We can't save the planet, unless we also save our communities
This is not normally the place to take your valuable time with poached materials from the press that many of you may run across anyway. However today, these two articles from the same journal (www.iht.com) are important because of the way in which they frame our shared interests. Namely that we can’t save the planet unless we also save our communities. Let’s you and me keep working at it, eh? Eric Britton
Paul Krugman: Can the planet be saved?
By Paul Krugman
Friday, August 1, 2008
PRINCETON, New Jersey: Recently the Web site The Politico asked Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, why she was blocking attempts to tack offshore drilling amendments onto appropriations bills. "I'm trying to save the planet; I'm trying to save the planet," she replied.
I'm glad to hear it. But I'm still worried about the planet's prospects.
True, Pelosi's remark was a happy reminder that environmental policy is no longer in the hands of crazy people. Remember, less than two years ago Senator James Inhofe - a conspiracy theorist who insists that global warming is a "gigantic hoax" perpetrated by the scientific community - was the chairman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee.
Beyond that, Pelosi's response shows that she understands the deeper issues behind the current energy debate.
Most criticism of John McCain's decision to follow the Bush administration's lead and embrace offshore drilling as the answer to high gas prices has focused on the accusation that it's junk economics - which it is.
A McCain campaign ad says that gas prices are high right now because "some in Washington are still saying no to drilling in America." That's just plain dishonest: the U.S. government's own Energy Information Administration says that removing restrictions on offshore drilling wouldn't lead to any additional domestic oil production until 2017, and that even at its peak the extra production would have an "insignificant" impact on oil prices.
What's even more important than McCain's bad economics, however, is what his reversal on this issue - he was against offshore drilling before he was for it - says about his priorities.
Back when he was cultivating a maverick image, McCain portrayed himself as more environmentally aware than the rest of his party. He even cosponsored a bill calling for a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse-gas emissions (although his remarks on several recent occasions suggest that he doesn't understand his own proposal). But the lure of a bit of political gain, it turns out, was all it took to transform him back into a standard drill-and-burn Republican.
And the planet can't afford that kind of cynicism.
In themselves, limits on offshore drilling are only a modest-sized issue. But the skirmish over drilling is the opening stage of a much bigger fight over environmental policy. What's at stake in that fight, above all, is the question of whether we Americans will take action against climate change before it's utterly too late.
It's true that scientists don't know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there's a chance that we'll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there's also a chance that we'll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?
Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist who has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers. Surveying a wide range of climate models, he argues that, overall, they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Weitzman points out, that's enough to "effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it." It's sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat.
Now for the bad news: Sheer irresponsibility may be a winning political strategy.
McCain's claim that opponents of offshore drilling are responsible for high gas prices is ridiculous - and to their credit, major news organizations have pointed this out. Yet McCain's gambit seems nonetheless to be working: Public support for ending restrictions on drilling has risen sharply, with roughly half of voters saying that increased offshore drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.
Hence my concern: If a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though McCain apparently doesn't know that), and really would raise energy prices.
The only way we're going to get action, I'd suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral. Incidentally, that's why I was disappointed with Barack Obama's response to McCain's energy posturing - that it was "the same old politics." Obama was dismissive when he should have been outraged.
Breaking a town from the center
By Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern
Friday, August 1, 2008
RIPTON, Vermont: Robert Frost wrote once that "good fences make good neighbors." We love Frost - we live on land he once owned in this small Green Mountain town - but that's the poet being cynical. What really makes for good neighbors, as the 562 residents have learned over the years, is a post office like the one this town has enjoyed since the 1800s. Tucked into a tiny corner of the general store, the post office is our town commons, a place where neighbor has no choice but to rub shoulders with neighbor.
But suddenly, out of nowhere, a sign went up a few weeks ago saying that the U.S. Postal Service was closing our post office. If we wanted our mail, the sign said, we'd have to drive to the next town, which is at the bottom of a winding gorge, on a road that is only marginally passable. It's a 10-mile round trip, for some, and 18 miles for others, which is not an inconsiderable distance in these days of $4 a gallon gas. And talk about carbon footprint. But these are merely the obvious, measurable costs.
As soon as the closure sign went up on the post office door, people began to mobilize. And they weren't just the usual suspects - the ones who serve on the town board or run the recycling program. They were fifth-generation Vermonters, they were carpenters, they were teachers, retirees and gardeners - they were a representative sampling of us all.
Some said they'd hang around the store in case the postal service made good on its threat to remove the bank of mail boxes, the old kind, with a glass window and a combination lock. (After two days, the Postal Service backed down.)
Scores of calls were made - to the postmaster general, to various regional USPS offices, to customer service. (We would have sent letters, but there was no place to buy stamps in town.) Scores more calls were made to the Vermont congressional delegation. A meeting was called, and 124 residents crowded into town hall to voice their concern. The media came, drawn less by what was happening to our mail than what was happening in our town - our passion, commitment and solidarity. How quaint!
These days, the average American has half as many close friends as his predecessor half a century ago, and shares meals with neighbors and family half as often. But in our little town, there are community suppers, a monthly coffee house, family soccer games, a farmers' market. As Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders and Representative Peter Welch wrote to the postmaster general, Jack Potter, "The town of Ripton is a small, close-knit community. The Ripton General Store and the post office are a center and a primary gathering place for residents."
The fact is, as almost everyone who packed town hall pointed out, the reason we're so close-knit is because of the post office - and because, especially, it's in the one retail business in town.
This is how towns get broken, someone pointed out at the meeting: Send people away from the center and it cannot hold; make them drive to the bottom of the mountain to get their mail, and they'll shop there, too. Soon enough the ancient red building, which stocks the bread and milk and eggs that lets us stay close to home on a snowy day, will become history, too.
Not long after the congressional delegation wrote to Postmaster Potter, we all received letters of apology from the regional headquarters. Sorry, it said, for shutting down your post office without giving you proper notice. As to whether anyone was sorry for shutting to begin with, or what plans they had for the future, it didn't say.
So the people in town kept asking, kept sending e-mails, did more research. We learned, for instance, how the postal service strategic plan calls for more "streamlined" operations and how we weren't the only rural community fighting to hold on to this vital public service.
And then, suddenly, the mail came back to Ripton. Though it's too early to say it's for good - we still don't have a postmaster, and the window is open just a few hours a day, staffed by townspeople - it was a defining moment for our community: Getting our mail was sweet, but having our post office was even sweeter.
Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern are writers. McKibben's most recent book is "The Bill McKibben Reader," and Halpern's is "Can't Remember What I Forgot."