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What Green Means
Published on Sunday, August 7, 2005 by the Philadelphia Inquirer
What 'Green' Means
We must do more than remedy existing problems; changing our behavior now will prevent new ones
by Bill McKibben

Every valley in the country has some group busy trying to Make Things Better or at least Keep Them From Getting Worse. The environmentalist creed has sunk in deep in the last 30 years, has been lodged in so many laws and agencies and cerebellums that it's now a fixed part of the landscape.

Even on the national level, even in the teeth of the most right-wing corporate administration in living memory, certain kinds of improvements lurch forward. The Environmental Protection Agency under Christie Whitman not only kept alive a Clinton-era rule toughening diesel emissions, it extended it to construction and farm equipment.

"These rules add up to more health benefits than any vehicle pollution program since lead was taken out of gasoline," said Rich Kassel, longtime campaigner for the Natural Resources Defense Council, estimating that they will save 12,000 lives a year.

Why, then, have so many environmentalists and journalists spent so much time talking about the "death of environmentalism" thesis that Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus presented in October in an influential paper to the Environmental Grantmakers Association? Most of the answer comes from the fact that carbon with two oxygen atoms is a quite different animal from carbon with a single oxygen atom attached.

Carbon monoxide is where the environmental movement really began. Donora, Washington County, Pa., 1948: A cloud of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants from the local zinc smelter blankets the town, killing 20 people. Los Angeles, in the 1960s: Carbon monoxide and a brew of other pollutants turn the air brown, making "smog" a part of everyone's vocabulary. But CO is a mistake; it's the product of incomplete combustion. You can do something about it, namely, stick a catalytic converter on the tailpipe of your car or a scrubber on the stack of your smelter.

That's been done in many places, and the results are clear. In 2002, for instance, Southern California met federal requirements for CO levels for the first time since the government set them in 1963. Carbon monoxide was a pollutant; you could fix it, just as we could fix the sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury still pouring out of the smokestacks of many of our power plants. Just as the diesel engine industry will now have to make some technical changes.

Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, isn't a pollutant in any normal sense. Until very recently, scientists defined a clean engine as one that produced only CO2 and water vapor. It's inevitable that if you burn fossil fuel you will produce carbon dioxide, which we now understand as the driving force behind global warming. And so the best hope for preventing climate change is to burn less fossil fuel. Which is a very different task than fixing an engine, and helps explain why, so far, we've gotten nowhere.

Adding catalytic converters to fight smog in Los Angeles was a battle, of course. The auto industry, as with seatbelts and airbags and every non-cupholder innovation, resisted reflexively. But in the end, politicians ordered new standards: The cost of converters was small in comparison with the total price of a car, and better yet, it was hidden. This was a piece of equipment, not a tax or a mandate. No one really noticed. And it worked. When it came to pollution control, environmentalism was up to the task.

But environmentalism, by itself, isn't up to the task of stopping global warming. Going after fossil fuels means going after the base of our economy, and hence of our daily habits. That is too central a target for a movement whose successes have involved fixing things around the edges. For instance, the obvious first step to reduce carbon emissions would be to increase the price of fossil fuels. Everyone knows that. But political leaders haven't done it because there are strong pressures from vested interests not to, and no pressure at all from the citizenry to do so. The vested interests won't go away, and voters aren't clamoring for higher gas prices now in exchange for a more livable planet down the road. So the best our leaders (even ones like Bill Clinton, who acknowledged the problem) have been willing to do is talk about magic technologies a few decades away, like hydrogen cars, that might somehow allow us to avoid ever making difficult choices.

So we have a split between a robust environmental movement taking on the relatively simple problems of old-fashioned pollution and a weak one getting nowhere on preventing the collapse of the planet's stable climate. That will likely continue until something breaks the logjam.

It may be scarcity that does the trick. The currently increasing cost of oil helps (though it does nothing to lessen the temptation of an endless surplus of carbon-laden coal).

Maybe fear will do it. One reason Europe takes climate change so seriously is that 35,000 French and Belgians died in a two-week heat wave the summer before last.

Or it may be some wild card: some new metaphor, some new leader. Or, more likely, some new vision.

More and more, for instance, I find myself writing about local economies - in part because their supply lines are shorter, their energy demands smaller. But also in part because the food tastes sweeter, because the deeper community feels good, because electricity from the windmill on your ridge is better than electricity from the wrecked Appalachian mountain or the overstretched Mideast pipeline. ("Buy local" - is that a liberal vision or a conservative one? Who knows? That we can't say for sure is probably a good thing.) It's one possible vision, anyhow, of a world that might not overheat, a vision that owes at least as much to psychology and sociology as to the biology and chemistry that have undergirded most ecological thinking.

You didn't need to rethink suburban sprawl or consumerism to deal with DDT or diesel emissions; we may need to do that, and a dozen basic tasks like it, to have a chance against climate change. In the process, "environmentalism" will have to tackle questions such as: What makes for a secure, satisfying individual life?

If it has success, it won't be environmentalism any more. It will be something much more important.

Bill McKibben lives and writes in Vermont. He wrote this piece for the July-August issue of Orion magazine (

© 2005 Philadelphia Inquirer


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