood. It was no wonder then that when Ronald Reagan proclaimed that it was Morning in America, his message fell on receptive years. Living with the reality of the energy crisis and the fundamental changes underway in our economy at that time was no fun at all. Our politicians were convenient targets at whom we could vent our rage. Out went Jimmy, in came Ronnie. Out went fiscal discipline, in came Voodoo Economics. We would grow our way to prosperity by charging it to the U.S. Treasury. We would delude ourselves that we were prosperous the same way that Blondie deluded herself that she could afford all those shoes because there were still checks in the checkbook.

Reagan exploited a fundamental truth about Americans: in peacetime, the electorate can tolerate a few servings of spinach only. For the eight years of his administration, the spinach diet disappeared and was replaced by the jellybean diet. (Ronnie loved those jellybeans.) To ensure we would not be eating spinach, he strengthened our relationship with Middle East oil suppliers, i.e. Saudi Arabia. All that cheap oil did help grow our economy, which in time perked up the national mood. The Saudis seemed very happy with their new fleet of American fighter jets, not to mention our growing military presence in the region, even though we were technically infidels. It is now clear that this strategy to keep America growing through access to cheap oil had a downside. It tied us intimately to the intractable problems in the Middle East.

In case you have not noticed, the Middle East, never a calm region of the world, is hardly a more secure place than it was twenty-five years ago. In fact, it is arguably in more turmoil than it has ever been. The umbilical cord between the Middle East and us, driven by our insistence on its oil, is now so big and so thick that cutting it is unthinkable. Moreover, the fundamental issues in the Middle East have not been resolved either. In fact, we have exacerbated the Middle East’s problems. We have given oppressive and authoritarian states (Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular) the means to keep their people oppressed. I strongly suspect that there is a direct connection between the continued oppression in these states and the rise of Islamic Jihadist movements. Osama bin Laden, after all, is a Saudi who had no sanctioned outlet for his grievances. He was told to stuff it or go to prison or possibly be executed.

And so we get in higher and deeper, to the point where we make ghastly half trillion dollar mistakes in hellholes like Iraq trying to undo our mistakes. As if the carnage in the Middle East were not enough to distract us, there are these other problems that make issues like terrorism seem rather trivial. Global warming and its consequence, overpopulation and a ravaged environment, is probably the biggest problem that humanity will ever face. We recognize the need to do something serious to address it, but we are not sure what should be done. Whatever solutions are required, what we have done so far clearly has not worked. It looks like we need a long-term strategy to really address global warming, we need it now, and it must be dramatic. In many ways, these issues are the same issues we tried to address a quarter century ago. Only now having spent twenty five years ignoring the problem, the cost and pain involved in fixing the problem has mushroomed, much like the costs of occupying Iraq.

Americans are beginning to understand, grudgingly, that it is time to eat the spinach again. Since Republicans seem incapable of it, the Democrats will have the unenviable task of leading on these issues. It remains to be seen though whether Americans are willing to accept the pain and sacrifice necessary for genuine energy independence and real solutions to global warming. Thinking back to the Carter years, I am not hopeful. In fact, in our SUV addicted nation, I think we will give up our guns before we will give up our Hummers. Instead, we will look feverishly for that silver bullet that will allow us to live our first world lifestyles without actually having to pay for it.

In today’s USA Today, I read that Honda will release a limited edition hydrogen powered car next year. Great news: it will not pollute the air at all! You will refill your tank at special gas stations equipped with hydrogen pumps. While hydrogen powered cars will not emit any pollution, all that hydrogen is going to have to be manufactured and transported from somewhere. Ideally, it would come from a nonpolluting sources such as hydroelectric plants and wind farms. To make a long story short, hydrogen powered cars probably are not a silver bullet either. At least in the short term producing the hydrogen to run them would probably contribute to global warming. If we use renewable sources of energy, like feedstocks, to produce hydrogen, we may drive up the cost of food, and cause people to starve. We are already seeing the effect from using corn for energy. Corn is being used to create ethanol. As more corn is used, demand for corn increased, and prices rise. As a direct result, rising corn flour prices in Mexico are deepening the poverty of many Mexicans and causing more Mexicans to go hungry. With hydrogen powered cars, our urban skies may eventually be cleaner, but it will not solve the global warming problem. Instead, trying to solve one problem will likely cause additional unforeseen problems. Someone will probably pay a price for every clever strategy we concoct to solve these problems.

There are unlikely to be any silver bullets for us on the global warming issue. Technologies like hydrogen-powered cars, while better than doing nothing, are merely tinkering around the edges. Real solutions are likely to be too painful to adopt. To address it we must consume much less energy than we do now. We must stop our population growth and eventually reduce our population to levels that the earth can handle. We must live in denser neighborhoods. In short, a few servings of spinach will not suffice just like a couple week on the Atkins Diet won’t make you a thin person for life.

I expect that Democrats have learned from the Carter years. I think they will give these issues attention, but not enough to alter the dynamics between the needs of people and the needs of the planet. Instead, they will choose a middle ground. Arguably, it may be the better of two bad choices. Turn the screws too tightly, and the Republicans get back in charge, which if their history holds true suggests we will go back to giving lip service to the global warming problem. That will be toxic to our species and to our planet.

Hillary Clinton epitomizes this middle ground. She is expressing hope and optimism that we can address global warming, energy independence and all the other issues our nation is grappling with. To me it sounds like a new version of Morning in America. Hope is a necessary ingredient to drive change, but more than hope is needed. These actions, however much hope they may inspire, are doomed and fall short of what is needed.

What is needed is massive and painful societal change. I have some ideas that are unlikely to go anywhere. However, if they were enacted they would demonstrate to the world that we are serious about global warming. Mind you that these are only first steps. How many of these would you personally commit to in order to address global warming?

