Two different views of the future are visible from my house. Through the back window, I can see children playing hide and seek with their parents in a Princeton borough park. Everything about the pocket park is tailored to provide a secure place for kids to develop their bodies and spirits.
Out the front window, a steady stream of cars ply Harrison Street, running an endless variety of errands. The cars are designed for safety; the speed limit is enforced. And yet something is completely out of control — something unseen but very real — that is undermining any secure future we wish for those children in the park.
Most people realize something is up. New Jersey’s climate has changed. Increasingly destructive storms, thirteen warmer-than-normal months in a row — these are not a fluke. And though each new year may not be warmer and more volatile than the last, the trend is clear. Talk of sustainability is in the warming air, and a few spirited projects whittle at the edges of our consumerist lifestyles. But our comfort and prosperity still rest on a pillar of fuels whose carbon we daily take from safe underground storage and liberate up into the air, there to mingle in a slow crescendo of mischief.
In town, thoughts on changing climate may not go beyond gratitude for mild winter days and less snow to shovel. I can feel that same relief, but in Princeton any false comfort with comfort can be quickly erased by venturing across Nassau St. onto campus to hear a lecture by a prominent climate scientist. Beneath all the customary caution of science, the question appears to be not whether the climate will undergo extraordinary change, but whether events will spiral beyond control.
My understanding, from a background in science, from reading and periodically attending lectures, is that our risk-averse clinging to the status quo is itself enormously risky. The Earth, it turns out, is booby trapped. The fate of carbon currently locked up in the Amazon and in thawing methane deposits up north, the direction of ocean currents, the gradual or more rapid melting of Greenland’s enormous ice sheets — all are up for grabs as our machines daily feed the giant chemistry experiment.
Look at it this way. Venus is 850 degrees not so much because it is closer to the sun, but because its atmosphere has become packed with carbon dioxide that acts like a stifling blanket. It can help to think of the earth’s carbon as cargo on a ship, much of which needs to be stowed in order to insure a more stable ride. Since plants eat carbon dioxide, they have stowed a lot of it away over millions of years, whether temporarily in the tissues of plants and animals, or in deeper storage in buried deposits of oil, coal and natural gas. What evolved over time was a moderated climate. To feed our machines, we have collectively undertaken a radical reversal of this process, a massive liberation of long-stowed carbon, with profound and lasting consequences. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 40 percent since industrialization, with most of that attributable to human activity.
Part of the tragedy here is that all people, by and large well-meaning and generous, have been inadvertently and insidiously enlisted in a campaign to sabotage the future. Running errands, traveling, or keeping a home comfortable should not be in conflict with a planet’s long-term livability, and yet, because of failures in market forces and governance, we are left with nothing but denial to protect ourselves from the disturbing implications of everyday life.
Fossil fuels are taken for granted, burned as if there’s no tomorrow. They need to be appreciated more, and used far less. Step back and marvel at the energy packed in a gallon of gasoline, while also realizing that the stuff’s getting us into trouble. It is a one-time gift and a long-term curse, a devious trick played on civilization.
I wish there were time to keep whittling at the edges, to take baby steps towards sustainability and think our good work done and sufficient progress made. I wish that what passes for normal was not profoundly radical, and that the future would politely hold off until we find a better time than the present to take more meaningful action.
As individuals and as a town, we can hide in our anonymity among the multitudes of others participating in the same star-crossed experiment. Or we can take action locally in the hopes that what happens in a prominent town like Princeton can grow into something much larger. In my own home, we managed to maintain comfort while bringing energy use down to very low levels, mostly by retrofitting habits and thinking (see frugaline.org). Princeton High School reduced its energy use by 30 percent for a period of two months, saving $30,000, only to abandon the initiative for no clear reason. There are savings to be had, individually and collectively. It’s possible to get good at so-called sacrifice, and even find satisfactions in a less mechanized life.
The goal here is not to be paralyzed by guilt, but to drop the illusion of innocence and begin squeezing fossil fuel out of our lives. The unintended consequences of what’s considered a normal lifestyle, as it is played out in front of us and all around us, need to be at the front of our minds, talked about and acted upon.
Steve Hiltner maintains blogs at frugaline.org, princetonprimer.org, princetonnaturenotes.org, and sustainablejazz.com. He is a member of the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble. The ensemble will perform this Thursday, 6-8 p.m., at Labyrinth Books as part of Art Walk.
Speaking of climate change, Melissa Lane, author of “Eco-Republic”, will talk about her book in the community room at the Princeton Public Library tonight at 7. The book draws on ancient Greek thought, and Plato’s “Republic” in particular, to put forward a new vision of citizenship that can make an ecologically sustainable society a reality. The book also reveals why we must rethink our political imagination if we are to meet the challenges of climate change and other urgent environmental concerns.