Feature Article
Fighting the Global Warming Blues by

HAVE YOU FOUND yourself lately resting on your socio-eco justice laurels? Have you become just a little bit lax? A little less vigilant about getting to those activist meetings, avoiding Styrofoam, investing in organic food and clothing, defending the poor, confronting the system? Are you letting things slide while you take your eye off the ball? Can it be that you?re getting tired of being good and doing good, that you can?t help feeling just, plain?weary?

CLANG! Well, ladies and gentlemen, we have just the thing to bring back that old spark! No pills, no exercise and no special diet! Yes, folks, just the thing to take away the boredom, and banish uncertainty. Guaranteed to make you see life in a whole new way!

Global Warming.

Give us a break! you cry. That's unfair. We work hard, but we need some time off. Shouldn?t we be allowed to have a life!?

I'm right with you. I?ve had a hell of a year. Moving, broken bones, family health crises, job anxieties, money worries, no time, expiring vehicles and a cat that's allergic to dust mites (you think I have time to vacuum?). Still, I?ve tried to keep my progressive hand in. But every now and then, when life's vicissitudes and variables start piling up like the unread newspapers stacked three feet high in my living room, I think maybe the causes can get along without me for a few hours. A little life, family, friends, a good book, a leisurely meal. These are not the fantasies of a criminal! Those of us who care about the issues are not the bad guys. Let?s be fair!

Okay, I?ve convinced myself. The world can do without me for a bit. I settle into the reading chair, adjust the lamp and begin the task (pleasurable, still) of reading to the bottom of the newsprint stack. Weeks of papers.

So I get to page twenty-nine of the Los Angeles Times of November 14 and see: New Studies Paint Grim Global Warming Picture. That's page twenty-nine. The front page was taken up with news of the stock market, but on twenty-nine it says that pollution is right now playing a "significant" role in increasing temperatures. The day before, the story continues, our government had admitted that greenhouse gases will probably increase over the next decade at a rate nearly 25 percent greater than anticipated. Ray Bradley, head of the geosciences department at the University of Massachusetts and an author of one of the studies, said, "Our ecosystem will change. I don?t know how we'll cope with that."

That's as straight as it gets. So, in spite of what the carbon dioxide-emitting industries would have us believe, Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore. Kansas isn't even in Kansas anymore. And we might just have to accept that a "normal" life is something we may not be able to enjoy as we fight to provide one for our grandchildren.

So by page twenty-nine of what was to be a leisurely read, my eyes have popped wide open, steam is coming out of my ears and I?m saying to the walls, "Oh no, not again!" Those of use who are aware, pay a heavy price, it is true. The implications of environmental destruction, social injustice, and inequitable economies press down on us, making us angry that since we have a social conscience we end up spending our lives trying to set things right. Why should we give up so much? Other people think we're crazy. Is it worth it? How much are we expected to do, to think, to sacrifice?

But on that afternoon of a few moments off, those feelings lifted the moment I realized that this new confirmation of global warming had neatly answered the question of how much we are expected to do. And the answer? Everything we can. For if the planet's climate changes the way scientists now predict, we won't have anything else to consider. Grasping this concept freed me from the onerous dilemma of trying to do the right thing, versus becoming content and complacent, because now I saw all other options evaporate. Although I have no way of knowing if we're really going to pollute ourselves into extinction, I do know that there are things I, and the rest of us, must do about it. Leisure-on-call will probably have to become one of my personal endangered activities.

I thought I knew about global warming. Emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases are increasing global temperatures. Rich countries are creating the biggest mess, but poor countries are expected to catch up soon. Politicians and captains of industry aren't happy about proposed changes that might take a nip out of the bottom line. But I thought on some level I really believed that steps were being taken to address the issue. After all, didn't President Clinton vow, in 1993, to limit American greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels in the year 2000?

As I write, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's Third Conference of the Parties is meeting with 165 other nations in Kyoto to set specific emissions objectives and goals for the post-2000 period. Specific goals to reduce some of the damage that we know is already on the way. In the midst of the international media hoopla about the conference, our government has been at pains to tell the world that the U.S. delegation is "not going in with the notion that we have to have an agreement at any cost."

Yeah, we'll show them! Is anyone else watching this exercise reminded of a romper room? Where the diaper of the biggest bully is an American flag?

Speaking of babies, this posturing from the "environmental" president and vice isn't surprising. Sad, yes (don't blame me, I voted for Ralph). What surprised me were the latest studies showing that we can't possibly meet our voluntary reduction goals any time soon, primarily because we're hooked on SUVs, Sports Utility Vehicles. About one-third of America's current CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels is due to transportation, and the percentage is growing quickly. I guess the foreign oil scarcity of the seventies is pretty much a lost memory, because we are driving many more cars many more miles today. But worse, we've fallen head over heels in love with SUVs, mini-vans, light trucks and other rapacious gas hogs that are exempt from the fuel-efficiency standards that apply to regular automobiles.

Largely due to our love affair, instead of meeting our goal in reducing CO2 emissions, transportation emissions in the U.S. (which, by the way, are twice the magnitude of emissions from Germany, Japan, France and Great Britain combined) could more than double over the next fifty years. Meanwhile, the oil and auto industry lobbyist are up in Washington furiously blocking all attempts to increase the fuel-efficiency standards or institute a carbon tax.

Now, that's not fair.