  • Limit tax deductions for dependents to two dependents per household.
  • Tax homes that exceed a reasonable square footage, say 2000 square feet.
  • Limit trash collection to once a week.
  • Prohibit the use of power mowers. If we must have power mowers, ensure they use catalytic converters like our cars use.
  • Require all houses to undergo annual energy audits. Fine those that do not meet strict efficiency standards.
  • Limit power consumption from carbon producing sources to a given number of kilowatt-hours per household per month. Exempt households that receive their energy from clean power sources.
  • Put a surcharge on energy use to be used for the development of more clean forms of power.
  • Prohibit new development on undeveloped land.
  • Limit the number of automobiles to one per household.
  • Pay per pound of garbage collected.
  • Provide tax credits for households that have certified systems that keeps temperatures at 65 or below in the winter and 80 or above in the summer.

Yeah, I know. Most if not all of these ideas are dead on arrival in Congress, even if my party, the Democratic Party wins control of all branches of government. As President Carter found out, this will be too much spinach for the national stomach to digest. While other actions show good intent, only actions like these will lead to meaningful change.

The reality is that our golden era of energy gluttony has passed. This new era in which we will arrive either sooner or later will not be as comfortable, but we and/or our grandchildren will have to get used to it. It is either that, or as is suggested in the movie The Last Mimzy, the future of the human race and of the planet looks unimaginably bleak.

The hazards of freedom

The Thinker by Rodin

While I was washing out my plastic yogurt cup the other day, intending to recycle it, I asked myself why I was doing it. What was the point? I am guessing that only one in ten of us yogurt consumers are anal enough bother to recycle the darn things. Most, like my daughter, just throw them into the trash and forget about them. (I feel compelled to fish them out of the trash when she does this, clean them and recycle them.) If the vast majority of us will simply toss them out, what effect does my tiny effort having on saving the planet? My effort seems so wholly pointless.

After all, they will be likely around in some form long after I am fertilizer. I recently turned 50. The odds are decent that I will live to see 80, but I will probably not live to see 90. I am unlikely to witness the fruits of this peculiar obsession of mine. Nor, unless I can get my fellow neighbors to develop a similar passion for recycling, will it fundamentally change anything. It will not stop global warming. It will not keep humanity from breeding like bunnies. Nor will it stop us from tearing down more forests to support our burgeoning population and insistence on first world lifestyles. For sure, it will not make my family carbon neutral.

Why should I care about the Earth, as it will be a hundred, a thousand or a billion years from now? When I die my association with the Earth is gone. Why should I not treat the Earth the same way I treat a rental car? When I rent a car, my job is to avoid getting scratches on the car and to return it with a full tank of gas. I let someone else wash and vacuum the car. Since my life is finite, am I not simply renting space on this planet? Why not embrace the philosophy, endorsed by so many drivers and smokers, that the Earth is my trashcan? Yet I cannot. During my eighty or so years here on Earth I hope to do things to make this world a better place. Yet being just one among billions I also am sanguine enough to realize my efforts at best they will be marginal. Despite my first world lifestyle, I hope that the fruits of my labors will justify my effect on the environment. This blog is part of how I hope I try to add value to the world. In addition to being an excellent form of therapy, the occasional positive comments I receive indicate that I can touch lives and hearts for the better. In short, unless I develop a chronic case of Catholic guilt as I age, I expect I will have paid my dues as world citizen.

Which gets back to the question of why I cannot throw that used yogurt cup into the trash. Why am I compelled to recycle it? Why do I have the energy saver setting enabled on my dishwasher? Why have compact fluorescent lights all over my house? Why do I drive a hybrid and pay more for it when I could drive a bigger and more muscular car? Nothing I can do by myself will have anything more than the tiniest and most marginal effects on the environment. Why not just let it go? Why not be like Hugh Hefner and will my life full of opulence and beautiful women?

I expect by now you are waiting for my thoughtful answer. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer, at least not one that will satisfy. Nonetheless, I am confident that I will continue to buy cars that are less harmful to the environment. Moreover, I will continue obsessively recycling my yogurt cups, along with all the other recyclables in my house. Maybe it is a compulsion; or maybe it is some sort of neurosis.

On the other hand, maybe something truly spiritual is at work. Maybe something beyond me (my soul perhaps) is speaking powerfully to me. Maybe some part of me realizes that although I will die someday, I will not really be gone. Maybe I innately know that I will reincarnate someday, and I will have to deal with the toxic legacy to the environment that I am leaving behind. Maybe I sense a mission and a purpose to existence with a grander vision than my feeble mind can comprehend. Wherever it comes from, this presence inside me is powerful and I am compelled to honor it. It speaks to something permanent and authentic about me. Although I am far from being a model environmentalist, the actions I do take for the environment are really wholly selfless acts. They are expressions of love to not just my planet, but to the universe.

Perhaps you have heard of the Gaia Theory. Simply stated, this theory says that our world is one gigantic living organism. Just as it is hard for an ant riding on the back of a turtle to detect the turtle, so it is difficult for us to see that the Earth is not just a planet, it is a single organism. This reality is easier to grasp, perhaps, from a distance. One of the most captivating images of all time occurred in 1968 when Apollo 8 relayed pictures of the Earth surrounded by the blackness of space. For the first time we had an outsider’s perspective of the Earth. Until Apollo 8, we could ignore our interconnectedness. After Apollo 8, it was hard to ignore. We could see the Earth as a planet was alive.

Perhaps this is one reason that Unitarian Universalism resonates with me. Among its principles and purposes is this one that is so obvious, but which few religions explicitly address, since they are more concerned about salvation.

