Way back when, in 1988, the world seemed a simpler place. Guns N’ Roses topped the charts with “Sweet Child ‘O Mine.” The Soviets, our archenemies, withdrew from Afghanistan in flaming defeat. We elected Dan Quayle vice president. (Partly due, no doubt, to the ringing endorsement of future presidential candidate John McCain, who commented at the time, “I can’t believe a guy that handsome wouldn’t have some impact.”) International terrorism took the form of putting bombs on planes, as in the Pan Am flight that exploded over Lockerbie, not using planes as missiles.
Then something happened in 1988 that forever complicated our world. A loss of innocence as clear as the smashed conch in Lord of the Flies, though I doubt anyone reading this knew it at the time. In the hot summer of 1988 (I recall, working as a bicycle messenger in Manhattan, a whole week topping 100 degrees) a NASA scientist named James Hansen gave testimony to Congress that carbon emissions were heating the earth. No doubt about it, the problem was our fossil fuel-burning ways.
We’ve spent 20 years debating this point—Is our industrial-based lifestyle really to blame for global warming?—with various smokescreens and diversions thrown up by scientists bought and paid for by petrochemical companies. But that needless argument seems to have been mostly won by the forces of logic and good science. Now, policy makers joust about what are the best solutions to our addiction to carbon. Michael Grunwald, Time magazine’s senior national correspondent, sheds some light on the subject in “Seven Myths About Alternative Energy” .
Even energy companies are now acknowledging that climate change is real. In late September, Pacific Gas & Electric, a large utility company in Northern California, dropped out of the US Chamber of Commerce for what it described as the Chamber’s “extreme position” on climate change. (The Chamber has been one of the biggest opponents of climate change legislation, claiming that regulations would strangle the economy. Bill Kovacs, senior vice president of the Chamber, has also suggested that the Obama administration is secretly hiding evidence that climate change isn’t a real threat.)
Okay. So now what?
One response is to follow the example of writer Colin Beavan, who spent a year trying to radically reduce his planetary footprint. This meant—for Beavan, who lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter—fanatical lifestyle locavorism: not eating meat; not using paper products, like toilet paper; buying nothing (except food grown within 250 miles); growing his own vegetables in a community garden; not using the elevator to get up to his ninth floor apartment; eventually turning off the electricity in said apartment; and driving his Prada-wearing wife mildly crazy with the project. The whole absurd inconvenience of such a scheme can be summarized in Beavan’s yearning for a slice of pizza, which he deconstructs, carbon molecule by carbon molecule, in his recent book No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux): “My desire for pizza was not the problem,” writes Beavan. “The fact that it came on a disposable paper plate was the problem. Our system makes it virtually impossible to get the things we want and need without leaving behind a trail of trash and pollution and greenhouse gases.”
Beavan’s ultraorthodox eco-lifestyle experiment is probably not for many of us in the Hudson Valley. But it points in the right direction. Beavan’s impetus wasn’t personal transformation through asceticism. He tried to live small because the scientific data demands it. The choice is clear: We either consume less or our civilization will cease to exist.
Which brings us to that magic number: 350. In our June issue, we printed a piece by eco-superhero Bill McKibben, “The Most Important Number on Earth,” in which McKibben explained that, based on the evidence, if there are more than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the climate that has thus far sustained human habitation would irrevocably change. Three hundred and fifty is our carbon limit. We are currently at 385 ppm, and adding 2 ppm annually. McKibben launched a grassroots movement, 350.org, to create a sense of urgency around this slide into oblivion. October 24 will be the movement’s second annual day of action, with 1,564 actions planned in 122 countries, from children’s art displays in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu (which may eventually be underwater), to the second annual Rally for a Green New Deal, with 350 or more people linking hands across the Mid-Hudson Bridge. There are 23 actions currently planned in the Hudson Valley, from concerts to bike rides to a Playback Theater performance. Many are listed in our calendar; all are noted at 350.org. My favorite was posted by someone named “Jac C.” in Olivebridge, who wrote: “Decided [with wife] to start a home garden and worked all last weekend on it.” It’s just one couple’s practical response to a thorny problem that will require something from all 6,786,205,255 of us (global population as of 8:38 am on September 24).
The question, moving forward, isn’t so much “What are you going to do?” as “What are you going to not do?”