Time to save - and savor - Earth

June 12, 2008|By Dan Rodricks

The recent heat wave, signaling the end of the world, broke with ferocious storms on Tuesday night, apparently extending our time on the planet. What a relief. I slept for a few hours with the windows open, if you can imagine such a thing, until the first birds woke me up, a pleasant racket that commenced about 4 a.m. I went outside and checked to see if the world was still there, as the birds had suggested. And it was - all worth savoring, too.

The atmosphere was fresh and cool. Trees bobbed in a vigorous breeze. A large oblong cloud, directly over my house, appeared specter-like, the size and shape of the airship Hindenburg, and I wished it well on its ghostly journey to Lakehurst, N.J.

Oh, the humanity!

When it gets hot here, it gets really hot here. Humid, too.

In the age before air conditioning, if you can imagine such a thing, the tendency among Patapscovians was to sit on the stoop and get cranky. I looked that up. It's in the chronicles. Nineteenth- and early 20th-century summers in the Patapsco Drainage Basin were communal and hellish.

In more recent times, with interior atmospheres controlled by refrigerant technology, people have been less cranky than their ancestors.

Still, during those short but disquieting walks from our air-conditioned homes to our air-conditioned cars and from our air-conditioned cars to our air-conditioned offices, there's time to think, and a lot of us think depressing thoughts.

The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, reports that, in the United States alone, vehicle air conditioners consume 7 billion gallons of gasoline every year, adding tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Then there's energy use at home and at work - the cost of keeping all the rooms cool. We may be less cranky from the scorching heat, but we're producing, indirectly and directly, lots of carbon dioxide that, unabated, will lead to more scorching heat.

A growing part of the populace tends to regard each new heat wave as a sign of the approaching apocalypse from global warming. Maybe we don't do it with loud assertion, or in any Evan-Almighty kind of way. But it at least crosses the consciousness as we cross the sun-seared parking lots of modern life.

With 6 billion human beings doing and spewing, it's only going to get worse, unless we all recycle more, use gasoline-powered vehicles less and give up steak.

Speaking at this year's commencement at Carnegie Mellon, Al Gore implored graduates to become the next "hero generation" and save the Earth.

"We face a planetary emergency," Gore said. "The concentrations of global warming pollution have been rising at an unprecedented pace and have now given the planet a fever. ... This moment of your graduation sees the United States poised to reclaim its rightful place as the leader of the world as the world confronts this unprecedented challenge."

Gore compared Earth and Venus - two planets of the same size and the same amount of carbon.

"The difference is here on Earth, for hundreds of millions of years, through the processes of biology and geology, the carbon dioxide has been pulled out of the atmosphere and sequestered deep in the ground in the form of coal, oil, natural gas and other fossil fuels. On Venus, the processes have been very different and left most of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So, as a consequence, the average temperature here, world-wide, is 59 degrees and on Venus it's 875, above the melting point of lead.

"That story is relevant to our current global strategy of taking as much of the carbon out of the ground as quickly as possible, burning it very inefficiently and leaving it as a poisonous, dangerous residue in the Earth's atmosphere."

With oil headed to perhaps $150 a barrel, Gore predicted that humans will at last turn away from fossil fuels.

"We now find that solar energy, wind energy and geothermal energy have reached the stage where we can replace every electron and every BTU from the fossil fuel sources without missing a beat. ...

"There is an African proverb that says, 'If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.' We have to go far - quickly - and we need your help to do it. We have everything we need to get started, except the political will. ... But political will is a renewable resource."

At an outdoor high school graduation the other evening, I gazed upon 95 members of this new generation, the one that Gore challenges to be heroic. Predicted storms held off long enough for the ceremony, though winds thrashed the large trees on the grounds of the school.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are about 3.3 million high school graduates nationwide this year, making the Class of 2008 the largest in history. So this new generation has the numbers, and it certainly has the brains and the technological groundwork upon which to build a new way of life that won't be so damaging to the planet.

The senior class president, too ill to attend the ceremony, asked a classmate to read his remarks, and they were the most elegant of the evening. He asked the assembled seniors to regard the large trees under which the graduation was being held, and the gold and reddish stones in the buildings behind them. He wanted his classmates to reflect on the moment, and their years together, and he wanted them to acknowledge the preciousness of life, the leafy beauty of nature and the stone-and-mortar beauty of things man-made - all worth savoring, all worth saving.


Dan Rodricks is the host of "Midday," noon to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, on 88.1 WYPR-FM.


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