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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The Laggard, Part 1: A Difficult First Step

Connecting with the oldest energy source

Laggard: one who moves or responds slowly, sluggishly, hence falling behind an acceptable pace

That would be me. Inexcusably slow responding to the gravest threat confronting humanity in its 200,000 years on the earth. Sluggish in both practice and understanding regarding the effects of fossil fuel combustion on the planet.

Let’s take the practice part, first. A biology faculty colleague had installed an early version of solar panels atop his roof two decades ago. Good idea, I thought. Should do it. Didn’t. A decade ago a family in our Cohousing community fronted a loan to purchase solar panels for the community. Great idea! I didn’t pitch in to make it easier or more extensive.

All around our part of town, solar panels sprouted on rooftops, nearly one a block. Good idea. Somehow never got around to it.

Recently I took to visiting my old high school friend Gary, who lives not far south of me in California’s Silicon Valley. He was kind enough to produce the cover for a book I was writing about John Muir. One visit, he proudly displayed solar panels atop his garage, and patiently explained that paying off the loan to purchase the panels cost less than his monthly savings on his electricity bill. And in time the payments would cease. Duh?! Not too long thereafter I reunited with another high school friend, who powered his home with solar panels and drove a hybrid gas/electric Chevy.

So last month, I finally got an array of photovoltaic panels installed on my roof. Immediately my bill plummeted and my self-esteem skyrocketed. I was now using plentiful solar energy to power most of my house, rather than electricity produced by burning fossil fuels. FINALLY!!

But I was still driving a vehicle that scooted itself along by blowing up gasoline in its engine and emitting the resultant carbon dioxide and various other polluting gases. A lot of us do this. A decade ago some Cohousing friends purchased a Toyota Prius hybrid gas/electric vehicle. Many in the community followed suit. Not us: we had two growing kids with lots of friends and needed that minivan. The kids grew up and moved out, and still we kept with the good ole internal combustion engine, out of force of habit.

But half a year ago I learned that my friends Richard and Julie had put down a deposit on the new moderately-priced Tesla Model 3 electric vehicle—all electric, not a hybrid. So when we had our solar panels installed last month, we also had a charging station set up in our garage for an all-electric vehicle. When the lease on my wife’s current vehicle expires this fall, we’ll get a Chevy Bolt all-electric and let the sun (rather than combustion of fossil fuels) power us around town and to the Bay Area to visit the grandkids; the Bolt gets over 200 miles on a charge, similar to the Tesla Model 3. FINALLY!!

As my friend Al reminds me, there are costs to producing photovoltaic panels and electric cars, both in terms of polluting materials and "dirty" energy use. Conceded. But to my mind (and others more knowledgeable than me) these one-time costs pale in comparison to the alternative of fossil fuel combustion of an ongoing, daily basis to power gasoline-based vehicles and electricity generated by plants using coal and oil.

Decreasing energy use in general is fundamental to any strategy aimed at eliminating fossil fuel combustion, of course. It is immediate in its impact and has no indirect affects on the environment associated with it. In this regard I had begun to make some personal progress for decades. I've commuted to my place of work by bicycle or bus almost every day of my three decades teaching at the university. But longer trips? Usually I had recourse to the old family vehicle, rather than public transportation.

Until about a decade ago, when I began taking trips with the afore-mentioned Al. Both of us were (and are!) retired with still-working wives, giving us the freedom to travel more but wives tied down to jobs. So we were frequently off on adventures. Al grew up within blocks of the San Jose train yards and has been a fan of trains and train travel his whole life. He converted me. So with Al I’ve ridden Amtrak to Los Angles from our northern California homes many times, both the Coast Starlight (along the gorgeous Pacific coastline of Big Sur and SoCal) and the San Joaquin Express (down the southern portion of California’s central valley). We’ve also taken the Southwest Chief east from L.A. to New Mexico and explored Santa Fe, Chimayo, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu by rental car. We’ve even carried camping gear on the train down to Ventura and took the Island Packer boat out to the Channel Islands National Park, where we camped, snorkeled, and rented kaykaks to explore the sea caves around Santa Cruz Island.

