A recent flight I took was, like most these days, completely packed. About 100 fellow travelers and I were crammed into a way-too-small coach cabin. But when I stood up for a moment, I discovered we were all making our situation worse.
Looking out over the rows, I saw that almost all aboard had pushed their seats back, invading the space of those behind them. This was bad for everyone. As any flier knows, the benefit of reclining is more than offset by the inconvenience of having a stranger in your lap. And yet, most passengers-including me-had contributed to the problem.
The seat recliner uses the public domain-in this case, space-and we have gotten used to using as much of that domain as we can, not just on planes but everywhere. This is our destructive me culture: Anything we want in the public sphere, we take or use, with little regard for the overall ramifications.
A stranger reclines into your lap. Someone in a theater talks through the movie. The guy at the next table yammers so loudly on his cell phone that you can't hear your lunch companion. A passerby litters in the park. In each example, the public domain is trampled and usurped by the me culture.
But what happens when this culture affects the really big stuff-like, say, planetary survival? It is a critical question because, according to the new book "Apollo's Fire," that's precisely what's going on.
Written by Congressman Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and Center for American Progress fellow Bracken Hendricks, the book describes how our society's carbon-reliant economy treats the atmosphere in the same counterproductive way as seat-reclining passengers treat the limited space in coach. As a result, while we may enjoy leaving lights on, driving a gas-guzzling SUV or, yes, flying, the carbon emissions we generate from such activities are pushing the planet toward a global warming disaster, rife with floods, droughts and general societal upheaval.
"We look at the air like it is infinite, rather than what it really is-a limited resource," Hendricks told me after he made a speech in Denver.
The problem revolves around cost. Just as you are assessed no additional fee to lean your airplane chair back and set off a chain reaction of reclining and cabinwide discomfort, we are assessed no additional fee when we pump carbon dioxide into the air and help wreak planetwide destruction. And the results in our me culture are predictable. We recline and pollute away-overall consequences be damned.
"Apollo's Fire" offers ways to address the crisis, the first being a cap on greenhouse gas emissions or a tax on carbon. We limit access to or charge fees for using water, land and other natural resources. Why shouldn't polluters have to pay to use the air-the most precious natural resource of all? Equally important, the book explores both public and private investments that could change the way we generate energy in the first place.
Fortunately, the political will to protect the atmosphere is already building. For instance, some forward-thinking energy companies are cutting down their carbon dioxide output in anticipation of a price on carbon. Governors from coal-producing states are acknowledging that carbon emissions need to be cut. Even some major corporate shareholders are pushing their companies to cut back on carbon emissions. They see big profit potential in providing the world with clean energy.
These moves reflect polls that show the public realizes the health of our atmosphere has worth-and needs to be protected. Just as The New York Times recently wrote that many people "feel a brief, murderous urge to strike back" when the airplane chair in front of them reclines, we are beginning to feel similar emotions when a carbon-belching Hummer drives by. That is, we are beginning to feel violated when others harm the planet.
In short, our me culture is colliding with our recognition that the Earth is one big confined airplane, and that when it comes to the atmosphere, we are all in that last row-up against a wall, unable to kick back when we are encroached upon. Global warming is showing that our air, like cramped coach space, is actually finite. Let's hope things don't have to get too uncomfortable before we do something about it.
David Sirota is the bestselling author of "Hostile Takeover" (Crown, 2006). He is a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network-both nonpartisan research organizations. His daily blog can be found at www.credoaction.com/sirota.
© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.