Introducing Slate's environmental advice column.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Sept. 25 2007 5:33 PM

Raise the Green Lantern

Introducing Slate's environmental advice column.

(Continued from Page 1)

What's more, positive, discernible change is possible during our lifetimes. In 1976, for example, there were 102 days on which Los Angeles experienced a stage-one smog alert; in 1996, there were only seven such days. And, against all expectations, many parts of the world are becoming reforested; Asia alone gained 2.5 million acres' worth of woodlands between 2000 and 2005.

Put your own house in order. Too much environmental journalism nowadays plays "gotcha!" with well-meaning celebrities. Granted, it's fun to lampoon Al Gore for living in an oversize Tennessee manse or to pick apart John Mayer's allegiance to what he terms "Light Green" (an ethos that apparently makes it OK for him to fly private jets and drive a Porsche SUV). But just because rich-and-famous moralists aren't perfect doesn't mean all environmentalism is a fraud. Yes, Al Gore probably emits more carbon than you—so what?

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Along those same lines, the fact that China and India are only getting dirtier shouldn't be used as an excuse for inaction, either. Maybe you're convinced that individual choices in the First World means little as long as Asian smokestacks keep puffing away with abandon. But there are considerable economic benefits to going green, especially as oil prices climb toward $90 per barrel and beyond, and health-care systems are stressed by illnesses due to pollution. The consequences of reckless development are already becoming apparent to elites in Delhi and Beijing, and they'll hopefully be able to look to the United States for guidance. It's one thing to try to cajole factory owners in Guangdong to go green because the West considers it moral; it's quite another to show them how to bolster profits by streamlining consumption.

Avoid the rabbit hole. Choices that appear environmentally sound at first glance often seem less so when closely scrutinized. British author Chris Goodall, for example, recently raised a ruckus by arguing that it might be better to drive to the supermarket than walk. He pointed out that someone walking 3 miles would expend 180 calories, perhaps derived from a pre-walk hamburger. Since the production and transport of hamburger meat requires ample energy, the pedestrian could be responsible for three times as much carbon emissions than if he'd driven the same distance. (Among Goodall's other contrarian assertions: Organic cows are worse for the climate than their steroid-pumped brethren, and paper bags are less green than plastic.)

Entertaining stuff, and worthy fodder for discussion. But there's always a danger of getting too bogged down in the numbers; do enough mathematical contortions and you can make it seem as if virtually any human activity is bringing us that much closer to the apocalypse. (For example, what if Goodall's theoretical shopper drives to the market, then uses the time he saved to run a gas-guzzling lawn mower?) So, while The Lantern vows to employ the utmost rigor in analyzing the costs and benefits of individual actions, don't worry—this column won't come off as a giant word problem, chockablock with computations that lead only to wishy-washy conclusions.

In other words, The Lantern won't be afraid to take a stand after completing his back-of-the-envelope calculations.

And so, with his piece spoken, The Lantern opens the floor to questions. Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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