An Earth Day Message from My Friend Chuck, or: Examine Your Habits
I have been trying to think about what I wanted to say on Earth Day. I only knew that I wanted to write about one environmental topic. Clean Air, Clean Water, Lakes and Rivers, Land Use, Forests, Personal Responsibility, Environmental Justice, something like that, but only one thing. I also really wanted to try to come up with something that would speak to anyone who read it, and make them feel like they could make a difference with even small changes (keeping your tires properly inflated is a perfect example).
Then, I happened upon this editorial written by my friend Chuck, so I thought I'd print it here (it originally appeared on today's Star Tribune editorial page). So, instead of more of my words, here are a few of Chuck's (he has a great idea for a small thing you can do to make a difference).
Chuck Dayton: A day for even the green to examine their habits
April 22, 2005 DAYTON
Star Tribune Commentary
It certainly wasn't the fault of the energetic freshman organizer that only a dozen kids showed up to hear my Earth Day talk last year on global climate change. A bundle of kinetic energy, she had cajoled six of her close friends, plastered the announcements all over the small college campus and offered free cookies.
In my PowerPoint presentation, I laid out the case that human-caused climate change is really happening, that Earth really is starting to heat up and that there will be a big environmental price to pay. I told them it's their problem, not mine (I'm 65), and asked, why do you think Americans don't seem to give a damn? They observed that the culture is selfish, and agreed we won't get the job done without a major shift in political will.
I left the meeting telling myself that it was worth it if I motivated a couple of kids. But this was a far cry from the first Earth Day of 1970, when several thousand students showed up at the University of Minnesota to hear Ralph Nader and were inspired to organize one of the first public interest research groups (PIRGs), which I soon joined as a young lawyer.
Just as I was getting into my Prius (the hybrid car that makes me vaguely smug) I felt the deep bass vibrations of a stereo booming through the heavy steel of a yellow Hummer. It rolled into the parking lot, top lights lit, and the lights continued to burn as the tall young driver sauntered toward the student union. You scumbag, I thought. You are the epitome of the problem! How can you drive this monument to American arrogance, this fuel-devouring war machine? Does it make you feel powerful? Why not volunteer for the Army and drive a real Hummer in Fallujah? Did your Daddy give you this? There's no way you paid for it. Does it help you pick up girls? You probably get gentleman's C's and are just marking time till you can take over Daddy's business.
Whoa there, I told myself, when my blood pressure fell to near normal. Why does this kid think it's cool to drive this obscene car? Sure, it is one of the worst symbols of our affluent and wasteful culture, but his attitude is probably not much different from most in a country where half of the cars are SUVs, where fuel efficiency is less than it was 25 years ago, where 4 percent of the world's population produces 30 percent of the world's heat-trapping gases, and advertisers appeal to our individualism (you earned it, you deserve it, bigger is better). This kid is simply doing what American culture tells him to do.
And, come to think of it, those of us with good educations and comfortable incomes, who sanctimoniously drive our hybrids, are probably not much better in terms of our overall per capita generation of carbon dioxide.Our dirty little secret is that we fly about the country on business and pleasure, and take a couple of long (often international) flights for vacations each year (air travel is a quarter of the transportation emissions), and we often own two houses (one in town, one at the lake) that have to be heated and air-conditioned, causing about 20 times the carbon emissions of the average Chinese citizen.
What, then, must we do?
First, take personal responsibility for our own energy use, by buying efficient cars, lightbulbs and appliances and by insulating our houses well. It really does matter.
Second, we can buy offsets for the carbon emissions that we cause through air travel or otherwise. Each mile of air travel causes about 1 pound of carbon emissions per person. For a 2,000-mile trip to Colorado to go skiing, I can offset the carbon emissions for about $30, by paying a nonprofit group to fund projects like restoring rainforests, or providing efficient lighting in developing countries. (Just Google "carbon offsets.")
Finally, in the public sphere, what else can we do but to try to work smarter: organize, preach, lobby, sue, donate, write, find smarter solutions and strategies to build the critical mass and the political will in all segments of our society to bring change. As my ex-hero, Ralph Nader, said in the early '70s, "Despair is the luxury of an intellectual dilettante."
There will come a day when driving cars like the Hummer will not be cool, when it will be as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in someone's face; when more kids think like my freshman organizer and not like Mr. Hummer.
The day will even come when our power plants and our cars don't emit nearly as much carbon dioxide -- the most significant gas contributing to global climate change. The question is whether we will bend the curve too late and too little to avoid major damage to polar bears and coral polyps, to Bangladesh and Boston, to farmers and flamingos -- in short, to the planet and its community of life.
Chuck Dayton, St. Paul, is an environmental lawyer and board member of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.