Media moguls must take Americans for a pack of idiots, assuming we’ll never pay attention to anything that requires responsibility, let alone “sacrifice.” Yet beneath the predictable plotlines of celebrity-studded media, there’s a laser beam of solid reporting on the web, public radio, and cable TV about what’s really happening. And there’s a quickly growing legion of citizens who are paying attention. Many try to keep up with the eco-emails that pop into their inboxes every day. They realize that our decisions should be grounded in good science, whether or not it makes us feel “happy.”
A recent eco-email from the Earth Policy Institute reports that 2010 is tied with 2005 for the hottest year on record, and that last May, millions of Pakistanis wilted as thermometers spurted to 128 degrees F., an industrial-era high for the Asian continent. Images of cracking farm soil come into our minds, along with urban flashfloods two and three stories deep and hellacious dust bowls swirling across the parched plains of China and Africa. But we remain in a media-induced stupor, certain that there will somehow be a happy ending, like there always has been in our lifetimes.
It’s true there are many hopeful trends to report. Farmers markets and light rail systems continue to be launched in one city after another. Wind energy already installed in the U.S. provides enough electricity to power 8 million American homes! Renewable energies like solar, wind, and hydroelectric already supply more juice than the world’s 400 nuclear power plants combined. Electric and hybrid plug-ins seem destined to challenge the gas guzzlers in 2011 showrooms and there are also monumental shifts in the way we think about the food system. For example, 2010 was the first year in many in which the number of farms increased rather than fell, an indication that small, information-rich farming may be on the rebound. There is growing evidence that Americans are willing to change their priorities, for example, spending more of their household budgets for high-quality food and less for products like clothes (which the average American now buys at the rate of one new item every five days) or electronics that are out of style before we even get them home. Food is increasingly seen as a smart buy – a way to spend more time with friends and less time with the doctor.
If we are an intelligent generation, an over-arching goal should be to absorb greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from the air and put them back in the soil, which is precisely what organic farming does. Increasing the average amount of spongy black loam in soils stores carbon, retains water, and produces healthier food, all at the same time. So when we shift our priorities to buy organic food, we are helping prevent climate change. Cover crops like clover and alfalfa naturally fertilize the soil, reducing the amount of energy-rich fertilizer that is needed while also absorbing carbon dioxide in the off-season. Grazing livestock on grass we can’t eat but they are designed to eat reduces the amount of fertilizer-hungry grains required per unit of meat. Eating no meat on a given day is the energy equivalent of driving twenty-five fewer miles in an average-sized car, so if the whole country eats just one less meat-centered meal a week, it would be like leaving eight million cars at home. The web is teeming with delicious meat-free recipes.
Yet many of us wonder, impatiently, if we will win or lose the war on warming. Will future generations shake their heads, asking why we remained as silent about global weather shifts as the Germans did about the rise of Hitler? On national polls of the most pressing political issues, climate change seems to rank just below bridges to nowhere. We each seem less concerned about the droughts, floods, tornadoes, and monster cold fronts that degrade our quality of life than we are about which color and brand of cell phone expresses us best.
When was the last time a politician planning to run for re-election spoke up about climate change? Elected officials don’t feel secure supporting major policy changes until voters demand them in convincingly large numbers, yet a sleepwalking majority in America remains silent. After all, researchers paid by the fossil fuel industries tell us reassuringly that humans are simply not capable of affecting the weather. One eco-email warns that glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and oceans are acidifying, but another announces that as many as 7 billion trees – one for each of us – have been planted in the past ten years.
Are we doing enough? Experts tell us there are at least $1.2 trillion dollars of efficiency savings if we invest in existing and emerging technologies. For example, the heat that usually goes up industrial and power plant stacks could instead turn turbines to meet up to 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs.
Renewable technologies can help us go cold turkey on fossil fuels, too. For example, solar hot water heaters could easily provide half the world’s residential and industrial hot water, reports the Worldwatch Institute. Recent experiments with algae show that this tiny plant could collectively soak up massive amounts of climate-changing carbon dioxide – for example in the emission stacks of coal-fired power plants. Venture capital is betting big money that CO2-absorbing algae can also be deployed as a far more efficient bio-fuel than corn. In industry, large companies like Calera and Novomer are finding ways to incorporate CO2 directly into energy-hungry products like cement and plastics.
If we act on some of these opportunities, we can prevent the need for humans to stay indoors in afternoons of the not-too-distant future. We can prevent utility bills from creeping steadily upward, and prevent catastrophic weather events that could ultimately bankrupt the insurance industry We can count on steady, dependable rains to water our gardens and fields, and we can throw our fellow species a lifeline – species that purify our water and pollinate our crops. If it’s rational, bottom-line decision making we want, we should make sure all the benefits are accounted for, and quickly chart a course for a planet on the rebound.