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

I think some part of me realizes that the notion of self is an illusion. While it frames our existence, it is still an illusion, and carried to extremes it can be a delusion. When we fail to acknowledge and respect our interdependence, our behaviors become destructive to ourselves and also to our community. This principle should be self-evident. Any physicist will assert that we really are connected. They will say we are unique expressions of organized energy, matter simply being an instance of energy. In addition to inhaling and exhaling, we radiate to the universe, from infrared rays from our body heat to our brain waves. From the viruses we share to the carbon dioxide we recklessly release from our cars and power plants that is warming our world, our actions affect the world. Everything affects everything else, but mankind’s actions affect it disproportionately.

The sooner we acknowledge this fundamental reality the better. While the United States is premised on the notion of individual freedom as a right and a virtue, in one sense, freedom is bad. It is bad when we freely make choices that degrade our natural ecosystem or deny our human interconnectedness. Having more than two children, in my opinion, is a selfish and unethical choice. For myself I see no way to become carbon neutral, but I recognize it as a goal toward which I and the rest of society needs to strive. I am ethically compelled to do what I can, even when it seems pointless and of marginal utility, as in recycling yogurt cups.

I do not know how as a species we can truly honor the interdependent web, but we must begin in earnest and we must do far more than we are doing. At least I understand this: I am tied to this planet, physically and spiritually. What we are doing to our planet we are also doing to ourselves. We are like teenagers cutting themselves. Our actions are both globally destructive and spiritually toxic. Our relentless focus on unbridled freedom is in some way unhealthy and counterproductive. Like Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead or Number 6’s in The Prisoner, by aggressively asserting our right to free choice without bound we are denying our interconnectedness. Freedom offers the illusion of happiness, but I believe that genuine happiness comes from working with others. Perhaps that is why a recent study says that the most satisfying professions were the most people focused. Being a minister usually does not pay very well, but it is the most rewarding.

I believe that the more we embrace our interconnectedness the happier we will be. For my part, I will keep recycling those yogurt containers. I hope that small actions like these will contribute toward a mindfulness of the preciousness of this organism we call The Earth.

Adventures in Lighting

The Thinker by Rodin

Like all obsessions, this one started out as something relatively innocuous. In my case, I was at the Home Depot and strolling down the light bulb aisle when I noticed a four pack of compact fluorescent light bulbs. In case you do not know what a compact fluorescent bulb is, they are fluorescent lights designed to fit into the sockets of regular light bulbs while putting out a similar amount of light.

Example of a compact fluorescent light

Admittedly, these compact fluorescent lights look a little odd. However, their odd shape hardly matters, since most light bulbs hide inside lampshades anyhow. Nor were they particularly expensive. I was able to purchase the pack of four 60-watt compact fluorescent bulbs for about eight dollars. When I arrived home, I replaced the bulbs in the lamp in our living room, TV room and in the hallway. I could not discern any real difference in the quantity of light put out. I expected that when I flipped on the switch there would be a delay until the light came on. However, there was none. I smiled. This was not hard at all! Moreover, one compact fluorescent light should last for years, meaning I would have to spend less time replacing light bulbs. I would save both money and time.

Like many Americans waking up to the reality of global warming, I understand that replacing incandescent lights with fluorescent lights is just one small step. Compact fluorescent lights use sixty percent less energy and generate little heat. If I could replace all our incandescent lights with compact fluorescent lights, my family will not be dumping 300 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere every year. It seemed like something tangible and relatively painless that I could do to reduce global warming.

The next time I went to Home Depot, I bought two more four packs of compact fluorescent lights. This time I changed lights in the laundry room, the hallway going to my basement, and assorted ceiling lights. I put one in a light with a dimmer switch. It took only a couple weeks experience to discern this was not a good idea. At full power the lights, well, fluoresced, pulsing and flickering. Within a couple of weeks, it gave out. Reluctantly, I put an old-fashioned incandescent bulb back in that fixture. I placed the used compact fluorescent bulb in a bag for special disposal since the mercury vapors inside the light were potentially dangerous.

We have four vanities in our house. Each has above the sink a set of four to six soft white incandescent lights. As I was repainting one of the bathrooms, I kept looking at the light fixture. It was not particularly attractive and so 1980s. I wondered if I could replace the light fixture with a fluorescent one that was reasonably attractive. Those four 60-watt bulbs must be drawing a lot of power. I shuffled back to the Home Depot and wandered through their lighting aisle. Their stock mostly consisted of the usual incandescent and halogen lights. Close to the standard ugly fluorescent lights suitable for workshops were a small number of classy looking fluorescent light sets. There I found this light set. It was designed to be mounted on a ceiling, but with a bit of jury-rigging I was able to place it above the bathroom mirror where the old vanity light fixture sat. With its brushed nickel frame, it looked classy.

24 inch fluorescent vanity light set

The final authority though was my wife, who gave it the thumbs up. I took that as an okay to buy another one. The next one went over the vanity in our master bedroom. We noticed that it put out a brighter and whiter light than what it replaced.

Yesterday, I tackled the master bathroom’s vanity light set. This set was particularly environmentally unfriendly because it consisted of six incandescent lights in a row, which used special soft white bulbs. It put out a lot of heat. Moreover, my daughter was in the habit of leaving them on. This vanity was particularly annoying because its lights were constantly blowing out anyhow. Unfortunately, I could not find quite what I was looking for at Home Depot. I drove to Lowe’s, traversed their light aisle, and I found just the thing, this Newcastle Fluorescent Bath Bar. It fit perfectly into the existing space and looked similar to the other light set. It was both brighter than the old set and cast a more natural bright white light. Its only defect was that it took a second to come on, unlike the others.

36 inch fluorescent vanity light set

I have also replaced a defective floor lamp in our living room. I purchased a compact fluorescent bulb for it that was supposed to have three brightness levels, like a three way incandescent bulb. Unfortunately, I could not get it to work with in that fixture, but at least the light is usable.