These macho and menacing monster vehicles that are the choice of one out of every two families buying a new car these days, will be the fastest growing source of global warming gases in the U.S. in the next ten years. I have friends who drive these things, but I am assuming they haven't made the connection yet between their extraordinary high levels of gas consumption and carbon dioxide dumping, and our cat and mouse game with Saddam Hussein and the melting ice caps. There are certainly enough forces trying to get in the way of that knowledge. It's hard to imagine that television networks and corporate-owned newspapers and magazines would be willing to kiss their millions in SUV advertising revenues goodbye for the sake of a little thing called telling the truth. And, as a kicker, these vehicles kill twice as many people a year as cars do, though fewer are on the road. So, as an activist, yes, I'm all riled up about this. I've forgotten my tea and cookies on the table, the non-work magazine I was planning to skim, the coupons I was planning to cut. And it doesn't feel bad, actually, except that I'm frustrated because of our ignorance, mine included.

Things can change. The car industry can make small, efficient, alternative-fuel cars with a concentration on safety. Or better yet, clean-running vans and buses for mass transit that the government finally decides is a wise investment. But we have to rattle our cages. The National Research Council says government efforts to change transportation policy needs "broad and deep public support," which may not exist because "the risk of climate change and other ecological effects of transportation are at present largely imperceptible to the public."

Not for long. I've watched "Volcano," " Twister," "Asteroid" and "Alien," but the weather changes caused by global warming will make those disasters look like a walk in the park. Floods, droughts, crop failure, fire, famine, and an increase in tropical diseases, every night on the news. Of course, some industry groups still maintain we are being alarmist, that trying to make the changes necessary to avert disaster isn't cost effective.

Cost effective!? And we're speaking here of averting global disaster? They're smoking something! They haven?t even begun to see what won?t be cost effective. In fact, all corporations, stock markets and currencies, foreign trade, retirement funds and the almighty insurance industry will be first in line to feel the real heat, but they can?t see that through the piles of money they?re making today.

Money is another reason for the flirtation some of us have with burnout. Working to help put the planet back on an even keel isn't a fiscally intelligent career move, as if you didn?t know. Big corporations have no intention of paying someone a great salary plus benefits to organize for a sustainable future. My friends who give up their own financial security to work for a secure future for everyone have all kinds of problems getting along in a world that treats them like idealistic fools who are so dumb they can't make a decent living. But listen to that: make a decent living. Isn't that the point?

So the world is warming, we're driving ourselves into oblivion and the Big Boys don't want to change a thing. For those people who don't know what to do with themselves, here is a challenge worth getting out of bed for in the morning. Here is something very clear, very focused, and very needful of action. And, by recognizing the problem and working toward a solution, we keep despair at bay and find one solution to our societal depression.

An activist friend is taking a series of horticulture courses. He's looking forward to one called Environmental Biology, which traces Man's impact on the environment. His instructor admitted that there is just one problem: everyone who takes the class comes away very depressed. "That's only because they feel helpless," Patrick told him. "If they do something personally to help, they won?t feel that way."

He's right, and he should know. His house is Activist Central. He and his wife live the life. So they know all about the ways we are doing wrong, yet they never give in or give up. It is really our paralysis and the inertia of frustration that are our worst enemies, not the disturbing information that we might be on our way out. The less we do about the dangers the more frightened we become.

Well, I don't like being afraid. And I have seen the light. I've got that old re-radicalized religion. I don't think the powers of the marketplace are ready for the power of the people when they really get the picture. The oil and auto industries were astounded recently when a large majority of Americans said they would be willing to pay more for a gallon of gasoline if it would ?significantly reduce global warming. Sixty-five percent of the public also, in direct opposition to the Administration, want the U.S. to cut its own greenhouse gas emissions "regardless of what other countries do." Feeling a little stronger, maybe, a bit brighter? More inclined to get off the couch and start planning that campaign?

Author and research director, Steven Lerner, has written a book called Eco-Pioneers (1997, MIT Press). In his introduction he gives us an idea of the work that lies ahead.

"[B]uilding a sustainable culture is a challenge that must engage all of us, not just a handful of eco-experts who make a living at it. This great human endeavor will draw on all our faculties and require all our skill and compassion. It will call for higher levels of cooperation than have ever been achieved before. It will necessitate a shift in consciousness from human-centered to a biocentric worldview. And it will likely require the mobilization of human energy and resources that was previously reserved for the conduct of war. As earlier generations marshaled vast resources to contain fascism and communism, so ours will be called upon to bring to bear a large-scale effort to create a sustainable economy within the limits of nature."

Maybe it isn't fair that for a chance at survival we'll have to give up a portion of our time and energy to match wits with some of the most shortsighted, self-centered individuals and corporations that have ever existed. Maybe it isn't fair that of all history's generations, those of us here today and from this day forward are charged with this project. Perhaps it isn?t fair, but it?s a fact. Nothing like this has confronted us before.

I sometimes feel sorry for myself because my days of job-earned, two-week Puerto Vallarta vacations and decorative margaritas are behind me. Occasionally I'll cry, "I need a vacation!" and my husband will give me the look that says, "Then work for an insurance company!"

Instead, I?m trying to educate myself and others, to work to influence and change bad habits, and change some minds. It's honest work, even if I don't get a medal or a gold watch. Being a radical is not a job, exactly. It's more like a life.

Philip Berrigan is a seventy-four-year-old priest and veteran peace activist currently serving a two-year jail sentence for attempting to wreck the control panels of a Navy nuclear destroyer. He will have spent nearly a decade in prison for his actions for peace, but he doesn?t seem to miss the comforts of a regular life, or entertain the prospect of retirement.

"I?d like to die being of use to other people," he said, "writing or speaking some truth, or maybe even during the course of an action. Not on the beach."

Come to think of it, so would I. ###
[November/December 1997]

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