Coda: My Conversion to Green
The New Yorker and The Economist are my two must-read magazines. I read each of them backwards, starting with the culture and book reviews. I've always been more interested in man's creativity and accomplishments than his strife and failings. In May of last year as I was reading The New Yorker (back to front), I ran into the hinter pages of the longest article I ever recalled reading in the magazine. The topic was unusual, even strange, for The New Yorker. Before reaching the beginning of the article, I found myself reversing direction and reading to complete certain thoughts and topics. It took me long enough to finally read through the article orthogonally that I was already carrying about the second installment of the series in the magazine's next issue. The three-part article in The New Yorker was titled “The Climate of Man” by Elizabeth Kolbert. The topic was global warming and her treatment was both broad and detailed. By the time I finished, my views of life on Earth to come were starting to change.
In good seasons I run seven miles, twice or three times per week. I don't run for exercise or health. I run to think. In the last five years of my business career, in the solitude of exertion, I could usually resolve one or two of the week’s biggest issues. Being retired, my head-talk while jogging turned to things I wanted to do next with my life. On one run, I decided to reach out to my busy (and usually still working) friends to share with them my discovery of and concerns for the perils of global warming.
I consider myself intense and passionate yet attentive and balanced. Many of Kolbert's points and data shocked me. Some I simply had to research myself (God bless the Internet). Within three months I'd read five books and a dozen articles and visited countless websites. I realized that if the average American is producing more than six times the carbon emissions per person as non-Americans, I, and my crowd of affluent friends, could easily be producing 12 or possibly even 18 times the amount of greenhouse gases. If we are producing this relatively excessive amount of greenhouse gases (and I believe we are), if anthropogenic global warming is real and perilous (and I think it is), then to continue in our present lifestyles is simply inhumane and immoral. Remember the social security issue? Most of us took positions that it is not moral to leave our children with a bankrupt social security fund or heavy federal deficits. The issues surrounding global warming are quite similar, only they are far more perilous. This peril is exacerbated due to the current Bush administration's completely indefensible positions on nearly all aspects of global warming.
In subsequent running sessions I decided, “e-mails, bullet points, brief but not compromised.” After I worked out the format, the next runs were mentally vacuous, until it hit me. To reform your neighbor you must first change yourself. So, my lifestyle restructuring began.
My parents raised me in full awareness of the “camper’s ethic.” That is, it is every person's responsibility to leave each place they visit better than they found it. Based on what I learned in Kolbert's article, if I was to follow the camper’s ethic then I had to change many things about my lifestyle.
I am learning to follow my new code for earth stewardship. It is simple and redolent of earlier environmentalism: Reduce, reuse, recycle...and if you don’t, then buy offsets. The goal is not to stop living (though it can sound that way). The goal is to live smarter, and more responsibly. This is why understanding and using personal offsets is important. I have made a lot of changes but there are more I know I need to make. Some changes are small, some are medium, and some are large. I present them first in the overall order of impact.
Gone is my Lexus 430. I now drive a Toyota Prius when I drive. (See my editorial in E-mail 6.) I still have a Suburban, but it, too, will go when I sell my Summit house (see below). Even with the new Prius, I try very hard not to drive it. Five days a week I commute to Columbia University on public transit for my courses. Each trip is one train, two subways and about a mile of walking. Altogether, my commute can be up to 3.5 hours per day. It is neither fun nor pleasant. It is also not convenient for reading or studying. But it is the right thing to do. At home I try to ride my bike whenever and wherever: downtown to shop, the bank, the doctor, sometimes even to the high school (to watch my daughter play volleyball) or to church. My nanny and I share the Prius. I've asked her to plan her trips more carefully; to plan longer single rounds of shopping and errands. Together, in six months we put 3,054 miles on the Prius. This includes a car trip to Washington D.C. I'm proud, but know we could do better. Driving less, driving substantially more fuel-efficient cars is the the most immediately impactful way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Jet flight is such a wonderful convenience. It provides for our freedom and mobility while supporting our connectivity. It is also horrendously bad for the environment. I can never again take a private jet flight if there is any public/group scheduled alternative available. I can't fly on short shuttles (Boston/Washington) if there is a train alternative. I am committed to personal offsets, especially as regards jet flight. I know the total miles that I have flown since mid 2005. I have now purchased offsets for each flight I and my kids have taken in the last five years.
Recently, Kathleen Tobin, who is contributing to this e-mail series, located a car service (for the times when I can’t take public transportation) that drives only hybrids. When I have to rent a car I search for a rental company with an available hybrid–usually to no avail.