I am ending up with a quite a collection of used incandescent light bulbs. I am not sure what to do with them. I still need to replace more incandescent lights in our basement with fluorescent lights. I am pondering what do to about the ceiling mounted lights in our basement, all of which work off a dimmer switch. So far, I have not found a fluorescent light that actually works with a dimmer switch, although some claim to work. Other specialty lights like the ones we use for our bedstead and our outdoor porch light do not appear to have ready compact fluorescent alternatives.

Nonetheless, I now feel compelled to try to replace every incandescent and halogen lighting fixture that I can. I still have one vanity light set to replace in the downstairs bathroom. As compact fluorescent lighting technology matures with new demand, I figure there may come a time when every light in my house will be a fluorescent light. It may not be possible to replace lights like the one in my refrigerator with a fluorescent light, but perhaps in time appliances will come with fluorescent fixtures too.

To reduce the impact of global warming, we can all take action. You may find as I did that ridding yourself of non-fluorescent lights in your house can be a fun project. I use other energy saving devices such as a programmable thermostat. A large energy saving project we need to take up one of these days is to replace our windows (which are already double pane) with more energy efficient windows. I would prefer to wait until we have the money saved, since this looks like it will be at least a $10,000 project.

I may be naïve to think that my contributions will amount to much. As I noted in an earlier entry on global warming, the increase in our population growth alone suggests these efforts will not reduce emissions, but only help check their growth. Nonetheless, for a culture that supposedly believes in life, and the survival of our species in particular, it seems suicidal not to at least try. If nothing else my small actions replacing lights encouraged me to keep committing toward a path where my family and I will live more harmoniously with the planet.

Fiddling while Rome burns

The Thinker by Rodin

It is that time of year when I start writing checks to charities. One of my favorite charities is local: So Others Might Eat. SOME is an interfaith effort in Washington D.C. that provides for the basic needs of the area’s poor and homeless. As their name suggests they spend much of their money providing them meals. They also provide clothing and health care to people who obviously cannot afford it. In addition, they work to break the cycle of poverty through services like addiction treatment and counseling, job training and affordable housing. How could Jesus not approve? “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me,” he told us. His message is clear: find grace and meaning by practicing compassion and relieving human suffering.

I am so grateful that I was never homeless nor hungry. That is not to say I do not feel some empathy for these people. I have lived from meager paycheck to paycheck. I never went hungry, but I spent a couple years on the borderline, barely able to pay my rent and eating many meals consisting of little more than rice and entrees in boil a bags, because I could afford little better. When my car died, I lived for a couple years without one. I felt like many of today’s graduates do: that I deserved more from life than what I got. Life was risky when you are 21, you have a new degree and the job market sucks. In the complex game of natural selection in which I was caught, only my relative youth was an asset.

Most religions teach us that life is sacred. The Catholic Church goes the extra mile and prohibit adherents from doing anything “unnatural” to prevent pregnancy or anything deliberate to shorten its lifespan. While life certainly seems to me to be something of a miracle, it should seem less miraculous. We humans are so good at increasing our numbers and extending our life spans that a case can be made that we live unnatural lives. We are rapidly changing our world, and not for the better. Global warming, largely due to human activity, is now an accepted fact. None of us comes with an environmental expiration date. Mother Nature does not knock on our doors and say, “Well, you’ve had your 57 years. You’ve taken as much from the planet as it can give you and sustain the rest of us, so it’s time to die.” We resist. “I am here and I am entitled to live my life as I please. I will live a long life. I will live a prosperous life. I will live a comfortable life. I will be free and I will be reckless in my happiness. I owe no debt to the earth. Go screw yourself.”

I could perhaps satisfy Mother Nature by living a simpler life. I could be like Billy Graham and live alone in a cabin in the woods. Of course, I will not. It is not just me, I tell myself. I do it for my family. I do it for the ones I love. My wife and I are about ready to send our daughter to college. The last thing I want for her is to spend her adult years washing dishes. No, I wish for her a lifestyle similar or better than mine, in a house with central heating and air conditioning, and a car, and in a job that pays well and in a field where she will find meaning and personal growth. My miserable period was rather brief, but it was miserable. I do not want her to endure anything like it because, gosh, it hurt. For similar reasons, I ache for the wretched and homeless and write checks to SOME. I want happiness for that skid row alcoholic too. I want humans to stop dying of preventable diseases or to have to endure pointless suffering. Moreover, I want all war to end, pronto! Just say no to violence, people!

And I want the Earth to be a garden of Eden again. That is, I want a pony.

When I hit that last point that is when I feel like I should go douse myself in cold water. I have castigated President Bush for his guns and butter approach to war. I have castigated Republicans for expecting low taxes and plenty of government services at the same time. Therefore, I should hold myself to my own standard. I should take less, a lot less from this world than I do. Will I do it? Not a chance.

In a sense, my selfishness, as well as the collective selfishness of all of us living a first world life, as well as the billions desperately clawing their way toward a prosperous life, is writing the extinction of our species and possibly our planet. Each of us, by making this very natural choice to move from misery toward comfort is sending a four-finger salute to future generations. We are also sending this message to the other species that inhabit our planet, and on whom we depend for our mutual survival. In addition, we are sending a message to future generations: if we can be so selflessly reckless, so should you.

After all, freedom is what America is all about. Yes, there is a price to freedom. It is not just, as the proponents of the military tell us, that freedom must be defended. Freedom comes with certain constraints. One of its natural constraints is that the more of us there are, the less free each of us can be. Hence, we end up with community associations dictating the color of paint we must use on our houses. However, it is not just population increases that make us less free. It is also how we choose to live our lives. Each person who chooses to live a prosperous life is acting like a neighbor who plays his rock music all night long at ear piercing volumes. That more of us engage in this habit does not mean we are all, either individually or as a whole, really better off.

