One morning last week ... 29 years after president Jimmy Carter declared energy conservation “the moral equivalent of war” ... 37 years after the first reference to the “greenhouse effect” in The New York Times ... one day after oil prices hit a record peak of more than $75 per barrel ... Kelley Howell, a 38-year-old architect, got on her bicycle a little after 5 a.m. and rode 7.9 miles past shopping centers, housing developments and a nature preserve to a bus stop to complete her 24-mile commute to work.
Compared with driving in her 2004 Mini Cooper, the 15.8-mile round trip by bicycle conserved approximately three fifths of a gallon of gasoline, subtracting 15 pounds of potential carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere (minus the small additional amount she exhaled as a result of her exertion). That’s 15 pounds out of 1.7 billion tons of carbon produced annually to fuel all the vehicles in the United States. She concedes that when you look at it that way, it doesn’t seem like very much. “But if you’re not doing something and the next family isn’t doing anything, then who will?”
On that very question the course of civilization may rest. In the face of the coming onslaught of pollutants from a rapidly urbanizing China and India, the task of avoiding ecological disaster may seem hopeless, and some environmental scientists have, quietly, concluded that it is. But Americans are notoriously reluctant to surrender their fates to the impersonal outcomes of an equation. One by one—and together, in state and local governments and even giant corporations—they are attempting to wrest the future from the dotted lines on the graphs that point to catastrophe. The richest country in the world is also the one with the most to lose.
Environmentalism waxes and wanes in importance in American politics, but it appears to be on the upswing now. Membership in the Sierra Club is up by about a third, to 800,000, in four years, and Gallup polling data show that the number of Americans who say they worry about the environment “a great deal” or “a fair amount” increased from 62 to 77 percent between 2004 and 2006. (The 2006 poll was done in March, before the attention-getting release of Al Gore’s global-warming film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”) Americans have come to this view by many routes, sometimes reluctantly; Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, thinks unhappiness with the Bush administration’s environmental record plays a part, but many of the people NEWSWEEK spoke to for this story are Republicans. “Al Gore can’t convince me, but his data can convince me,” venture capitalist Ray Lane remarks ruefully. Lane is a general partner in the prominent Silicon Valley firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which has pledged to invest $100 million in green technology. He arrived at his position as a “Republican environmentalist” while pondering three trends: global warming, American dependence on foreign oil and the hypermodernization of Asian societies.