Nowadays, when I visit the Bay Area to see my son in Berkeley or my daughter and grandkids in San Francisco, it’s by Amtrak also: shuttle bus to Sacramento, Capitol Corridor train to Emeryville, shuttle bus across the Bay to the Embarcadero, then Muni city bus to my daughter’s home in S.F.’s Richmond district. Not a moment in a car, costing about the same as a car trip, and considerably more relaxing and enjoyable. Plus more efficient use of the energy required, thanks to considerations of scale inherent in public transportation.

All this not to brag, but to confess how bloody long it took me to “smell the coffee” and get my act together, always following friends who had already woken up and done the right thing. The laggard, that’s me.

So that’s the practical part. How about the understanding part? I’m a scientist, and knew three decades ago that fossil fuel combustion was increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with measurable affects on the planet. Heck, for three decades I gave lectures about this, and patiently explained to students how carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere trap heat and prevent it from dissipating into outer space. How temperatures have been rising steadily since the advent of the industrial revolution and the consequent explosion (literally!) of coal, gas, and oil combustion. How this global warming is causing more frequent droughts and the leveling-off of production of grains and vegetables (even as human population increases inexorably). How sea levels are rising, producing storm-surges into coastal cities and their water supplies. How warmer air and the increased moisture it holds produces the increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as storms and floods.

Pretty serious stuff, huh? But I didn’t get just how serious for decades and decades. I presented it to my students as a problem, and we should do what we can to ameliorate it. I didn’t get very exercised about it, tho. No raised voice, waving of arms, dire predictions. A problem to be aware of and hopefully make some progress to solving.

Until the spring of 2015, when I read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate. Then a few months later, Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si’. They were persuasive; the facts are the facts, and can’t be denied by anyone paying attention. Combustion of fossil fuels and the climate change they cause are an existential threat to humanity. The data show that they result in droughts, famines, floods, increased severe weather events, decreased food production, spread of tropical diseases into temperate zones, and massive migrations of humans from increasingly uninhabitable tropical regions.

Under these steadily-worsening conditions, human civilization itself can be expected to unravel and be replaced by barbarism if the current situation is not dramatically reversed. The extinction of the human species on the planet is a real possibility. All this based on sober scientific data with the virtually unanimous agreement of scientists who study climate and its consequences.

Of course, others had realized the severity of the threat long before I finally got it. James Hansen announced it in Congressional hearings in 1988. Bill McKibben had been writing books about it since 1989 (The End of Nature) right up to 2010’s Eaarth and 2014’s Oil and Honey. The Australian Clive Hamilton raised the alarm in unforgettable fashion in his 2010 Requium for a Species and has continued up to this year’s Defiant Earth.

I just wasn’t paying sufficient attention; all this went right over my head. But I finally got it in 2015. The laggard woke up. The John Muir book I was nearly finished writing doubled in size. I realized that Muir’s worldview developed in his little-known wilderness journals, what I called Earth Wisdom, was in fact exactly the “alternative worldview” and “new way of thinking about humans and the planet” that Klein and Pope Francis, respectively, saw as critical in saving humanity from the abyss of climate change. The book expanded and took on added importance. The title changed from John Muir, Accidental Taoist to its current title: Earth Wisdom: John Muir, Accidental Taoist, Charts Humanity’s Only Future on a Changing Planet.

In the new book’s Epilogue, I finally start shouting and waving my arms. Hey folks: unless we change the way we think and act, and pretty darn fast, we’re headed for catastrophe. Human civilization will very likely disappear and those few surviving will be reduced to barbarism. Here’s why and here’s how that will happen. And here’s what it will take to avoid the worst of this. And guess what: we’ll have to, all of us, start doing what it took the laggard three decades to do.

But it can be done; at least it’s within the realm of possibility. Even a laggard can come around. I don’t pretend my late arrival to the battle will be very important. Giants such as Hansen, McKibben, Hamilton, Klein, and the Pope haven’t, alas, moved the needle much in three decades of strenuous warnings and actions. But it’s important, I feel, to be in the most important fight of our kind’s history on the planet, and to be on the right side as well. We all owe that to ourselves, to our fellow humans, and to our kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews.

Dixi et salvavi animam meam.

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