Even Al Gore is in denial. He talks about setting the thermostat down a few degrees and replacing incandescent lights with fluorescent lights. He says we must do this to reduce our carbon footprint. Obviously, these are steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, we should not kid ourselves. Al is not planning to give up his house in the suburbs either. His air conditioner may have a higher efficiency rating than yours, but he is not going to put it out with the trash. He too will take much more from the earth than it can affordably give him. Even if we followed all his suggested practices, the earth would not be in balance. At best, we might delay our day of reckoning.

To paraphrase the philosopher Bertrand Russell, I now find myself uncomfortably awake. I know my selfish actions are counterproductive to the values I claim to espouse. I know I am a damned hypocrite. I will continue to assuage my conscience by tinkering around the edges. Those plastic yogurt cups will continue to go in the recycle bin. I expect we will replace those incandescent lights with fluorescent ones. However, I also understand that these actions do not amount to atonement, and that I will continue to live an earth-hostile life. My car may be a hybrid instead of a Hummer, but I am still a sinner. I am farting a little less than my neighbor is, but I am still stinking up the room.

Perhaps knowing that you are in denial is a prerequisite toward moving toward real penance. If so, I am just tentatively sticking my head above the herd and bleating, “This is a real problem, folks.” The herd, being a herd, does not want to hear me but they sure notice that I am trotting in step with them. I shall bleat nonetheless. Meanwhile, I will keep recycling my yogurt cups. In doing so, I do not really atone for my sins. However, for whatever it means, I do acknowledge my sins. I am sorry I am such a reckless fool, but at least I know I am a fool.

The Price of Growth

The Thinker by Rodin

Here in Northern Virginia, residents on its western edge are in a bit of a tizzy. These areas in Loudoun and Prince William counties, along with counties even further to the west hugging the Shenandoah Mountains, are Washington D.C.’s latest and fastest growing bedroom communities. Uppity blue-blooded towns like Middleburg, home to wineries, the well moneyed and fox hunting, who have taken the Virginia piedmont for granted are feeling the press of encroaching civilization. To their south, new bedroom communities like Gainesville are growing by leaps and bounds. For the moment, this land is relatively cheap. This means many of these pastoral areas are now sporting boxy McMansions instead of foxholes. Most of these residents take pride in their new homes and their unspoiled views. You can see the Shenandoah Mountain much more clearly from places like Warrenton and Gainesville than you can from where I live, in Fairfax County.

Along with growth of course come all the trappings of growth: strip malls, congested highways, overcrowded schools and power lines. The strip malls do not seem to bother these latest residents. No doubt, they grumble about the crowded schools. Those who commute regularly from these far-flung exurbs to Washington D.C. have to groan through nightmarish commutes that get them up long before dawn and deposit them home long after the dinner hour. However, it seems to be a price they are willing to pay for a relatively affordable home in the exurbs, the white picket fence and to not hear neighbors playing rock music at 2 a.m. In time, they expect their houses will become excellent investments, as my closer in house has become for me in the 13 years we have lived in closer-in Fairfax County. Nevertheless, there appears to be one adjustment they cannot tolerate: new fifteen story power lines courtesy of Dominion Virginia Power and Pennsylvania based Alleghany Power.

The Virginia Piedmont is without question gorgeous real estate. At least for now it consists of many miles of generally rolling hills, mostly deforested, which make a gradual incline as they approach the Shenandoah Mountains to the west. Perhaps it is the relative lack of trees in this part of Virginia that has these new residents so up in alarm. Without them, it is hard to obscure the ugliness of these new power lines set to run through their neighborhoods. Some are watching their hopes for a tidy fortune disappear with the power lines.

She bought her 100-acre Delaplane farm last year, when it was an overgrown slice of land anchored by a rundown old farmhouse just off Interstate 66. She plowed all her savings into it. To pay down her $1 million mortgage and build up her horse business, she planned to sell a five-acre chunk within a couple of years.

Then came what her neighbors have come to regard as “the black cloud.”

“I’m probably sunk by this,” said Eaton, 45, seated by the wood stove she uses to heat the farmhouse. “No one will buy that land if some ugly power line could run right over their house. I’m broken off at the knees.”

I am having a hard time summoning much sympathy for these property owners. That is not to say that I too would not be aghast if Virginia Power decided to put up fifteen story power lines in my neighborhood. However, that was never a problem. My community was settled before I bought my house. In fact, there are high voltage power lines about half a mile from my house. There is many a nice house as well as a McMansion close to these power lines too. I have not taken the time to assess their value compared to homes like mine that are further away, but I doubt those high tension power lines have affected their property values too much. At least here in Fairfax County, it is location, location, location. If you live in Fairfax County, you are within twenty miles of an incredible number of diverse and well paying jobs. Residents seem to agree: being closer to good schools and good jobs is worth the price of having a high power line as a next-door neighbor.

On the other hand, what are the people in these latest exurbs thinking? Did they think growth would not involve some messy choices? Virginia and Alleghany Power understand what is going on: these areas are growing like gangbusters. Eventually they will not be able to meet demand for electricity unless they build the infrastructure now to support these communities. Hence the need for fifteen story power lines. The only question is where to place them. For the most part, they are hoping to place them not too far from I-66, which is the major interstate heading west from Washington D.C. This seems reasonable to me. I-66 is a bit of an eyesore as an interstate anyhow. It would be hard to make things much worse by putting a power line next to it, unless, of course, you have property close to these power lines.

Most homeowners in these areas will make out very well. I expect their home values will rise steadily. The land may no longer be so pristine. They may be spending their days in new traffic jams far from the city. Nevertheless, more swatches of Virginia piedmont seemed doomed to succumb to humanity’s need for large living spaces.

