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.
Others got to the same place by way of religion, most prominently Richard Cizik, director of governmental relations for the National Association of Evangelicals—but also people like Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest in San Francisco and a founder of the religious environmental group Interfaith Power and Light. A moderate Republican, she had to defend herself on a talk-radio show from a listener who accused her of buying into the liberal myth of global warming. “I am,” she pronounced frostily, “a religious person called to care for creation from this platform.” And many followed their own idiosyncratic paths, like Howell, who started researching the connections between food, health and the environment after her mother died of cancer. Soon she and her husband, JD, found themselves caught up in replacing all their light bulbs and toilets with more-efficient versions and weighing their garbage, which by obsessive recycling they have reduced to less than 10 pounds a week.
But probably the most common formative experience is one that Wendy Abrams of Highland Park, Ill., underwent six years ago, as she was reading an article about global climate change over the next century; she looked up from her magazine and saw her four children, who will be alive for most of it. That was the year the hybrid Prius went on sale in the United States, and she bought one as soon as she could. This reflects what Pope describes as a refocusing of environmental concern from issues like safe drinking water, which were local and concrete, to climate change, which is global and abstract. Or so it was, anyway, until it came crashing into New Orleans last summer with the force of a million tons of reprints from The Journal of Climate. Katrina, says Pope, “changed people’s perceptions of what was at stake”—even though no one can prove that the hurricane was directly caused by global warming.
All over America, a post-Katrina future is taking shape under the banner of “sustainability.” Architects vie to create the most sustainable skyscrapers. The current champion in Manhattan appears to be Norman Foster’s futuristic headquarters for the Hearst Corp., lit to its innermost depths by God’s own high-efficiency light source, the sun. The building’s “destination dispatch” elevators require passengers to enter their floor at a kiosk, where a screen directs them to a cab, grouping them to wring the last watt of efficiency from their 30-second trips. But it is expected to be challenged soon in Manhattan by a new Bank of America tower, designed by Cook & Fox, which takes “sustainability” to a point just short of growing its own food. Every drop of rain that falls on its roof will be captured for use; scraps from the cafeteria will be fermented in the building to produce methane as a supplementary fuel for a generator intended to produce more than half the building’s electricity; the waste heat from the generator will both warm the offices and power a refrigeration plant to cool them.
Far away in Traverse City, Mich., a resort town four hours north of Detroit, home builder Lawrence Kinney wrestles with a different problem, people who want 6,000-square-foot vacation houses they will use only a couple of weeks a year. Outraged by the waste, he refuses to build them. His preferred size is about 1,800 square feet, 25 percent smaller than the national average; he has rediscovered the virtues of plaster walls instead of resource-intensive drywall, uses lumber harvested locally by horse-drawn teams and treats his wood with stains made from plants, not petroleum. When Jeff Martin, a program manager for Microsoft, set out to build a sustainable house near Charlotte, N.C., he specified something that looked like a house, not “a yurt, or a spaceship, or something made out of recycled cans and tires in the middle of the desert.” He turned to Steven Strong, a Massachusetts-based renewable-energy consultant who says he “fell in love” with solar energy when he realized that “you could put a thin sliver of silicon, with no moving parts and no waste, in the sun and generate electricity forever.” Strong designed an unobtrusive solar-cell array on the roof of Martin’s conventional stucco-and-stone house to provide free electricity, and a sun-powered heater that produces so much hot water Martin can use it to wash his driveway. “We never run out,” Martin boasts, “even when my wife’s family comes to visit over Christmas.”
From the July 17, 2006 issue. Read the full story at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13768213/site/newsweek/