Thank God for Earth Day: another occasion for affluent white Americans to feel good about themselves by enacting some pointless environmental ritual. Perhaps we can all drive to the festivities in our hulking SUVs.
Can you blame me for being cynical? Every dinner party I attend is marked by pious denunciations of greed and excess, yet all the guests have multiple cars, multiple homes, and a tendency to break out in hives if they don’t take a planet-warming plane flight once a month or so.
Recently an acquaintance of mine, at such a gathering, condemned the horrors of Hummers — then brightened when she had the chance to tell us about the major addition she was about to tack onto her house, the better for her tiny family to rattle around in. I was at another dinner party where the hosts, who also hold all the right environmental views, both work more than 100 miles from home. And “home” is a fashionably old farmhouse that appears to be devoid of insulation.
My kids’ school is “going green.” So far, this seems to mean requiring pupils to buy a metal water bottle — just the sort of fetish-object we environmentalists love. But despite a student body distributed over a vast area, there is no organized attempt to carpool. During spring break, moreover, the school’s well-to-do families fly hither and yon, or drive to the ski slopes, or shuttle between their houses. Some of the cars still display their Obama bumper stickers, cherished amulets against reproach.
Who are we kidding? Well-intentioned people everywhere lament global warming, but few of us care enough to take even the most reasonable basic steps to make a change. We salve our conscience by recycling cans or buying locally grown rutabagas, as if such nonsense matters when set against our own — and our country’s — gigantic fossil footprint.
There are, of course, those who don’t believe in man-made global warming, or don’t consider it a big deal compared to malnutrition, disease and other Third World maladies. I think these people are mostly wrong, but at least they aren’t hypocrites. Before we can expect the skeptics to change, it might be nice if we set a better example. And if you’re about to protest that you already live in a yurt, save your breath. This isn’t about you. It’s about the rest of us — and I count myself foursquare among them — who tut-tut and wring our hands and then drive home, content in our sanctimony.
One way to change that is to do something that actually matters this Earth Day. First, figure out your own carbon footprint (several websites will do this for you) and see how you stack up against the national average, which of course is way too high anyway. Then set a reasonable goal for reduction and publicly commit to it — at your next dinner party, for example.
Do not pretend you’re going to bicycle everywhere, or that it’s somehow smart or ethical to spend $50,000 to cut your electric bill by 20 percent. On the contrary, first do what yields the biggest reduction for the smallest pain — and measure the results to see how you’re doing. You could give up beef, for instance. Fly less. Change your bulbs and plug the holes in your house. Buy stuff used. These modest sacrifices will have a much bigger impact than obsessing over where your eggplants come from. You can go up the scale from there, perhaps by considering an on-demand hot water system. The idea is continuous, sensible improvement; at our house we use a ten-year payback metric. If a measure won’t repay its cost, then there’s probably a better way to spend the money to save the earth.
At the same time, let’s acknowledge the limits of caulk guns and compact fluorescents — to say nothing of the Kyoto accord. To make a real domestic difference — of the kind that could help us make a difference on the world stage — will take political action. Thus it’s probably better to invest in political candidates than solar panels.
We seem to have forgotten that sometimes we need government to protect us from ourselves. Often it guards against the wrong harms (as with Prohibition or the war on drugs). But not always. Long ago, in a time of crisis, we agreed to tax ourselves to guard against destitution in retirement, and the voters still strongly support Social Security. Perhaps this time around we can find the will to tax ourselves (and our carbon use) to guard against environmental destitution. Then we can safely ignore Earth Day, smug in the knowledge that we aren’t the sort of people who are satisfied with empty gestures.