I am a bad role model. I yelled out during the Earth Day presentation at school Tuesday. I am the teacher. It is my job to make sure students do not interrupt the speaker. I should not model bad behavior. Even from the floor… Because the audience was already titillated by the concept of “showering with a friend,” fortunately most of them did not hear me.
I am deeply frustrated by our responses to Climate Change, both locally and internationally. We have denied the existence of the changing climate for so long that simple solutions will no longer suffice, but we refuse to take the problem seriously. We are all deeply concerned—many of my students are highly anxious, and I am sure that it is related to the belief that their world is doomed, because they all know—but we do not talk seriously about the issue. Instead, we have presentations like the one I sat through yesterday, which left me shaking.
There were three groups presenting to half of the CHS population—ninth and tenth graders. The student organizers were earnest and serious, suggesting small changes everyone could make, like riding a bike to school, and ending with a slam poetry video on how we need to work together to save the planet. They set up the adults well—but the adults bombed. One, in a t shirt, jeans, and bare feet (seriously, does he ride his bike around our glass strewn streets barefoot!), asked lame questions about Facebook and lectured them on ways to get involved. He was boring and quickly lost his audience. I slid to the floor and thought about my grading pile. He was followed up by one of our local leaders for sustainability, who talked about her trip to Germany to see their solar power—but quickly lost the audience by mentioning beer. High school and beer—bad combo. The audience, already restless and warm, squirmed. Then she moved into the “what you can do” portion of the lecture. Well, we can eat one less meat meal a week. We can change a light bulb. We can shower with a friend—seriously, if there is one thing more distracting to the audience than beer, it’s that. The boys in front of me, all friends, began hugging each other and laughing nervously. Or, we can talk with our parents about solar panels. That’s when I lost it. “Insulate the damn house first,” I yelled from the floor.
Seriously people, there is a HUGE GAP between the totally lame “change a light bulb and you have saved the planet”—because even changing every light bulb on the planet would not stop climate change at this point—and installing solar panels. And this is where my frustration peaks. It is a three part frustration.
First, we suggest actions that are so tiny as to be meaningless in the face of this crisis and the kids know it. Light bulbs. Showerheads. Carpool once a week. Recycle. Bring a bag to the grocery store. Turn down the heat two degrees. (From what? 80? 68? 62, where we are?) These changes are often couched in vague numbers; this is the equivalent of taking five hundred cars off of the road. What does that mean? What car? How many miles? With a head or tail wind? If it was 1976, when Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and installed solar panels on the White House roof, these steps would have been the beginning of meaningful change—and maybe they still are today. If everyone did this, it would be one wedge against the changing climate. But if we stop here, we are kidding ourselves—and my students, who will face the crisis head on in their lifetimes—that we have averted the worst of the changes.
Second, especially in my town, we believe in technology and engineering. Corvallis is highly educated—and many guys riding funky bikes and going to sustainability meetings are retired engineers. They think in terms of technology. What do we do in the face of climate change, besides ban plastic bags? Solar panels. Prius purchase and many variations. Plug-in stations that are rarely used. Georgetown Energy Prize. We go big and we go tech. We suggest changing the building codes to require solar panels on all new construction. We request loans for the City to install panels on people’s houses. We try for big prizes and give out light bulbs everywhere. What do we not do? We overlook the human element involved and the low-tech basics. Fifty five percent of our housing stock is rental, and much of that is before code changes on insulation. This means that renters, mostly students and poor folks, are living in poorly insulated houses, where heat and air conditioning leaks out the windows, walls, and roofs. Renters cannot insulate their spaces, but we could have a program that requires and supports insulating all of our housing stock. This would not only reduce city-wide energy costs, but would benefit the rental community, who are struggling in our town to pay their bills. New technology alone cannot save us, old technology will certainly help.
Finally, we deny the fact that there are no easy solutions. The problem has grown too big and terrifying. We, as a society, need to cut back—probably way back—on our carbon usage. This will mean—no flying across the country for a weekend. No more 3000 square foot houses, filled with stuff. A lot less meat, new clothing, long drives in the country in a huge pick-up truck. At one point, I thought we might be able to work our way out of this without sacrificing most of our creature comforts and travel, but I no longer believe that this is possible. We are in too deep. There will be radical changes in lifestyle—some more than others, yes—if we want the planet to survive and support future generations. These radical changes will be embraced by some, fought by others. We need to have the political will to vote for candidates how will say the words “climate change is real” and policies, like carbon taxes, that will direct practical solutions to the problem. Terrifyingly, this has to happen in the next five years.
And so, when the “What you can do” list includes shower with a friend, eat one meatless meal a week, and replace one bulb with the one we are handing out at the door as you leave, I grow frustrated. And when the presenter (whom I like, personally)—who owns a solar installation company—suggests these tiny responses or solar panels with nothing in between, I yell.
On Friday afternoon, Earth Day, about 55 people are coming to my house to view the solar panels on the greenhouse. And we will talk about how much we love them, watching the dial, watching sun and shadows play over the surface and change the reading. But before that, they will head into the basement, where the real change begins, with an efficient furnace and an insulated house, because, really, on a homestead scale, solar panels are the last step to take.