Better to be inconvenienced than extinct

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Everywhere we go these days, we hear people complaining about fuel prices. A wealthy man, filling the empty tank on his SUV talks about “sticker shock” as the numbers roll around to show he owes over $75. An elderly couple on a fixed income tell us they won’t be able to pay for fuel to heat their home next winter if prices don’t come down.

People, for thousands of years had lived off their own energy and that of their animals. With the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, people began living off the dead, harnessing a new power — fossil fuels.

Those sources are running low and the lifestyle they supported will have to change if our civilization is going to survive.

That was a message brought home last week by Stephen Leibo, a professor of international history and politics at Sage Colleges, who is one of nearly 2,000 people trained by Al Gore to give presentations for The Climate Project.

The Pokornys, a couple who use wind and solar power to run their Hilltown home, hosted Leibo’s live updated version of Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize and his movie won an Academy Award.

But prizes aren’t enough. Storms are getting bigger, heat waves are getting longer, glaciers are melting faster, and the ocean is getting warmer. Per capita, the United States is the leading contributor to global warming at 30.3 percent — nearly a third.

We need to change our ways.

We’ve written here before about individuals who are making a difference — people like the Pokornys, with their solar panels and wind mill, who are willing to shoulder short-term financial burdens for long-term rewards.

We’ve urged people to make changes in everyday habits, like unplugging unused appliances — cell phones, TVs, and computers. Or changing to energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs. Or buying Energy Star appliances and hybrid cars. Or hanging wash to dry on a clothesline and creating yards that have natural plants rather than energy-using landscapes. Or insulating our homes and caulking cracks. Or taking shorter showers and fixing leaky faucets. Or shopping locally, supporting nearby farmers, and cutting back on unneeded trips.

We’ve written about Sharon Astyk, the Knox farmer who is devoting her life to reducing her family’s carbon footprint. She and another mother in Minnesota have launched a Riot for Austerity. Through their blogs, the “partners in ecology” have inspired nearly a thousand people in 14 countries to join the riot, making cuts in electricity, gasoline, heating fuel, food energy, water, consumer purchases, and garbage production, to scale family energy use down to just 10 percent of the average American’s.

Their inspiration for the Riot for Austerity came from the British journalist George Monbiot, who estimates a 90-percent energy cut  is needed across the board in rich nations to avoid the tipping point — the point at which the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is so great, the climate would accelerate in ways we can’t control.

Even the most extreme leaders would not propose a 90-percent cut, Monbiot asserts, because it would be political suicide. When people say, “Oh, nobody would ever do that,” Astyk responds, she will be able to say, “Look over here” and, “Here are hundreds of people who have done this.”

We hope the grassroots movement Gore is inspiring means it won’t be political suicide for our leaders to create radical change. If our earth is to survive, we need radical change in both senses of the word: getting to the root of the problem and effecting a fundamental or revolutionary change.

“A disruption in monsoon patterns, a shift in ocean currents, a major drought — any one of these could easily produce streams of refugees numbering in the millions,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert in her book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe. “As the effects of global warming become more and more difficult to ignore, will we react by finally fashioning a global response?

“Or will we retreat into ever narrower and more destructive forms of self-interest? It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

Kolbert convincingly makes the case for a global response to a global problem. Our nation needs to be part of the solution.

The same country that built our massive highway system could rejuvenate our failing rail system, creating a mass-transit network that would move people and goods without using so much fossil fuel.

We could build walkable communities rather than car-driven ones. We could return to neighborhood schools with Internet-linked learning rather than fueling massive centralized schools.

We could spend government funds on developing renewable energy sources rather than spending billions of dollars — never mind the cost in human lives — to maintain the flow of oil. We could place more stringent limits on industrial emissions.

We need public solutions to problems we now largely regard as private. We have a chance, in this post-industrial world, to use our knowledge and technology to stop the harm we’ve caused. We have to do it before it’s too late.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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