Monday, August 20, 2012

Hot, Hot West

A day after it sparked, I drove by the Waldo Canyon Fire that devastated the Colorado Springs area this summer. Returning from a family visit in Denver to my summer home at Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico, I watched from I-25 as a white mushroom cloud billowed into the still-blue sky, dwarfing the city at its feet like a beast out of science fiction. Some nervous motorists pulled off the highway to snap a picture or call a loved one. It felt like I was witnessing the opening battle of World War III.

Later in the summer, on my way back home to greener Massachusetts, I raced across the starved plains of Nebraska, a graveyard of withered cornstalks and dead prairie grass. Several times I crossed the North Platte River. At over 700 miles, it's one of the nation's 25 longest streams, twisting down from the mountains around the Colorado-Wyoming border to meet the Platte, Missouri, Mississippi, and on. But this summer, the North Platte was no more than a desolate gully, parched as the land around it. With a grim hypocrite’s smile, I drove on.

Before putting key into ignition, I had not put the two parts of these experiences together: 1) me driving my gasoline-powered car, and 2) an extreme weather event: one a raging wildfire tearing through suburban neighborhoods, the other a record heat wave withering the goods of America's breadbasket. I should have made the connection.

Cars and wildfires: a deadly connection.
This summer's horrific blazes and the searing drought that has caused them are the latest and greatest indicators that climate change is breathing down our necks and into our hometowns. In a recent article for Rolling Stone, longtime climate watchdog Bill McKibben puts things into startlingly clear perspective, using basic math to show just what a predicament our species has gotten itself and the rest of the planet into. I won't go into the specifics, but read the article and you'll reach the same conclusion I did: we need damn-near-impossibly big changes or else we're toast. Very burnt toast.

McKibben's solution is that we must create a serious, attention-grabbing villain out of the fossil fuel industry and its supporters. If this is WWIII: Earth vs. Man (and how can we not consider it a crisis of such proportion?), then the CEOs of ExxonMobil and Shell are carrying AKs on the front lines. We must cross the trenches and start firing from the “Earth” side if the conflict is to avoid Armageddon. 

Yet today, with temperatures once again rising into the nineties, I will drive my car, burning a fossil fuel, puking more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, heating up our one and only planet one more nauseating fraction. In fact, I'll need to stop at the pumps today too, where I'll swipe my debit card into the service of the menace.

I commit these acts of treason every day. But then again, who doesn't?

Can we live meaningful lives without cars? Surely we can. But with few doing it, it's hardly the easy choice, and sometimes it hardly even seems logical. We're so far from a gas-free culture, is there any point in me sacrificing for a ship nearly sunk? Maybe I should just buckle up and enjoy the ride. Hey, I vote democrat and drive a compact car that gets 40 miles per gallon – that makes me a good guy, right?

Indeed, cutting back my fuel consumption has proved a huge challenge this summer. I need to drive not only for my job, but in order to escape the sometimes stifling environment of that job. If I want to get away from the pubescent white males and headstrong white fathers that overpopulate the Boy Scouts of America, I need to drive. (Tangent: you'd think I could hike out somewhere into the vastness of our 556-square kilometer Philmont “wilderness” and escape, but you'd be surprised how ubiquitous those campers are. No matter where you go, eventually they will find you, solitude will be ruined, and in a barrage of thoughtless questions about water and bears and whether they're there yet, you'll be reminded of all that you're running from. Don't get me wrong, I love working at Philmont. Most days).

So we drive. We drive to the watering holes of Taos, to the fourteeners in Colorado, at least to the haven of the St. James Hotel four miles away, where we sulk with our beers and find comfort in company our own age.

Yup, driving has seemed pretty much essential to my mental health this summer, so I'm pleading the fifth and calling myself Benedict Arnold on this one. I'd like to think that within the next year I'll land in a city where I can largely stop driving. We'll see. What I can say is that I have made great progress in one responsible choice: meat consumption. (According to Environmental Defense,” writes PETA, “if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U.S. Roads”).

A few weeks into the season at Philmont, after one particularly grotesque dinner of mystery slop, I made the call that I wouldn't eat meat in the dining hall again and that I'd cut back in tastier environments as well. Aside from a few chicken salad lapses, I've held to it. Philmont has finally felt enough heat to start providing decent vegetarian options, making it far easier. So like most of us who are “serious” about being green, I'm making the relatively convenient changes, the ones that don't require too hard a step away from comfort. But can I be better? Can we? Not yet, it seems.

And once again, that other maddening question comes to mind: is it even really worth it? When is the cost of sacrifice too high in freedoms lost, pleasures denied, and wrinkles gained? Edward Abbey told a bunch of environmentalists, “It's not enough to fight for the land. It's even more important to enjoy it while you still can.” When do we listen to him and trade in our tedious preachings for a case of beer in the trunk and a weekend in the mountains? I've always tried to avoid puritanism, but I've never felt more like one of those stuffy uptight bastards than when I'm telling someone they shouldn't drive a truck or eat a cheeseburger.

Looks like Ed wanted to sell his gas-guzzler. Are you selling yours?
More Abbey comes to mind, that hater of all things puritan. What would Ed have done had he stuck around long enough to witness this climate crisis? A firm believer of the holiness of here and now, he wrote in “Science With a Human Face” that this sensory reality of taste and smell and feel is “what we know … all we can know … all that we could possibly need.” It's hard to imagine him giving up his steaks and bacon or that other most eco-friendly habit of his, chucking empty beer cans out the window as he roared down the highway (“It's not the beer cans that are ugly, it's the highway that is ugly”).

But you have to imagine he'd be as freaked out about it all as we are. In the same essay he wonders if “the only appropriate question now is whether or not technology will succeed in totally enslaving mankind before it succeeds in its corollary aim of destroying life.”

With our relationship to the planet direr than ever, we must ask ourselves if we are racing toward the former (enslavement) in order to slow down the latter (death, in this case, of our species).

Abbey believed that science was beautiful but useless without love (technology, on the other hand, coming from greed). So as we keep fighting the good fight, let's not forget why we're ultimately doing it. That even if it means we compromise those same ethics we push, every now and then we need to drive off to a trailhead or a campground or across the country so that we can reaffirm that love of life and land which sustains us.

Put another way, those impossibly bright and wild stars will always be worth the gas we burn getting out of the city to see them. And they'll remind us, once again, that after all of our love and hate for it, this planet is just a tiny blue-green speck revolving around one of those fiery pinpricks in the night. And we? We are but wisps of smoke on the hot summer breeze.