It’s been so chilly and overcast during most of the last couple of weeks that the trees around Tysons Corner, Virginia, appeared to have suspended their activity mid-bloom and mid-leaf. I noticed this as I walked to and from work at a national trade association that represents franchised new-car dealers. The stalled leaf-out was especially obvious from the tenth floor of the building I work in, which is one of the highest—if not the highest—points in Fairfax County. Although the last few years have lacked a true spring, at least the trees leafed out at a steady pace.
I work in the association’s public affairs department, writing and editing legislative and regulatory publications as well as certain internal and external communications. It’s an unusual position for someone like me to occupy, for I’ve been following energy news for some time and know in my heart of hearts that we will have to shift to less resource-demanding ways of propelling ourselves about—propelling ourselves away from the internal combustion engine and leaving our “happy motoring utopia” behind.
What I fear is that along whatever path “powerdown” takes, some people will say, “I told you so,” or work diligently to exclude those “apparently” less knowledgeable, less caring folk from getting involved. I hope my fear stays unrealized.
But I see, hear and feel evidence otherwise: It’s in the disparagement that Al Gore gets for the size of his house or for flying; it’s in the green creds that hybrid-vehicle owners swaddle themselves in; and it’s in comments, like the one directed at me by a man from the local chapter of a national environmental organization. The occasion was a talk to be given by Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood during Earth Week at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The fellow, in a purple tee shirt, was manning a table with brochures about the organization’s support of a purple line metro around Washington, D.C., and a train line running over the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
He’d ask people coming to hear Ray whether they’d heard of the organization. (I was surprised that many had not.) And he asked me where I worked. I told him.
“Oh,” he said, sounding rather disappointed. “Well, we need moles.”
So, here’s a little mole’ for him and anyone else who condescends based on one’s hue of green. (I include myself in that “anyone else,” because I have a tendency to disregard anyone who works for the fossil fuel lobby, the chemical manufacturers and the agribusiness monopolies.) The contributions of all of us are needed if we are to have any hope of helping to stabilize patient Earth’s life-support systems. These systems don’t recognize one’s particular hue of “green.” Nor do they recognize political or economic boundaries: The “frozen” cherry blossoms around Tysons Corner didn’t really care that their roots derive sustenance from soil in Virginia or the United States; they just wanted a springtime for proper functioning.
We in the United States have been ruining our chances at leading the world in cooperation because we take a “my way or the highway” attitude (highway, indeed) toward many, if not most, environmental problems. In 1997, I worked at the metro D.C. car dealers’ association and remember well the debate in Congress over Kyoto.
I felt torn. I wanted China and India brought into the fold, but I didn’t want our participation to be contingent upon theirs. I didn’t understand why I felt the way I did until I heard writer/activist Bill McKibben speak in March at a church in Northwest D.C. He said the reason our lack of signing onto the protocol was so upsetting to him was because it diminished our capacity for worldwide cooperation. China and India, he said, could have been encouraged to join later.
Despite Kyoto’s effect, according to Post-Carbon Institute’s Julian Darley, of bringing more natural-gas–fired plants online around the world (better from an air-quality standpoint; dismal from a resource standpoint, given the coming cliff in natural gas supplies), it’s something I supported. A child of the 1970s, I believed that by the time I’m the age I am now, most of us would have arrayed our roofs in PV panels. In the 1970s, I didn’t think much about cars and trucks and had no particular future in mind for what they would look like or what would power them. Then as now, I attach no special status to a car; it’s something to get around in when absolutely necessary.
I work where I work because I trained as a writer and because the job pays well…well enough I can afford to rent a high-rise apartment across the street. Northern Virginia in general and Tysons in particular are notorious for morning and evening rush-hour traffic congestion, and I’m grateful that I don’t have to spend time sitting in a four-wheeled contraption gnashing my teeth for lack of forward motion while I waste gasoline and generate CO2 and NOx. I try to plan my car trips so that I’m always moving, going to the farmers’ market and grocery store on Saturday mornings only—even if I run out of something.
I’m glad that when Al Gore spoke to Congress recently, he said that transportation should not be singled out as a solution for mitigating climate change. After all, if we concentrate only on transportation, we’re going to lose. Residential and commercial heating and cooling combined generate the bulk of our greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve been fortunate that the apartment I rent has good southeastern exposure. The first and last time I turned on the heat was a chilly evening in November when a couple of friends came over for supper.