While people have to live somewhere, in my mind the obscenity are not plans to put in these admittedly ugly power lines. The real obscenity is the way these pristine lands are being transformed into new oversized habitats for humanity. These newly traffic-clogged roads once ferried the likes of statesmen like Thomas Jefferson. Instead of building in closer to cities like Washington, which already have large tracks of land that could be redeveloped, we have to push out further, destroying our environment, further reducing space needed for wild animals and exacerbating global warming in the process.

I understand why these people choose to live where they live. If I were a twenty something again it would probably seem like a logical choice to me. I probably could not afford to live closer in. However, I do not think I would be so naïve as to think my choice would not be without some necessary tradeoffs. Fifteen story power lines are part of the price of growth. These NIMBYies may be upset now, particularly if their property values are affected. Nevertheless, you can bet they would be much more upset if ten years from now their house suffered regular brownouts because the supply of power could not keep up with the demand.

They should swallow their misgiving and applaud Virginia and Alleghany Power for being proactive. If they do not like it, it is not too late to sell their estates in the exurbs, and move in to some smaller and more modest estate closer in. I suspect Mother Nature would prefer it if they made that kind of choice.

A Dubious Passage

The Thinker by Rodin

If you are in the transportation business, geography is rarely your friend. Due to the nature of air travel, the air freight business can somewhat ignore geography. However, even in that business the great circle routes between destinations are not always available. If you are involved in ground transportation there are mountains that must be scaled, swamps that must be bypassed, rivers that must be spanned, and traffic that will slow you down. Transportation by sea means navigating around continents, islands, wrecks and shoals. All add time and expense to their desire to move goods quickly and cheaply between two points.

For centuries, one of the biggest obstacles for transporters has been the Americas. Prior to the Panama Canal, trips to the Pacific typically involved arduous and dangerous journeys around the aptly named Cape Fear at the tip of South America. The Panama Canal cut off thousands of miles. However, if you look at a globe you will quickly see that from departure points like London, even the Panama Canal does not come close to being a direct route to the Orient. Consequently, for centuries one of the dreams of mariners has been a reliable Northwest Passage over the top of Canada, through the Arctic Ocean, and thence into the Pacific. It approximates a great circle route taken by airplanes. Such a venture by sea would save weeks and about four thousand miles of unnecessary travel.

There was, unfortunately, one small problem: the mass of arctic ice that tenaciously extended over much of the Arctic Ocean. Trying to get through that seemed about as likely to happen as the Second Coming. British mariners were among the first to try and fail to find a navigable Northwest Passage. The wrecks of many ships along Canada’s eastern and northern coasts demonstrated that such ventures were futile. Modern icebreakers are usually successful and cutting paths through the Arctic ice. However, their paths often do not remain open for long. During the summer, a few commercial ships have succeeded in claiming the Northwest Passage. However, even today such crossings are dangerous. The season is short. Icebergs and shoals along the Arctic Ocean remain very real threats. For these reasons, even after all these years, a Northwest Passage to the Orient remains too dangerous for all but a handful of shippers to try. Those that try have to do so only during a very short period of Arctic summer.

The times may be changing. Because of global warming, the Arctic ice is rapidly receding. The average temperature of the Arctic has increased five degrees Fahrenheit in just 30 years. As a result, the Arctic ice mass is quickly receding. A Northwest Passage is looking to be commercially viable at last.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen weaves in graceful slow motion through the ice pack, advancing through the legendary Northwest Passage well after the Arctic should be iced over and shuttered to ships for the winter.

The fearsome ice is weakened and failing, sapped by climate change. Ultimately, this night’s ghostly procession through Icebreaker Channel will be the worst the ship faces on its late-season voyage. Much of the trip, crossing North America from west to east through the Northwest Passage, will be in open water, with no ice in sight.

You would think that maybe this would be a cause for alarm. However, in the world of commerce, this may be an event worth toasting.

“Shipping companies are going to think about this, and if they think it’s worth it, they are going to try it,” says the captain of the Amundsen, Cmdr. Alain Gariepy, 43. “The question is not if, but when.”

Environmentalists are, to say the least, alarmed:

Satellite imagery has shown that the Arctic ice cap is thinning and already is nearly 30 percent smaller than it was 25 years ago. In the winter of 2004-05, the Arctic’s perennial ice, which usually survives the summer, shrank by 280,000 square miles, the size of Turkey. This past August, a crack opened in the ice pack from the Russian Arctic to the North Pole, an event never seen before.

Arctic ice reflects sunlight; its absence may accelerate global warming. The intricate chemistry that occurs in the rich Arctic waters could go haywire with unaccustomed heat and sunlight. Whole species seem destined to disappear while others move northward in their place. Inuit who thrived here for millennia are finding the thin ice and changed wildlife inhospitable.

Opponents often chastise us environmentalists (not to mention Democrats). “They look at the glass as half empty, instead of half full,” they say about us. Look on the bright side of global warming: a Northwest Passage in fact would cut the costs of commercial shipping, expanding free trade and helping to lift all boats.

This is a poor turn of phrase, under the circumstances. Because all that melting ice will definitely lift all boats, as well as likely cause the relocations of millions of people to higher grounds. In fact, when looking for evidence of the effects of global warming, the Arctic, while remote, is where its affect is most clear and dramatic. The sheets of ice that cover most of Greenland are cracking, pouring fresh water into the ocean, decreasing ocean salinity and rising sea levels. The Ward Ice Shelf in the Arctic Ocean, which has stood unchanged for three millennium, has been cracking since 2000. Glaciers in Alaska are melting. Polar bears may soon be an endangered species: there are not enough ice flows for them to move across the Arctic Ocean. As Arctic ice retreats, more sea pups die because adult seals have to swim further for food.

Even though commercial shipping possibilities may expand in the Arctic Ocean, this is one time when it is better to say the glass is half-empty. Global warming is happening beyond any doubt and it may soon change much of the delicate ecosystem above the Arctic Circle. It is hard for us to know now what ripples this will have on the rest of the planet, beyond increased sea levels. However, it should not be cause for just concern, but for alarm. For all life is tied together. What happens in the Arctic is likely to effect all of us in profound ways, many of which we cannot yet imagine.

