What I would like to say in the New York Times
I’m going to pretend that instead of a silly article diagnosing a pretend disease in The New York Times, I was given a chance to speak on the op-ed pages of the Times. Ignoring for a moment how unlikely that is, here’s what I would have said.
Last weekend my family and I appeared in the New York Times as victims (or perhaps purveyors) of a new mental illness, “carborexia.” Apparently this is the pathological inability to produce sufficient carbon, an environmental mania so extreme that it transforms ordinary lives into obsessive madness.
The article began with the fact that my son Simon is deprived of the great American pastime because it is a half-hour drive to a league that doesn’t have games on the Jewish Sabbath (poor kid, he has to play catch with his parents and pick up games with his friends and brothers — in fact, he and one of his friends actually broke one of our front windows yesterday with a particularly nice hit). The language of the article included the term “huddle together for warmth” to describe the fact that my young kids sleep together in both warm and cold weather. All of this operated to implicitly imply that I’m abusing my kids in my pursuit of a lower energy life. And since even implied accusations of child abuse and mental illness are a potent weapon in this society, I wouldn’t be shocked if you did think I was crazy and a bad mom.
My first inclination was to fire back with the accusation that instead, most Americans may be suffering from a pathology called “carbulimia” in which they gorge themselves on energy — twice as much as Europeans, who often have a similar or higher standard of living and level of happiness — and then effectively vomit up the excess, deriving no benefit and often causing actual harm to their health and hope for the future. But this doesn’t quite get at the issue either — it just continues the Times’ trivializing of real eating disorders and their sufferers, and it adds another dumb and dissonant faux-disease to the cultural lexicon. Definitely not what is most needed. Moreover, most of us don’t take in huge quantities of energy for its own sake; we use it because that’s how our society is structured and how we’ve been taught to meet our needs. We use most of our energy because we’re not sure how to do anything else.
Debating which extreme is pathological doesn’t help us find a functional way of life. And that is what is desperately needed. Quickly. NASA’s chief climate scientist James Hansen has argued that we need to reach 350 ppm within a decade, and we’re already at nearly 390 ppm. The arctic ice is already in the danger zone, Greenland is showing increasing melting signs, and methane is being released from upper levels of arctic permafrost. Meanwhile, there are signs that we may have passed the world peak in crude oil production, and the volatile price of energy has helped drive us into a recession.
The governments of China, India, and Russia have all announced that they have no intention of taking major steps to reduce their climate impact while wealthy Americans, Canadians, and Australians consume all they want. They argue that they are trying to bring their populace out of poverty, and that we who produce the largest per capita emissions need to make our reductions first.
We argue with them that we won’t reduce our standard of living, that “the American way of life is non-negotiable,” in part because we are frightened by the idea of changing our way of life into something unfamiliar. Thus we enter a global game of chicken — they won’t change until we do, and we won’t change because we don’t want to live like poorer people. Never mind that we are condemning our own children to greater poverty as larger and larger parts of their income will be required to mitigate unfettered climate change. This is known as “cutting off your nose to spite your face,” and it is pretty much our current climate policy. That’s going to have to change.
The only hope we have to make rapid changes, on the scale necessary to achieve the 350 goal, is to put every tool we have on the table. We need to invest as much as we can in things like massive reinsulation, renewable energy, and public resources. We need to use sustainable agriculture, reforestation, and the preservation of existing rainforests forests to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
But these will not be enough. We cannot make this sort of shift in under 10 years on renewable energy development alone. It would be nice if we could, or if we had 50 years to do this, but we don’t have the time and resources, and there is no point in mourning the time we wasted. We have better things to do.
What is going to be needed is a rapid shift in the American dream and the American way of life. Without that shift, there is no hope that China, India, and Russia will forswear coal or make other changes. Unless we can look poorer nations in the eye and say we’ve met our targets, we’ll all pay the price together.
Without a model for a good, sustainable, and happy American life that produces 50-90 percent less carbon — not from costly technologies that simply can’t be put in place in time, but from ordinary practices of daily life that can — we’re doomed. If we believe that living a sustainable life makes us crazy, or forces us to live in misery and poverty, we face misery and poverty for future generations all over the world.
The good thing is that the good American life isn’t so very far away. In 1945 we used 80 percent less energy per household than we do now. Your parents and grandparents lived that way. They heated the rooms they used most often and closed off the other ones, wore sweaters, and walked more than they drove. They took the bus. They ate less meat. They grew victory gardens and ate food grown near them. They shared with their neighbors more, and they worked together on what was then the greatest challenge facing the world: the rise of fascism.
What is most needed isn’t a move to the third world; it is a return to a familiar past. There are plenty of Americans living right now who grew up like my kids are today. Instead of being driven to ball practice, they played baseball with other kids in their yard, and helped their parents weed the victory garden. They wore warm clothes in the winter and slept outside in the yard in a tent when it got too hot inside instead of clicking on the air conditioner. Many grew up like my kids on farms, or spent their afternoons playing outside on the sidewalk or among the trees rather than sitting inside watching tv or playing video games. They walked or biked places. They mostly ate food from their family gardens or from local truck farms near their homes rather than processed foods and take-out. Maybe a few of you even remember that kind of childhood.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a perfect mom, and my kids don’t live in fairyland. We too struggle to find balance between the good in our energy use and the things we can afford to discard without doing harm. We don’t always get everything right, but we’re trying. The reason I agreed to allow a photographer to come to our farm was that I believe that the very first step to moving toward a sustainable life is being able to imagine ways of getting there without the fear that it means unimaginable hardship. I had hoped that they might even show that we’re having fun because we are.
As a society, we’ve come so far away from our lower energy life that we now think that the past is uninhabitable — that we can’t go home again. And it certainly isn’t as simple as flipping on the way-back machine. It requires thought, practice, and time, small steps and failures, experiments, and discussions with friends who care about the same things. It requires an investment of time and energy. But the past isn’t so very far away, either. It would be a mistake to think that a life with less energy is so distant, so unimaginable that we cannot conceive of inhabiting that space. Instead, it is something we can get to with a bit of commitment and energy, with allies and imagination and creativity.
Maybe my way isn’t right; I don’t know. I know doing it exactly my way isn’t for everyone — we need city models of the sustainable life and suburban ones as much as we need me and my garden and our goats. We need versions adapted to different ethnicities, faiths, and cultures, but we need all of these, and we need them badly because as much of our future depends on our creating renewable energies or reinsulating homes. It depends at least as much on ordinary people transforming their lives with lifestyles with which the whole world can live.
It is a pity that we’ve heard so much about one half of the equation (the electric cars and renewable grid) and so little about this very basic question: How will we live? How will we go on in a way that sustains us and creates a sustainable future for our posterity? How will we find a way home to our past and our future simultaneously? How will we find an equitable way out of our terrible dilemma?
I don’t claim to have all the answers — heck, maybe I am crazy, because I truly think that this could be accomplished — but I’m enjoying the process of making it happen. I do think that there are some answers available here and here for those who care enough to try.