Saturday, April 22, 2006

Earth Day reading

With apologies to Mother's Day, possibly no other holiday has an object so taken for granted, or so worth celebrating, as Earth Day. For all that, it's a difficult holiday to celebrate, since so many of our everyday tasks tend to damage the Earth. I recently finished Elizabeth Kolbert's illuminating book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, an impassioned plea for rational conservation of the world's atmospheric balance. As Kolbert writes:
Here in the United States, most of us begin generating CO2 as soon as we get out of bed. Seventy percent of our electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels - a little more than 50 percent from burning coal and another 17 percent from natural gas - so that to turn on the lights is, indirectly at least, to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Making a pot of coffee, either on an electric or a gas range, adds more emissions, as does taking a hot shower, watching the morning news on TV, and driving to work.

- page 132-133
It goes on this way, describing how the average American manages to generate an unprecedented 12,000 pounds of carbon each year. Faced with such facts, you might be tempted just to stay in bed - I tried this though, and at some point you need to turn on a fan or the a/c, at least here in Florida, and so the carbon dumping goes on.

No one is going to stop their carbon-generating ways overnight, or even for one day; but we can become more aware of our impact, and reduce our energy uses in any number of ways. A good first step might be to read a book like Kolbert's or Tim Flannery's The Weathermakers, both well worth their weight in carbon. Both books present sober assessments of the present crisis, stories from a world in the midst of fearsome changes, as well as plenty of hopeful options. Both reveal global warming as not a distant threat or theory but a very real problem already affecting the habitats and the lives of many people.

People I've talked with about this have commented that it sounds like depressing reading, and it is to a certain extent. These books could not have been written though without a great deal of optimism, and that hope infuses even the most dismal reports about climate projections and government inaction. Most of us take on seemingly unsolvable problems every day, as any bass player attempting to play in tune knows - surely we have the energy and dynamism to adapt and preserve the balance of the world as we know it. It might seem a lot to ask, when we can get away with just a card and a hug on Mother's Day. The Earth deserves it though, and our species' continued existence depends on it.


Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

Hey Matt-
Did you find Ms. Kolbert's book at the library, or do you own a copy? It would be good to take a look at it, even though it sounds like an inevitable downer.

I was reading an article by Anthony Lane in the recent New Yker (Journeys, was the theme) when I realized for the first time that every time I travel to some great place, I'm harming the environment. Each flight that takes off and lands probably does more to the atmophere than most things I'd do in daily living. I wonder if there is some way to reconcile a love of foreign travel with eco-friendly ways of transportation... maybe by steamship?

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

It's 1:15 and unlike most people, I don't have to wake up for an extensive reading of repertoire tommorow. I enjoyed your entry on Earth Day Reading very much, and wanted to suggest that you might find the book "Cradle to Cradle" by Bill McDonough to be an interesting and relevant read. While it isn't so focused on the carbon issue, it is a fascinating book in terms of written and material content.

Enjoy your encores.