The United States is the world’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions come principally from our cars and our coal burning power plants. As a nation, we can choose to take aggressive steps to rein in our emissions of greenhouse gasses. Alternatively, we can keep burying our heads in the sand and pretend the consequences will not affect us. There are other more benign ways to generate energy other than through burning things. We can move beyond hybrid cars to other forms of transportation, such as light rail, that have much less effect on the environment. We can each do small things that can have enormous impact, such as setting our thermostats down two degrees in the winter and up two degrees in the summer. Al Gore has a number of other ideas we each can do that can help the global warming crisis.

As important as our personal actions are, we must demand a national energy policy that not only makes us energy independent, but which rewards conservation. We need larger incentives for greater degrees of conservation. We can make it more expensive to tear down virgin forests and less expensive to redevelop urbanized lands. We can even demand that manufacturers calculate the cost to the planet for the use of their products, such as the European Union plans to do soon.

It may be that by stemming global warming, we will not just save the polar bear from extinction, but our own species as well. If all life is precious, as the right to life crowd asserts, then the lives of all the species on the planet are also precious, for our relationship is mutually dependent. As for all the alleged benefits of finally having a Northwest Passage, let us not make this passage.

Goodbye Planet Earth

The Thinker by Rodin

The good news is that virtually everyone, including our president (who typically sticks his head in the sand), agrees that global warming is happening. Perhaps the movie An Inconvenient Truth was the final straw that convinced even the most diehard skeptics. A very vocal but very well moneyed minority (typically representing businesses that are profiting from the status quo) still thinks that humanity’s impact on global warming is minimal. They assert that since global warming is part of a natural trend there is no reason to give ourselves a guilt trip.

As a result, they argue, there is no reason for us to take any drastic actions since we cannot halt it. Moreover, even if we could succeed in taking drastic actions, they will not do any good. On this last point, I grudgingly have to agree with skeptics. I feel an urgency to start doing something concrete and dramatic about global warming. Yet I also get the feeling it is like trying to stop the tide. Humanity’s demographics are working against us. Even if we could enforce the Kyoto Protocols, all it would do is slow the rate of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, since no one can make us stop, humanity will doubtless continue to breed like bunnies. Those new people will put additional demands on the ecosystem. Today there are about 6.5 billion people on the planet. Al Gore in the movie An Inconvenient Truth shows a linear relationship between successive years and temperature. Each year the average global temperature creeps up at such a consistent and methodical rate, you can easily predict next year’s average global temperature.

Human population growth, on the other hand, is growing exponentially. Somewhere around 1830, after hundreds of millions of years of evolution, the total world population reached a billion people. By 1930, it was two billion. By 1960, it was three billion. By 1974: four billion. By 1987: five billion. By 2000: six billion. Here we are six years later and halfway to adding another billion.

“Choose life,” the pro-life people tell us. They should be cheering. Humanity is choosing life in record numbers. They tell us that every life is sacred. However, you have to wonder about our quality of life when every year more and more people are competing for the same resources. Naturally, those who live in third world countries are not too thrilled about their plight. Therefore, when they can they choose prosperity. They cross borders in search of better lives. Those of us in first world countries are choosing life too. And we are choosing to live a large life. In the process, we exacerbate global warming. We tear down the trees that can convert our excess carbon dioxide to oxygen. We drive vehicles that emit carbon dioxide. The infrastructure that gives us life’s many amenities exists largely because of the ready availability of petroleum, which, when burned it emits carbon dioxide that causes global warming. We are determined to have a better quality of life than our parents had, or die trying. We think micro, not macro. We think me not we. We try to ignore our interdependence.

Nature has been knocking on our doors. It has been trying to give us a wakeup call. For example, over the last few weeks California has experienced sustained record heat. These heat spells are not just a little hotter than things used to be, but much hotter. High temperatures passed 110 degrees in many places in California. It reached 99 degrees in San Francisco. Fortunately, brownouts were minimal. Yet in order to keep cool, Californians pushed the power system for all it was worth, driving record demand. Since most of that energy came from non-renewable energy forms like coal burning power plants, cooling ourselves to deal with global warming also exacerbated global warming.

Meanwhile, China is no longer content to be a country full of peasants and water buffalo. It is Great Leap Forward, Version 2 underway right now in China. In a generation, the country will go from the second world to first world. Soon its carbon dioxide production will equal that of the United States. The pollution in China has gotten so bad that it is making it all across the Pacific Ocean. It contributes not only to California’s high temperatures, but also to its poor air quality too. Other emerging economies are probably learning unwise lessons from China’s success: hang the pollution control equipment. Deforest, defile and pollute as necessary until you are first world.

Democracy is the answer, President Bush tells us. When he visits third world countries, he says that industrialization is the answer. He preaches that nations do not have to choose to be miserable. He says any nation if it works hard enough can industrialize itself into first world status. Coming with that industrialization, of course, will be new environmental problems, including more carbon dioxide and global warming. Yes, it may be a wee bit hypocritical of those of us in the first world to suggest to the third world not to industrialize for the good of the planet. Of course, what would be even better would be for us first world countries to devolve into third world countries. Since that is unlikely to happen (barring nuclear war), is it too much to expect us to stabilize our population and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? Yep, apparently it is too much. Republican or Democrat, we have these expectations. America is the land of freedom, and we can never have enough freedom. Since freedom generally translates into, “I get to do what I want to do and hang the consequences for anyone else”, it seems unlikely that we will do sensible things like petition for higher gas taxes to discourage driving.

