22 April 2011

Earth Day 41

Earth Day is nearly upon us again, and I'm feeling discouraged.

Starbucks will give you a free cup of coffee if you wander into any of their locations today with your reusable cup. At the time of this writing, 2,792 members of Facebook have joined "B Kind 2 Earth Day." At Earth Day Network, you can pledge an "Act of Green" to help save the planet -- by not buying bottled water, or turning off faucets, or switching to compact-fluorescent light bulbs.

Meanwhile, since the first Earth Day in 1970, US homes have expanded from 1400 square feet to a peak of more than 2500 square feet in 2007, with a slight drop since then. Meanwhile, we've bought more and more cars: in 1970, Americans collectively owned 89 million cars; in 2008, the figure was 137 million. Climate change is picking up speed.

I'm also discouraged about my own ability to reduce reliance on my car. I've done okay on the little things, like packing my own lunch rather than eating take-out to cut down on plastic; I've made the switch to bar shampoo, instead of the stuff in the plastic bottle. But after a semester of regular train travel, I've gone back to driving more.

In other words, the little corrections we've been inspired to make every year for Earth Day do almost nothing to counteract the forces that push ever-increasing consumption. We need to get serious, all of us, about reducing consumption in big ways.

That doesn't mean (just) buying "greener" alternatives of all the stuff we're already buying. It means eating lower on the food chain and wasting less food. It means buying a whole lot less of everything, making what we already have work until it wears out and can no longer be repaired, owning less stuff overall so that we can fit ourselves and our stuff back into smaller homes.

It also means drastically decreasing the amount that we drive -- and that, in turn, requires major structural changes in the way we live. So it also means political action at the local level to make neighborhoods amenable to walking and biking, and at state and federal levels to encourage the construction of more and better mass transit.

The Department of Transportation is asking for $128 billion in the 2012 budget. The vast majority of this will go toward highways; a mere $8 billion is allocated to rails, yet state governments are rejecting even this expenditure, seeking to divert funds instead to additional highway projects.

As the feminists said back in the 70s, the personal is the political. We need to be committed, personally and politically, to change at multiple and major levels. The little stuff isn't enough.