Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Confessions of a Global Warming Warrior

I just realized it's been nearly three weeks since my last post--the delay attributable to paper-grading--but I thought I'd try to slip something in here before the final, end-of-term crush. I did a rough calculation on how many pages of student papers I read in a term, and it came out to something like 3,000 pages. Fortunately, I grade everything online, so at least I'm sparing the trees.

But speaking of environmental issues, I've been doing some soul-searching lately, and I thought I'd share it here. This seems like a good time. As the Copenhagen conference dawns, as the EPA rules that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are hazardous to human health, as the U.S. Congress lurches toward some kind of climate legislation, it seems like time to confess that I've been rethinking my position on global warming.

Relax. I still think it's real, I still think industrial civilization is driving it, and I still think it's likely to have catastrophic results. (Indeed, a number of recent studies, including this one, suggest that it's going to be a lot worse than anyone dreamed.) But my position on global warming, I've concluded, hasn't been entirely rational or realistic over the several years I've been trying to do my part to address the problem.

What I realized, in short, is that I'm not going to be the one to solve the problem. That may sound silly--what, did I think I was going to personally monkeywrench every coal-fired power plant in the developed world?--but what I mean is, I've come to the conclusion that my generation, people in the middle of their lives, are not ultimately going to be the ones to reverse the trend. At most, we'll be the ones who raised the alarm, who raised the public conscience or consciousness, but not the ones who will raise the new structure our world is going to need to get out of its self-inflicted mess.

The issue, as I see it, is this: people don't make big changes in preferred systems until things get REALLY bad. And for most of us in the industrial West, things aren't going to get really bad until mid-century, when people like me are either dead or in serious decline. What this means is that for my generation, the window for making the changes we need to make is both too short and too long: too short because these changes will need to be made quickly to stave off what will come if we don't make them, too long because we won't start to see the problems our changes could have averted until we're largely too decrepit to do anything about them. So we'll chip away at things here, screw in compact fluorescents there, pass a half-assed climate bill tomorrow (or the next day, or the next year, or the next decade), and pretty much keep on with business as usual until, one day, things get so bad that someone realizes they simply have to act.

Who that someone will be, I'm not totally sure. The key question will be: for whom has it gotten so bad that decisive action is no longer avoidable? For my children, maybe. For my children's children, almost certainly. I both hope and fear it will be for my children: hope, because the longer it goes on this way, the harder it will be to set right, and fear, because they are my children, and I don't want the things I (we) have done to harm them. But either way, my feeling at this point is that those of us who could do something to prevent such harm right now probably won't.

This may sound utterly pessimistic. Or it may sound like a cop-out, a way of absolving myself of any responsibility to act. Trust me, it's not. I will continue to act in every way I can (and I've been acting in plenty of ways), and I will contine to seek new ways. What this is, rather, is a realistic appraisal not only of the situation but of myself: a recognition that, deep down, I really wanted to be the one to fix things, not only because then they'd be fixed but because then I'd have been the one who did it. I wanted to be a member of the Greatest Generation; I wanted to save the world. I wanted to be remembered that way.

And maybe that's a dangerous desire. Maybe it's better to realize you can't save the world until it's ready to save itself, at which time it'll no longer need you to save it. It's funny: I got involved in this issue because I wanted to secure my children's future. But maybe, as with one's children, one has to resist the temptation to do it all for them--resist, that is, the temptation to do it before they've stepped into a future in which they're ready to do it themselves.

So you'll still see me at the rallies and on the boards of local organizations, you'll still read my letters (at least, if you're my representative), you'll still watch An Inconvenient Truth (if you're my student), you'll still know I'm around. But you won't have me to thank when the problem is finally solved.

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