Perhaps as these increasingly nasty effects of global warming continue to manifest themselves, we will begin meaningful changes to our behavior. Perhaps we will all drive electric cars that will run on renewable sources of energy. Perhaps as our telecommunications infrastructure improves, most of us will work from home. Perhaps we will learn to start biking to work. Perhaps, but I am not counting on it in the short term.

I feel despondent. In a way, I am glad to be mortal. I am pushing 50. With luck will be around this planet another 30 or 40 years. Nevertheless, along with my natural angst associated with growing old, I am already feeling deeply sad about the seemingly unstoppable problem of global warming. I also feel nostalgic for a time within my memory when the earth seemed in balance. Our environment, on which we all depend, is now fragile. We are the bull in the china shop, largely heedless of the carnage that we are causing and the effect it will have on this and future generations.

I am nostalgic for bone crushing cold winter days I knew in upstate New York, but which now happens much more rarely. I am nostalgic for a time when mountain snowmelts happened in May, not March or April. I am nostalgic for a time when the hottest day all year was 90 degrees. I am nostalgic for a time when I did not have to worry about the air quality index because the air quality was always fine.

I am distraught and sad at how we have raped our wonderful planet. I am angry and frustrated that we are likely to thoughtlessly keep at it. So perhaps my death will be in some way a relief, because by then the earth will no longer the place that I remember. We have remade it, and not for the better. If after death I reincarnate, I hope it is in some greener and fresher world where the citizens live in balance with nature, where glaciers do not melt, and where we treat nature with the reverence of Native Americans. I will be sorry to pass on our trashed and overcrowded planet to my daughter. I will also be angry with myself for not doing more to shake people up. Here is one more futile attempt to do so. It is likely already too late.

Review: An Inconvenient Truth

The Thinker by Rodin

Is global warming happening? If it is happening, is it part of a natural trend? Or is it being caused by human activity? If so, can we really do anything to stop it? Or should be just shrug it off and consider the upsides: more time in bathing suits and less time shoveling snow.

Those who keep up on my blog know I do not need convincing. Global warming is undoubtedly happening. Even our president admits it is happening. In addition, human activity is contributing to global warming. President Bush admits that too. He only disagrees on how much we humans contributing to the problem and the methods that should be employed to address it.

Al Gore begs to differ. You remember Al. In the film An Inconvenient Truth, he introduces himself as the man who used to be the next president of the United States. It gets a laugh at every seminar he gives on global warming. The documentary An Inconvenient Truth is largely a filmed version of Al’s global warming seminar. It is his traveling road show. Armed with a Macintosh computer with a very big screen, Al is now traveling the world doing his best to convince anyone who will listen that the global warming phenomenon is real and action must be taken now. His slide show is very impressive. It would take a very cynical person to come away from the movie not realizing that human activity is the major cause of global warming.

The film is marketed as the scariest movie you will ever see. What could be scarier than real life? In fact, I did not find the film that scary. I certainly learned some new things from the movie. However, I understood before coming into the theater that global warming was real and that its consequences were catastrophic. I do hope that the film will bring in average Americans who maybe are not totally convinced. I suspect though that the film will largely preach to the choir.

I hope that it will not dissuade you from seeing the movie, for even those who agree with Al should still see this film. Do the earth a favor though, and bring someone with you who are a skeptic or are still on the fence. Ideally take a whole bunch of friends. Not only will they be uncomfortably awake after the movie, but also by just attending, they will help address global warming. Five percent of the ticket price goes to support advocacy. I can write off 5% of the $19.50 I paid for two tickets on my income tax!

No question about it though. Al has a terrific yet sobering slide show. Whatever presentation software he is using, PowerPoint was not up to the job. The movie is 90% filmed lecture, and 10% background. We learn that Al was first exposed to global warming research in college. For whatever reason, it became a cause he passionately latched onto. As you may know, in 1992 he wrote a book on global warming, Earth in Balance. Here he is fourteen years later, the almost president of the United States, yet we see him going through metal detectors at airports just like the rest of us. He is now Citizen Gore. He seems to have put his defeat behind him and is doing the best he can to shake us up on this issue before it is too late. In the movie he says that he has given his lecture thousands of times. We even see him giving the lecture in China. Al really believes that if he works hard enough the message will get through and real policy change will happen.

Gone is Wooden Al. In the movie, we find the authentic Al Gore. While he may not be wooden, his passion is still somewhat restrained. We see a rather low-key Al Gore who is introspective, sobering and full of gravitas. No theatrics are necessary. This is one time when the facts speak far more convincingly. Instead, you are left wondering: are we doomed? Is there any hope left for our planet and our species?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. Stemming global warming is quite doable. It is not some sort of pie in the sky notion that must wreck world economies. All it takes is will. In fact, Al makes a convincing case that companies that work to stem global warming will be the economic winners. Perhaps that is why General Electric is working on products that will help stem global warming. Al shows us that it is possible because we have already demonstrated that will. International efforts have stemmed the manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons. That once gaping ozone hole in the Southern Hemisphere has closed up. It is one first and modest success in the climate change challenge for which humanity can take credit.

Usually when the movie credits start, you head for the exit. During the credits in this film, we also see suggestions on how each of us can help stem global warming. The Bethesda Row Cinema, where I saw the film with my father, also had a stack of flyers with suggestions on how to help stem global warming. I took one home. I was glad to see I am already doing certain things right (I own a hybrid and bike to work frequently). Others will take more convincing. I am not sure my wife will let me set up the thermostat two degrees during the summer.

In a world of self-serving politicians, it is such a pleasure to see an ex-politician not squander the rest of their life, but work to do something meaningful for humanity and the planet. Jimmy Carter works hard to bring democracy to the rest of the world. Al Gore is working hard to wake us up to the reality of climate change. It will be the rare person who comes away from this movie without a renewed respect for Al Gore. I for one wish he would run for president again.