I was raised in a very modest home. We were taught to leave no lights on if they were not immediately in use. We lived in south central LA and did not have an air conditioner (neither did our car). Our little two-bedroom house had a single in-wall heater in the living room. I was happy growing up. If I was unbearably hot, or miserably cold, or inhumanly light-starved, I don't know it today. In the 40 years since, my life has plainly become profligate. I suspect that many of my friends and associates have similar stories.
All of my efforts at home are focused on reducing by not wasting; that means only using exactly what we need. We have not been in the habit of near-zero waste. We are having to change.
Relative to lights in our house, the game of tag has begun. ”Will you just catch that light...I didn't see you in the room, so I turned off the light for you...etc.” Our house is darker than it has ever been. But it is not darker than the house I grew up in. As one of my kids said, only half jokingly, “Dad, are we going to get personal flashlights to get around the house since we won't be turning on the lights any more?” As a culture, we've become hyper security-conscious and use light to ward off all manner of non-existent bogeymen. Most of us live in reasonably safe areas and I neither practice nor advocate a shroud of real darkness. But there surely is wasted electricity from excessive lighting in every home. We have and are adjusting but will do more. We've substituted low-energy consuming light bulbs (CFLs) for all the outside locations and are now starting to cut over to CFLs for interior use. They are not bad at all. We know we need to substitute more.
But the most important electrical thing I have done might seem illogical. I agreed to pay 2.9 cents (~20%) more per kilowatt-hour of electricity to help fund the acquisition of wind and other alternatively sourced electric power on our grid. Since my usage of electricity is now down 40% over the last year, overall with my reduction of waste and the premium to support renewable energy, my electricity bills are still down a net of 20%.
Fortunately we have programmable thermostats, but we never really programmed them. Now we have. This winter, if we are using the room, the temp is set to about 65. If we aren¹t using the room, the temp is set to 55-60. As the seasons progress, we’ll be getting out the window screens that were put in storage years back.
But we're also working on the big reduction. Three of my four children have now gone off to college. Last year we completed a year-long 100-year restoration of our six bedroom home. It¹s really lovely now. But it's too big. So we are in the process of planning our downsizing. We are fortunate to have a second home in Utah. It is a moral-environmental challenge for me. We’ve put in some lighting and temperature control remedies there too. But its mere existence is a conflict. I really don't like to rent the house to others, but I now keep it in a rental pool to lower the overall demand for additional vacation housing stock in the area. I know I want to do more about my second home situation.
While not obviously a global warming remedy, I also changed to an organic landscaper/gardener. It wasn't easy to find him. I had to search the county/state's agricultural extension service web site to find a list of organic gardeners. He also is modestly more expensive. But his work is better, his products require far less energy to produce and my lawn run-off is far safer for the downstream environment.
Most folks know about the health advantages of a vegetarian diet. Few know or think about the environmental advantages of a vegetarian diet. Few know about the environmental damage wrought from growing feed grain and raising livestock for red meat. I've been a moderately rigorous vegetarian since college. It was the environmental damage that originally swayed me into vegetarianism when I read Diet for a Small Planet in college. Beef protein is 300% more damaging to the environment than the equivalent protein from pasta. The American diet is the highest beef diet in the world. Beef is highly dependent on the both land and grain in the Great Plains. The persistent drought and the draining of ground water have imperiled the historical productivity of the Great Plains. If this continues, the price of beef will be impacted. In the future, beef and oil may have very similar price trajectories. Meat is simply not part of my staple. My occasional deviations from vegetarianism involve fish. I've taken some pains to read and learn about sustainable fish stocks. The book One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish: The Smithsonian Sustainable Seafood Cookbook has a valuable appendix on sustainable fish stocks.
A second important factor in our eating arises due to the transportation energy now embedded in our foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. The ever more efficient and wide-reaching transportation system is making available to US consumers a year-round supply of all-season fruits and vegetables from throughout the world. While it is a tasteful convenience to have all-season access to our favorite fruits and vegetables, it also comes at a considerable ecological cost through the packaging and shipping of the produce. Eating locally sourced produce is an important element in the new sustainable living movement. It is frequently difficult to know the source of our food. Fortunately, some local grocers are now disclosing the origins of their produce.
Recycling, as relatively unimportant as it is in the battle against global warming, has long been practiced in our home. The two additional actions we have pursued are relative to shopping and mail. We now try to enter the store with our own canvas shopping bags. Sometimes, I'll forget and then tell the checker that I’ll be right back and then run to the car to get the bags. If I’ve forgotten and the items are hand-carryable, I'll say, “thanks, but I won’t need a bag.” It's a small, but great pleasure to eliminate the transient use of essentially disposable bags.
