Monday, June 19, 2006

It’s Easy Being Green

We caught a showing of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” over the weekend, which serves to dispel a pair of falsehoods promoted by the current administration, namely that global warming is “fuzzy science” and that “Al Gore” and “entertaining” are mutually exclusive terms.

The film plays like the most amazing lecture delivered by the coolest professor on campus; Gore is animated and passionate—that’s right, I said animated and passionate—whether presenting a line graph on the rise in carbon emissions or video footage of massive ice shelves breaking off Antarctica. I fixated on a slide of Grinnell Glacier in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Dave and I had hiked to this very spot last summer, and I had no idea at the time that we were looking at the remnant scraps of a once vast and majestic ice field. I wish I could have seen Grinnell 10 years ago—I hope it’s still there 10 years from now.

I realize this sort of “tree hugging” talk is precisely why people don’t care about global warming. Why so much fuss over an evaporating glacier or two—they might be pretty to look at but they’re not a necessity like food, clothing and gasoline.

Gore gets this, too. Which is why he’s so adept at explaining that actually, yes, it turns out we do need those glaciers. Because without them, tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people could be displaced when their homes are underwater. And that includes San Francisco, Florida and New York. Really.

I was overwhelmed. Gore has been beating this drum for the past 30 years, and our politicians still aren’t listening. Apparently Big Oil speaks louder and carries a bigger lobbying budget. But he assures us that the situation, while dire, is not irreversible or hopeless—even small changes in behavior at the individual level can contribute to the solution. I walked out of the theater mentally chanting,,, the web address posted on screen during the closing credits.

I logged onto the site and took a short quiz to determine our carbon “footprint.” I input the make and model of our car, how many miles we drive a year, how frequently we fly and how far, plus our typical monthly consumption of electricity and natural gas. We scored 10,700—the number of pounds of carbon dioxide we emit as a household—well below the national average of 15,000.

I decided to play around with the results. All things being equal, what if we drove a Ford Expedition? Our score spiked to 13,600. How about if we traded in our Element for a Civic? It dipped to 7,900. I couldn’t wait to see what a Hummer would do, but it wasn’t an option, since the manufacturer doesn’t provide statistics on the vehicle’s gas mileage. So I went with a Ferrari, which shot us up to 15,500. A Prius plunged us to 6,500. We’ve seen a few of these hybrids around town and have joked about leaving the owners a thank-you note for saving the planet. I’m not kidding anymore.

(Now, I’m not here to cast aspersions on the owners of SUVs, it’s a personal choice and America was founded on the Right to Do Whatever We Damn Well Please. Witness the Element—we’re as guilty as anyone else. And I’m not even going to point out that the mere existence of the fossil fuel-guzzling NASCAR circuit is probably singlehandedly responsible for the melting of Greenland. Because I noticed something while playing with my carbon calculator—Range Rovers and Mercedes wagons score surprisingly well. It appears you can manufacturer oversized autos without killing polar bears. You just have to want to—Detroit, I’m talking to you—or be forced to—Congress, I’m talking to you.)

I felt pretty good about our 10,700, but because I was the sort of student who always had to get the top grade in the class, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what I determined to be a solid “B.” I wanted to see how we could do better without, you know, giving up the Element.

The folks at ClimateCrisis offered a number of ways to become “carbon neutral.” I was discouraged. We already do most of this stuff.

  • Walk, bike, take mass transit. Check. I hate the CTA, but I ride it everywhere.

  • Eat less meat. Check.

  • Buy fresh instead of frozen. Check.

  • Use the energy saver setting on the dishwasher, and only run it when it’s full. Check.

  • Wash clothes in Cold or Warm. Check.

  • Replace furnace filters. Check.

  • Set the thermostat low in the winter and high in the summer. Check and double check. (In fact—True Confession time—we had gone to a matinee of “An Inconvenient Truth” because it was 90 degrees outside and pretty much the same temperature in our condo and I hate being hot and the theater was air conditioned. So yes, we were both victims of global warming and perpetrators of it at the same time.)

And that’s when it struck me—everything I know about being eco-friendly, I learned from my father.

How could this be? My dad is a Republican and staunch supporter of George W. “I’m a Destroyer, Not a Conserver” Bush. He would personally drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge if he weren’t so busy playing golf.

But he’s also the guy who insulated our home to within an inch of its life to ensure no molecule of heating or coolant escaped into the atmosphere. If one of us so much as cracked a door, he’d bark, “In or out!”

Not that we ever used our air conditioning. It was reserved for Emergencies only, like Dad not being able to sleep. Mom would rouse us at 1 a.m. from our sweat-soaked sheets: “We’re turning on the air. Close your windows.” Note, that meant also pulling down the storm windows to hermetically seal in the A/C. Which was promptly turned off the minute Dad drove away later that morning in his air-conditioned car on his way to his air-conditioned office. We kids spent the rest of the day down the basement, sucking on Flavor-Ice.

Movie critic Roger Ebert says he went home and started turning off lights after viewing “Truth.” My dad invented this maneuver. Frankly, I’m surprised he ever had a problem with his weight, considering the amount of exercise he must have gotten prowling the halls of our house, following us from room to room, switching off lamps the nanosecond we moved from the kitchen to the family room. He took no holiday. The Christmas tree could only be lit between the hours of 8 and 9 p.m. Do you know how many kilowatts those tiny little bulbs burn per second? I’m sure Dad could tell you. (True Confession #2: For complicated reasons, Dave and I were alone at my parents’ house on Christmas a couple of years ago. I left the tree on overnight.)

Last summer, I went camping in Wisconsin. Showers at the site were on timers; I had to insert a quarter for every three minutes of water. How did this contraption escape Dad’s attention? I am stunned my father didn’t install a similar system in our home and for once am grateful that as kids our travel accommodations were limited to cheap motels as opposed to tents and the great outdoors.

But lo’ these many years later, I discover my father was just doing his part to protect the environment. All this time, he’s actually been Green, when I just thought he was cheap.


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