It became much colder since November, of course. But the ducts of this building, which was constructed when the stuff to heat and cool it was more plentiful, run along the ceiling and outer wall. To run the heat seems incredibly wasteful. The coldest it’s been inside is 52-degrees Fahrenheit, and that was last week after a storm brought constant cold gusts of up to 60 miles per hour.
But I’ve tended to make a game out of seeing how much cold I could endure. For the frigid month of February and part of March, I ran an oil-filled space heater in my bedroom, closing the door to keep in the heat. Otherwise, when it’s felt too cold, I’ve put on another sweater, another pair of socks, or wrapped myself in a wool shawl. By not using the heat, I hope to have created less demand for the coal whose mining forces my neighboring state’s majestic mountains to be leveled. I only wish I hadn’t needed the space heater.
My point is, “green” people need to be open-minded enough to meet others where they are and not dismiss them outright. Or dismiss them ever so slightly with an “Oh,” when they find out who employs them. If we are dismissive, if we seek to exclude others, we risk losing everything. For example, we talk about the benefits of “walkable” communities. But as a friend who writes about cars for the Washington Post points out, “walkable” has tended to exclude people of color and people who can’t afford to live in a “walkable” place.
I have complained to him about what I perceive as the “tyranny of the car” in this area. By tyranny, I mean the lack of choice of modes of transport and the fear with which I’d take my life in my hands to try to bike or walk along Leesburg Pike or to try to cross over the Washington Beltway to get to Falls Church. When I complain, he asks me why there is no metro stop nearby. He answers his own question: It’s because the people around here want to keep out the “riff raff.” So, finding less energy-intensive ways of living requires us to focus on issues of race and class.
As author Janisse Ray spoke the other night, I had a sense that we were “soul minds”: Most everything she said resonated with me, except for a couple of craw-sticky items. Ray said we each need to practice “right livelihood,” to make sure that whatever work we do, whatever project we take on, enhances human spirituality and human magnanimity. I agree. Many days at the office, I dream of farming. I dream of doing it well enough that I would help to enhance the biodiversity of a place and increase the life-generating capacity of its soil. And while I don’t rule out a career switch, I don’t know how I would go about it and somehow stay out of debt. (Ray also spoke about the freedom that comes from being debt-free.) I know other areas are not like Northern Virginia, in which even an acre—if you can find an acre where it would be appropriate to start a market garden—is out of most people’s financial reach.
Ray also said we need to make sure that whatever money we spend does “no harm.” I hear this admonition as I contemplate buying a drying rack for my laundry. I could choose the nice metal one with the screen on top—perfect for drying sweaters—at the chain store a couple blocks away (Ray also urged us not to shop at chain stores) or order an Amish-made one through the mail.
The thing is, I do harm with a lot of what I spend. Anyone who spends money to get around except under her own power (walking, biking, skating) is doing harm. Anyone who uses artificial light does harm. And anyone who buys processed food or food from far away (often, but not necessarily, the same thing) does harm with that money. Anyone who participates in the stock market does harm—she doesn’t have control over how her investments are used.
What’s the solution?
For me, it’s to meet myself where I am in my work and my life outside work. A lot of my work involves keeping myself informed about what’s going on with energy and what’s really feasible. When I write about alternative and biofuels, I question assumptions—not only those involving our capacity to produce such fuels, but also, as in the case of genetically modified corn and soy, whether we even want to go there at all.
When I phoned in to a press conference announcing the U.S. Renewable Fuels Standard—a push to produce 35 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2017—I am disappointed with the quality of the reporters’ questions. No one asks about the lack of energy in corn ethanol or how much energy is required to make the ethanol or the lack of distribution infrastructure. And no one asks about the soil-fertility-robbing nature of monocrops or the possible scenario of a blight.
The fact is, much as I might rather do something that helps turn things around more quickly, I am needed where I am and I serve a function in a sort of estuarine environment that involves laws, regulations, legislation and the auto industry itself, an environment where I have some freedom to question things even as I learn about the concerns of a particular group of business people.
I sometimes sense that “green” folk are dismissive of most all business people. But our times call for inclusiveness, and to succeed in stabilizing patient Earth and promoting the true health of her—and every one of us—we are all going to need to cooperate and participate. We can start where we are by learning how to talk to others seemingly unlike ourselves.
Leigh Glenn is a writer and editor in Fairfax County, Virginia. The thoughts expressed here represent her own views and not those of any organizations with which she is affiliated.