Junk mail and nearly all mail is a nuisance. Subscriptions: On one of my runs, I realized that I needed to end my days of reading The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Barrons in hard copy. I have extended that to every other regular publication and subscription but my two must-reads (The New Yorker and The Economist). All the other subscriptions I have now cancelled or read on-line. It's quite a change but I've gotten used to it. Junk Mail: I fill a large basket each week with junk mail. I have gone through two cycles of asking my nanny to contact each catalog company to delete my name from their lists. At least the tide is no longer rising, though more work is necessary to help bring it down.
My conversion to green goes beyond reducing my individual consumption. I've become a one-man advertising department for the Toyota Prius. I don't know anyone who drives that shouldn’t own one. I helped restart the Earth (Environmental) Club at our local high school. Delightfully, it is co-headed by my daughter Scheller and our dear neighbor friend Elizabeth. I wrote letters to the City Council in Summit, NJ, asking that the city adopt the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. After six months of review and internal referral, Summit is now moving toward adopting portions of the CPA. This present e-mail campaign to inform and motivate friends and colleagues on global warming is another outreach effort.
I have friends who have private jets, who have five or more cars (in one city), who have multiple large houses, and who have expensive vacation practices. I have also enjoyed some of these affluences. But these same friends are smart, forward-looking thinkers. They are as busy as busy can be, but are still often engaged in directly supporting many good causes. Since I see no immediate hope for leadership on global warming at the national level, and since I and my affluent friends are among the most wasteful producers of greenhouse gases, my appeal is directed to them, to us.
We complain about federal deficits, we screamed about the social security solvency, many of us fought against smog and air pollution, and many of us regularly help those less fortunate. But few of us have been educated on or are currently acting to limit the perils of global warming. This is why I have sponsored this e-mail series and committed myself to its development for seven months. This is why I'm willing to direct the funding of a token $100 personal carbon offset for up to 1000 people. This is why I'm willing to reimburse $500 for up to 20 people who buy high-mileage efficiency hybrids. I want my friends and acquaintances to accept the challenge to learn about the reality of global warming and to have me fund the purchase of their first personal carbon offset.
Last fall, I finally completed a reading of both of Darwin’s major texts, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. From one vantage, Darwin’s fundamental thesis, while entirely impersonal, was still at its core optimistic. Through his survey of natural history, he concluded that the strongest species survive because they capture essential adaptations when faced with environmental or ecological changes.
T. Robert Malthus, the Enlightenment British philosopher, was one of my two favorite reads in graduate school. Malthus, in his The Principle of Population, held that populations would grow to excess unless “positive checks” like disease, famine or war, advanced the death rate and thus held back population growth. (With the advancement of civilization, these natural checks have been declining.) In addition, Malthus identified “preventative checks,” like birth control and late marriage, which could also hold back population growth by lowering the birthrate. Contemporary readers saw Malthus and his gloomy predictions as pessimistic. Thomas Carlyle, in his now-famous response to Malthus, termed economics “the dismal science.”
Darwin read The Principle of Population 40 years after it was written. As Darwin wrote in his autobiography, “Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.” Darwin began with the same premise of population growth but offered a new check on growth – environmental changes (including changes in resource availability, competition, etc.). Darwin concluded that successful, surviving species found the necessary adaptations to overcome environmental changes. But there were also periods of mass extinction, not convincingly addressed by Darwin.
I have thought on each of these two great minds during my study of global warming. I have wondered: Did Darwin miss one large condition? Is there a special case in which Malthus was right? Could a species, like mankind, for example, become so successful that its very success drives catastrophic changes in its environment that become a new form of a check on growth? I hope Darwin was right, I fear Malthus was.
My other favorite read in graduate school was Thorstein Veblen, the turn-of-the-century Norwegian-American economist and sociologist who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class. From his iconoclastic perch, Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” as he struck hard at the lifestyle excesses he observed during the age of the robber-barons. (If you have read J. Kenneth Galbraith, much of Galbraith’s more popular style and themes come from Veblen.) Veblen presented a dichotomy between the "instrumental” and the “ceremonial” use of tools and resources. He observed that mankind was engaged in the practice of “pecuniary emulation” where individuals and even classes of individuals were competing with each other in their struggle for private wealth and specifically for the display of private wealth, or conspicuous consumption.
A century later, the standard of living for much of Western man, and especially for Americans, has expanded beyond most former projections. Today, our homes are our castles, literally. Today, we have at our means the freedom of transportation never really imagined in the past. We are the world’s greatest consumers. We—me included—have set unsustainably high standards for our conspicuous consumption.
But who is right? Darwin—we will adapt to these great climate changes we have wrought? Or Malthus—the natural growth of populations is inexorably self-extinguishing? Alternatively, we could just admit that Veblen was right. Our consumption has grown well beyond healthy needs. Let’s take a page from Veblen and reduce our “conspicuous consumption.” If we prudently address our conspicuous consumption, we just might not have to worry about who was right: Darwin or Malthus.
– Hal Hinkle